The Pure Impurity of Democratic Politics
There is a specter haunting the democracies of the 21st century – the specter of a democracy worthy of the name.
In this moment of revanchist right-wing ascendancy – from Poland to the Phillipines to Honduras to Brazil to these dear United States – we citizens of good democratic polities are told by our elected representatives and their colleagues in the presses, the bureaucracies, the military, and all the other institutions making up the state that “now is the time to stand against dictatorship, now is the time to resist, to stand against fascism, to uphold the American way of freedom and democracy!” But a strange thing happens as this message continues – we are told that the reasons our freedom and democracy are under threat is that we have abused our freedom unwisely and that our dear democracy (the greatest in the world!) has availed itself of too much democracy! We are warned now – “Look at Brexit! Look at Trump! How can we trust decisions to the people when the people make such mistakes!”
To call this contradiction or hypocrisy, although accurate, seems beside the point, as it does not bring us closer to an understanding of these conservative forces standing against movements of radical change. The situation can be clarified through a discussion of the diverging projects and concepts hidden in this word ‘Democracy’. Literally it means ‘rule by the people’, but the question of who exactly is contained by this phrase ‘the people’ and who is left out is not answered by this definition. This is the place and the motion of politics. And if the state claims there is “too much democracy” at play, what is excessive here? Is there too much of the people, or is the people pushing beyond where it should go?
In this essay, after presenting of several high profile instances of anti-democratic rhetoric in recent American media publications, I will turn to a short text by the philosopher Jacques Rançière – “Hatred of Democracy” – that will help us better understand this political form defined by the excess, and why it inspires such distaste in those who desire a stable and ordered oligarchy. Ultimately, I will argue that understanding the sources of this hatred is necessary for all who wish to push beyond the forces it consumes.
Why exactly should we be afraid of democracy in this young year of 2018? The public orators trained in all the best and costliest schools shall tell us why.
As US President Donald Trump secured a strong hold on the Republican nomination in the spring of 2016, venerable commentator and sometime phrenologist Andrew Sullivan published a piece titled with this very argument. He described Trump’s norm-breaking and intense appeal to the basest mass instincts as “an extinction-level event” for our liberal democracy and constitutional government, and argued that we need to defend our democracy with a strengthening of the bureaucratic and administrative apparatus to keep such dangerous demagogues from power.[i]
But Trump was not the only huckster peddling this populist poison into the United States. Andrew Sullivan, in discussing Hilary Clinton’s primary campaign against the social democrat Bernie Sanders, referred to Sanders as “the demagogue of the left”. Echoing this warning, Jamie Kirchick in the LA Times reported with alarm that the left-leaning head of the UK labor party Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly strong showing in the June 2017 British parliamentary elections were “a reminder of the perils of too much democracy”. Kirchick declaims, standing with arch-reactionary Edmund Burke of all people, that amidst the global populist insurgency, our duly elected representatives should depend more upon their own judgment and worry less about the uninformed opinion of the masses.”[ii]
A different but related argument is presented by Mark Lilla, political scientist and former Republican, in a widely read column one week after Trump’s election in November 2017, assigned the reasons for the conservative victory to the population of ‘working class whites’ feeling alienated to the Democrat’s divisive focus on ‘Identity Politics’ and ‘Political Correctness’. For Lilla, the expression of every individual in a public setting dilutes the capacity of the total community to join together as one. What is needed is universal policies focusing on the lived experience of the majority. “As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.” Here we have a division of narrow private identity and universal public problems, and political space and speech should be exclusively devoted to the latter. [iii]
On these readings, democracies are vulnerable for two reasons. The first vulnerability (the fear of Sullivan and Kirchick) is that democracies as a governing structure allow too much control of political decision making to unthinking masses who are not capable of making reasoned judgments. The public is a mob of homogenous rubes led by charismatic charlatans and should never have too much power. The second vulnerability (the fear of Lilla) is that democracies encourage an unhelpful and self-dissolving tendency toward identity-groups and distraction of the country from its shared purpose of universal betterment. Under these doubly contradictory arguments it is maintained that 1 democratic states must be supported by anti-democratic power in order not to fall prey to anti-democratic power, which is a driving force in the world because 2 democratic society leads to a universal mob mentality destroying the minorities while dissolving the unities of shared communal values and national humanism.
