July 15, 2018

Misnaming Democracy: Responsibility to Others


In modern political practice, democracy has frequently degenerated into self-interested political parties aggressively pursuing narrow benefits against competing parties and social groups. Party democratic practice is determined by interest groups aligned along political divisions often shaped by class and race. This is not a new problem. It is also not a local problem. As one British commentator has pointed out, “No constitutional system should allow a partisan group to hijack the interests of the whole.” Individual interests drive party divisions. Party interests become poison.

Narrow interests fighting over the levers of democratic practice can only cause problems. In just one recent week this month, July, 2018, a blizzard of reports of serious and even foundational problems for party democracies found their way into news reports: courts are increasingly polarized politically in Poland and the U.S.,  the legislature is threatening multi-party systems in Romania, and elected leaders aligning themselves with autocrats across multiple nations.
Those who can conceive of democracy only in the terms of party politics are misnaming democracy, since electoral party democracy is not its only form. Partisan monopoly claims on democracy attacks a broad-based conception of “the people” that founds democracy. By dividing “the people” among different interests, liberal European democracy and its many global cognate forms is prevented from benefitting society at large.
Once again governance turns out to benefit a small sector of society, just as aristocracy and monarchy once did. In different ages and sites, democratic government in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries tilted towards different groups. In the last 50 years across the globe democracy has most benefited the wealthy.
Yet democracy can serve the interests of all. Gayatri Spivak has urged readers to adopt a notion of democracy that benefits the planet. In naming “planetarity” as a goal for democracy, she plays with the undecidability of the term, which may mean either all people of the globe, nor limited by party affiliation or wealth or race, or it may mean the globe of lands and seas beyond the human, or it may refer to both simultaneously.
                For Spivak, democracy becomes a form of responsibility to our others, those against whom we define ourselves as individuals, in identitarian groups of gender or race or class or reproductive heteronormativity, or as nations. Persistent interruptions of these normalized frames for understanding democracy requires re-imagining our citizen selves as we might be seen by those for whom full democratic participation is not even a dream, those who have learned from centuries of abuse under electoral democracy to not even dare hope for full participation. When these figures, found in every democracy under the sun, come to haunt our day-to-day democratic practice, then an ethics of responsibility to democracy’s others becomes possible.
These possibilities may be unimaginable within the limits of the entrenched norms and power inequities of party politics misnamed as democracy. But they are still possible means of building relationship with the others of the middle-class citizenry, of reframing democracy in terms that serve “the people.” Such a responsible practice takes democracy beyond benevolence and the savior complex, and beyond helping those we see in our self-interest as less than ourselves, to carry out politics for all.
In giving attention to specific others often blocked from full democratic participation, Spivak draws on aboriginal, pre-capitalist approaches to planetary care of the other as a supplement to Reason (344). The emphasis in these democratic practices on care for all produces strategies to control corporate-dominated globalization by interrupting its logics and (lack of) ethics. Rather than allowing democracy to fix interests in narrow terms defined by established interest groups, responsibility to others disrupts capitalist and identity obsessions with private gain as a type of training.
Rather than taking the modern nation-state as an unquestioned reality, Spivak also suggests that we see it as a deceptive cipher hiding the work of the nation-state against redistributive social justice. Once we recognize this problem, then we can begin recoding democracy into something other than allegiance to those who would demand we agree to elected leaders giving away national wealth to global corporations. (281)
Some have suggested that the current troubles of democratic practice in the U.S. are not new developments, but it may reflect outcomes of particular histories of compromise and contingency as narrow interests worked to bend the interests of “the people” in their favor. Depending on their particular perspective, different critics have defined democracy’s troubles in various ways. For those who feel that electoral democracies have been hijacked by the economic interests of large industries, the problems with democracy have their origins in the last century. Other critics have argued that democracy was profoundly compromised since the founding of the United States, since its practices were characterized by eighteenth century’s limits of the vote and other unequal practices, one saying the U.S. was flying “the false flag of democracy.”  
Moving away from party politics as the only measure of democracy can take place on many fronts and different scales. Individuals can keep their responsibility to others in mind when practicing democracy in organizations and neighborhoods and many other sites in addition to the ballot box. Because of the well-known risks of narrow partisanship, many electoral governments have installed safeguards and counterweights. Some of which invite or even require responsibility to others, such as safety nets and welfare policies, referendums and term limits, town hall meetings and consensus.
Each of us must determine our ethics through day-to-day democratic practices, and responsibility to Others is one way to make ethics central to politics. By keeping our others in mind, even those others who we do not yet know, we may keep the future open for new possibilities, and even for the impossible, that which is outside of our horizons and is limited only by our imaginations.