“Elections Change Nothing”: On the Misery of the Democracy of Equivalence   

I write to you from a Special Economic Zone. Seeing it with my eyes, feeling it with my skin.
—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Students holding painted book covers as shields during an anti-austerity protest in Rome, November 14, 2012

It has been suggested that we live in “momentous times”1—times, that is, of profound significance for the living history of humanity. I borrow this definition from a homonymous curatorial project in Northern Ireland realized in 2013, which in commemoration of the Dublin Lockout in the early twentieth century sought to imagine a continuum of labor struggle linking 1913, 2013, and 2113. In other words, the curatorial narrative did not claim that our momentous times emerged out of a singular event but that they are delivered through the history of capitalism in its serial, episodic confrontation with labor, thereby legitimating a history of art in conjunction with labor struggles. There are two things worth noting here. First, the substitution of a chronology of art (what in art history is called periodization) with a chronology of social struggles indicates that art’s “social turn,” per Claire Bishop’s phrasing from 2006,2 is not limited to a particular way of making art but is expressive of a broader shift of focus within the field of art at large. Secondly, the proposed history has no end in sight. The Irish curatorial narrative posed a distant future—2113—where such a struggle continues, corroborating the view that, in our momentous times, it is impossible to imagine the end of capitalism as opposed to the end of the world.3

Given that this specific curatorial project is merely one on a long and growing transnational list of exhibitions, discursive platforms, workshops, and artworks that, since the mid-1990s and amid references to globalization, engage with a critique of labor, production, class, and capitalism at large, the bigger picture for contemporary art emerges as contradictory.4 This is especially so if we consider the fact that contemporary art’s engagement with the economy runs in parallel with ubiquitous references to the economy in other contexts, where practically everything—from love to fear to subjectivity to migration to climate change to suicide—is currently registered and approached in economic terms. What used to be apprehended and condemned as economic reductionism is now a defining feature of a multi-layered, daily discourse, albeit one that is not uniformly committed to opposition and subversion of capital. And yet, although it is true that the economy is no longer just the economy; that a range of discourses, from medical science to art theory, enter the economic discussion as the chief arbiter of social relations; that this occurrence is due to the dilating abyss between the haves and the have-nots; that the socialization of debt has become a method for the privatization of profits—despite all this, we have not yet witnessed a truly mass opposition to the reproduction of capitalism. The question is why.

Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology and the dissemination of ideology through a range of “apparatuses,” remains a plausible answer.5 However, his perspective on ideology as the screen necessarily filtering raw social relations, to which direct access would dissolve the sense of reality, has generated controversy for decades (also within Marxism), primarily because of its implied negation of the possibility of individual and collective agency. Agency presupposes, of course, consciousness—as the phrases “consciousness raising” (per feminism) and “false consciousness” (per Marxism) suggest. Nevertheless, the starting point for the reflections that follow is the hypothesis that our current attention to the economy is the expression of an always historical “political unconscious,” as put by Fredric Jameson, rather than a fully developed political consciousness, which social movements have traditionally sought to advance;6 that although material conditions spawn a sensibility, there exist serious blockages to the passage from sensibility to agency. Rather than performing a passage, we are stuck in a gap. Here, a second hypothesis becomes possible. This gap—between a political unconscious generating economic reductionism and a political consciousness that would generate wholesale, unrelenting popular opposition—is closely connected with how democracy is realized rather than remaining unrealized, as suggested by Documenta 11 some thirteen years back.7


With a range of supranational bodies regulating the flow of capital (including human capital), the unambiguous reality of our “momentous times” is that capitalism has gone openly, institutionally, and administratively global. Described as an “empire”8 already fifteen years ago, global capitalism has engulfed all the “floating,” “unfixed,” and “open-ended” postmodern fragments of the 1970s and ’80s into one meaningful, uneven, and as yet uncharted totality. This totality remains enigmatic, however—emanating from “the enigma of capital.”9 And yet despite the ubiquity of the term “globalization” since the 1990s, even before its apprehension as empire, the narrative dots still have not been connected to the full. Performing a clever political maneuver, in 2008 capitalism declared that it was in crisis. Capitalism needed help. Overnight, things ceased being normal. Understanding the normality of capitalism would have to be postponed for the sake of understanding its crisis and saving the world-as-we-know-it, since no other world could be imagined by the historical subjects ruled by capital. The project of connecting the dots was thus dropped. The devil had convinced the world, or large segments of the world population, that it didn’t exist. Only the crisis existed, and it had to be overcome by whatever means.

