Democratic politics at the limit of liberalism

1. Following the Kantian formulation of the idea of moral freedom, after A Theory of Justice, in Rawls’ considerations of the properly political (i.e., non-metaphysical) conception of justice, we are faced with what we might call the fact of pluralism: “the diversity of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical condition that may soon pass away … it is a permanent feature of the public culture of democracy”. This diversity is both the presupposition and the end of liberal politics. The diversity consists not of antagonisms to be overcome or sublated but as the irreducible multiplicity of forms of human life. This plurality is a fact in a twofold Kantian sense: (1) it is not deduced but given and (2) it is forced upon us as the condition and manifestation of freedom (freedom both demands this plurality and is made possible by it). The domain of the political, according to Rawls, is therefore “distinct from the associational [emphasis added], which is voluntary in ways that the political is not …” given that, in his preferred formulation, we enter the domain of the political at birth and only leave it at death.

Rawls is consistent with the contract tradition (with the possible exception of Locke), even as he takes it to its limit by reducing the ideal of contract into its basic form not as reciprocity but as blind equality. The ideal construction of political equality is, however, only the first half of the twin problems of legitimacy and stability. The latter requires the overlapping consensus of a specifically political conception of justice as an overriding value in cases of conflict. It is precisely because “a political conception of justice [is] regarded not as a consequence of a comprehensive doctrine but as in itself sufficient to express values that normally outweigh whatever other values oppose them …” that the present crises of liberalism have exposed its inability to manage the contradictions of separating the ethical from the political. We only acquire an allegiance to liberal institutions when, over time, the civic institutions of justice “normally counterbalance whatever [other] values may oppose them” because they make possible the background conditions of private life. Liberalism fails, then, in one of two cases: either the collapse of fairness in those institutions or when the virtues of social cooperation – perhaps as a result of the former – are no longer taken to be ultimate.

The normative autonomy of the political, in Rawls’ conception, is abrogated by the inherent ambiguity of the fact of pluralism. On the one hand, “history tells of a plurality of not unreasonable comprehensive doctrines. That these comprehensive doctrines are divergent makes an overlapping consensus necessary”; yet the existence of such diversity is insufficient to account for their reasonableness. Plurality is in the relevant sense not an empirical fact but a fact of reason. An overlapping consensus is not only necessary because of the diversity of comprehensive doctrines but it is only possible because of their divergence. The limitation of Rawls’ analysis is to have taken the divergence of comprehensive doctrines to be one of content but not of form. If the diversity of comprehensive doctrines were merely empirical, then the paradoxes of toleration become inescapable and the libertarian conflict of interpretations erodes both the content and the force of the overlapping consensus necessary to maintain the separation of the political from the ethical; the skeptical epoché is fatal to the possibility of politics. The fundamental fact of reason is not that there are many truths but that the truth of truth is the plurality of its expression.

(Similarly, the limitation of liberalism in general is to have mistaken that to which we owe our allegiance (e.g., civic institutions) with that from which we declare our allegiances; only a bureaucrat can assert with a straight face that we can owe allegiance to an institution.)

The virtue of Rawls’ analysis, on the other hand, is to have recognized that the construction of the political requires not only a commitment to freedom in its negative sense but the existence of a community of shared values (in short, to have recognized the abstractions to which a Lockean account is suspect). The question, however, is in what sense those shared values are taken to be political. Rawls’ insight that politics is non-voluntary is a recognition of the fact that, fundamentally, our existence is not solitary but shared (we neither die alone nor are born alone); in other words, the materiality of our existence implicates us within the flesh and fabric of a world that touches and shelters us. Politics is an expression of this shared (singular-plural, in Nancy’s terms) existence; thus, the processes and expressions of individuation are intrinsically non-political and the reductio of politics to the maintenance of a modus vivendi is the only possible consequence of the ideology of liberal individualism (whose dissolution immediately invites fascism). The fundamental predicament of politics is not that we must merely live with (viz., tolerate) others who have different – and equally reasonable – conceptions of the good; it is that, in Deleuzian terms, nomadic subjects are sundered by divergences and yet belong to the same world: the inconsistencies that must be managed are not between conflicting conceptions of the good but internal to any subjective capacities from which we might find our bearings.

