Democracy: In what state?
Democracy in What State?
"Is it meaningful to call oneself a democrat? And if so, how do you interpret the word?"
In responding to this question, eight iconoclastic thinkers prove the rich potential of democracy, along with its critical weaknesses, and reconceive the practice to accommodate new political and cultural realities. Giorgio Agamben traces the tense history of constitutions and their coexistence with various governments. Alain Badiou contrasts current democratic practice with democratic communism. Daniel Bensaid ponders the institutionalization of democracy, while Wendy Brown discusses the democratization of society under neoliberalism. Jean-Luc Nancy measures the difference between democracy as a form of rule and as a human end, and Jacques Rancière highlights its egalitarian nature. Kristin Ross identifies hierarchical relationships within democratic practice, and Slavoj Zizek complicates the distinction between those who desire to own the state and those who wish to do without it.
Concentrating on the classical roots of democracy and its changing meaning over time and within different contexts, these essays uniquely defend what is left of the left-wing tradition after the fall of Soviet communism. They confront disincentives to active democratic participation that have caused voter turnout to decline in western countries, and they address electoral indifference by invoking and reviving the tradition of citizen involvement. Passionately written and theoretically rich, this collection speaks to all facets of modern political and democratic debate.
Foreword by the French Publisher
Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy, by Giorgio Agamben
The Democratic Emblem, by Alain Badiou
Permanent Scandal, by Daniel Bensaïd
“We Are All Democrats Now . . . ”, by Wendy Brown
Finite and Infinite Democracy, by Jean-Luc Nancy
Democracies Against Democracy, by Jacques Rancière
Democracy for Sale, by Kristin Ross
From Democracy to Divine Violence, by Slavoj Zizek
January 18th, 2011 at 7:59 am
Giorgio Agamben on Democracy : An excerpt from Giorgio Agamben’s essay “Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy”
“Is it meaningful to call oneself a democrat? And if so, how do you interpret the word?”
« Today we behold the overwhelming preponderance of the government and the economy over anything you could call popular sovereignty—an expression by now drained of all meaning. Western democracies are perhaps paying the price for a philosophical heritage they haven’t bothered to take a close look at in a long time. To think of government as simple executive power is a mistake and one of the most consequential errors ever made in the history of Western politics. It explains why modern political thought wanders off into empty abstractions like law, the general will, and popular sovereignty while entirely failing to address the central question of government and its articulation as Rousseau would say, to the sovereign of locus of sovereignty. In a recent book I tried to show that the central mystery of politics is not sovereignty but government; not God but his angels; not the king but his minister; not the law but the police—or rather the governmental machine they form and propel. »
January 19th, 2011 at 8:10 am
Alain Badiou on Democracy — From “Democracy in What State?”
“We will only ever be true democrats, integral to the historic life of peoples, when we become communists again. Roads to that future are gradually becoming visible even now.”—Alain Badiou(in his response to the question, “Is it meaningful to call oneself a democrat? And if so, how do you interpret the word?”)
In his essay “The Democratic Emblem,” Badiou dissects how the idea or “emblem” of democracy has been manipulated by democrats. He then explores Plato’s critique of democracy and how it relates to the present. Here is an excerpt:
« Our concern is le monde, the world that evidently exists, not tout le monde, where the democrats (Western folk, folk of the emblem) hold sway and everyone else is from another world —which being other, is not a world properly speaking, just a remnant of life, a zone of war, hunger, walls, and delusions. In that “world” or zone, they spend their time packing their bags to get away from the horror or to leave altogether and be with—whom? With the democrats of course, who claim to run the world have jobs that need doing….
In sum, if the world of the democrats is not the world of everyone, if tout le monde isn’t really the whole world after all, then democracy the emblem and custodian of the walls behind which the democrats seek their petty pleasures, is just a word for a conservative oligarchy whose main (and often bellicose) business is to guard its own territory, as animals do, under the usurped name world. »
Badiou concludes by writing:
« What I have aimed to do here is to set brackets around the authority the word democracyis likely to enjoy, or have enjoyed, in the mind of the reader and make the Platonic critique of democracy comprehensible. But as a coda, we can go right back to the literal meaning of democracy if we like: the power of peoples over their own existence. Politics immanent in the people and the withering away, in open process, of the State. From that perspective, we will only ever be true democrats, integral to the historic life of peoples, when we become communists again. Roads to that future are gradually becoming visible even now. »
January 20th, 2011 at 8:24 am
Daniel Bensaid on Democracy
“The widely trumpeted victory of democracy soon yielded a crop of new Tocquevilles voicing their ill-concealed dislike of it…”—Daniel Bensaid
An excerpt from Daniel Bensaid written before his death in 2010. In his essay “Permanent Scandal,” Bensaid ponders the institutionalization of democracy. Exploring the ideas of a range of theorists, Bensaid also examines the contradictions of democracy’s victory.
