Rethinking Democracies


The vigorous debate over the nature of democracy ranges from long-standing indigenous practices and rural practices in illiterate communities of the global south to civil society perspectives on state policies to hotly contested Eurocentric presumptions about nation-states. In these debates there is little consensus, an absence that perhaps is one mark of an active democracy.

For this blog considerations might best begin with the indigenous democratic structures (204) that still persist through long, hard decades under the onslaught of European practices.  Gayatri Spivak finds these structures range from community structures of responsibility (“Righting Wrongs” 182, 198), ethical imagination and ethical imperatives (198, 207), rituals of hierarchical order (219-20), and lines of conflict resolution (208). Spivak also includes notions that are cognate to European-derived practices, such as conceptions of human dignity as an enjoyment of rights (219), an imagination that sees the law as an expression of the community (207), and the practices of parliamentary democracy (204).  These practices are often found in subaltern groups outside of or marginal to the circuits of capitalism, which is one way that they have maintained their efficacy.

One of the clearest ways to recognize the stakes of the ongoing debate over democracy is to examine notions of democracy among social movements that contest national claims to be democratic. Even in cases outside of classic separatist or independence struggles, movement participants often call for a deepening or strengthening of democracy in what might otherwise appear to be the very homeland(s) of democracy, such as France, the United States, England, or Haiti. Among critics of French democracy, Alain Badiou sees parliamentary democracy as currently practiced as “turning the spectacle of the economy into the object of an apathetic (though obviously unstable) public consensus… drag[ing participants] down into a kind of belligerent impotence.” Jacques Rancière likewise finds that the statist government functions that are called democracy are in his view a system pillaging the public interest to satisfy the insatiable appetites of state and economic oligarchs (72-3).

The piquiteros in Argentina, South Korean farmers at the Cancun WTO meetings, and the Zapatistas in Mexico argue that the nations that claim to practice democracy often perform only a travesty of democracy benefitting political oligarchs rather than citizens. These perspectives make clear how democracy may be threatened by the economics of globalization and the military and domestic surveillance onslaught under the War on Terror that benefit political elites while subjecting ordinary citizens to further loss of economic and political agency and autonomy.

Many critics reject those forms of democracy that allow for what Carl Schmitt has called “states of exception,” as in state practices where rights are suspended or populations imprisoned in the name of security or the law. These practices, which reinstall the rights of the sovereign that tend towards the totalitarian and autocratic, have been rejected by a wide range of theorists, such as Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière, Claude LeFort, Judith Butler, and others. Feminist such as Patricia Williams and Julia Kristeva and other critics have noted the importance in such “exceptions” of the use of exclusion and abjection that reverses democracy into fascism and produce an Other to the body politic.

Other notions of democracy center on mechanisms for finding consensus among interest groups with differing goals, as in the writings of Jurgen Habermas.  However, the emphasis on consensus has come under question by many commentators who find instead that antagonism and irreducible difference are precisely what is required for democracy.  Those who argue for the centrality of ongoing conflict and a certain contingency to guard against the death of democracy range from the post-Marxists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe to the feminists Ewa Ziarek, Ranu Samantrai, and Anna Yeatman, to William Connolly, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Derrida. A number of approaches to democracy find that the turn to the excluded Other itself is central to practices that work to maintain democratic openness, including Wendy Brown, Alan Keenan, Kim Curtis, Jean-François Lyotard, and Gayatri Spivak.

These critics do not see constitutional forms of electoral governance under a contract-based notion of citizenship as sufficient for democracy, since they do not do not effectively displace the sovereignty of political elites and return it to the general populace. Measures of “full” democracy that look at electoral problems or media censorship or voter intimidation, like the Economic Intelligence Unit or the Democracy Ranking in Vienna or even Freedom House, operate on the assumption that sovereignty has been displaced for centuries in the “advanced” world.  This form of ethnocentric presumption accepts implicitly policies and practices that effectively remove “marginal” groups from full citizenship, put property above citizens, violate constitutions, temporarily set aside rights and legal proceedings under cover of national security, and in other ways erode full democracy. Democracy to come requires that differences be recognizable and all citizens may stake full claim to citizenship in an accountability structure that makes ethics and dignity a reality.

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