To this end, even the concept of sacrifice was appropriated. Taken from its association with a citizenry fighting for the country at the battlefield, it was employed to make palatable a citizen sacrifice during “neoliberalism’s austerity epoch,” which, as the political theorist Wendy Brown observes, “differs sharply from the trickle-down economics of the 1980s”10 that underpinned postmodernism’s hegemony. In short, the “crisis” of capitalism deflected attention from the “normality” of capitalism. To resume the connecting of the dots requires then, first and foremost, to cease examining the current state of disaffection as a moment of crisis—that is, as a serious yet temporary disruption of an otherwise accepted and acceptable model of business as usual, or an adequate social contract to be resurrected after the ground is cleared of the rubble of the austerity earthquake. According to this discourse, what makes our times “momentous” is the disruption of capitalism’s normality and its extraordinary articulation as crisis. Crossing mainstream economic and political imperatives, the “Blame the crisis!” discourse is profoundly misleading, and yet it is the one that determines people’s choice of rule in contemporary democratic societies.

There is much evidence that it is not the crisis but rather the normality of capitalism that makes our times momentous. Consider, first, that our present condition is a relatively new capitalist normality, one ensuing from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the entry of China into the global capitalist market, the rise of the BRIC economies, and the “threat” that the good side of capitalism (North or West) may be moving to lands of massively available cheap labor. Second, see how the features of the crisis all preexisted the crisis: precarity, the suppression of wages, mass economic migration and labor mobility, the dismantling of the welfare state, the accumulation of private wealth through debt bondage, sweatshops, unfree labor, and so on. Those who visited Documenta 11 in 2002 had an opportunity to be acquainted with Multiplicity’s Solid Sea (2002) and its exploration of migrants’ repeated drowning “accidents” in the Mediterranean long before the European press feasted on the subject in 2014 and 2015. Although the current Syrian civil war and the rise of jihadism in the Middle East have increased the perilous attempts at crossing, the Mediterranean has been a mass grave of the wretched for nearly two decades now.11 And San Precario, patron saint of precarious, seasonal, intermittent, temporary, flexible, project, freelance, and fractional workers came into existence in 2004, direly needed by the postsocialist, post–Cold War generation.12 But this has proved to be a historical generation, rather than one bounded and bonding through a date of birth—indeed, a historical generation that is not geographically confound. Phil Collins’s documentary rendering the fate of Marxist-theory teachers from GDR in the unified, post-1989 Germany, ironically titled Marxism Today (Prologue), appeared in 2010, the same year that Greg Sholette published his Dark Matter: Art in the Age of Enterprise Culture,13 a devastating critique of casualized art labor in the United States. Both Collins’s and Sholette’s approach to the subject of “redundancy” in contemporary capitalism were prefigured in Kai Kaljo’s short video Loser, referring to the female artist’s precarization in Estonia in 1997.

All the above works, and many others, grasp and actualize a critique of processes rather than acknowledge an event—even if this event requires the effort of naming (crisis, in other words) suggested by Alain Badiou.14 Yet reinterpreting our momentous times as the outcome of longer processes rather than a singular event can only be the first step, even if these processes are evidently connected with a reorganization of production by global capital. Consider that the precarization of workers across the terrain of material and immaterial work is a way of lowering the cost of labor, and the inhuman reception (spot the discrepancy!) of waves of immigrants an outcome of the contradiction between short-term policies eliminating social welfare and promoting anti-welfare ideology, on the one hand, and a long-term economic objective that requires an injection of migrant labor in the millions to sustain aging Western economies.15

But to suggest that our times are momentous, even in terms of processes that exceed the framework of crisis, hardly implies that our times are revolutionary. And this is precisely the designation that would restore hope in the possibility of a new pact between art and society, if we prioritize the delineations offered by the historical avant-garde. Indeed, what is evident in these momentous times is that being compelled to live through the momentum of historical forces is not tantamount to rising against the misery these times generate. A recognition of a core cause—the intensified conflict of capital and labor—is not performed across the board. Nor has it led to a consequential popular mobilization, as the rift among European electorates demonstrates. And it is this situation that brings forth the need to think about democracy.