These confusing strands of contradiction can be forced into a more clarifying light with the aid of Rançière’s text. Published in French in 2006 and translated later that year by Steve Corcoran, “Hatred of Democracy” traces the development of these contradictions and vitriolic animosities from Plato’s Republic and the contemporaneous slave-holding democracies of the Greek city states through the revolutions of the late 18th century to the contemporary situation sketched above. Portions of his text on the situation in France in 2006 are irrelevant to our purposes here, but his analysis of the marriage of technocratic liberal rule ‘by the best’ and imperial destruction of anyone and everyone resistant to global capitalist hegemony has only intensified and globalized in the intervening years.
Rançière reminds us that the animus so present within official state discourse (the titular hatred of democracy) is nothing new, drawing our attention to the truism that “democracy is the worst of all governments except for all the others.” But this hatred has intensified in the last thirty years, to the point that this anti-democratic passion has reached a more alarming stage –
“Democratic government, it says, is bad when it is allowed to be corrupted by democratic society, which wants for everyone to be equal and for all difference s to be respected. It is good, on the other hand, when it rallies individuals enfeebled by democratic society to the vitality of war in order to defend the values of civilization, the values pertaining to the clash of civilizations. The thesis of the new hatred of democracy can be succinctly put: there is only one good democracy, the one that represses the catastrophe of democratic civilization.”[iv]
For the catastrophe to be avoided (and for all these commentators, there is no higher goal), the medicine of oligarchy must be applied to the democratic world. The catastrophe comes by many names and guises – authoritarianism, totalitarianism, tyranny of the majority, populism – but Rançière provides a compelling case that such binary oppositions between democracy and the official enemy of the day mask more fundamental contradictions internal to democratic discourse, in order that oligarchic domination may continue undisturbed in the shadows.
Rançière seeks clarification of these hidden conflicts within democratic discourse by pushing back into the founding text of Western political science – Plato’s Republic. He is led to this text by essentialist arguments about the dangers of democracy found in the works French academics Jean-Claude Milner, François Furet, and Benny Lévy, arguments that declare the root of Revolutionary and Stalinist terror, even of the mass execution of Jews, gypsies, communists, and so many other populations in Nazi Germany in the basic ideas of Democracy and universal, abstract freedom. Lévy places the origins of these atrocities directly at the ancient, cracked doorstep of Plato’s political treatise, specifically in his rejection of all governmental structures organized by faith, familial ties, or military prowess. As Rançière characterizes Levy’s argument: “The democratic crime against the order of kinship is above all political crime…an organization of the human community without any relation to a God-the-father. Under the name democracy, what is being implicated and denounced is politics itself.”[v] Although Plato decried democracy on many of the grounds listed above (Andrew Sullivan quotes The Republic directly in his call for a modern oligarchy), this position, by pulling away from a pastoral dominance of a single leader or priest over a small and devoted flock of less worthy humans, Plato opens the door for all the horrors of populist modernity.
Plato sees the ‘danger’ posed by this devaluation of traditional values, and attempts to create a fable to replace that of the divine line of kings, descending from a glorious founder presumably related to the all-powerful gods, and in his articulation of a Republic devoted to the pursuit of individual and communal justice he provides a new fable, one with deep resonance in our contemporary situation – the gods have marked the best souls in the city with gold, the intermediate are with silver, and the worst with iron. The golden souls are the philosopher kings, the silver souls have administrative duties, and the iron perform physical labor – everyone stands in there place, but the places are determined by devotion to the rule of the Good and the Just.
