Protest on the part of the citizens of a country is a way of making their displeasure or grievances known to governing authorities, whether these have been elected or occupy their positions by inheritance, as it were, in the case of royalty. In the case of despots abusing their governing positions beyond the level of tolerance, most people would regard citizens’ protests as being legitimate and understandable, for example those against the French king in the time before the French Revolution in the 18th century, or those against Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya today.
But what does one make of protests in countries that ostensibly have the currently valorised form of government, namely liberal democracy, or, alternatively, social democracy — a variety of representative democracy, anyway — as well as some degree of social and economic security (more so in the case of social democracy than liberal democracy) to offer protection to citizens in times of economic hardship? In Violence (2009), Žižek casts this question in a new light.
He poses the problem of understanding the 2005 suburban riots in France, which was a major upheaval, with excessive public violence and destruction. Why should it be a problem? Precisely because, he argues, on the face of it there does not seem to have been any identifiable reason, at least not on the part of the protesters. Comparing the events with the looting in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina devastated the city and with the May 1968 protests in Paris is instructive, however.
For one thing, one could no longer argue, as some European intellectuals did after Katrina, that what happened in capitalist New Orleans proved the superiority of the French welfare state, which was suddenly, inexplicably, itself the scene of social insurrection. But more puzzling is the fact that, compared to the events of May 1968, the French riots went unaccompanied by any demands of note. In 1968 the student revolt was driven by a clearly discernible utopian vision, articulated in the form of specific demands. In 2005 the suburban outbursts displayed no such vision and were empty of clearly stated demands. As Žižek puts it (pp 63-64):
“If the much-repeated commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era has any sense, it is here. There were no particular demands made by the protesters in the Paris suburbs. There was only an insistence on recognition, based on a vague, unarticulated ‘ressentiment’. Most of those interviewed talked about how unacceptable it was that the then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, had called them ‘scum’. In a weird self-referential short-circuit, they were protesting against the very reaction to their protests. ‘Populist reason’ here encounters its irrational limit: what we have is a zero-level protest, a violent protest act which demands nothing.”
Žižek remarks on the irony of sociologists and other intellectuals desperately trying to pinpoint the reasons for the protesters’ disaffection, in order to be able to offer appropriate help, in the process glossing over the real puzzle behind it. They worried about the social integration, welfare and job opportunities of immigrants, and urged that action be taken in this regard. However, although no one could deny that the protesters were underprivileged and socially ‘excluded’, it was apparent that they were not starving or battling for mere survival. As Žižek’s discussion indicates, there have been instances of people far worse off than these, who were capable of effectively organising themselves into political groups with an agenda for action. In this case, there was no evidence of a “programme” behind the violence and the burning cars and schools, and it is this absence that demanded an explanation.
The violence further exhibited traits of what Fanon thought of as “horizontal violence” — the strange phenomenon that people who are “vertically” oppressed by another group, direct violence “horizontally” against their own people. So, too, in the French civil insurrection of 2005: the violence and destruction were virtually exclusively aimed at their own schools and cars which, as Žižek reminds one, were hard-won in the first place. And yet, there was no comparable oppression here.
He warns against the temptation of seeking a deeper meaning “behind” these riots, which would be understandable, however, given that their very meaninglessness is the most difficult thing to accept. Those who would look for signs that they were born from religious fundamentalist sentiments, would be disappointed, too, because one of the first buildings that was torched was a mosque, followed by Muslim authorities condemning the violence. Strange as it may seem, the protesters did not claim any special ethnic or religious status — they made it clear that they were French citizens, but there were signs that they believed they were not fully acknowledged as such. In other words, the uprising was a way of gaining attention or visibility.
Žižek’s own explanation is that this strangely undirected protest should be read as a “call for the construction of a new universal framework”, in light of the fact that the protesters felt “excluded” from “Frenchness”, despite being French citizens. It is as if there was an invisible wall that separated them from other French citizens, which highlights the failure of the French conception of immigrants’ integration into “full” citizenship in ideological, if not in formal terms.
To digress somewhat, there is an implicit parallel here, albeit not in overtly racial terms, between the situation of the immigrant French protesters and that of blacks in apartheid South Africa. The parallel concerns what Žižek calls a “universal framework”. In a wonderful essay on Nelson Mandela, called “The laws of reflection”, Jacques Derrida points out that Mandela’s defence at his own trial took the form of launching the white apartheid government’s own claim, that it was part of a western, “democratic” tradition, against itself. Mandela did this by arguing that, while the apartheid regime “recognised” the “difference” between blacks and whites, it did not acknowledge what they had in common (and on which democracy is predicated) — what Derrida calls the “universal” that binds them together — namely a common, universal humanity.
Hence, it appears as if the (intuitive, if not clearly articulated, in the case of the French protesters) realisation, that one is not being included in a universal conceptual framework of humanity (or humanness), was fundamental to the French protesters’ inchoate grievances, on the one hand, and Mandela’s argument, or “protest”, in court.
As far as the French insurrection was concerned, Žižek further explains it as an exemplary case of what the structuralist Roman Jakobson called the “phatic function” — language-uses that serve the function of maintaining a social relation, even if the linguistic exchange is pretty empty (eg “How are you?”; “I am well”; “Glad to hear that” and so on). Put differently, the protests were a way of saying “Do you read me?” — a way of establishing a social relation that they feared was not there any longer (if it was ever there to begin with).
One could use this approach as a key to understanding the uprisings across the Arab world, too, I believe, even if one has to sketch in some differences. For one thing, Egypt and Libya are/were dictatorships, and neither liberal nor social democracies. And although the protests there can be seen, first and foremost, as an expression of the desire for a democratic dispensation in the place of despotic rule and all the corruption that goes hand in hand with it, this is quite compatible with interpreting the protests in a way that parallels the implicit call, in 2005 France, for inclusion in a “universal framework of humanness”. Although the (majority of the) protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were themselves citizens of those countries, one could detect signs that an “invisible social (and economic) wall” separated them from the economically and politically privileged groups around rulers like Mubarak and Gaddafi. Hence, these protests are part of the “phatic function” of language to the degree that they say: “Hi there! We are here, too — don’t forget about us!”
I am not sure whether one could see the recent (ongoing?) social and economic protests in South Africa, which are overtly (mostly) about poor service delivery, in a similar light. Could it be that they are similarly an expression of a “call for inclusion in a universal framework of humanness”, in light of evidence that at least some South Africans have been given a proverbial place in the sun, while others have not? It raises the further question — in all these cases — of what the criterion for humanness is that tacitly operates in them, and also what such a yardstick should really be.