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  • Democracy and the Foreigner
  • David Owen (bio)
Bonnie Honig, Democracy and the Foreigner (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 2001)

Readers of Bonnie Honig’s previous book Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics will be unsurprised that Democracy and the Foreigner is an intelligent and fascinating work. Its focus on the foreigner-(re)founder opens up a set of important issues concerning the role of the symobolic politics of foreignness and gives voice to a cosmopolitan ethos that seeks to lessen the tensions that pervade contemporary democratic discourses of citizen and foreigner. These readers may be more surprised by the elegance and economy of expression achieved in this book. Be that as it may, this is a perspicuous work — one that makes visible a largely unnoticed yet pervasive dimension of democratic politics, the politics of foreignness, and subjects it to critical reproblematisation — and while I will suggest that there are some non-trivial problems with aspects of Honig’s argument as well as some missed opportunities, this does not detract from my sense that this is an always engaging work.

What problems does foreignness solve for us?’ (p.4): this is Honig’s question. More specifically, she is concerned with the case of democracy’s foreign-(re)founders and the ways in which foreignness acts to manage, in a somewhat double-edged way, certain basic anxieties characteristic of democractic self-rule. Honig considers this topic through three central figures — the foreigner as founder (lawgiver), the foreigner as immigrant, and the foreigner as citizen — before turning to consider the implications of her analyses for democratic theory. Her argument, in brief, is that the politics of foreignness is a site through which acts of (re)founding are accomplished and that exploring ambivalent nature of this politics rather than simply embracing or rejecting foreignness can help to move our thinking beyond a romantic view of democracy towards a more complex but also less prone-to-disappointment view of democratic theory and practice, a view that may be crucial in envisaging a form of cosmopolitanism that simply reproduce or repress (to return) the logic of them and us.


In her consideration of the foreigner as founder, Honig appropriately focuses on Rousseau’s classic discussion of the lawgiver in the Social Contract but also juxtaposes Rousseau’s discussion with Freud’s reflections in Moses and Monotheism and Girard’s in Violence and the Sacred and Job. The aim of this strategy is to complicate and supplement the picture provided by Rousseau and to re-read the Social Contract in terms of these complications. Honig’s crucial first move in this consider of the foreigner as founder is to argue that it is Rousseau’s anxiety about the arbitriness of the people as sovereign that drives him to introduce the foreign lawgiver but that this figure is introduced in terms of an idealised script and at the price of making heteronomy a permanent condition of the polity; this, in turn, drives her move to consider Freud and Girard.

Rousseau’s initial reference to lawgivers (Solon, Numa, Servius) occurs, as Hoing notes, in his discussion of whether the General Will can err and, more specifically, in terms of his concern with the threat posed by factionalism to the production of the General Will. On Honig’s account, Rousseau’s discussion ‘evidences an anxiety that plagues most radical democrats who agitate to give the people power’. This anxiety takes the form of the following paradox: popular sovereignty is meant to solve ‘the problems of (il)legitimacy and arbitrariness’ but ‘once the people have power, that “solution” looks like a problem, for the people, too, can be a source of arbitrariness.’ (p.19, my italics). Developing this line of thought, Honig suggests that Rousseau’s anxiety is betrayed by his oscillation between a view of ‘the process of general willing as a process of public deliberation’ and a view that sees public discussion as fanning ‘the flames of factionalism’ and takes the general will to be produced ‘by way of silent introspection’ (p.20). In support of her reading, Honig points to two chapters in The Social Contract and I take it that the relevant passages are...

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