2. Rawlsian constructivism is the site of the familiar tensions of liberalism, which can break in either direction, as the point of the dialectical inversion of the universal and the particular, circumventing the theologico-political problem but at the cost of founding the possibility of democratic politics on the public use of reason. The problem with reason, of course, is not that whatever might pass for it is too narrow but that it is easily susceptible to counterfeit.

In her own criticism of the models of deliberative democracy proposed by Rawls and Habermas, Mouffe observes that

what is really at stake in the allegiance to democratic institutions is the constitution of an ensemble of practices that make the constitution of democratic citizens possible. This is not a matter of rational justification but of availability of democratic forms of individuality and subjectivity. … The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject, which sees the individuals as prior to society, as bearers of natural rights, and either as utility maximizing agents or as rational subjects [whether communicative, public, etc.]. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make the individuality possible.

Therefore, Mouffe claims, all rationalist machinations must break against the ontological limit of pluralism as the very condition of possibility for deliberation but at the same time that which undermines the possibility of the necessary consensus to bind the allegiance of democratic subjects to institutions that must simultaneously enable and subordinate them.

Mouffe’s solution embraces the antagonisms constitutive of pluralism through the recognition of adversaries as a “legitimate” enemy, “one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality”. The agon of politics takes place not discursively but through the formation of power relations that are constitutive of democratic subjects themselves; therefore, “our shared language of politics is entangled with power and needs to be apprehended in terms of hegemonic relations”, i.e., the “point of convergence – or rather mutual collapse – between objectivity and power”. Power striates but it can also be recursive; we can be overpowered but also empowered (freedom from is the uncanny photo negative of freedom to). Antagonism does not erase equality but, rather, presupposes it. Antagonism, however, also only produces equality on the condition that in conflict we aspire to the universal. It is this tension between agonistic desires and the claim to universality that produces the aporetic condition of politics that Balibar has dubbed “equaliberty”. On the one hand, through an Aristotelian elenchos, Balibar argues that the structural coupling of equality and liberty can be demonstrated by mutual subtraction: “if freedom is not equality, then either it is superiority—mastery—or it is subjection and dependence on some power, which is absurd. Thus, correlatively, equality must be thought as the general form of the radical negation of all subjection and mastery, that is, as the liberation of freedom itself from an external or internal power that takes it over and transforms it into its opposite”. On the other hand, the demands for equality and liberty “cannot be enunciated in the same language, in terms of the same discourse”. In particular, Balibar proposes a tetradic structure of mediation between equality and liberty by property and community (fratnerity), where the one easily degrades into liberal individualism and the other into reactionary nationalism. For this reason, “there will be permanent tension between the conditions that historically determine the construction of institutions that conform to the proposition of equaliberty and the excessive, hyperbolic universality of the statement”.

The perennial aporia of democratic politics, then, is not only that the people do not know what they want. As Zizek observes, “the people is still here, but no longer as the mythical sovereign Subject whose will is to be enacted. Hegel was right in his critique of the democratic power of the people: ‘the people’ should be re-conceived as the passive background of the political process—the majority is always and by definition passive, there is no guarantee that it is right, and the most it can do is acknowledge and recognize itself in a project imposed by political agents. As such, the role of the people is ultimately a negative one: ‘free elections’ (or a referendum) serve as a check on the party movements, as an impediment designed to prevent what Badiou calls the brutal and destructive ‘forçage’ (enforcement) of the Truth onto the positive order of Being regulated by opinions”. As Deleuze and Guattari have also observed, one of the primary forms of repressive forces is doxa, of which the (democratic) state is one important expression. As Hobbes so keenly foresaw, a democracy suited to the negotiations of interests is merely a return to the state of nature.

