Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Scandal of Democracy

Jodi Dean has an interesting post about a book called Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Rancière. She refers to there being "something appealing in his discussion of the scandal of democracy". This is the second time I've seen this phrase used, "the scandal of democracy". What does it mean? Does it mean that, from the standpoint of those used to possessing power, the idea that power is not naturally held by anybody, that no one is "entitled to govern", that this is scandalous?

Jodi expresses some confusion with Rancière's idea that, as she puts it, "justification and legitimacy [of power] presuppose an underlying equality". Rancière seems to suggest that democracy, in a sense, rests on chance, since it is only chance that has one group ruling over another. This "chance" implies an underlying equality. I recall that Chomsky has said on numerous occasions that any kind of authority must be justified. It must be justified because there is no natural reason why, for example, you should have authority over me. This requirement that authority (or politics) be justified points to equality. She quotes Rancière:
[there is] no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without having to recognize the irreducibility of equality needed for inequality to function. From the moment obedience has to refer to a principle of legitimacy, from the moment it is necessary for there to be laws that are enforced qua laws and institutions embodying the common of the community, commanding must presuppose the equality of the one who commands and the one who is commanded. ... Inegalitarian society can only function thanks to a multitude of egalitarian relations.
This makes some sense to me (that at base we are equal, and that, therefore, authority must be legitimized). I would add that even the most authoritarian rule relies on the consent of the governed. Jodi observes that this "equality" is "trivial" since it can serve to merely "cement" more "fundamental inequalities"--i.e., those inequalities that actually obtain in real life.

I'm getting ready to set out what I believe are some first principles about democracy, and some implications thereof. This kind of discussion helps. I may need to seek out some of Rancière's work, who I'm only now learning of for the first time. (Add him to the list!)

In the comments to Jodi's post, Amish Lovelock refers to a New Left Review article from last year by Peter Hallward, which examines Rancière's "radical egalitarian politics"; the piece apparently compares Rancière to Chomsky in this regard. Of course, the article is subscription-only, but this is from the end of the freely available snippet:
Against those who argue that only the appropriately educated or privileged are authorized to think and speak, Rancière’s most fundamental assumption is that everyone thinks. Everyone shares equal powers of speech and thought, and this ‘equality is not a goal to be attained but a point of departure, a supposition to be maintained in all circumstances.’
I like this, and I think I may need to either subscribe to the NLR, or at least buy this article. In any event, this idea is one of central importance to my own conceptions of politics in general, and democracy in particular. I will be returning to this.


Anonymous said...

"A democracy is a society dedicated to the proposition that power is often abused and should be entrusted to officials in limited amounts only": Aldous Huxley- Brave New World Revisited

As these officials in Western "democracies" ever more award themselves greater powers supposedly in the citizens' interests. Though presumably noone of any especial awareness imagines we are dwelling in democracies; autocratic plutocracies would seem to be a more accurate definition. I'm not sure to what degree democracy in its original Greek sense is viable in regard to the behemoths that are nation states, though that shouldn't prevent trying to make the best of it. Perhaps it's like the notion of St Francis regarding Christianity that the ultimate goal of the Church was its own dissolution through its own success in achieving life on earth as paradise- a notion for which he narrowly escaped burning as a heretic. As in the goal of the nation state and presumably ultimately a one-world state being its own dissolution back to self-governing anarchic systems, ie lack of formal of systems. Though I haven't really thought this out.

Anonymous said...

A little info perhaps of interest on Leo Strauss, the philosophical father figure of the neo-cons, regarding democracy as these people see it:
"The inherently aggressive nature of human beings could only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state."
"Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed. Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.
Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary, Strauss believed that "those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior."
Taken from the link below

Richard said...

Hi Andrew. You raise a good point about the likely viability of democracy in a massive state. I'm tending towards seeing the state as something to move away from. Not that I'm at all clear on how something like this might happen.

And, yeah, Leo Strauss was rather odious.

Anonymous said...

As to how it might happen, Richard, we're presumably dealing with the very long-term though who knows. I'd say such enlightened development would depend on evolution in our consciousess, going back to The Perennial Philosophy and all that. I don't think systems themselves are going to bring about the desirable changes. Reminds me of a line from the excellent 'Kafka on the Shore' by Murakami(too lazy to go leafing thru it), where Oshimu(?) says the people to avoid are Eliot's hollow men who lack humanity but are obsessed with systems.