This kind of principle, dividing populations and tasks and space and time into segmentations of public/private, noble/ignoble, etc. and providing every individual their proper task and place, is referred to in Rançière as ‘Arkhe’ – the Greek word for both commandment and commencement. He notes, following Hannah Arendt, that this combination signifies “the unity of the two. Arkhe is the commandment of he who commences, of what comes first…the ideal is thus defined of a government which consists in realizing the principle by which the power of governing commences, of a government which consists in realizing en acte the legitimacy of its principle.” At every moment that the governing structures of the state are brought into question, the very temporal existence of the state is at stake and could disappear, without constant and vigilant effort being put in place to forestall these challenges. In one respect, while abhorrent, the efforts taken by political parties to limit the entrance of further parties into the election process of a parliamentary system is understandable and even rational for the larger process of ensuring that those who govern have received all the proper forms and training through the expected channels – the validation of technocratic legitimacy. In another respect, this utterly and completely removes the second form of validation in a parliamentary system – the validation through democratic legitimacy. This necessitates the most baroque operations of closed primary policies and gerrymandering at the dullest local levels of state operation in order to control the system without giving away the game.[vi]
But this structuring of the state according to the ‘arkhe’ does not simply affect the formal layers of the government. It also provides a striation of every aspect of individual and communal human interaction – “Those who are capable of governing are those who have the dispositions that make them appropriate for the role, those who are capable of being governed are those who have dispositions complementary to the former.”[vii] The fear and hatred bestowed by the chief technocrats of our world upon minorities and the poor and the underprivileged whenever they speak outside the narrow tones prescribed by Lilla, and co., stems directly from this quality found in every state – the desire of the privileged and wealthy to keep what is currently theirs, above all to sustain the understanding of the world which places them at the top of all thinkable hierarchies.
Rançière states forthrightly that under this schematic every state is governed by an ‘arkhe’ and therefore, functionally, an oligarchy. “Societies, today as yesterday, are organized by the play of oligarchies. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as democratic government…The 'power of the people'…is what divides government from itself by dividing society from itself. It is therefore also what separates the exercise of government from the representation of society.”[viii] A state can be more or less open to democratic disruption, and so “in this precise sense, the constitutional forms and practices of oligarchic governments can be said to be more or less democratic.”[ix] But every state is an oligarchy, so to fail to exercise this democratic advantage at any opportunity is to invite the powers of the wealthy or privileged to block of
If we want to be democrats, we must resist the division of sensible reality into a public sphere where political action is relevant and a private sphere where we should keep our mouths shut if we are not a proper expert. Democracy is that which brings into question all such distinctions between public and private. It only exists in the unpredictable irruption of those who have no place demanding and taking a place within society. Democracy, in its pure form, is only and always an action drawing into question all purities and clarities which partition a state as a sensible world.
It is this essential and unpredictable process of pure impurification which the constitutionalists of the 18th century attempted to prevent from reappearing with their complicated bicameral structures and divisions of power between multiple branches of government and the enshrining of property rights within the private sphere as unquestionable facts of the world. Rançière does us the great favor of reminding us that these layers of representation between a popular expression of that which was previously inexpressible and the functional governing of a society which goes by the names of “republic” or “representation” was once seen as exactly the opposite of “democracy” – “ 'Representative democracy' might appear today as a pleonasm. But it was initially an oxymoron.”[x]
The questioning of these oxymorons put in place to sustain an unstable state of affairs by the power of a popular movement devoted to meaningful political change (and we should remember that the United States did not last a century until the civil war brought the unrepresentative nature of this ‘representative democracy’ into brutal focus) stands at a complicated remove from the objects of questioning. In Rançière’s formulations, they are “always beneath and beyond these forms. Beneath, because these forms cannot function without referring in the last instance to that power of incompetents who form the basis of and negate the power of the competent, to this equality which is necessary to the very functioning of the inegalitarian machine. Beyond, because the very forms that inscribe this power are constantly reabsorbed, through the play itself of the governmental machine, into the 'natural' logic of titles to govern, which is a logic of indistinction of the public and the private.”[xi]