The more fundamental aporia of agonistic politics consists not in the failure of negotiations but in the fact that the indeterminacy of the statement of equaliberty – in its negative universality – is incommensurate with its enunciation or its plural reference indexed to the subjects capable of asserting it. The people both do not but also cannot know what they want. The material consequences of the statement of equaliberty “depend entirely on relations of forces and their evolution within the conjecture, within which it will always be necessary to practically construct individual and collective referents for equaliberty, with more or less prudence and precision, but also audacity and insolence against the established powers”.

The crowd and the count

The suicide of Allende on 11 September 1973 during the U.S.-backed coup marked the end not only of democracy in Chile for almost two decades but the defeat of a people who did not realize until it was too late that they had never really been united. A people united will never be defeated, Ortega proclaims. Yet the perversity of the democratic state is that it does everything in its power to fight the unity of a people, despite the contradictions, which can no longer be disguised, between its form and the expression of a popular will. The fundamental problem of democracy is not that the state should fail to serve the popular will but, rather, that in its absence the state becomes its surrogate in representation.

Sartre once called elections a “trap for fools”. Contrary to the ideology of liberalism, voting is a fundamentally anti-democratic act precisely to the extent that the extant electoral procedures and mechanisms preserve the contradiction between the equality of every vote (“one person, one vote”) and the fact that not every vote is counted. The only solution to the antinomy between democracy – according to which, in principle, every vote is counted-as-one – and capitalism – according to which a vote is a measure of one’s power – is to reject both options as strict contraries: every democratic institution is, as Rancière argues, predicated on an ineradicable wrong (tort) that cannot be corrected by the proper procedures (e.g., we just need re-districting or better controls) because it is the act of voting itself that produces the “miscount” and, thus, the illusion of a popular will that could be expressed by a numerical tally “for” or “against”. The problem, in short, is not how to count the votes “fairly” but the operation of the count itself.

“[E]verything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. Ostensibly, the elected Assembly is the one which reflects public opinion most faithfully. But there is only one sort of public opinion, and it is serial. The imbecility of the mass media, the government pronouncements, the biased or incomplete reporting in the newspapers – all this comes to seek us out in our serial solitude and load us down with wooden ideas, formed out of what we think others will think. … So when we are called to vote, I, the Other, have my head stuffed with petrified ideas which the press or television has piled up there. They are serial ideas which are expressed through my vote, but they are not my ideas. The institutions of bourgeois democracy have split me apart: there is me and there are all the Others they tell me I am (a Frenchman, a soldier, a worker, a taxpayer, a citizen, and so on).” (Sartre)

In the face of the present plutocracy, we are no longer deluded by the ideology of liberalism, which has resulted in the present legitimation crisis: “… serial thinking is born in me, thinking which is not my own thinking but that of the Other which I am and also that of all the Others. It must be called the thinking of powerlessness, because I produce it to the degree that I am Other, an enemy of myself and of the Others, and to the degree that I carry the Other everywhere with me” (Sartre). The complaint that the state no longer “represents me” has not taken the necessary step: we are promised a supposed solution (in the form of “adequate representation”) that is exactly the problem that needs to be overcome. Democracy requires not the representation but the expression of a popular will, i.e., the will of a people.

The reduction of the political subject to the economic (or, in Sartre’s terms, the practico-inert) seems now to be total. There is neither a people nor even the hope for one.