I am referring, of course, to modern democracy. It is the one commonly associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie and yet, as Vivek Chibber has brilliantly demonstrated, it has acted against the bourgeoisieʼs wishes, in Europe as much as elsewhere. As he concludes, “to the extent capitalists were relevant at all, it was typically as opponents of democratic rights, fighting against the popular reform movements.”16 Chibber’s dismantling of the prevalent doxa that capitalism’s ruling class gave modern democracy as a gift to humanity has major implications for understanding the link between democracy and the confrontation of labor and capital today, as his analysis necessitates an articulation of the contemporary in terms of a stage in the evolution of modernity, extending from the age of European imperialisms to globalization. Chibber’s remapping of a universal continuum, one where democracy is not found to ooze naturally out of capitalist relations of production but is rather to be claimed, successfully or not, through class struggle, offers another take on modernity as much as it permits us to locate our contemporary momentous times within an extensive modernity. In this extensive modernity, postmodernism proved to be a distracting, if politically necessary, fifteen minutes of fame before the unveiling of capital’s global empire. Much like historical modernity, extensive modernity is defined nonetheless by instability and change, typically seen as attributes of capital since the age of the industrial revolution. But is it really so?

In a recent exchange of letters between the philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the musician and activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the Russian band Pussy Riot, who was at the time imprisoned at a forced labor camp by the Putin regime, we see that the consensus on capital as change is shaken. “I write to you from a Special Economic Zone. Seeing it with my eyes, feeling it with my skin,” writes Tolokonnikova, explaining:

And here, in this other world hidden from view, the governing logic is one of absolutely rigid standards, of stability reinforced with steel. Erratic behavior is not tolerated from workers here; homogeneity and stagnation rule. No wonder authoritarian China has emerged as a world economic leader. Modern capitalism has a deep interest in seeing that you and I believe the system runs completely on principles of free creativity, limitless growth and diversity, and that the flip side—millions of people enslaved by all-powerful and ... fantastically stable standards of production—remains invisible.17

According to the preceding assessment, contemporary modernity differs from historical modernity in that capital’s prerogative of change is found to mask the stable reproduction of capitalist production as such. Benjamin Noys’s analysis of capital’s attachment to acceleration, a key aspect of capitalism’s assumed dynamism, includes several pages on stasis. As he notes:

In response to the drawn-out moment of crisis, which resists being cast as the punctual interruption to capitalist service soon to be resumed, the attraction to the return to speed is an unsurprising development. This desire can gain purchase through the resistance to the slowing-down of the moment of crisis, and the self-serving and nostalgic language of austerity being deployed as its remedy (‘Keep calm and carry on’).18

The administrative mechanisms that make up neoliberal democracy are geared to give credence to this nostalgic language promising endless, if occasionally interrupted, “development,” and the identification of change as such with capital. Change, Marx argued and the ruling capitalist elite learned, is an inbuilt feature of capitalist production. Change, but to achieve what? “All that is solid melts into air,” yes, but capital’s defining narrative is that air can, and should, be bottled and sold for private profit—as indeed happens in the children’s film The Lorax (2012), which scripts a scathing critique of entrepreneurial capital found to be the culprit behind environmental destruction. (Tellingly, though, the 2012 film is an adaptation of an American children’s book from 1971, when the militancy of social movements was peaking in the United States.)19

The swells of momentous times in modernity among which capital wages its battles with labor indicate degrees of intensity relating to this or that aspect of production: if capital needs to bottle air, one such moment is born. If capital needs to drastically lower the cost of labor, another such moment is born. But the moment—and this is what liberal and neoliberal democracy conceals—is not born of capital, but rather in the course of struggle that capital enters because of the opposition it meets. What determines the level and means of our participation in this struggle as historical subjects remains a moot point, or at least one that returns us to the burden of interpretation. The overwhelming data of global biopolitics, reproduced at the speed of life, anchor this interpretation to the divide between a tiny, shrinking minority of the rich that owns the wealth produced by the large, expanding majority of the destitute and the slowly impoverished.20 How is this possible? Οr, to put it differently, why does the majority permit this misery to continue?


Protesters carrying the effigy of their patron saint San Precario during a demonstration against precarious working conditions in Turin, May 14, 2011

My question implies, of course, that the suffering majority has at its disposal the means to resist the perpetuation of the global biopolitics that disseminates and manages misery. These means are democracy and revolution. The connection between the two has been historically complex, but what I want to suggest here is that neoliberalism, as a mode of global governance and a public mentality that exceeds the level of a “pure” economy, has eliminated the perceived conflict between democracy and revolution. Currently, the practice of democracy is a revolutionary practice. This is because neoliberalism has perverted and undermined democracy to the extent that the possibility of actually practicing democracy has come to constitute an extraordinary rupture rather than the parochial, taken-for-granted frame of daily reality, which is how democracy has been apprehended in the first world.

