Bersih 3.0 and resisting power

How is Power resisted? What is the relation between the Law and Transgression? To what extent is rebellion against authority determined or influenced by authority itself? And how does Bersih 3.0 match up?

Michel Foucault, who popularised the idea that Power generates its own resistance, had no clear answer to how, then, Power could be challenged. If resistance is the constitutive result of that which it seeks to resist, if Bersih (clean/acronym of the movement for free and fair elections) is simply the subversive child of ‘Kotor’ (dirty), then no matter how many protests are held, it’s still part of the system. To the extent that some of Bersih’s leaders did (secretly or not) have violence in mind, Foucault’s premonition would be true: we would only be replacing one rotten door with another one. If violence can be engineered then later denied as part of a peaceful facade, then Malaysia would be going in a merry go round of one and the same political injustice. The next time Bersih happens, there will be a need to curb the event’s excesses which threaten to undo the good it stands for. Bersih’s very success should not breed its own unravelling.

Foucault’s key weakness lay in the impossibility of subjects effectively challenging and subverting the system, given how their protests are part and parcel of the very political constellation they want to overturn. Whilst Foucault’s talk about the ‘care of the self’ (essentially subjects being wary of having their selves shaped by power) has some potential for political emancipation, theoretically it’s inconsistent and unpersuasive given the weight he put on Power.

Judith Butler (more of a gender theory specialist) threw a further spanner into the works by showing not only that power generates its own transgression but that the way power disciplines resistance is itself ‘eroticised’. This is to say that if at first protesters ‘enjoyed’ violating public rules, now even the form of punishment feels fun, which in turn becomes a form of ‘transgression’ too. In Bersih terms, this is like the masses utilising the tear-gas attacks as a media event, staging carnivalesque ‘water-cannon festivals’ or wearing barbed-wire for fashion. The means of repression have become a means of reverie and thus of rebellion. Resistance, then, is about performance and re-performance. Power needs resistance for its own perpetuation. Therefore, resistance can throw stumbling blocks in power’s way by producing socio-political performances which contradict and confound the performances Power expects of those under it.

For Butlerians (and inconsistent Foucauldians), there is a level of self-deliberation and planning involved in resistance. However, with Alain Badiou, predictability, control and planning are rendered secondary. What matters is the Truth-Event.

The Badiouian event is a completely unexpected moment of liberation which shatters the hegemony of the existing system and re-creates subjects in its own image. This is to say that one ‘becomes’ a subject by recognising one’s self in the event. The event is ‘bigger’ than you yet it’s also nothing but you, your participation and your belief that it’s world-transforming. Badiou’s truth-events are what results in new social orders because existing orders could not design nor predict nor produce nor contain them. Largely ‘ex nihilo’, truth-events become events via a retroactive process of recognition by the people who comprise them. In a word, Bersih 3.0 was for those who believed in it. It wasn’t an abstract intellectual exercise of pros’ and cons, but a catalyst for creating a political identity. To even suggest there is ‘more than one side’ to Bersih implies one has not been ‘caught’ by its wind, aroused by its flames. The truth of Bersih is the truth of desire and action, not something that fits a neat theoretical grid.

On the other hand, if unpredictability is a central tenet of a truth-event, then Bersih falls somewhat short: Many people saw it ‘coming’ and that much of it may appear scripted. Given that it’s the third instalment of a series of street protests, one can almost predict what will happen with Bersih 4.0. It will be publicised through social media networks, it will be condemned (if somewhat ambivalently at first) by the government, it will be about and near elections, there will disputes about the venue, it will be Opposition affiliated, it will involve thousands and there will be tear-gas and water-cannons (provoked or otherwise). Without downplaying the issues involved, one could argue that Bersih is beginning to write itself into the national Symbolic Order, and an event predicted and produced by such an order would not fit Badiou’s understanding of a Truth-Event.

