Reflections from “The Courage of Hopelessness”

Recent political events both here and back home have led me to think about a similar array of issues that appear to be both universal and conditional. Reading Žižek’s new book “The Courage of Hopelessness” offers a different way of navigating the current conundrum of democracy, liberty, and to some extent, privatisation of the commons. Perhaps now I should clarify that I have not finished the book, therefore these observations and thoughts are simply inspired by certain lines of argument and definitions within the book.


The Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong 2014. Source: Will Xu, 2015

Democracy has become an aspiration for many in recent years. After Umbrella Revolution and the LegCo election scandals, it appears to me that many have conflated democracy with freedom, coining it as a delusional panacea for all ills. Yes, we have to acknowledge that Hong Kong has never fully experienced universal suffrage, or any sort of representational democracy that can result in rule by popular sovereignty. And it is true that our sovereignty and political stability are increasingly being challenged by external forces, but is democracy the answer? Is democracy the only choice for change? Is this even the question we should be asking when the historical context for when modern democracy was conceived is drastically different to that of contemporary Hong Kong? The current political discourse offers little opportunity to question the fundamentals upon which we are basing our arguments. We must not forget that democracy simply promises a voice for everyone, a theoretical political equality, but nothing more.

Standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: political freedom can easily provide the legal framework for economic slavery, with the underprivileged ‘freely’ selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy — we need the democratisation also of social and economic life. In short, we need to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom)is a failure inherent to this principle itself — understanding this is the big step of political pedagogy. (Žižek, 2017: 62-3)

Another point that I thought can be applied to the situation back home is the ‘fetishisation of democracy’. In Hong Kong’s highly unequal capitalist structure, democracy is likely to perpetuate inequalities and support the financial apparatus that produced them in the first place. In a sense, the societal chasms and deep political discontents are caused by financialisation, and the extremely distorted ‘free market economy’. Democracy will not fix issues like income disparity, and it is unclear how a radically progressive government can possibly instigate any change.

That, coupled with big questions on individual autonomy, identity, public vs private, makes it easy for issues to snowball and public frustration to grow. I have nothing to offer except this – having lived in London for 5 years now, democracy does not solve everything. In fact, it just exposes existing social divisions. It is empowering, but public participation in politics is not guaranteed simply by having democratic voting…

More thoughts soon…



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