Why isn’t democracy “the practice of everyday life”?21 In 1980, Michel de Certeau’s famous book described a daily reality coproduced by the strategies of those in power and the tactics of those being subjected to power. It was an exemplary, hopeful analysis concerning a democracy from the bottom. It made sense as a conclusion drawn from the 1970s, when social movements became articulate and demanding; when artists in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere believed in the act of giving cameras to the workers; when feminism crossed, and closed, the distance from the rally to the art world. But the ’70s did not last forever (and, of course, I underplay here the complexity of the decade during which the militant Black Panthers were defeated as New Age mysticism was nurtured and funded in America). Thirty-five years later, could a similar optimism be expressed about what John Holloway captured, in another famous book title, as the desire to Change the World without Taking Power?22 Holloway’s proposition was about the revolution in the form of grassroots democracy. Opposing the orthodox Marxist and especially the Leninist tradition of the revolution, which “conceives of revolution instrumentally, as a means to an end,” Holloway favored instead an “accumulation of practices of oppositional self-organisation.” He clarified:

Think of discontinuities rather than continuity, flashes of lightning which light up the sky and pierce the capitalist forms of social relations, showing them for what they are [my italics]: a daily repeated and never re--determined struggle to break our doing and to break us, a daily repeated struggle to make the abnormal seem normal and the avoidable seem inevitable. Think of an anti--politics of events rather than a politics of organisation.23

Published one year after the horrific murder of thousands on September 11, 2001 (arguably the global event used as an excuse to defy a robust antiglobalization movement), Change the World without Taking Power attempted to restore confidence in a democracy without need for a top. This revolutionary democracy would have no place for “heroes” and would be practiced despite, and without, the state that Holloway regarded as inherently divisive.

Yet thirteen years later, and as the crisis of capital is evolving into a redistribution of wealth with a familiar mandate, things are somehow different. Not only was the Arab Spring defeated and replaced by theocratic anti-democracies across the Middle East and North Africa, but the European Union has openly and formally called for the primacy of economy over democracy. In the words of the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble: “Elections change nothing. There are rules.”24 The European Union’s full retraction from democracy became evident in the first half of 2015. On the one hand, a question mark has been posed about people’s right of free movement when fleeing the disasters of living history south/east of the Mediterranean border; on the other hand, in defying even capitalist Europe’s economic and geopolitical logic, the question mark over the right of a national government (here Greece but it could be any other) to represent the interests of its electorate is intended to threaten European voters against voting for the anti-austerity left.25 In both cases, the concept and role of the state (which Holloway regarded as more or less irrelevant to a real democracy) have been central to developments.

Consider, too, the other(ed) side of the Mediterranean at present: a jihadist army, ISIS, which fuses in a uniquely distorting crime against humanity both totalitarian rule and revolution, seeks to found an Islamic State. In Europe, meanwhile, on January 25, 2015, we find, for the first time, the left taking state power (even if forced into a dubious coalition with the right) in Greece, an EU state that has been a capitalist economy from its inception in the nineteenth century. These are extraordinary developments indeed, and how they will develop further depends very much on the conflict between capital and democracy, which is itself underpinned by the painful conflict between capital and labor that we are experiencing today. In any event, changing the world without taking power seems far less convincing in 2015 than it did in 2002.26 And this is because the possibility of practicing democracy has become a rupture in the normality of capitalism. “There are rules,” and these are carved in stone, sacred, systemic. Counter to what Marx and Engels wrote about capitalism as change, not “all that is sacred is profaned.”

The signs of this course of history, and the trajectory of our struggles in it, were in place already in the postwar era. Peter Mair, who associates the demise of European democracy with the failure of what we might call the party form, reassesses E. E. Schattschneider’s proposition from The Semi-Sovereign People (1960), noting in 2013: “What we now see emerging is a notion of democracy that is steadily stripped of its popular component—easing away from the demos.”27 By the end of the 1960s, a theory of the spectacle had posed the basic principle by which sovereignty of the people would become a virtual reality. And a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Guy Debord reasserted the meaning of participation:

There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay them. Nothing remains of the relatively independent judgment of those who once made up the world of learning … Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act [my italics]: such must be the condition of the spectator.28

Not only has the truth offered by the above quote not been overturned, but more recent observations suggest a steady deterioration. Consider this, from Marc Augé’s 2012 book titled The Future:

