Exploring the Edges of Democracy
Sometimes modern political theory makes me wonder if there is anything but the "edges" of liberal-democracy. Does liberal-democracy have a core at all? I imagine the modern liberal-democratic state like Akira Kurosawa's famous hidden fortress, and that thinkers like Wendy Brown, Jacques Ranciere, and Slavoj Zizek are all like The Hidden Fortress' General Rokurota, picking away at the edges of the fortification. That being said, there is no doubt that much of the most interesting work in political theory is being done about and/or around the "edges." In this context, Benjamin Arditi's new book, Politics on the Edges of Liberalism: Difference, Populism, Revolution, Agitation, is, at its best, a work that further illuminates the edges around liberalism, and, at its worst, provides a synthesis of previous authors.
Arditi uses a neo-Freudean framework to explain what he calls the "internal periphery" of liberal-democracy. Such internal peripheries are the ironic 'edges' that inspire the monograph's moniker, and, on Arditi's account, are intimately connected to the "center" of liberalism. In this sense the above-mentioned Hidden Fortress analogy is not completely fair: the edge of liberalism is explicitly "a region where the distinction between inside and outside is a matter of dispute and cannot be thought outside a polemic. To speak of politics on the edges of liberalism is to speak of the internal periphery of liberalism." (3-4) Arditi's book is an attempt to understand this periphery. Arditi efficiently examines some of the enduring problems of contemporary political philosophy: difference, populism, agitation and revolution. Using some stylish flourishes, he offers examples ranging from the ancient society of the Greek polis to the postmodern world of identity politics. Given this emphasis, Arditi's work exists nicely within the pantheon of thinkers such as Gramsci, Laclau, Hardt and Negri, Ranciere, Žižek and others. As Arditi's title implies, the text divides its topics—which reflect the afore-mentioned "edges" of liberalism, as well as the extension of the Freudian notion of 'internal periphery'—into four separate categories: postmodern difference (Chapter one), populism (Chapters two and three), agitation (Chapter four) and revolution (Chapter five).
In a move that is strange in an age of "front-loading" consumable products, Arditi's work starts with by far its weakest chapter, which recounts familiar problems of "difference" and the way that it reaffirms the neo-capitalist order. On Arditi's account, the "freedoms" one gets from postmodern notions of identity and difference creates a subject that oscillates between "belonging" and "disorientation," an oscillation which "at least tends to undermine strong, stable, and long-term participation." (26) Arditi also writes that the "endogamous undertones of this celebration [of identity] opens up a scenario of action and a way of conceiving political intervention that make it more difficult to forge horizontal links between particular groups."(14) In other words, identity politics of the postmodern variety makes solidarity a hard-sell.
This critique of "difference" is not unique, and Arditi adds little to the discussion. Thinkers like Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, and Gayatri Spivak have all rendered similar critiques of identity politics, often with greater clarity. Despite the section's lack of originality, Arditi does an admirable job of corralling these thinkers into an aggregate criticism of the politics of difference. Yet Arditi does not seem to append the discussion substantially; even the notion that identity politics is linked to liberalism itself is one that people like Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault have already discussed. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's call for a kind of "equivalence," between oppressed groups (in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy) seems more rigorous and workable than the "oscillation" described by Arditi.
Chapters two and three of Arditi's book discuss populism, and they represent the best sections of the work. Arditi dissects various theories of "populism," arguing that a "spectre of democracy" embodies the "internal periphery of democratic politics." This formulation is interesting in quite a few ways. First, Arditi implies that populism is always on the horizon in a liberal-democratic society. This allows populism to be a kind of empty signifier, possibly what Žižek might call a "zero institution." On Arditi's account, populism can range from totalitarianism to libertarianism; it can be right-wing or left-wing; it can be "democratic" or despotic. Populism is difficult to pinpoint precisely, but Arditi attempts to locate some of its key aspects. For example, populism is a mode of representation that directly incorporates the "demos" into the government and/or it is the "representation" of the "people" by an alluring leader.(60) Conversely, populism is also a kind of silhouette of democracy; in other words, "as a shadow that persists, populism must be conceived as a possibility embedded in the very practice of democracy." (50).
Arditi's take on populism is interesting because it recognizes that for some, populism is the opposite of politics: it implies the lack of compromise. Populism, by necessity, is skeptical of liberalism because liberals tend to be tied to "procedure" rather than outcomes. Of course, liberals are similarly incredulous toward populists' motives; "[liberals] see populism … as a variant of old Caesarism with a democratic dressing."(59) That being said, on Arditi's account, populism is a permanent part of modern politics—both in its democratic and non-democratic forms. In its most potent form, it serves as a politics of representation of the excluded. In this sense, populist representation takes the form of Derrida's notion of a floating signifier, as well as Ranciere's idea of the "excluded" demos. (64) Arditi notes that populists explicitly see themselves as "place-holders" of the "people." (65).
Democracy, on this account, cannot escape the "symptom" of populism. Populism is a drunken guest at a polite party: "He can disrupt table manners and the tacit rules of sociability by speaking loudly, interrupting the conversations of others, and perhaps flirting with them beyond what passes for acceptable cheekiness."(78) Arditi adds that it "is not always easy to get rid of the awkward guest even if the hosts are not particularly happy with him."(78) Democracy always contains the possibility—the shadow—of populism, and consequently of populism's threats of strong-arm tactics and authoritarian government It is truly a shadow, the cinematic technique of horror films. In summary, "Populism can flourish as a fellow traveler of democratic reform movements and put democracy in jeopardy…. Populism can remain within the bounds of democracy, but also reach the point where they enter into conflict and go on their separate ways." (86 – 87).
After his insightful analysis of populism, Arditi's chapters on emancipation, revolution, and agitation disappoint. Arditi argues that revolution itself has fallen out of favor, resulting in a pathological melancholy on the political left. He relies on the work of Rancière, Gramsci, and Derrida to argue that revolutions are often based on disagreements of terms, and actually happen over a gradual period. The inevitable question, as Arditi puts it, is "how radical must the radical restructuring of the cosmos be in order to call it revolutionary?"(117) Overall, Arditi appears skeptical of revolution, but yearns for an understanding of its dynamics. It is unclear whether Arditi's version of a model "revolutionary" is really more Rick Blain than Victor Lazlo.
Though Arditi's work is generally engaging, he is slightly careless in the theoretical terms and rigor of the book. For example, he often confuses and/or substitutes "liberalism" and "democracy," and hence the arguments tend to wander a bit. Also, Arditi fails to mention the work of Spivak in his discussion of difference and populist representation; her thoughts about "strategic essentialism" and the nature of representing the subaltern might have clarified—and bolstered—some of Arditi's arguments. That being said, taken as a whole, Arditi's work is an admirable and worthwhile addition to the theory of the liberal-democracy and its "edges," even if liberalism's "hidden fortress" still remains impenetrate.
J. Maggio is a PhD candidate working in political theory at the University of Florida's Political Science Department; he is interested in the intersection of aesthetics and politics. He is also a graduate of the University of Florida's College of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
J. Maggio is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida in political theory. He is interested in the intersection of political theory, aesthetics, and cultural theory. A member of the Florida Bar Association, J. Maggio is currently completing his dissertation, tentatively entitled In Good Form: An Examination of the Political Dimension of the Formal Qualities of Art and Aesthetics. He can be reached at email@example.com