« With the debacle of bureaucratic despotism and “real” (i. e. unreal) socialism, the floating signifier democracybecame a synonym for the victorious West, the triumphant United States of America, the free market, and the level playing field. Simultaneously, a full-scale onslaught against social solidarity and social rights and an unprecedented campaign to privatize everything were causing the public space to shrivel. Hannah Arendt’s erstwhile fear of seeing politics itself, meaning conflictual plurality, disappear from the face of the earth, to be replaced by the routine administration of things beings, was apparently coming about.
The widely trumpeted victory of democracy soon yielded a crop of new Tocquevilles voicing their ill-concealed dislike of it, reminding their readers that democracy meant more than just unfettered exchange and the free circulation of capital: it was also the expression of a disturbing egalitarian principle … we heard the elitist discourse of a restricted group worried by the intemperance, excess, and exuberance of the common heard. »
January 21st, 2011 at 8:34 am
“We Are All Democrats Now…” — Wendy Brown on Democracy
“What I am sure of, however, is that this is not a time for sloganeering that averts our glance from the powers destroying the conditions for democracy.”— Wendy Brown
Wendy Brown examines the condition of democracy under neoliberalism. Brown argues that neoliberalism threaten to gut democratic institutions, principles, and ideals.
Brown concludes with a section regarding the possibilities of “redemocratizing” in an age of neoliberalism
« Does the poor fit of popular rule with the contemporary age add up to a brief for abandoning left struggles for democracy and soliciting left creativity in developing new political forms? Or does it, instead demand sober appreciation of democracy as an important ideal, always unavailable to materialization? Ought we to affirm that democracy (like freedom, equality, peace, and contentment) has never been realizable, yet served (and could still serve?) as a crucial counter to an otherwise wholly dark view of collective human possibility? Or perhaps democracy, like liberation, could only ever materialize as protest and, especially today, ought to be formally demoted from a from of governance to a politics of resistance.
I am genuinely uncertain her. What I am sure of, however, is that this is not a time for sloganeering that averts our glance from the powers destroying the conditions for democracy. Encomiums from left philosophers and activists to “deepen democracy,” “democratize democracy,” “take back democracy” “pluralize democracy” or invest ourselves in a “democracy to come . . .” will only be helpful to the extent that they reckon directly with these powers. We require honest and deep deliberation about what constitutes minimal thresholds of democratic power sharing, whether and why we still believe in democracy, whether it is a viable form for the twenty-first century, and whether there are any nonchilling alternatives that might be more effective in holding back the dark. Is there some way the people could have access to the powers that must be modestly shared for us to be modestly self-legislating today? Is the freedom promised by democracy something humans want or could be taught to want again? Is this freedom likely to yield the good for the world? What kind of containment or boundaries does democracy require, and if these are not available, is democracy still possible? If we were able to arrive at answers to these questions, there still remains the most difficult one: how the demos could identify and reach for the powers to be handled in common if democracy is to become anything more than a gloss of legitimacy for its inversion. »
January 25th, 2011 at 10:52 am
Jean-Luc Nancy on Finite and Infinite Democracy
“The power drive outstrips or surpasses power, while at the same time seeking power for its own sake. The surpassing of power is the very principle of democracy—but as its truth and grandeur (indeed its majesty), not as its annihilation.”—Jean-Luc Nancy
Jean Luc-Nancy, in his essay “Finite and Infinite Democracy,” measures the difference between democracy as a form of rule and as a human end.
In this passage, Nancy explores democracy relationship with power:
« To resume then: the problem democracy has with power is its innate reluctance to use or wield power of the “exterior” kind, the kind that, when used, makes starkly evident the absence of the kind of symbolism of which feudal allegiance and national unity and all religions, civic or not, were and are such potent bearers. From this perspective, the true, longed-for name of democracy, the name that it did in fact engender and that was its horizon for 150 years, was communism. Whether that dreaded word belongs entirely in and to the past is something I don’t intend to go into here. But I do interpret communism, again from this perspective, as an expression of society’s drive to be more than a society—to be a community with a symbolic truth of its own. That was the idea behind the word, if you can even call it an idea; it certainly wasn’t a concept in the strict sense, more of an urge or impulse of thought impelling democracy to interrogate its own essence and ultimate purpose….
