Democracy versus the people

A new account of Haiti's recent history shows how the genuinely radical politics of Lavalas and its

Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment

Peter Hallward, Verso, 480pp, £16.99

Noam Chomsky once noted that "it is only when the threat of popular participation is overcome that democratic forms can be safely contemplated". He thereby pointed at the "passivising" core of parliamentary democracy, which makes it incompatible with the direct political self- organisation and self-empowerment of the people. Direct colonial aggression or military assault are not the only ways of pacifying a "hostile" population: so long as they are backed up by sufficient levels of coercive force, international "stabilisation" missions can overcome the threat of popular participation through the apparently less abrasive tactics of "democracy promotion", "humanitarian intervention" and the "protection of human rights".

This is what makes the case of Haiti so exemplary. As Peter Hallward writes in Damming the Flood, a detailed account of the "democratic containment" of Haiti's radical politics in the past two decades, "never have the well-worn tactics of 'democracy promotion' been applied with more devastating effect than in Haiti between 2000 and 2004". One cannot miss the irony of the fact that the name of the emancipatory political movement which suffered this international pressure is Lavalas, or "flood" in Creole: it is the flood of the expropriated who overflow the gated communities that protect those who exploit them. This is why the title of Hallward's book is quite appropriate, inscribing the events in Haiti into the global tendency of new dams and walls that have been popping out everywhere since 11 September 2001, confronting us with the inner truth of "globalisation", the underlying lines of division which sustain it.

Haiti was an exception from the very beginning, from its revolutionary fight against slavery, which ended in independence in January 1804. "Only in Haiti," Hallward notes, "was the declaration of human freedom universally consistent. Only in Haiti was this declaration sustained at all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and economic logic of the day." For this reason, "there is no single event in the whole of modern history whose implications were more threatening to the dominant global order of things". The Haitian Revolution truly deserves the title of repetition of the French Revolution: led by Toussaint 'Ouverture, it was clearly "ahead of his time", "premature" and doomed to fail, yet, precisely as such, it was perhaps even more of an event than the French Revolution itself. It was the first time that an enslaved population rebelled not as a way of returning to their pre-colonial "roots", but on behalf of universal principles of freedom and equality. And a sign of the Jacobins' authenticity is that they quickly recognised the slaves' uprising - the black delegation from Haiti was enthusiastically received in the National Assembly in Paris. (As you might expect, things changed after Thermidor; in 1801 Napoleon sent a huge expeditionary force to try to regain control of the colony).

Denounced by Talleyrand as "a horrible spectacle for all white nations", the "mere existence of an independent Haiti" was itself an intolerable threat to the slave-owning status quo. Haiti thus had to be made an exemplary case of economic failure, to dissuade other countries from taking the same path. The price - the literal price - for the "premature" independence was truly extortionate: after two decades of embargo, France, the old colonial master, established trade and diplomatic relations only in 1825, after forcing the Haitian government to pay 150 million francs as "compensation" for the loss of its slaves. This sum, roughly equal to the French annual budget at the time, was later reduced to 90 million, but it continued to be a heavy drain on Haitian resources: at the end of the 19th century, Haiti's payments to France consumed roughly 80 per cent of the national budget, and the last instalment was only paid in 1947. When, in 2003, in anticipation of the bicentenary of national independence, the Lavalas president Jean-Baptiste Aristide demanded that France return this extorted money, his claim was flatly rejected by a French commission (led, ironically, by Régis Debray). At a time when some US liberals ponder the possibility of reimbursing black Americans for slavery, Haiti's demand to be reimbursed for the tremendous sum the former slaves had to pay to have their freedom recognised has been largely ignored by liberal opinion, even if the extortion here was double: the slaves were first exploited, and then had to pay for the recognition of their hard-won freedom.

The story goes on today. The Lavalas movement has won every free presidential election since 1990, but it has twice been the victim of US-sponsored military coups. Lavalas is a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people's direct self-organisation. Although the "free press" dominated by its enemies was never obstructed, although violent protests that threatened the stability of the legal government were fully tolerated, the Lavalas government was routinely demonised in the international press as exceptionally violent and corrupt. The goal of the US and its allies France and Canada was to impose on Haiti a "normal" democracy - a democracy which would not touch the economic power of the narrow elite; they were well aware that, if it is to function in this way, democracy has to cut its links with direct popular self-organisation.

