Thursday, 14 January 2010


Democracy versus the people

Slavoj Zizek
14 August 2008
New Stateman

A new account of Haiti's recent history shows how the genuinely radical politics of Lavalas and its leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, proved too threatening to the country's wealthy elite and their foreign backers.

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment
Peter Hallward, Verso, 480pp, £16.99

Noam Chomsky once noted that "it is only when the threat of
popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can
be safely contemplated". He thereby pointed at the
"passivising" core of parliamentary democracy, which makes
it incompatible with the direct political self-
organisation and self-empowerment of the people. Direct
colonial aggression or military assault are not the only
ways of pacifying a "hostile" population: so long as they
are backed up by sufficient levels of coercive force,
international "stabilisation" missions can overcome the
threat of popular participation through the apparently less
abrasive tactics of "democracy promotion", "humanitarian
intervention" and the "protection of human rights".

This is what makes the case of Haiti so exemplary. As Peter
Hallward writes in Damming the Flood, a detailed account of
the "democratic containment" of Haiti's radical politics in
the past two decades, "never have the well-worn tactics of
'democracy promotion' been applied with more devastating
effect than in Haiti between 2000 and 2004". One cannot
miss the irony of the fact that the name of the
emancipatory political movement which suffered this
international pressure is Lavalas, or "flood" in Creole: it
is the flood of the expropriated who overflow the gated
communities that protect those who exploit them. This is
why the title of Hallward's book is quite appropriate,
inscribing the events in Haiti into the global tendency of
new dams and walls that have been popping out everywhere
since 11 September 2001, confronting us with the inner
truth of "globalisation", the underlying lines of division
which sustain it.

Haiti was an exception from the very beginning, from its
revolutionary fight against slavery, which ended in
independence in January 1804. "Only in Haiti," Hallward
notes, "was the declaration of human freedom universally
consistent. Only in Haiti was this declaration sustained at
all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and
economic logic of the day." For this reason, "there is no
single event in the whole of modern history whose
implications were more threatening to the dominant global
order of things". The Haitian Revolution truly deserves the
title of repetition of the French Revolution: led by
Toussaint 'Ouverture, it was clearly "ahead of his time",
"premature" and doomed to fail, yet, precisely as such, it
was perhaps even more of an event than the French
Revolution itself. It was the first time that an enslaved
population rebelled not as a way of returning to their
pre-colonial "roots", but on behalf of universal principles
of freedom and equality. And a sign of the Jacobins'
authenticity is that they quickly recognised the slaves'
uprising - the black delegation from Haiti was
enthusiastically received in the National Assembly in
Paris. (As you might expect, things changed after
Thermidor; in 1801 Napoleon sent a huge expeditionary force
to try to regain control of the colony).

Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all
white nations", the "mere existence of an independent
Haiti" was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning
status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of
economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking
the same path. The price - the literal price - for the
"premature" independence was truly extortionate: after two
decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master,
established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825,
after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million
francs as "compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This
sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time,
was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a
heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th
century, Haiti's payments to France consumed roughly 80 per
cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was
only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the
bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president
Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this
extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French
commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time
when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing
black Americans for slavery, Haiti's demand to be
reimbursed for the tremendous sum the former slaves had to
pay to have their freedom recognised has been largely
ignored by liberal opinion, even if the extortion here was
double: the slaves were first exploited, and then had to
pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.

The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every
free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice
been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is
a unique combination: a political agent which won state
power through free elections, but which all the way through
maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy,
of people's direct self-organisation. Although the "free
press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed,
although violent protests that threatened the stability of
the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas
government was routinely demonised in the international
press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the
US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti
a "normal" democracy - a democracy which would not touch
the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well
aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has
to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.

It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation
took place soon after the public discord about the 2003
attack on Iraq, and was quite appropriately celebrated as
the reaffirmation of their basic alliance that underpins
the occasional conflicts. Even Brazil's Lula condoned the
2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy alliance was thus put
together to discredit the Lavalas government as a form of
mob rule that threatened human rights, and President
Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator - an
alliance ranging from ex-military death squads and
US-sponsored "democratic fronts" to humanitarian NGOs and
even some "radical left" organisations which, financed by
the US, enthusiastically denounced Aristide's
"capitulation" to the IMF. Aristide himself provided a
perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping between
radical left and liberal right: "Somewhere, somehow,
there's a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an
unconscious satisfaction, in saying things that powerful
white people want you to say."

The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism
that confronts the limitations of what can be done today.
Lavalas activists didn't withdraw into the interstices of
state power and "resist" from a safe distance, they
heroically assumed state power, well aware that they were
taking power in the most unfavourable circumstances, when
all the trends of capitalist "modernisation" and
"structural readjustment", but also of the postmodern left,
were against them. Constrained by the measures imposed by
the US and International Monetary Fund, which were destined
to enact "necessary structural readjustments", Aristide
pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures
(building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure,
raising minimum wages) while encouraging the active
political mobilisation of the people in direct
confrontation with their most immediate foes - the army and
its paramilitary auxiliaries.

The single most controversial thing about Aristide, the
thing that earned him comparisons with Sendero Luminoso and
Pol Pot, was his pointed refusal to condemn measures taken
by the people to defend themselves against military or
paramilitary assault, an assault that had decimated the
popular movement for decades. On a couple of occasions back
in 1991, Aristide appeared to condone recourse to the most
notorious of these measures, known locally as "Père
Lebrun", a variant of the practice of "necklacing" adopted
by anti-apartheid partisans in South Africa - killing a
police assassin or an informer with a burning tyre. In a
speech on 4 August 1991, he advised an enthusiastic crowd
to remember "when to use [Père Lebrun], and where to use
it", while reminding them that "you may never use it again
in a state where law prevails".

Later, liberal critics sought to draw a parallel between
the so-called chimères, ie, members of Lavalas self-defence
groups, and the Tontons Macoutes, the notoriously murderous
gangs of the Duvalier dictatorship. The fact that there is
no numerical basis for comparison of levels of political
violence under Aristide and under Duvalier is not allowed
to get in the way of the essential political point. Asked
about these chimères, Aristide points out that "the very
word says it all. Chimères are people who are impoverished,
who live in a state of profound insecurity and chronic
unemployment. They are the victims of structural injustice,
of systematic social violence [. . .] It's not surprising
that they should confront those who have always benefited
from this same social violence."

Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence
committed by Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter
Benjamin called "divine violence": they should be located
"beyond good and evil", in a kind of politico-religious
suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with
what can only appear as "immoral" acts of killing, one has
no political right to condemn them, because they are a
response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and
economic violence and exploitation.

As Aristide himself puts it: "It is better to be wrong with
the people than to be right against the people." Despite
some all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in
effect one of the figures of how "dictatorship of the
proletariat" might look today: while pragmatically engaging
in some externally imposed compromises, it always remained
faithful to its "base", to the crowd of ordinary
dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf, not
"representing" them but directly relying on their local
self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic
rules, Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is
not where things are decided: what is much more crucial is
the effort to supplement democracy with the direct
political self-organisation of the oppressed. Or, to put it
in our "postmodern" terms: the struggle between Lavalas and
the capitalist-military elite in Haiti is a case of genuine
antagonism, an antagonism which cannot be contained within
the frame of parliamentary-democratic "agonistic

This is why Hallward's outstanding book is not just about
Haiti, but about what it means to be a "leftist" today: ask
a leftist how he stands towards Aristide, and it will be
immediately clear if he is a partisan of radical
emancipation or merely a humanitarian liberal who wants
"globalisation with a human face".

Slavoj Zizek is the author of "In Defence of Lost Causes"
(Verso, £19.99)

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