The fact that power organizes, manages, and governs—that in itself is not a reason to condemn its demarcation into a separate sphere. Hence, no matter how “communist” we may wish we were, we are today having to reckon with the necessity, the need, for the State. Problems like international law and the limits of classical sovereignty are concomitants of the need for the State, not objections to it.
This is not a call for us to resign ourselves to the inevitable. There is more to power than just a basic imperative of government. Power is a kind of desire, an impulse to dominate and a corresponding impulse to submit. We cannot reduce all the phenomena (political, symbolic, cultural, intellectual, verbal, or visual) of power to the mechanistic play of forces incompatible with morality or with the ideal of a just and fraternal community. Yet disapproval of that kind always taints our analysis of power and its forms. This is reductive and ignores the difference between the power impulse and the mere urge to wreak death and destruction….
Of course political power is meant to protect social life, even to the extent of challenging and altering its inherited arrangements. But that’s the point. Power is in place to enable societized human beings to work out their own goals for themselves, goals over which power as such is powerless: the endless ends of meaning (les fins sans fin du sens), of meanings, of forms, of intensities of desire. The power drive outstrips or surpasses power, while at the same time seeking power for its own sake. The surpassing of power is the very principle of democracy—but as its truth and grandeur (indeed its majesty), not as its annihilation. »
January 26th, 2011 at 11:05 am
Jacques Ranciere on Democracies Against Democracy
“It is not in the least evident to me that democracy enjoys total unquestioning support. Things were different during the cold war, when it was democracy versus totalitarianism. But since the Berlin Wall fell, what we’ve witnessed in the countries we call “the democracies” has been a mistrustful and faintly or openly derisive attitude toward democracy.” —Jacques Rancière
In Democracy in What State? , Jacques Rancière is interviewed examines some of the threats to democracy as well as some of its dangers. Below is an excerpt from his interview.
You dissent from the view that today there isn’t anyone who isn’t an adherent, a firm supporter, of democracy. Perhaps it’s because you conceive of democracy quite differently from the way most people do.
Jacques Ranciere: The answer is twofold. In the first place, it is indeed my position that democracy is irreducible to either a form of government or a mode of social life. Second, even granting the so-called ordinary sense of the word democracy, it is not in the least evident to me that democracy enjoys total unquestioning support. Things were different during the cold war, when it was democracy versus totalitarianism. But since the Berlin Wall fell, what we’ve witnessed in the countries we call “the democracies” has been a mistrustful and faintly or openly derisive attitude toward democracy. In Hatred of Democracy I tried to show that a large part of the dominant discourse is working in one way or another against democracy. Take for example the debates in France surrounding the elections of 2002 or the referendum on the European constitution in 2005. We heard all this talk about the democratic catastrophe, about irresponsible individuals, about all these little consumers pondering great national choices as though they were shopping for perfume or something. What all this led to in the end was that the constitution was not resubmitted to the popular vote. Indeed we saw a huge display of distrust of the popular vote. Yet the popular vote is part of the official definition of democracy. We heard the same old line coming from people like Daniel Cohn-Bendit: that democracy brought Hitler to power and so on. Among those regarded as intellectuals the dominant view is that democracy is the rule of the preformatted individual consumer, it is mediocracy, the rule of the media. You find the same stance from the right to the far left, from Alain Finkielkraut to Tikkun.
Wendy Brown is the Heller Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent books are Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in an Age of Identity and Empire and Edgework: Critical Essays in Knowledge and Politics.
Jean-Luc Nancy is professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Strasbourg and a student of Lyotard and Derrida.
Jacques Rancière is professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Paris. A collaborator of Althusser, his major works include The Future of the Image and The Politics of Aesthetics.
Kristin Ross is professor of comparative literature at New York University and the author of the award-winning Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture.
Slavoj Zizek is a professor at the Institute for Sociology, Univeristy of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and at the European Graduate School. His books include Living in the End Times, What Does a Jew Want? Arguing for an End to an Artificial Conflict, and The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?.
Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaid, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, Kristin Ross, and Slavoj Zizek, Democracy in What State?, Columbia University Press, January, 2011
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