Capitalism has succeeded in creating a market that extends across the whole earth. Big companies are escaping the logic of national interests. Financial law is imposing its own law on states. And this dominion has suddenly become so glaring that it is unarguable, beyond appeal, give or take the clamor from the protest demos that accompany it without changing anything [my italics]. The class struggle has taken place, and has been lost by the working class: the triumphant International is the capitalist one.29

It took only ten years, from 2002 to 2012, to make the transition from Holloway’s advice to change the world without taking power to Augé’s disappointment with a “protest demos … that does not change anything.” These twelve years included, of course, the successful transfer of the crisis of private capital onto the shoulders of the demos. Yet this economic misery did not translate, overall, into a transnational, popular demand for the control of the economy by the demos against the rule of a technocratic elite. Nevertheless, Debord was not completely right in saying that “nothing remains … of the independent judgment” provided by “the world of learning.” The forceful transformation of the university into a business (like anything else) did not eliminate oppositional speech. Numerous incisive critiques of this insidious transfer were written after the 2008 crisis. But their impact on the imaginary of the demos has been limited.

There are various reasons for this, but the one highlighted by Debord—that of the media as usurper of the space of public discourse—remains prevalent. By effecting anti-intellectualism as populism, the media have provided a platform for a complete banalization of the mediated and mediatized everyday: the theoretical analysis of the world was deemed too complex and too slow to be of relevance. Theory withdrew (or better, withdrew further) from the public domain, and the role of intellectuals diminished in public discourse. It was diminished in many ways and through different tactics: for example, a so-called serious paper like The Guardian in Britain would publish simply anything, from David Graeber’s reporting on Kobani in relation to the Spanish Civil War to the most misconstrued, soap-opera reporting on the Greek debt problems. Or, inspired by the gossip-structure of social media, serious analysis in the national press of whatever country would be undermined by the readers’ comments posted right underneath. Facile, substituting uninformed opinion for researched argument, hardly ever signed by a reader willing to declare his/her identity, the readers’ comments have emerged as a democracy of anonymity and therefore of diminished personal responsibility. They have come to epitomize the shrinking of public debate to a reflection of what the militant collective Tiqqun has called “the hostis”:30 the ground of general hostility that has substituted the battleground of positions for an open civil war.

This is the ground described in Artur Żmijewski’s Them (2007), shown at Documenta 12. Żmijewski filmed real people (not actors) belonging to political groups that synthesize contemporary democracy as a pluralism of equal values where, however, nothing retains its value. Arguably, Them made use of the presumption that all positions—meaning: all differences—are “equal” in the voting center. Or, in this case, before the camera and the spectators-to-be. The artwork’s action was grounded in the belief that the diversity of perspectives is more socially important than how the actual standpoints are connected to specific interests, ideological hegemony or the “common good,” and the processes conducive to a consensus on that common good. Above all, what was shown to be devalued in Them was democratic debate through rational argumentation. It was observed that the “extremity escalates as the exchange of fire takes place,” and “nobody tries to reach an agreement” in the clashes structuring Them.31

Student protest in Westminster, central London, December 9, 2010

Żmijewski’s bitter, even cynical, deconstruction of democracy emerges perhaps with greater clarity in his cacophonic video installation Democracies (2009), where any possible interaction between groups and their demands is thrown out of representation altogether. In it, separate monitors display footage from disparate public gatherings, including football matches, in an exploration of “free, public expression of opinion.”32 Free, public, and compartmentalized, yet in all cases reproducing the nothingness, the no-value, the political stasis of a democracy based on the purported equivalence of its represented parts. Everything matters as much as anything else and thus nothing matters at all. In cases of political urgency, as for example in Greece during its IMF years inaugurated in 2010, the hostis becomes exacerbated as the ground of a democracy of equivalence. As put by the Greek curator and writer Augustine Zenakos, arguing that neoliberal Greece is an example of a “borderline” democracy:

It is now impossible to articulate any sort of meaningful critique within the structures that perpetuate this ideology, the structures that until now have enabled and shaped our public articulations. In a most profound and most debilitating way, anything we say within the current conditions of cultural production simply will not matter.33

Artur Żmijewski, Democracies (2009), single-channel video, projection (or to be shown on 20 flat-screens), 2 hrs. 26 min., sound, color, with English subtitles, video still

