In an historical lecture for Kobani University, contemporary Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek shared his ideas on democracy and ideology and the role of the struggle of the Kurds on building democracy. Zizek stated that the Kurds have set an example for “re-thinking democracy” and what the Kurds have achieved in NE Syria proved that “a new order can be established”.
The lecture entitled “Is Democracy Still an Option Today?” was moderated by Kurdish anthropologist Dr. Sardar Saadi and Dr. Engin Sustam, an associate professor at University Paris 8 St. Denis and research associate at the Institute for Citizenship Studies (InCite) of the University of Geneva.
Broadcast live on youtube, vice co-president of Kobani University Suzan Kasim opened the lecture with the following speech:
“On behalf of the co-presidency staff, students and members of the Kobani University let me welcome you all to today’s historical lecture. I would like to welcome professor Žižek and thank him for accepting to give today’s lecture. Just a few years ago, our homeland Kobani, a small city in NE Syria, became a symbol of resistance and courage. Our heroes YPG-YPJ defended our town against the jihadist groups and the Turkish occupation forces. After this historic victory, we rebuilt our city. We did not stop, we did not surrender.
In 2017 the University of Kobani was established. Year after year our university progressed and we doing our best to make it a top university among the universities around the world as much as we can. And today we are pleased to host Slavoj Žižek. This is the product of an ongoing collaboration and co-operation of academic, intellectuals and universities around the world. Kobani is a symbol of resistance. We want also to make an assembly of revolutionary re-building and call on everyone to support us with their experiences.”
Following Kasim’s welcoming speech, Dr. Engin Sustam made an introductory speech. Afterwards Slavoj Žižek started the lecture which can be watched via this link.
Kurds are a symbol of how to ‘install and build a new order’
Medya News shares an excerpt from Žižek’s lecture notes as follows:
“I am very honored to be here with you. When I say I like to be with you and so on, these are not the usual empty phrases. I mean it very seriously. Why? Because this gentleman who introduced me already pointed out the fate of the Kurds makes them the exemplary victims of today’s geopolitical games. Spread along the borderline of four neighbouring states, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, their full autonomy is in nobody’s interest. But the true miracle resides somewhere else: in the ability of the Kurds to organise their communal life.
This ability was tested in an almost experimental way. The moment you Kurds were given a space to breathe a little bit freely outside the conflcits of the states around you, you surprised the world. You quickly built a society that one cannot, but designate as an actually existing utopia with thriving intellectual community. So you are more than a symbol of resistance, you are a symbol of how not only to resist, but how then to install, to build a new order. This is what is needed today.”
‘People want a new order and Kurds belong to this line’
“Remember in Istanbul, in Athens, in Madrid there were big demonstrations where one million people cry and shout together and then the enthusiasm is lost and more or less nothing remains. Remember what happened in Egypt. Almost one million people in Cairo at the main square and then you got your freedom and free elections and you get Muslim Brotherhood. You are almost glad that the army makes coup D’etat.
What you try to do is -it’s not me giving you a historical talk- I am addressing you as one of the few examples of the world. You demonstrated and proved that -this is my formula- a new order can be built. People want this new order. Let me give you a simple example. You remember the inauguration of new president Joe Biden. This was, I think, for me, a pretty disgusting ideological event, all happy together it was a ‘we got rid of Donald Trump, things will return to normal’ portrait. But then who was the star of the event, a lonely old man sitting there, Bernie Sanders of course. Millions of ordinary people felt that there was someting wrong in that inauguration. Just with his presence there, sitting alone, almost saying that ‘Sorry guys, I am not a part of that show’ gave everybody an alternative. People want this. People want a new order. You, Kurds, belong to this line.
This brings me to my topic. What is the fate of democracy? What kind of democratisation can help not only Kurds, but all of us.”
‘The crisis of liberal democracy lasts for decades’
“It is not simply, not just the expansion of the standard Western multiple party democracy. A tension which is immanent in the very idea of parliamentary democracy is gaining visibility today. Democracy means two things: the power of the people -in the sense that the substantial will of the majority should express itself- and the trust in electoral mechanism; democracy means, yes, there may be manipulations and so on, but once the votes are counted, all sides accept the result. Of course, we, leftists and even some rightists claim that this parliamentary mechanism is not neutral and this is true. Because, this is the crazy thing today, it is no longer that less developed countries, so-called ‘Third World countries’ are the countries where the democracy does not function. No, the standard democracy is in crisis in the so called developed West itself.
If you follow the news, you may have noticed a very strange phenomena. In 2005, I was in the UK and the Labour Party with Tony Blair won the election, but two weeks before the election, there was a big opinion poll on ‘Who is the most hated person in the UK. The answer was, Tony Blair. This a very tragic phenomenon that should worry us. We have a certain dissatisfaction which somehow escapes the regular voting mechanism of multiparty democracy. (…)”
The crisis of liberal democracy lasts for decades. The Covid epidemic only made it explode beyond a certain level. The basic premise of a functioning democracy is today more and more underlined, namely the trust this democracy relies on. This trust was best expressed by Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people, you can fool all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. I think the latest experiences tell us that things are even a bit darker that you can fool most of the people most of the time, definitely. (…)”
‘People need leaders or leading organisations’
“The whole world is today in some kind of an ideological civil war. The task of the revolution is not only to represent people, but in the same way to make people aware of what they want. People do not simply know what they want. You do not go into politics as if you are in a market and saying that, ‘Oh, this politican is telling me what I want. The other is telling even better’. No, people need leaders or leading organisation. (…)
Don’t mistify the people. They are confused today. They are caught in ideology, in their egoist problems, their dreams. Ideology is not some absract system of values. Ideology is inscribed into your everyday experiences. For me the best example of ideology is everyday racism. How we eat, how we marry and how we make love and so on, all this is ideology. The message of a good leader is not ‘I know better what you want!, but it is ‘I give you a hope that you can move beyond out of this.’