Finally, Slavoj Žižek sees political transformation as the outcome of a political Act: one which ‘wipes the slate clean’ and ushers in a new world-order. Not unlike the Badiouian Event, the Žižekian Act – could take the form of armed struggle or a radical sacrifice or absolute withdrawal – involves a society or community unleashing a negativity so powerful the reigning positive order is overwhelmed and thus transformed. At the end of the day, the system must be transformed entirely such that prior definitions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are themselves reconfigured. This improves on Foucault’s views by positing that Power’s undoing will come about by its own excesses; the system generates its own obscene surplus which political emancipation can exploit and undermine. For Žižek and Badiou, key examples of such Acts include Mao Ze Dong’s Cultural Revolution, the death of Jesus Christ, the May 1968 student uprising in France and, of course, the revolutionary Arab Spring of 2010.

How would Bersih fit this notion of the Act? Ambivalently. It’s clear that polarities remain fixed. There is no remaking of the political fault-lines. There is no overhauling of existing systems and at best only minor improvements in the election system will take place (which is precisely what the Act aims to avoid: marginal changes which leave the system more or less intact). In fact, it’s tragic that many months after Bersih 2.0, new parliamentary bills were passed to make electoral fraud in Malaysia even easier (although some of the more critical amendments to facilitate fraud were dropped after Bersih 3.0). Žižek may, in fact, state that making violence off-limits amounts to a ‘revolution without revolution’ reflecting that Bersih is not willing to go all the way, unlike the revolutionaries of the Arabian Spring. The Dataran Merdeka (or Merdeka Square) violence on 28th April 2012, in his view, would be branded not violent enough (!).

On the other hand, Bersih by demanding that the government merely provides what they say is already there (i.e. clean and fair elections)in the Constitution could resemble the Act in that it seeks to expose the obscene underside of Malaysian elections thus de-stabilising present positive order by giving body to an inherent negativity within Malaysian society. Žižek calls this the politics of subtraction (a form of absolute withdrawal) i.e. stripping away all ideological pretences and symbolic smoke-screens and superficialities to force the nation to confront its fantasmic core.

A final model for resisting the powers – also the one usually considered most ‘realistic’ – comes from the work of Gilles Deleuze (and his collaborator, Felix Guatarri). This model sees effective political resistance as the fruit of resistance at the margins, between the inter-stices and along the minute and micro fault lines of society. Like white ants eating into the foundation of a building and rearranging the internal structure, political resistance is emergent, rhizomatic, multi-dimensional and usually begins outside the State’s supervision. Changes are usually invisible and, to use a word they prefer, virtual i.e. behind the institutions and laws lie virtual realities defined as non-actual yet real potential for new political forms, fresh emancipatory projects which, given sufficient time, will burst forth in the actual.

Kenneth Surin, in this vein, talks about heterotopias i.e. nascent political possibilities presently obstructed by the obstacles put forth by the ruling system (or territorialised by the powers that be) which yearn for unveiling and ‘release’ i.e. de-territorialisation by the multitude. This is to say that there is already a fair and good election system in place in Malaysia which has been usurped by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation). What’s required is to remove the UMNO leaders in control and the system will be back to normal. This is a very different way of thinking as compared to the Žižekian/Badiouian ‘catastrophic’ acts and events. No cataclysmic, earth-shattering event is sought for. No grand utopian moment ushered in. No spiritual ‘conversions’ need occur. Bersih 3.0 could thus be seen as a movement which sweeps up the fervour of many other smaller movements in the hope of stripping away existing injustices, chipping away oppressive laws such that Malaysian society can revert to an originary harmony and accord. The very struggle for Dataran Merdeka could be seen as a movement of (literal) de-territorialisation, of recapturing a symbolic square and reasserting its original liberating essence (as opposed to its present shackling and ‘cordoning off’ by those in power).

The right-fitness of the Deleuzian model may, nevertheless, betray its simplicity and naivety. In this world, there are only creative desires moving, flying about, assembling and re-assembling, producing new forms, destroy them, making worlds and un-making them; the paradox and trauma of personal subjectivity is subordinated to the flux of the impersonal (because, in Deleuzian thought, even the ‘personal’ is a product of desiring sparks or centers). All very fluid and creative, but when the cannons and the gas begin, when peaceful protesting turns unruly, when freedom’s leaders are caught in cycles of suspicion, then maybe Malaysia may need more – much more – than creative de-territorialisation and mere resistance ‘from the margins’. They may, given the limitations of peaceful protestations, need to seriously ponder the question posed by Nicky Fury: What are you prepared to do?

About Alwyn Lau, Guest Contributor