Except that the above assessment does not merely apply to cultural production but to the production of public speech at large. Importantly, Zenakos’s statement was made in 2013, that is, before the national election of January 2015 that, to the amazement of many, brought the anti-austerity left to power in Greece. What happened afterward is telling about the generic operation of democracy and its operation across national and transnational contexts: the condition of “nothing I say will matter” was transferred from the internal, Greek political scene to the transnational, European political one. Zenakos’s bleak conclusion that “it is now impossible to articulate any sort of meaningful critique within the structures that perpetuate this ideology, the structures that until now have enabled and shaped our public articulations,” could very well be said, as I write these lines (in May 2015), by a national left in power after months of transnational negotiations, effectively over austerity. Either in a national or transnational context, dissensus—to use a favorite Rancierian term—is not the outcome of a mere misunderstanding but of a qualified one. “[I]t is a power-based misunderstanding between poor and rich, who are in a struggle with each other ... but [this] cannot take place at the same table—because there is no place for the poor, their political position is not recognized, accepted and therefore also not understood as a matter of negotiation.”34 This is important for democracy in globalization, and it is a new situation, worthy of sustained collective and cross-disciplinary analysis: if, by some exceptional reconfiguration of forces, the position of the poor reaches the national table, it can always be stopped at the transnational one.

Artur Żmijewski, Democracies (2009), single-channel video, projection (or to be shown on 20 flat-screens), 2 hrs. 26 min., sound, color, with English subtitles, video still

What Żmijewski shows on his monitors, as the typical, Debord-inspired equivalence of spectacles, is a more general condition pertaining to contemporary democracy. The demands and the groups that represent them are indeed disconnected in a democracy of separatisms. They appear to be of equal value because they are all mediated by the camera and the screen. And the apparatuses that produce (the fiction of their) equivalence are not designed to articulate their relational value but to neutralize the possibility of generating relational value. This condition is hardly confined to mediatized space; conversely, it pervades the demos and regulates its electoral power. The voting demos is told to momentarily forget the socioeconomic divisions that constitute it as such and to proceed to choose a representative of its power to govern. The demos is convinced to do so on the grounds of the promise, and the premise, that all the demands and interests that actually divide the demos appear to be equivalent at the moment of voting. This is why democracy has become a matter of numbers, a question of the majority, a quantitative exercise (with adequate quantitative tricks designed to generate a majority where there is none).35 Quality, or the social value of the demands and interests, does not come into the voting moment, and there is no mechanism to introduce quality into the ensuing counting of votes. Votes are counted like a pile of banknotes. In hindsight, then, K Foundation Burn a Million Pounds (1994),36 K Foundation’s most controversial performance, held just as global capitalism was being instituted, becomes an eloquent early comment on the state of neoliberal democracy: numbers can evaporate. Numbers may appear to matter but economic irrationality can turn them into smoke.

Representative democracy denies even the imagining of an alternative to this straightforward accounting of votes, deeming it illegal. This is, in part, why democracy has been so heavily critiqued by some strands of communist thought and, crucially, why some people do not exercise their right to vote. What has been condemned as the apathy of the electorate is, in fact, a renunciation of a democracy of numbers, expressing the extinction of a public imaginary that might envision an alternative model of democracy. This is also why so-called minorities have such a hard time being persuasive. And this is what permits and legitimizes the existence of ideological hegemony, which is what must be achieved prior to the moment of voting but concealed at the actual moment of voting. Framing democracy across the majority/minority formula has been a most effective way of disqualifying a dialogic democracy where actual interests, and the struggles these generate, remain in public view during the entire democratic process. In a nutshell, neoliberal democracy is a democracy of quantity but without quality.


Artur Żmijewski, Democracies (2009), single-channel video, projection (or to be shown on 20 flat-screens), 2 hrs. 26 min., sound, color, with English subtitles, video still

What a democracy of quantity without quality gives is a mass, the same mass that we find stupefied by mass culture, the one opposed by the twenty-nine-year-old Marxist Clement Greenberg in his pathbreaking 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” In his text, which succeeded in identifying capitalism’s willful stasis in mass culture, Greenberg asserts: “Capitalism in decline finds that whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence” [emphasis added].37 Quality—a term which in his later, reactionary, post-Marxist art criticism Greenberg banalized himself, rather self-destructively—is something that he goes at great pains to explain in the 1939 essay. Greenberg explicitly relates the avant-garde experiments that culminate in “form” to the revolutionary ideas that define the zeitgeist, including even the radical advances of science. His focus is a breakthrough, which can only be achieved by a collectively produced culture from which revolutionary aspirations are not excluded, even if they coexist with other tendencies. He ranks cultural achievements into avant-garde (quality) and kitsch (quantity), contending even that an earlier folk culture has been usurped by capitalist kitsch.

