Žižek gets better and better: Berlusconi in Tehran

Only a few days after watching Žižek (sorry, about the pronunciation … but as he himself said to an incredibly dumb US interviewer, he prefers it the “wrong way”, as it makes him paranoic if he hears said the right way!) on BBC’s excellent Terror: Robespierre and the French Revolution, the co-director of the International Centre for Humanities at London’s Birkbeck College has a stimulating and highly provocative article in this week’s London Review of Books (23 July).

Under the title Berlusconi in Tehran, Žižek uses the article to pinpoint that moment when a regime (in this case the Iranian regime, but equally a Western democracy) starts to crumble: a moment, he argues, that occurred when thousands of men and women walked in complete silence through the streets of Tehran in an attempt to shame the self-proclaimed winner of the recent elections, Ahmadinejad, into a recount or better still a completely new election.

We should not be fooled, writes Žižek, by this

corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the ayatollahs.

Even now that the popular revolt has collapsed – outwardly at least  – the damage has been done: Ahmadinejad and his supporters have lost any moral high ground they might have had; they will become “just one more corrupt authoritarian government”.

But what does this have to do with Berlusconi? A frightening amount, it seems (and this is not just about the Italian premier’s strangehold on the country’s media).

Here in the West, we are entering (some might say we are already in) a post-democratic age.   We take enfranchisement and our parliamentary system so much for granted that the only revelations that really shock us into action are MPs’ expenses and the tabloid scandals that periodically engulf the media (and in parenthesis, we must fight tooth and nail to protect the freedom of our media).

Democracy is under assault from “authoritarian capitalism” and is also at the mercy its own Achilles heel: namely, a democracy reflects the values of the electorate but the electorate itself must be steered, engaged and motivated to vote, otherwise the results will not reflect the true wishes of the people.  Hence the need to battle against cynicism and resignation (of the type, “well, they’re all corrupt… they all the same… they’re all career politicians … so my vote won’t make any difference).

Well, Zizek says it a lot better – so read his article.

I think I can quote one more paragraph without breaching copyright – it seems to sum up his argument and explain the title:

It is democracy’s authentic potential that is losing ground with the rise of authoritarian capitalism, whose tentacles are coming closer and closer to the West. The change always takes place in accordance with a country’s values: Putin’s capitalism with ‘Russian values’ (the brutal display of power), Berlusconi’s capitalism with ‘Italian values’ (comical posturing). Both Putin and Berlusconi rule in democracies which are gradually being reduced to an empty shell, and, in spite of the rapidly worsening economic situation, they both enjoy popular support (more than two-thirds of the electorate). [my emphasis]

We can’t say we weren’t warned.

One last question – Berlusconi calls the Economist (a newspaper that has criticised him in no uncertain terms repeatedly over the past decade or more), the E-communist.  What will he (or his PR team) call the LRB ?  The London Review of Crooks, the Com-don Review of Books, the London Review of Shrinks?  Not exactly brilliant, but then we don’t want to give them too many ideas!


(NB This cover is from April 2006 but the sentiment holds true today)