“Welcome Back, Democracy!”Headline, article on Obama election,
The Beaver, Student Union Newspaper of the London School of Economics
The general will is always just, but the judgement which guides it is not always wise.Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Democracy as Empty Signifier
Democracy has historically unparalleled global popularity today yet has never been more conceptually footloose or substantively hollow. Perhaps democracy’s current popularity depends on the openness and even vacuity of its meaning and practice--an empty signifier to which any and all can attach their dreams and hopes. Or perhaps capitalism, modern democracy’s non-identical birth twin and always the more robust and wily of the two, has finally reduced democracy to a “brand,” that late modern twist on commodity fetishism which wholly severs a product’s saleable image from its content.1 Or perhaps, in the joke on Whiggish history wherein the twenty-first century features godheads warring with an intensity presumed vanquished by modernity, democracy has emerged as a new world religion–not a specific form of political power and culture but an alter before which the West and its admirers worship and the divine purpose through which Western imperial crusades are shaped and legitimated.
Democracy is not only exalted across the globe today but across the political spectrum. Along with post-Cold War regime changers, former Soviet subjects still reveling in entrepreneurial bliss, apostles of neoliberalism, and never-say-die liberals, we of the EuroAtlantic Left are also mesmerized by the brand. We hail democracy to redress Marx’s abandonment of the political after his turn from Hegelian thematics (or we say that radical democracy was what was meant by communism all along), we seek to capture democracy for yet-untried purposes and ethoi, we write of “democracy to come”, “democracy of the uncounted”, “democratizing sovereignty,” “democracy workshops,” “pluralizing democracy” and more. Berlusconi and Bush, Derrida and Balibar, Italian communists and Hamas–we are all democrats now. But what is left of democracy?
Rule by the Demos
It cannot be said often enough: liberal democracy, EuroAtlantic modernity’s dominant form, is only one variant of the sharing of political power connoted by the venerable Greek term. Demos + cracy signifies rule by the people and contrasts with aristocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy, tyranny, and also with a condition of being colonized or occupied. From its etymological and historical origins, no compelling argument can be made that democracy inherently entails representation, constitutions, deliberation, participation, free markets, rights, universality, or even equality. Rather, the term carries a simple and purely political claim that the people rule themselves, that the whole rather than a part or an Other is politically sovereign. In this regard, democracy is an unfinished principle–it specifies neither what powers must be shared for the people’s rule to be practiced, how this rule is to be organized, nor by which institutions or supplemental conditions it is enabled or secured. These unspecified features of democracy are among those that Western political thought has been haggling over since the beginning. Put another way, even as theorists from Aristotle, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Marx through Rawls and Wolin argue (differently) that democracy requires the maintenance of precise conditions, rich supplements, and artful balances, the term itself does not stipulate any of these. Perhaps this is another reason why contemporary enthusiasm for democracy can so easily abjure the extent to which its object has been voided of content.
If it is hard to know with certainty why democracy is so popular today, we may still adumbrate the forces reducing even liberal democracy (parliamentary, bourgeois or constitutional democracy) to a shell of its former self. How has it come to pass that in parts of the globe that have long traveled under the sign of democracy, the people are not, in any sense, ruling themselves? What constellation of late modern powers and processes have eviscerated the substance of even democracy’s limited modern form?
First, if corporate power has long abraded the promise and practices of popular political rule, that process has now reached an unprecedented pitch.2 It is not simply a matter of corporate wealth buying (or being) politicians and overtly...