And this questioning of all heretofore ‘natural’ systems of the public and the private reminds contemporary readers of that odd characteristic of Athenian democracy – the election of representatives was handled by lot. This interruption of random chance can seem quaint to a 21st century reader, but it solves a purpose that political thinkers since the 18th century have forgotten almost completely – how can those who seek power for the sake of their own personal gain or prestige (the most untrustworthy of all!) be kept from attaining power? This principle of governance by “any random person at all”, not because of relation to the last ruler, not because they know the most, not even because they were first in line, but simply because their name was picked out of a fancy hat, this principle, which properly speaking, is the erasure of any principle at all, is the anarchic core of democracy for Rançière. And he points out that it echoes in a strange manner with Plato’s ideal Republic: “The philosopher-king has at least this point in common with the people-king: some divine chance must make him king without him having desired it.”[xii]
A note of caution: as a popular movement begins to make itself known, to engage in this radical action called democracy, it must be prepared to face unbearably powerful resistance. However important the capacity for envisioning future worlds beyond the realm of the immediately possible, democratic political movements are not utopian. Political movements acquire their claim to universal truths only when they are situated in a material reality. And the force these universal political claims push and struggle against is the very structure of the world – “partition of the sensible” in Rançière’s theoretical language – which works to make known and knowable everything within the space of a state or a community. But the objects these bureaucrats and tax collectors and border agents are attempting to fully account for is essentially an uncountable, uncompleteable set. ‘The people’ always remains an open and endlessly contested space. There will always be someone left out, someone exploited, someone left to drown in the ocean because their paperwork was out of order. There will always be someone demanding recognition. And when such a someone draws into question this exclusionary partition of the sensible by utilizing their right to speak or vote or sit on a bus in a situation that deems them not to have those rights, then the forces of repression come to shut them down. The conservative response will be to lock them away and exclude them from society. They are disturbing the fiction that the world is good, so they must be destroyed.. The liberal response, kinder but no less violent, will be to place the confusing specimen in a holding cell until the proper committees on taxonimization and census reform can determine whether this is an identity worthy of including in the tapestry of reasonable multicultural tolerance, whether it can be woven into the quilt of our grand melting pot without waking the sleeping baby of the working white consultant classes who love to bowl and watch all the right television programs.
This exclusionary and taxonimizing force analyzed in Rançière’s books and essays is named ‘The Police. This does not mean simply the cops, but all the forces listed throughout this essay – the representatives, journalists, intelligence analysts, philosophers, anyone who tells you to sit down and wait your turn, to stop looking at the poor person. The police are those who dismiss the demands of those who declare “I have been treated unjustly, I have not been seen, I am aggrieved and demand to be a full part of this world which I live within.” Broadly speaking (and these cops are all egregiously broad), the police exist as the State’s whole array of weapons and forces directed toward the task of retaining its rigid existence in the world as constant and all-encompassing and removing any disruptions to that world.
Rançière writes in his essay “Ten Theses on Politics”: “Politics is specifically opposed to the police. The police is a 'partition of the sensible' whose principle is the absence of a void and of a supplement.”[xiii] In a very real way, this democracy so hated by Lilla and Sullivan is exactly that motion and action of true politics standing against the police’s buttressing of the reality of the state. It acquires it’s meaning and purpose in its combat against the defenders of an unjust State. We have passed from the vague and contradictory oppositions between Good Democracy and Bad Authoritarianism/ Fascism/Totalitarianism/Populism, where Good and Bad fit neatly into whatever just so happens to be the realpolitik enemies of the Western nation-states. We see now a critical distinction at the very heart of questions of political change and rebellion – the distinction between the state and its police force and those subjects that articulate and defend a change in the governing structures of every aspect of the community, the distinction between those who stand at the top of the society structured by an ‘arkhe’ and those subjects that refuse to accept any structure except that radically unmoored experience of ‘an-arkhe’ in which all who are denied the right to speak or act take up those rights denied them by the state and the police, the rights which are theirs even despite that they are the poor, the weak, the uncounted – that ‘demos’ which is never possible to fully account for.