It is interesting to note that this US-French co-operation took place soon after the public discord about the 2003 attack on Iraq, and was quite appropriately celebrated as the reaffirmation of their basic alliance that underpins the occasional conflicts. Even Brazil's Lula condoned the 2004 overthrow of Aristide. An unholy alliance was thus put together to discredit the Lavalas government as a form of mob rule that threatened human rights, and President Aristide as a power-mad fundamentalist dictator - an alliance ranging from ex-military death squads and US-sponsored "democratic fronts" to humanitarian NGOs and even some "radical left" organisations which, financed by the US, enthusiastically denounced Aristide's "capitulation" to the IMF. Aristide himself provided a perspicuous characterisation of this overlapping between radical left and liberal right: "Somewhere, somehow, there's a little secret satisfaction, perhaps an unconscious satisfaction, in saying things that powerful white people want you to say."

The Lavalas struggle is exemplary of a principled heroism that confronts the limitations of what can be done today. Lavalas activists didn't withdraw into the interstices of state power and "resist" from a safe distance, they heroically assumed state power, well aware that they were taking power in the most unfavourable circumstances, when all the trends of capitalist "modernisation" and "structural readjustment", but also of the postmodern left, were against them. Constrained by the measures imposed by the US and International Monetary Fund, which were destined to enact "necessary structural readjustments", Aristide pursued a politics of small and precise pragmatic measures (building schools and hospitals, creating infrastructure, raising minimum wages) while encouraging the active political mobilisation of the people in direct confrontation with their most immediate foes - the army and its paramilitary auxiliaries.

The single most controversial thing about Aristide, the thing that earned him comparisons with Sendero Luminoso and Pol Pot, was his pointed refusal to condemn measures taken by the people to defend themselves against military or paramilitary assault, an assault that had decimated the popular movement for decades. On a couple of occasions back in 1991, Aristide appeared to condone recourse to the most notorious of these measures, known locally as "Père Lebrun", a variant of the practice of "necklacing" adopted by anti-apartheid partisans in South Africa - killing a police assassin or an informer with a burning tyre. In a speech on 4 August 1991, he advised an enthusiastic crowd to remember "when to use [Père Lebrun], and where to use it", while reminding them that "you may never use it again in a state where law prevails".

Later, liberal critics sought to draw a parallel between the so-called chimères, ie, members of Lavalas self-defence groups, and the Tontons Macoutes, the notoriously murderous gangs of the Duvalier dictatorship. The fact that there is no numerical basis for comparison of levels of political violence under Aristide and under Duvalier is not allowed to get in the way of the essential political point. Asked about these chimères, Aristide points out that "the very word says it all. Chimères are people who are impoverished, who live in a state of profound insecurity and chronic unemployment. They are the victims of structural injustice, of systematic social violence [. . .] It's not surprising that they should confront those who have always benefited from this same social violence."

Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called "divine violence": they should be located "beyond good and evil", in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what can only appear as "immoral" acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.

As Aristide himself puts it: "It is better to be wrong with the people than to be right against the people." Despite some all-too-obvious mistakes, the Lavalas regime was in effect one of the figures of how "dictatorship of the proletariat" might look today: while pragmatically engaging in some externally imposed compromises, it always remained faithful to its "base", to the crowd of ordinary dispossessed people, speaking on their behalf, not "representing" them but directly relying on their local self-organisations. Although respecting the democratic rules, Lavalas made it clear that the electoral struggle is not where things are decided: what is much more crucial is the effort to supplement democracy with the direct political self-organisation of the oppressed. Or, to put it in our "postmodern" terms: the struggle between Lavalas and the capitalist-military elite in Haiti is a case of genuine antagonism, an antagonism which cannot be contained within the frame of parliamentary-democratic "agonistic pluralism".

This is why Hallward's outstanding book is not just about Haiti, but about what it means to be a "leftist" today: ask a leftist how he stands towards Aristide, and it will be immediately clear if he is a partisan of radical emancipation or merely a humanitarian liberal who wants "globalisation with a human face".

Slavoj Zizek is the author of "In Defence of Lost Causes" (Verso, £19.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.