Our momentous times necessitate a second reading of Greenberg’s essay, as the conditions which propagated capitalism’s stasis in mass culture have now extended massification into the political territory of “normally functioning” democracy. If what Greenberg says about capitalism’s hostility to quality can be incorporated into a critique of this functional capitalist democracy, a road will be opened toward a democracy relying on the valorization of social demands. This is the case principally because the demos is a historical rather than an ontological category. There is no doubt that in classical Athens the demos was constituted on a range of important and formally ratified exclusions, the most important of which were property and gender. But in contemporary (neo)-liberal democracy, these traditional exclusions have been eliminated on paper, because the ideological hegemony of ruling elites have made them redundant: women are persuaded to vote against women’s interests and workers against the working class.

The old exclusions have, of course, been replaced by newer ones, pertinent to the division of a transnational workforce. Consider, for example, that the free flow of labor power across EU borders excludes the “owners” of this labor power from voting in the countries where they work (and live). This exchange of the right to vote for the right to work is integral to manipulating a democracy of numbers in favor of capitalism’s reproduction within a complex classed, transnational entity such as the EU, given that the two social groups committed to labor mobility tend to be either the highly educated or the very poor. Broadly speaking, depriving voting rights from both those with the knowledge and those with the material interests to question hegemonic ideology has a good chance of strengthening a democracy of numbers, one purified from the common valorization of social demands.

Before the 2008 crisis, Chantal Mouffe argued that “according to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.”38 But one could be much more specific. What the dominant consensus must obscure and obliterate, before anything else, is that democracy, corrupted into numerical elements, is the very means of its (re)production. Grasping the implications of practicing a democracy of numbers, we are justified to claim, like Rancière, that “we do not live in democracies,” and to consider the -terrifying proposition that “we live in States of oligarchic law, in other words, in States where the power of the oligarchy is limited by a dual recognition of popular sovereignty and individual liberties.”39 Significantly, this assessment was offered before the global crisis and refers to the normality of capitalism.

There is, however, no guarantee that a different democracy would take hold should paradigmatic forms of contemporary disenfranchisement, such as the one presented above, be eliminated. According to Wendy Brown, the replacement of “homo politicus with homo economicus” is pervasive. She argues that even if “neoliberal economic policy could be paused or reversed … the deleterious effects of neoliberal reason on democracy [would continue] apace unless replaced with another order of political and social reason.”40 But the problem is precisely that such a different order cannot emerge from a public imaginary crafted by the majority/minority formula. Indeed, to upturn the example of exclusion offered above one would have to use the logic of expanding the majority. The practice of a democracy of numbers reproduces neoliberal reason and its reliance on and worship of metrics. This is why Brown herself succumbs to this ideology when she argues:

The term democracy contains nothing beyond the principle that the demos rules, although as the only political form permitting us all to share in the powers by which we are governed, it affords without guaranteeing the possibility that power will be wielded on behalf of the many rather than the few, that all may be regarded as ends rather than means, and that all may have a political voice. This is the bare promise of bare democracy.41

Imagining bare democracy as fundamentally based on the rule of the many rather than the few would work in favor of valorizing social demands only if “the many” of populations governed by neoliberalism could develop a radical political consciousness rather than encountering their wishes as the irruptions (inward explosions) of a political unconscious. This might then lead to the agency of a minority: the minority persuaded to vote the left into government in Greece in 2015, for example, or the minority that fought for women’s liberation in America in the 1970s. In other words, how to introduce the valorization of social demands into contemporary democracy is at present an unresolved problem for the revolutionary transformation of society. Studying the fate of the artistic avant-garde as a minority in a democracy of kitsch might be instructive. There is ample evidence that in our extensive modernity, where change is found to serve capitalism’s stable rule, art will continue its investigations into the possibility of exposing and, in some cases, critiquing the mechanisms and apparatuses of democracy as social conformity. We might hope for contemporary artistic production and discourse to do this with greater intensity once it actively renounces the perpetuation of the crisis discourse, thereby leading the return to the analysis of capitalism’s normality, and especially the terms of its reproduction. The sheer numbers of artists and curators living in precarity and embodying the very social mobility that sustains the loss of suffrage is conducive to such a development. But, for the moment, such a collectively shared, artistic consciousness can only be imagined, much like a political consciousness that would expose the perils of democracy corrupted into numbers and belonging to the demos at large.