It might be asked whether this passage from an essentializing opposition between the good democracy and the bad, excessive democracy over Rançière’s opposition between oligarchic devotion to an ‘arkhe’ and democratic anarchy does not simply provide a further idealized, binary opposition, equally useless as an explanatory tool. In this analysis, does ‘democracy’ mean the same thing in ancient Greece and revolutionary France and 2018 New York City? What is holding constant in all these situations that allows us to use the same term to describe liberatory movements within each of them? Rançière would answer these questions by denying that no, democracy does mean “the same thing” in each situation – it acquires meaning only as an active questioning and disputation on specific material realities and so cannot be defined according to any common policies or practices – but that there is one common motion justifying the common name: democracy the ruthless critique of everything which enacts and enforces an inequality within communities of human beings. Democracy is the drawing into question of that which the State treats as unquestionable.
Rançière is fundamentally skeptical that any situation might someday created which will not someday fall into tyranny (a skepticism shared in his own way by Plato), a situation in which resolutely anarchic politics is not needed because no ‘arkhe’ partitions the sensible world, a situation when equality is achieved for all time. This skepticism should not be taken as a nihilistic discouragement of material struggle for political emancipation, but rather a recognition that any share of infinite emancipation is fundamentally based in finite material existence. Everything created will die. Everything created can be improved. This is the terror of that bright and sunny truism – “a better world is possible”. No matter how good the world has been made, no matter how much we have worked and improved, there is always more to do. We must always remember to begin again.
Absolutely the most dispiriting moment of the 2016 presidential campaign was when then Republican candidate Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was countered by Hilary Clinton of the ‘Democratic Party’ with the slogan “America is Already Great”. This defensive mess of sloganeering accepts the fundamental atavistic vision of an ideal America as whole, complete, unified, strong, but only questions its temporality. Instead of relegating this ‘Great America’ to a mythical, fantastical past and declaring it in need of resurrection, no, we are told that it is currently our life, this fantasy is daily life. “Everything is fine!, and since fine is the best of all possible worlds, however miserable this state of affairs is for many human beings, this stable situation is actually great!”
While astonishing numbers of humans die in every existing country (including within this very country, the richest in the history of the world!), we are informed that due to low market price, it simply isn’t worth the wages it would cost our agricultural producers to pick the grain from the fields, so it is left to rot. While we are told to remain calm and honor authority, the war on drugs and crime is revealed every day as a monstrous international project to systematically destroy and hide away the lives of minorities and impoverished populations. This hulking monstrosity grunts through the oval office, through the ICE raids on churches and courthouses and elementary schools, through the streets of the poor and black and undocumented, through the provinces of Indonesia and Israel and Honduras and anywhere else unlucky enough to catch the eye of some aspiring capitalist as a place with something to exploit.
The implicit calls of capitalist foreign policy are explicitized– ‘the police will be used to destroy any project which might get in the way of global capitalist imperial domination’. Elections are overthrown by dictators weekly. Thousands die of preventable disease because they were born in the wrong corner of the world. Ships filled with migrants are forced to sink because of racist fears of ‘racial destabilization’.
But we are told that the world is better than it has ever been before, so we should be happy and stop asking how it might be better than it is. If the lesser evil is better than the worse evil, is it really evil at all?
