Question of the week: “What does «Je suis Charlie» tell us about the condition of ideology today?”

I am Charlie… you are… we are Charlie. Photo: L’association “THE YOUNGZ” at
I am Charlie… you are… we are Charlie. Photo: L’association “THE YOUNGZ” at

This week, we ask faculty member Jan Völker who currently teaches «Ideology: a thing from the past?» about the event of Charlie Hebdo, the symptomatic slogan « Je suis Charlie » and finally, his specialty––ideology.

The problem here is that the question of ideology is at first related to the side of the attackers: Clearly, the attack was brutal, fascist, and embedded in an ideological frame. From this point of view, the demonstrations in the aftermath of this crime, and the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, offer us a seemingly clear opposition: non-ideological democratic values against ideological, violent dogmatism. But, is this opposition a true opposition?

I think the necessary and unreserved critique of the attack has to be distinguished from our possibility to question the fantasy of a non-ideological democratic unity. Every such unity has something fantasmatic or ideological about it, because it serves to cover up inner contradictions in order to unite against an outside. In the case of the slogan that popped up throughout the world, the question is: What does it mean, really? And is there any ideology involved at all? ‘Charlie’ might offer something like a generic name with which we might identify ourselves and thereby express our solidarity. If we agree that ‘Charlie’ offers a point of common reference to democratic values, is not democracy precisely the anti-ideological stance as such? Does not democracy name the possibility of conflicts, while ideology covers them up?

We have to take two things into account. First of all, ideology has changed: Ideology does not have any problem with different opinions. You can be a left winger or a right winger, it does not really matter, in both cases you can be a good democrat. The only point is – you have to respect democracy.

But what kind of democracy? In the understanding of western societies, democracy is about the equivalence of opinions. But the system of general equivalences of things and opinions always already has a determined measure. We claim to know what that measure is, what it is to be ‘democratic’. So, the problem is: At the point where we have a representative knowledge of ‘the democratic’, we are able to impose it on others. You can even wage a war in the name of democracy. Here, democracy comes to an end, because ‘democracy’ – in a different understanding – is actually not a measured equivalence, but a common project on the equality of people that cannot have its measure in advance. It is rather a process of the immeasurable, not a catalogue of knowledge.

The problem of our current measure appears once we see that large parts of the non-democratic outside coincide with the poor rest, the non-democratic non-world, as Alain Badiou pointed out. Our current measure of democracy coincides with capital. The often implicitly made connection: Not yet democratic, and thus not yet wealthy, as we know, this is not true. Rather, our democratic states rely on an economic base of capitalism that produces poverty. And this is the hidden conflict: this is why the unity of democrats is an instance of ideology – because our democracies rely on capitalism and its production of inequality. To act as if these two were separate things is to act ideologically. The current democratic consensus implies the consensus on the economic world order.

We have to react against fascist attacks, and against rising anti-Semitism. In this regard “Je suis Charlie” marks a necessary solidarity. But we still need more: a defense of democratic values that at the same time makes the distinction between democracy and capitalism, a defense of democracy that calls capitalism into question. And as the problem of democracy proves: we don’t need another unity in the name of some non-ideological against the ideological, rather we need a strong leftist, real democratic ideology against the liberal pseudo-democratic ideology of capitalism.

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