Dean has recently argued that the necessary intermediary for a people-to-come is the party, which “operates as the support for the subject of communism [or we might simply say, of politics] by holding open the gap between the people and their setting in capitalism. The more the gap appears, the more the need for and perhaps even sense of a party impresses itself. This gap isn’t a void. It’s a knot of processes that organize the persistence of the unrealized in a set of structural effects: ideal ego, ego ideal, superego, subject supposed to know and believe – the party as the Other space. … [It is] a rupture within the people dividing them from the givenness of their setting, a rupture that is an effect of their collectivity, the way their belonging works back upon them”. The party manages the affective antagonisms – between us as well as between us and the objective conditions in which we live – that are otherwise either serialized and abstracted into the liberal citizen or mobilized by identity politics to maintain the necessity of the former. The party is the site where politics happens as the embodied, material body of the collective (what Hobbes had thought the sovereign could be) that can pass through the state without constituting it. Thus the only democratic politics that can resist the temptations of fascism is disruptive of the state and its power by the voice of a people united, without which there is only the crowd and its frenzy.

Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

1. In Bloch’s inversion of Hegel’s critique of Kant, he asserts that freedom is not only realized in the material community of individuals but in the positive idea of politics. The utopian “suprahistorical” idea of freedom is not real but ideal in the sense of the world-to-come in the action of political subjects. Freedom is thus not in history but, rather, the positive end of historical subjects’ conscious activity. It is against the background of such utopianism that Benjamin invokes the necessity of messianic redemption or, more precisely, the notion of history as the anticipation of the Messiah. Only the Messiah “completes” history, not through justification but by forgiveness, i.e., by disrupting history with a new order of time “beyond all remembering or forgetting”.

Here Benjamin explicitly follows Lotze’s suspicions of the grand style of world-historical thinking (or “universal history”) that leaves invisibility (including that of women) and stupidity in its wake. What good is a blessing in which we cannot participate, Lotze asks, when our toil is for the benefit of those who come after (always after)? Humanity does not, he says, “consists in a general type-character which is repeated in all individuals” and “the existence of a vast spiritual proletariat, which there seems no possibility of removing, is an objection which the idea of history as the education of mankind must find it hard [indeed impossible] to overcome” (Microcosmos 7.2,; Benjamin quotes several passages around this text repeatedly in the Passagenwerk). The logic of history, Lotze says, leaves it bereft of any moral exigency, for what can be imperative to those whose fate is outshone by the glory of the enlightened?

Precisely because they have been forgotten by history, Benjamin says, the moment of their recognizability has passed. The task of the critic is to expose the discontinuities and contradictions through which we might infer the “barely missed” opportunities from what history has forgotten, whether through its blindness or its mendacity. The past becomes visible not only objectively in the traces of time but also subjectively in the awareness of what is missing, viz., in the “secret agreement between past generations and the present one” that we shall be the gate through which the Messiah passes. On the one hand, we must wait; yet the work of anticipation is not mere complacency since the “weak messianic power” of redemption is only a possibility. Jewish messianism refuses to bind the individual into the corpus mysticum of universal history but at the same time also rails against the vanity of injustice. Anticipation begins in remembrance because it is through the dialectical image that we recognize the discontinuity between past and present, i.e., that there was a certain moment in the past when the present became possible and, since there can be no resurrection or redemption of the past, we must look for the traces of the future that will remain after our time has been shattered.

2a. Modernity begins the moment creation is recognized as infinite decomposition. “We are dying from the moment we are born”, so the cliché goes and only an essential fatigue could have precipitated the fall into time. Eternal happiness, it turns out, is unbearable if only because it is interminably boring.*

*Boredom, Heidegger says, is the Grundstimmung of modernity and the necessary condition for the metaphysics of Da-sein in which being is revealed as time itself. As Goodstein argues, however, in what is perhaps still the best treatment of boredom as a modern phenomenon, what gets presented existentially in Heidegger is irreducibly cultural and historical.