The choice between “tepid and corrupt status quo” and “revanchist racist warmonger” is purposely created by the oligarchy controlling our world, with its limits on political participation and representation, on third party entrance into voting rolls, on primary participation, and on favorable (or any) coverage w/in the corporate media or the monopolized internet which encompass, facilitate, and increasingly shape our every waking moment with little to no democratic regulation. The liberal technocrats enforcing this limitation are confidant they can contain these forces through their calls for ‘reasonable compromise’ and ‘norm-enforcement’, but perhaps the clearest lesson of the last half decade is that they absolutely will fail at this task. Parliamentary Capitalism will not save you from the problems it itself has conjured into being
If it seems like the representatives who claim to represent your interest, the experts who claim to work in your interest, the police who claim to protect your interest, and the news organizations who claim to tell you what your interest is – if it seems like these figures that present themselves as the quintessential defenders of democracy break out in furious denunciation of democratic activity whenever it seems like it might achieve a meaningfully political presence in the world – if all this seems like a contradiction, there’s actually a pretty simple answer: these figures who defend the parliamentary-capitalist state with its division into public state domination (of the weak and the despised underclasses around the world) and private market domination by the intricate global networks of financial capitalism (of every human without the capacity to live by capital gains), these actually hate that deepest, purest, hidden characteristic of democratic action – the radical questioning of all existing structures that exists when those with no voice speak out themselves and demand to be recognized as human subjects who have been unjustly treated. These representatives of the rigid state of the world as is, these aspiring oligarchs drape themselves in the flags and laurels of the Democratic Constitutional Order, but the ghost of true democracy, that force which has provided the impetus and energy for so many messy popular uprisings of 1776, 1789, 1872, 1917, 1959, on and on, through to the sickly present, this phantom can never be fully exorcized by these forces – the only way to make the ghost disappear is to give in and allow it to live fully once again.
If democracy is to mean anything beyond a rigid and decaying State (and it is an open question at every political moment whether it can do so), we must agree with Rançière that democracy is neither a state of mind nor a form of government. This is not a game of language, a simple play of definitions – this is a statement of principles and a marking out of what we mean by demanding a truly political existence.
We must declare that democracy is that action drawing into question the very partitioning of reality into State/public and Market/private. A meaningfully democratic movement does not seek either the abolition of public existence (libertarianism) or that of individual private existence (totalitarianism/fascism). It seeks rather to draw into question all the forces that cleave the sensible world into these impoverished and impoverishing divisions. The democratic subject is that mass which stands against the police, those forces which clamp down on political action to sustain the State which keeps motion or change from erupting into the world.
And this democratic subject will always and necessarily disappear. Democracy is not a game that can be won, completed, once and for all. If it could be, it wouldn’t be democracy. It is not a stable object, not even a stable state of being. It is resolutely an action, and will disappear the moment you give in to the immutable forces of entropy or try to trap it and stick it firm with a pin.
The gains of the past democratic actions will be institutionalized and these institutions will resist further changes. And at this point the people making up these institutions, this state, however well-intentioned, will recall and repeat this old and unavoidable hatred of democracy. This is normal and understandable (we’re only human, and must not hide from our animality), and we should watch and attempt to resist this entropic eventuality, but it cannot be forestalled by designing a better constitutional state. If we want to defend a life or moment of democracy, we need to understand its frailty and, if possible, take it as a beautiful sign that we have not yet died:
“Democracy is as bare in its relation to the power of wealth as it is to the power of kinship that today comes to assist and to rival it. It is not based on any nature of things nor guaranteed by any institutional form. It is not born along by any historical necessity and does not bear any. It is only entrusted to the constancy of its specific acts. This can provoke fear, and so hatred, among those who are used to exercising the magisterium of thought. But among those who know how to share with anybody and everybody the equal power of intelligence, it can conversely inspire courage, and hence joy.”[xiv]
[i] Sullivan, Andrew. “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.” Daily Intelligencer, 1 May 2016, nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html.
[ii] Kirchick, Jamie. “The British Election Is a Reminder of the Perils of Too Much Democracy.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 9 June 2017, www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kirchick-uk-election-20170609-story.html.
[iii] Lilla, Mark. “The End of Identity Liberalism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/opinion/sunday/the-end-of-identity-liberalism.html.
[iv] Rançière, Jacques. Hatred of Democracy, p. 4. Translated by Steve Corcoran,Verso, 2006.
[v] Ibid, p. 33.
[vi] Ibid, p. 39-40
[vii] Ibid, p. 40
[viii] Ibid. p. 52.
[ix] Ibid. p. 72.
[x] Ibid. p. 53.
[xi] Ibid. p. 54-55.
[xii] Ibid. p. 43.
[xiii] Rançière, Jacques. Ten Theses on Politics. Thesis 7.
[xiv] Hatred of Democracy, p. 97