Another thing, for a good leader is needed, is to make though decisions. Because, as much as I like these emphatic moments of popular unity, I more and more think that the system can and is always able to accomodate with these outbursts. (…) The problem is to translate this popular discontent into a new form of political organisation. You have to make tough decisions. In this sense -only in this sense, because this is a very dangerous metaphor – politics is like medicine. (…)
The best definition of a leader -because I am an ordinary low guy, because I also watch ordinary TV series. I watch that American medical series New Amsterdam, where an administrator tells another doctor: ‘Leaders make choices that keep them awake at night. If you sleep well, you are not one of them.’- This is for me a good leader. (…)”
Who is the symbol of proletarians today?
“In every epoch, a specific group of workers functioned as a symbol of true proletarians. For example, 100 years ago in Europe it was usually miners or steel workers. Who is this today? There are many candidates and we have to accept this plurality.
There are of course workers, exploited workers, especially in the third world. Then there are, in the third world, those who are not exploited in the usual sense. (…) But they are exploited in the sense that the cycle of capitalist production ruins their conditions of existence. (…)
Then we have students with chance of employment. We have precarious workers living in great uncertainty. We have women who are doing unpaid work. (…)
Paradoxically being a classical proletarian is almost already a privilege today. I think that this leftist dream that somehow we should all come together, we mean students, workers, immigrant and so on, is very difficult to achieve.
My friend, Alain Badiou, even thinks that in western Europe and in the US workers are already part of what Lenin called ‘workers’ aristocracy’-privileged, totally corrupted. (…) Then Badiou refers to another emancipatory agent, what he calls ‘nomadic proletarians’; the homeless people who emigrate to Europe so on and so forth. (…)
I think that, and that is the saddest strength of today’s global capitalism, it is almost impossible to built a united front against it.
What does this mean for democracy?
People like to say democracy implies differences, yes, but the differences against the background of a basic pact. Like, with you, the Kurds. (…) I can well imagine in Turkey Erdoğan mobilising the crowd against you as intruders and so on. Elections work when a certain solidarity is already here. We may oppose to other, but we accept basic rules. This is I think what is happening with the crisis of democracy.”
‘Kurds are my model’
“We have to build a new universalism. You, the Kurds, are my model, not because you are interesting guys who somehow re-asserted your identity. No, you impressed me, because you are a miracle, because of crazy geopolitical games you are like salami, sliced into pieces. You embody the light and nobody is allowed to dismiss you saying that ‘Oh that particular problem, let us not think about that’. No. We will live in a more free world, when what is happening to you could no longer happen. That is important.
How people accuse you of ‘you are supported by America and then you cannot be so good’ and so on, you know what the problem is, ideology today is not a problem when it lies, but when it lies with elements of truth(…) Nobody has to force you to abondon your truth because of some higher ideological interest. In some crazy future constellation where Russia would take over Syria and make a pact with Erdoğan against US and Israel, people would say ‘That’s a big anti-imperialist achievement, so you Kurds you are off now’. No, never. This should never happen. The measure of truth in politics is that you have a global vision in which nobody is sacrificed in this sense.”
‘We should all learn from you’
“Democracy is still of some use, but it will have to be radically invented. (…) Remember a great man, Nelson Mandela, they wanted democracy and to end apartheid. They got it, but now there is this dissatisfaction of black majority. According to some sources, there is more poverty and more corruption and violence than there was under apartheid.
So democracy has to be re-invented. The dialectic of political process is not just that you pursue a certain goal. You try to do something and in the process, you discover that you have to re-define the goal itself. We have to re-think what we mean by democracy today. We should all learn from you (Kurds). (…)
We don’t need big original things. We need customs, manners, how to organise in this crazy times the new modes of everyday life. That is the big problem for us, in developed countries maybe even more than you. (…)”
‘Öcalan can turn the situation in his prison to his strength’
At the end of the lecture, Zizek was asked a question on the issue of leadership and the role of the leaders and within this perspective the role of the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Zizek shared the following answer:
“I cannot restrain myself from telling you a wonderful anectode that happened to me when I visited Istanbul. Öcalan was already in prison a couple of years ago back then. Some stupid journalist interviewed with me and asked me this stupid, popular questions like ‘What is the best scene you can image?’
I answered it: to be naked in bed with a beautiful young woman and debate with her Hegel and philosophy.
And then two days later, a newspaper published a letter from Öcalan, who said, ‘I agree with Zizek’.
I found it so non-orthodox, you know, so wonderful. (…)
The prison, which gives him, unfortunately, a lot of time to probably more time to read and so on. I know already ten years ago he began to read Michel Foucault, Deleuze and so on. But it’s a wonderful element, that in the situation that he is now – I wonder how much information Öcalan has the access to, he can turn this with intelligent politics into his strength. (…)”
Remember Mandela, your very isolation for the people makes you a symbol, maybe, I don’t know anything personally about Öcalan, but maybe in a slightly cynical sense, this isolation of him can make him even stronger in the sense that, if he were to be outside prison, he probably would have to get involved in some party struggles. He is needed now as such a symbol.
I disagree with those anarchist-leftists that leaders are bourgeouis, authoritarian or totalitarian or whatever. No, there are authentic leaders. You need an inspiration whose message to you, ‘you can do, you can do more than you think. I trust you, you will do it.’