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  • Democracy and the Divine
  • Anne Norton (bio)

When I spoke at the roundtable on “We are all democrats now,” I spoke from notes, drawing on several aspects of the work I’m now engaged in. In writing the paper after the fact, I have tried to make a virtue of a lack. Surely my thinking has altered because of what was said there. I am especially mindful of a call and a warning. Neve Gordon’s call for us to think again about anarchism spoke to my own silent thinking and reading. Antonio Vasquez-Arroyo reminded us to remember that democracy has enemies and that we must be steadfast and unrelenting before them.

Wendy Brown’s title for this panel, “We are all democrats now” has a fierce irony. There are few democrats now, fewer still, I suspect, in the academy. Philosophers we might have trusted have fled from the defense of democracy. Derrida’s late work exiled democracy to an uncertain, always deferred future. Democracy could be found only in the company of the rioting shebab of the banlieux, who were, those rogues, that canaille, too “close to democracy.” Their society was suspect.1 Democracy had to be saved from these, the poor and disenfranchised, who were closest to it. Derrida’s project should be familiar to us, since it has been seen often enough. His advice followed the example set by the Turkish, Argentine Chilean and Pakistani militaries: to save democracy from itself by taking up arms against the democrats.2

Derrida was hardly alone in this. The democratic politics of Muslims in Europe and the Middle East have been opposed by philosophers from Rawls to Zizek; few questions have so united this intellectually diverse assembly. They do not, however, provide adequate reasons for us to accept it. We might instead align ourselves with the democratic canaille, and see the stone that the builders refused again, become the cornerstone.

We might begin by reconsidering our enmities. The threat to democracy does not come not from Islam have claimed, from demagogues or technology or the decline of moral virtue in the citizens. The greatest threat to democracy, to our democracy, (the only one we may properly concern ourselves with) is liberalism.3 In this country, at this time, the most dangerous enemies of democracy are liberals: those liberal theorists and liberal activists who distrust democracy and wish to constrain it. Derrida’s unease with a Muslim, all too Muslim democracy sent democracy into exile, but his earlier work shows us where its enemies are.

Liberalism has acted on democracy as a supplement in Derrida’s sense. Liberalism adds only to replace. Liberalism and republicanism were once presented as supplements to democracy in the simple sense. They comprised provisions and procedures that would protect the rights of minorities and dissidents from governmental repression and the tyranny of the majority; protect democracy from demagoguery.

Sheldon Wolin shows in Democracy, Inc. how the institutions and practices that Americans regarded as furnishing defenses against totalitarianism—and other forms of authoritarian domination—have failed liberal democracies. We have had confidence that the free market, modern science, and technological innovation would protect democracy, and prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few. This confidence was hardly rash, it is supported by a theoretical canon, by the disciplines of history and political science, and by the common sense—and experience—of many generations; but it is tragically misplaced. These have not only failed to defend us: they have become the means and media of what Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.”4

Reliance on the free market to spread wealth (and power with it) has concentrated power in private hands. The free press, under the conditions of the (nominally) free market becomes gatekeeper and censor. Rather than serving as a vehicle for the expression (much less the contest) of diverse ideas, the press comes to define the inadmissible and absurd that lie outside a small range of opinion. That range of opinion shown by the press and the broadcast media is far narrower than the range of opinion in civil society, or among the people. Science and technology, including the social sciences, which were once...

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