Protesters march in front of the Greek parliament in Athens during an anti-austerity protest on July 15, 2015

1 “Momentous Times” was held at the Centre for Contempo-rary Art Derry-Londonderry in Northern Ireland from September to November 2013. It commemorated the Dublin Lockout (August 1913 to January 1914) as the central event in Irish labor history, with workers’ right to unionize at its core. See

2 See Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontent,” Artforum 44/6 (February 2006), pp. 178–83.

3 See Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May–June 2003), p. 76.

4 On art’s turn to an economic subject, see Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd, “‘The Last Instance’—the Apparent Economy, Social Struggles and Art in Global Capitalism” in Economy: Art,Production and the Subject in the 21st Century, ed. Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

5 Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Lenin, Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

6 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).

7 See Okwui Enwezor et al., eds., Documenta 11: Platform 1: Democracy Unrealized (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2002).

8 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

9 David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

10 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), pp. 210–16.

11 The Mediterranean boat people have been coming for more than a decade, paying small fortunes to enter the continent aboard disturbingly overpacked vessels. They began arriving after Europe’s legal migration routes shut down in the 1990s. See Doug Saunders, “The Real Reasons Why Migrants Risk Everything for a New Life Elsewhere,” The Globe and Mail (April 24, 2015). Online:

12 Marcello Tarì and Ilaria Vanni, “On the Life and Deeds of San Precario, Patron Saint of Precarious Workers and Lives,” The Fibre Journal 5 (2005). Online:

13 Collins’s work appropriates the title of Marxism Today, a highly influential monthly periodical of the British left. See Greg Sholette, Dark Matter: Art in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto, 2010).

14 A useful critical summary of Badiou’s event theory can be found in Andrew Robinson, “Alain Badiou: The Event,” Ceasefire (December 2014). Online:

15 Paul Mason, “The Best of Capitalism Is over for Rich Countries—and for the Poor Ones It Will Be over by 2060,” The Guardian, July 7, 2014. Online:

16 Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital (London: Verso, 2013), p. 147.

17 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Žižek, Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (London: Verso, 2014), pp. 53–54.

18 Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (New York: Zone Books, 2013), p. 60.

19 The Lorax was written by the renowned American author and cartoonist Dr. Seuss (1904–1991), a liberal democrat, antifascist, and supporter of New Deal.

20 See Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2014, online at

21 The phrase is borrowed from the title of Michel de Certeau’s famous analysis of an everyday environment produced through the strategies of those in power but also the tactics of those who are denied formal power. See The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984 [1980]).

22 John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press, 2002). An inspiration to anticapitalist activism worldwide, the book is also available free online:

23 Ibid.

24 Schäuble’s words from 2015 were widely reproduced in the formal and social media. Indicatively, see Gavin Hewitt, “Greece: The Dangerous Game,” BBC News (February 1, 2015). Online:

25 These “question marks” have been buttressed by startling demonstrations of power. In May 2015 the EU decided on military action against “migrant smugglers” ( and supported the economic blackmail campaign led by the ECB against the newly elected left Greek government in the first half of 2015 (

26 Punitive statements and reactions to the July 5, 2015, referendum in which the Greek people were asked to accept or reject a Troika proposal for brutal further austerity (outcome: 61.31 percent no, 38.69 percent yes) revealed the depth of contempt for democracy that finance-led capitalism is increasingly becoming synonymous with. Indicatively, see Jennifer Rankin, “Greek Referendum: Optimism Fades as Eurozone Says Gulf Has Widened,” The Guardian, July 6, 2015. Online:

27 Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso, 2013), p. 2.

28 Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso 1998 [1988]), p. 19.

29 Marc Augé, The Future (London: Verso, 2014 [2012]), p. 47.

30 Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War (New York: Semiotext(e), 2012).

31 Artur Żmijewski, “Them @ Documenta 12,” Whitehot Magazine, undated. Online:

32 “Democracies: Artur Żmijewski,” e-flux (March 22, 2009). Online:

33 Augustinos Zenakos, “Who Are ‘We’? Art and Resistance in a Borderline Democracy,” Enclave Review 9 (Winter 2013), p. 8.

34 Nicole Doerr, “Between Habermas and Rancière: The Democracy of Political Translation,” EIPCP (June 2013). Online:

35 A proportional voting system would have led to a different political scene in the UK national elections of May 2015. See Bethan McKernan, “Here’s how the election results would look under a proportional voting system” (May 8, 2015),

36 For the full story leading to the performance, see

37 Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review 6 (Fall 1939). Online:

38 Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art & Research 1.2 (Summer 2007), p. 5.

39 Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (London: Verso, 2006 [2005]), p. 73.

40 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), pp. 201–2.

41 Brown, Undoing the Demos, pp. 202–3.