Tunisia versus Gangnam-style democracy

Tunisia versus Gangnam-style democracy
Tunisia is now the ground zero of democracy - a concept that has been gouged of meaning by a globalized neoliberal capitalism far beyond the depleted geography of ‘the West and the Rest’.
6 min read
24 Nov, 2014
AIPAC's influence in Washington makes a mockery of democracy (AFP)

Weeks after electing a new parliament, Tunisians Sunday headed back to the polls to choose their first ever democratically elected president. It is a landmark victory for the Tunisian people who triggered and launched the Arab revolutions about four years ago.


The election saw, according the New York Times, “a field of 27 candidates that includes former dissidents and political prisoners, former officials from the dictatorship, a millionaire football boss and a female magistrate—the only woman in the race.”


The rest of the Arab and Muslim world has much to learn from Tunisia. But on what particular terms?

     The only way to make truth out of the world we're living in is to dispel the aura of the word 'democracy'

- Alain Badiou


The Tunisian example is a ray of hope in a dark sea of murderous trouble. Consider the fact that in Syria, a mass murderer stages an “election” and gets himself ‘re-elected’ with full pomp and fanfare. In Egypt, a general stages a bloody coup against a democratically elected (however incompetent) president. In Bahrain, the government stages yet another farcical “election”, which the opposition parties dismiss as a sham.


And it extends beyond the Arab world. In Ukraine a pro-EU “chocolate king” oligarch rises to become the president of a deeply divided country. In India, a Hindu fundamentalist known for his role in atrocious anti-Muslim riots and murderous mayhem is elected to lead a vast subcontinent. In the US, Hillary Clinton gears up to become the next American president by first securing her ties with the Israel lobby.


The warlords of Israel, a European (and now North American) settler colony built on the broken but defiant backs of Palestinians, repeatedly congratulate themselves as “the only democracy in the Middle East.”


Is this democracy? Is this what European political philosophers from Aristotle to Tocqueville and beyond were ruminating about?


In recent years a number of leading European philosopher, including the French philosopher Alain Badiou, have taken the whole notion of democracy radically to task, particularly its transformation into an “emblem”—a marker, a fetish, devoid of inner tensions, dimensions, dialectic, alternatives.


Badiou has provocatively written of “The Pornography of Democracy,” “The brothel of images,” and perforce of the “poetic undressing of the present”. In a critical passage in the multi-authored book, Democracy in What State? (2012), Badiou writes:


“Well, I say this: before one can even begin to apprehend the reality of our societies, it's necessary, as a preliminary exercise, to dislodge their emblem. The only way to make truth out of the world we're living in is to dispel the aura of the word democracy and assume the burden of not being a democrat and so being heartily disapproved of by "everyone" (tout le monde).”


Democracy Gangnam-style


Badiou’s provocative proposition is predicated on a widespread and banal fact. Let’s call it “Democracy Gangnam-style.”


“Gangnam Style” became the most globally watched video, originally performed by the South Korean musician Psy. The video became so popular that people around the world — with varied degrees of talents and aptitudes — began to imitate it. Thus from its South Korean original, myriads of other versions and editions appeared, so much so that the mere act of repetition became the reality of the style. A similar thing occurred with Pharrell Williams’ equally viral video “Happy,” that soon became a video installation version of being “happy” — as if there was no room left for anyone to find happiness except joining this happy video virus.


A similar thing can be said to be happening with this idea of ‘democracy’, that in its viral irreality it has become a simulacrum of what it is supposed to be — the rule of the people.


The origin of this transmutation of democracy from an ideal into a spectacle, as I have argued elsewhere, is the aggressive fetishisation of an ideal into a gimmick, an originary idea into a cliché. Exactly, in fact, as we see people around the globe doing a “Gangnam” dance, or perform a “Happy” video clip, or march to an election booth to tick a forgone conclusion.


As Jean Baudrillard has argued, a “simulacrum” is not a replica of the real thing but through a cannibalization of the real it become a reality sui generis — a hyperreality. The simulacrum replaces reality, conceals it kills, and murders it. We might therefore suggest that in between reality — democracy as Aristotle for example envisioned it — and the irreality of its simulacrum — democracy Gangnam style — we are in a moment of radical epistemic shift, where the mockery dismantles the real. The ridiculous proposition of an election in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, Bahrain or Israel, exposes the Achilles Heel of democracy — both real and Gangnam style — even (or perhaps particularly) when practiced in India or the US.


The exposed spectacle of democratic exercise in futility amounts to a Bakhtinian carnivalesque, where these elections become a 'world-upside-down'. When President Barack Obama pleads with then President Dmitry Medvedev to tell Vladimir Putin (then out of office) to wait for further flexibility in his position until after his re-election, it is not just the farcical nature of elections in Russia that is exposed but the institutions of democracy in the US.


Bashar al-Assad may have thought listening to his Iranian godfathers and taking a page from their ludicrous election playbook could save his neck, but it actually does the opposite — it becomes a bullet into the temple of his own non-extant legitimacy. So is the case with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, or any election in Israel, or even in the US, where the terms of debate are to a frightful extent determined by the agents (AIPAC) of a foreign country.


From the ruins of democracy


We need not lament this ruinous collapse of any and all claims to democracy. We should actually celebrate and accentuate the ridiculous disposition of any such claim. The carnival to dismantle the entire farcical claim to the rule of the people can free the people as a political force and a social reality to adopt a far more radical posture. That’s why mentioning the Syrian farce without Ukraine’s when it is identical or even worse is a politically bankrupt position. Put both Syria and Ukraine and add India and the US and Israel to them and dance on the grave of the charade of “democracy” so a new reality can rise from the ruins of these ashes.


The malady we see from Iran to Syria to Egypt, from Ukraine to India to the US is neither Eastern nor Western, neither Oriental nor Occidental. It is the globalized condition of a banality conditioned by a globalized neoliberal capitalism far beyond the depleted geography of ‘the West and the Rest’. On this planet and on this plane, where reality defies its entire eviscerated representation, the project of European modernity is not unfinished, for it never started — and the world is freer for the demystification of that very last ‘Western’ fable.


Tunisia is today the ground zero of the irreality of democracy trying to become real. Will it last and rise, or will it again twist and turn and fall? Tunisians today have as much right to wonder about such questions, as did the Greeks when they originally devised the idea. In Tunisia, the world is forever decentered, as Greece is imaginatively relocated and placed where it exactly belongs, with ancient Athens far closer to contemporary Tunis than to that La-La-Land inside the Beltway.


Hamid Dabashi is the author of the forthcoming book, Can non-Europeans Think? (Zed Books, 2015). He lives in New York.