There's a first time for everything, so here I am recommending a piece by Slavoj Žižek. It's on the recent riots, and what I'm recommending it for is this passage, which I find to be of singular interest:
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren't living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
The passage strikes a note that I must say is unfamiliar to me from Marxist writing. It is a note of complaint - against the 'society we inhabit' - that the freedom of choice this society typically boasts of doesn't include the choice of alternatives to itself as a form of social and economic organization, whether realistic or utopian ones. I am more used to a tradition of Marxist writing in which it is taken for granted that prevailing social formations and their dominant groups and beneficiaries - more particularly here, capitalism - will oppose attempts at replacing them, including by putting up obstacles (economic, political and ideological) to radical change. Žižek's complaint does, nonetheless, situate itself within an interesting problem area in the thought of Karl Marx, one I go on immediately to outline. Let me just draw your attention, first, to the phrase in the above passage, 'enforced democratic consensus'.
Along with his friend and co-author Friedrich Engels, Marx famously laid out, in the Communist Manifesto and elsewhere, that the bourgeoisie 'produces.... its own gravediggers' - these gravediggers being identified by him with the modern proletariat. And the problem area I refer to concerns Marx's expectations about how easy or difficult it was likely to be for the proletariat to be able to overthrow capitalism. There is a clear tension in his writings on this score, pinpointed many years ago in a good article by Carol Johnson: on the one hand, Marx seems to have expected that trade union and party organization and political struggle by the working class would lead more or less easily to the development of a revolutionary class consciousness; on the other hand, he himself set out in the three volumes of Capital a theory about how the inner relations of the capitalist mode of production, its exploitative character among them, were obscured from view owing to the fetish-like nature of commodity production and exchange.
Nearly 150 years after the publication of Volume 1 of Capital, how difficult or easy the formation of a socialist consciousness is within the populations of advanced capitalism is no longer an open question; neither is it an open question how easy or difficult the development of a political programme aimed at socialism is which is capable of winning majority support. They are difficult. However, as between capitalist societies and those who wield most power within them helping people along towards choosing socialism, on the one hand, and this political choice having to be fought for by those who believe it is a desirable one, on the other - on this point there has never been any real doubt, or at least there should not have been. Socialism (whatever meaning you give it) - and Žižek himself is plainly aware of this on some level - is a political project that will have to be chosen and fought for, and tested and modified if it ever gets that far, and defended and reshaped, all by great democratic majorities; or else it will come to nothing. Whatever Marx's other uncertainties or ambiguities, the cast of his thought in this regard was never unclear. Though capitalism, he held, would provide many of the preconditions of its own supercession, a transition beyond it to something better, more just, was not to be expected as the automatic product of capitalist development itself. Socialism had to be an active political choice, a long self-educating battle, by those whom capitalism exploits, or oppresses, or marginalizes, or impoverishes, those whose lives it makes either perpetually or periodically insecure.
To complain that capitalist societies don't facilitate the desired political choice here, as if they might or ought to facilitate it, is beside the point. It merely deflects attention from the starkest fact for socialists: namely, that there is today no political organization - or coalition or network - remotely close to being able to command a majority for anything like socialism, under any meaning. This being the case, to speak about an 'enforced democratic consensus' is hogwash. It masks the contemporary weakness of the left by pretending that liberal democracies forbid the very thought of socialism or of its being articulated as a viable political programme. It is not, then, the weakness of the left that is the left's current problem so much as some anti-democratic closing down of political choices perpetrated by 'the kind of society we inhabit', with its 'enforced democratic consensus'. As the left is - like it or not - associated by many with some skeletons in its historical cupboard not altogether friendly to democracy of any stripe, this pretence that a majority are really being blocked by some 'enforcers' or other from a choice they would otherwise have made merely contributes to the suspicion that Žižek's brand of Marxism has other means than democratic ones for gauging the true will of the majority. It is another case of 'Me, the people', and to be dismissed accordingly.