But our consciousness of this fall makes it impossible to desire eternal happiness (again) without thereby perversely desiring our present wretchedness. The truly religious desire is not for paradise but patience:

“When you have seen a corruption in every conviction and in every attachment a profanation, you no longer have the right to expect, on earth or elsewhere, a fate modified by hope. You must choose some ideal, absurdly solitary promontory, or a farcical star refractory to all constellations. Irresponsible out of melancholy, your life has flouted its moments; now, life is the piety of duration, the feeling of a dancing eternity, time transcending itself, and vies with the sun. . . .” (Cioran)

Consciousness is caught between the impossibility of a justified life as much as it is by a justified death (as Cioran reminds us, while the thought of suicide is fundamental to consciousness, for example, it is contradicted by the act). Happiness denies justification to every suffering as much as the converse. To make suffering the end of consciousness, however, is not an act of strength, since, lest we fall victim to the most vicious ressentiment, we must also realize that, ultimately, suffering offers neither vengeance nor remuneration.

2b. Is this not the lesson of Christian generosity, i.e., that weakness is the precondition for actual generosity (Lk 6:30)? Abundance and surplus preclude generosity, because it is neither generous to give what one does not need nor to be freed from the appearance of necessity (on the other hand, infirmity of character also excludes generosity since it is not “generous” merely to be taken advantage of). This is Marion’s point, for example, in his recent argument against the notion of sacrifice as destruction. The gift, he argues, “is accomplished in an unconditioned immanence, which not only owes nothing to exchange, but dissolves its conditions of possibility”. His point here is similar to Caputo’s notion of the “weak force” of creation, i.e., that an actual creation ex nihilo cannot be a gift since nothing is “given up”. But while Caputo resists the image of the causal—and ultimately pantheistic—God that imbues existence with goodness, equally we must resist the God from whom “significance and promise” follow; instead, in a slight turn of phrase, the event offers only a “promise of significance”. Weak theology names the transcendental, however, only by renouncing the claims of justice.

On the other hand, for Derrida, the true transcendental is nothing other than democracy and why messianism is structural and not religious (as he explicitly claims in Specters of Marx). Democratic anarchy must necessarily resist the ideology of hope or any passage from existence to goodness. “If I happen to have written that [democracy] “remains” to come, this remaining [restance] … pending [en souffrance], withdraws from its ontological dependence. It does not constitute the modification of an “is,” of an ontological copula marking the present of essence or existence, indeed of substantial or subjective substance” (Rogues, cf. “The Supplement of the Copula”). If we must wait, we seek not the good but the possibility of what, at present, has been made desperate and even unthinkable.

3. If the fundamental insight of contemporary (critical) hermeneutics is that being is nothing other than language and, consequently, that mediation is everywhere and the structure of the real is in itself dialogical (and thus historical), it follows that language, the beautiful, and the good are co-constitutive and that there is a convertibility between truth and rhetoric. Vattimo has argued this point most directly through the collapse of ontology into hermeneutics. If, then, it is not Da-sein but simply being itself that is disclosure,*** “the ‘objects’ toward which the verwindend and andenkend attitude of post-metaphysical thought turns itself are not exclusively the messages of the past. Metaphysics is not only transmitted to us in the contents of the Geisteswissenschaften, in the humanistic heritage of our culture; it is ‘realized’ in the Gestell, the scientific-technological organization of the modern world”. The task of thought, then, is to interpret the real as this organization and structure. Just as there is no seeing without seeing-as (Wittgenstein), all being is adverbial.

***Just as information theory posits that the fundamental nature of reality is the transfer of information, the hermeneutic-semiotic equivalent here is simply to say that to be is at least to be a sign.

Nihilism then has a positive destiny for Vattimo not only in the destruction of the highest values (Nietzsche) but in the narrative construction of communal existence. But this existence has neither ground nor justification in anything other than the possibility of its coming-to-be in persuasion (which, of course, need not be exclusively discursive). The destiny of humanity consists in nothing other than the re-definition of what it means to be human as the principal task of interpretation. Instead of deploying a voracious will-to-truth as scientific victory, hermeneutic thought posits the possibility of truth neither as given nor to be found either objectively or in the confidence of an inner certitude but, rather, in a world that we, together, might one day actually affirm in good conscience.