Politics and democracy

Recently, La Fabrique éditions asked a series of fashionable authors to comment on the sense of the word “democracy” and whether the word should today be abandoned. The collection (Démocratie, dans quel état?) is prefaced by invoking, as a provocation, the spirit of La Révolution surréaliste.*

*Posing the question in this way is only possible in Europe where the notion of “democracy” was both early and late to arrive. For this reason, none of the authors make the mistake predominant among their Anglo-American counterparts in political theory of assuming that the word “democracy” designates a particular type of constitution or state-form, which is axiomatic (in a non-technical sense) for so-called “democratic theory”. The very (odd and ultimately disastrous) distinction between political theory and political philosophy is another symptom of the confusion of the Anglophone discourse on democracy, which is yet another problem entirely than the confusion addressed by the Fabrique volume and deserves separate polemical treatment. The internal discourse of political theory itself cannot refuse to address its nebulous status as neither political science nor political philosophy (the “neither” here in the pejorative sense of being “inadequate”). The particularly banal treatment of the “return of democracy” on Obama’s election should be proof enough of this. Under the auspices of a naïve empiricism, democratic theory has ceased to understand what is at stake (dare we say, “metaphysically”?) in the very notion of “representation” which is not merely an epistemological nor even a metaphysical question that can be separated from its meaning as a political term (for Negri and Foucault, “representation” is an ontological question; for Badiou it is logical; for Deleuze it is both; etc). At best, “representation” becomes a procedural term for democratic theory and, consequently, is beholden to a problematic positivist methodology. Or, to put it another way, what calls itself “democratic theory” proceeds by assuming that there are democratic subjects—who are/not represented, who behave as political agents in ways that can be charted (“rational actors”), etc—who are constituted by “the citizen” considered as a purely legalistic entity, which leads us into an ultimately futile debate in legalism that ends in the sham proceduralism of so-called “legal process” in America or hermeneutics by another name. It is also noteworthy along these lines that Habermas—who is praised by the advocates of legalism—is not among the authors collected in the Fabrique volume.

 The provocation of La Révolution surréaliste is not its overtly communistic program but rather in its professed allegiance to the “principle” of historical materialism, i.e., in Breton’s words, the “sovereignty of thought”. The question, in its most brutal form, is simply: what is the relation of thought to politics? Obviously, “thought” is not taken here in the abstract sense of so-called “rational choice theory” or even in the metaphysical sense of a res cogitans. But if thought is to be taken in its substantive or concrete sense, then the question is not how to relate thought to politics insofar as the conditions for thought are always already political. But to say this is still too abstract, since the liberal democrat would affirm the same thing: the end of politics is to establish the form but not the material of association (i.e., the “human being”).

Rather, the question at hand is a Nietzschean question: what are the conditions under which thought is possible? This is, essentially, what Badiou posits in his reading of the Republic (in the Fabrique volume) in what he identifies as two fundamental theses:

1. The democratic world is not really a world.

2. The democratic subject is not constituted with respect to its pleasure [jouissance]. [My translations; “pleasure” is preferable to “enjoyment” here insofar as Badiou is responding to the usual treatment of hedonism in Plato.]

The first of these is readily recognizable as an extension of Logiques des Mondes. The second is (and this is now my reading of Badiou’s reading of Plato) an intervention in the question of political education—that there are not political subjects but that we must become political subjects. The democrat tries to claim the transparency of the political subject (particularly to itself!) problematically both as the condition and the result of political education. But if there is anything we can learn from the democratic impulse it is just that the very site of politics is the disjunction between thought and its transparency.

This, it seems to me, is one step in avoiding two tendencies in continental political philosophy: 1) to reduce politics to democracy tout court (e.g., democracy is always deferred, impossible, etc);** 2) to reduce politics to the operations of the state or, conversely, 3) to reduce politics to the attempt to insert some distance between the subject and the state.  Rather, I submit, politics is nothing other than the continuous construction of the state. The simultaneous separation of subject and state is what, following Abensour, might be called metapolitics.

**One possible exception to this charge is Lefort.


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