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The Hatred of Democracy

The last weekend in October of last year, I was at the former Labyrinth Bookstore in New York City where I picked up Jacques Rancière’s The Hatred of Democracy.  Ten days later, the country would elect Donald Trump to the presidency.  Since then (and well before), the cries against democracy have come in from many corners.  Jason Brennan, philosopher at Georgetown, wrote a book Against Democracy in which he calls for an epistocracy.  Andrew Sullivan argues that democracies end when they are too democratic in New York Magazine.  Caleb Crain discusses the case against it in The New Yorker in the issue published the week before the election.  Crain quotes the famous Winston Churchill line, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.  That line put me in mind of what Chesterton said about Christianity, that it hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.  Or perhaps not difficult, but scandalous.  This I believe is what Rancière is arguing about democracy.

Rancière makes three relevant points. First, the people are dismissed as problematic because of a process that divides democratic politics from democratic society and then denigrates all that is associated with democratic society.  Second, democracy is a rule without measure, without legitimacy (which is why lottery is the most, perhaps the only true, democratic form of choosing leaders). All efforts to establish legitimacy set up a rationale for rule that make that measure and not the people as such, the source of legitimacy.  Third, voting in representative governments is a ruse that gives cover to oligarchic regimes.  I argue on the basis of this analysis that blaming democracy or the people in a situation that is not democratic legitimates anti-democratic policies and processes in a system that already was anti-democratic.

Democratic Politics and Democratic Society

Rancière distinguishes, in the tradition of Aristotle, Arendt, Leo Strauss and Agamben, between democratic government or democratic politics and democratic society.  Those who blame democracy on the woes of contemporary life blame democratic society for spiking democratic politics.  Arendt’s conception of politics in The Human Condition is emblematic of this approach that blames the economic for dragging down the political–both the person and the community.  Democracy appears to be the regime in which economic pursuits become limitless and these excesses drive democratic political impulses, which is to say, democracy becomes out of control when societal concerns outweigh or overflow into political ones.  Thus, Arendt argues that the economics, and not only the economics, but all the individual group-based concerns (minority rights, union organizing) need to be excluded from concern in political life.  So Rancière argues, three moves are made by those who would critique democracy to oppose political democracy to democratic society: they reduce it to a form of society, then include in, and limit to the sphere of, society all the various economic or identity-based concerns, and then finally equate society with consumerism and excess.  The disorders of democracy are understood then to be the disorders of those with excessive consumerist desire, a desire which ultimately undermines principles of good government, of respect for public authorities, of knowledge of experts and of the know-how of pragmatists (7).  Needless to say, excluded from political life and made to feel as if equality can only be achieved through economic consumerism, the democratic person is subjected to the world of consumerism.

Democracy, Rancière argues, is the effort to resist government’s effort to shrink the public sphere, to make less of the common common and more of it private for the ruling oligarchs or the social domain of the people that must be ignored because it is not political.  Democracy struggles to make political and common what has been deemed private.  Contrary to liberal discourse which thinks of expanding the public sphere as the movement of the state into society, democracy resists the effort to divide the public and the private in such a way that serves the oligarchy.

On this last point, Rancière posits democracy as the undoing of the strict division between the political and the social / economic / private, between the citizen and the human to show how the very things that characterize human beings as unequal become political matters.  “Democracy really means, in this sense, the impurity of politics, the challenging of governments’ claims to embody the sole principle of public life and in so doing be able to circumscribe the understanding and extension of public life.”

Democracy as Rule without Measure.

Rancière says the root of evil is identified by the critics of democracy as democratic individualism, but something needs to be said about that individualism.  Critics of democracy blame Protestant doctrine for elevating the judgment of individuals.  But their real problem is not that individuals are elevated, but individuals who were not a part of the court (the monarchy), the nobility and the Church.  Any old person can read the Bible or vote, whether they are a part of any of these institutions (whether they have a college degree, keep up with the news or so forth).  In this sense, Rancière continues the account of political life that he began in Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy that we belong to the political community through the part that gives us claim.  The demos is the part that is not in any true sense a part.  This is the problem with the devolvement down to atomized individuals, not that the collective implication of being human is forgotten by such persons, but that they are parts that are not a part of a part that has a specific role in the community.

Democratic individuals are made suspect because they have no rightful part and yet they always want more.

Indeed, the denunciation of ‘democratic individualism’ works, at little cost, to make coincide two theses: the classic thesis of property-owners (the poor always want more), and the thesis of refined elites–there are too many individuals, too many people claiming the privileges of individuality (28).

These sorts of claims, that there are too many individuals who want too much, are the claims that democracy inspires because democracy is a political order bent on challenging the legitimacy of the classic measures of political life–wealth, good birth, knowledge.  Democracy, the claim that the people should rule, is rejection of those measures and the introduction of a measure without measure, a claim of legitimacy with no ground.  The people claim to rule because they are just there.  With no wealth, good birth or knowledge, they still act just like those who rule, claiming the rule without a claim.

Rancière writes:

Democracy is not the whim of children, slaves, or animals.  It is the whim of a god, that of chance, which is of such a nature that it is ruined as a principle of legitimacy.  Democratic excess does not have anything to do with a supposed consumptive madness.  It is simply the dissolving of any standard by which nature could give its law to communitarian artifice via the relations of authority that structure the social body.  The scandal lies in the disjoining of entitlements to govern from any analogy to those that order social relations, from any analogy between human convention and the order of nature.  It is the scandal of a superiority based on no other title than the very absence of superiority.

Democracy first of all means this: anarchic ‘government’, one based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern. (41)

Democracy itself is the whim of a god, so the lottery becomes a way to allow the scandal and the whim to work.  Whenever the concern about the lottery is raised, people raise the worry that the winner of the lottery could be incompetent.  But as Rancière argues, the alternative of the cunning individual skilled at taking power is more than a threat to democracy, but a threat to justice and the constitution of the community altogether (42).  The lottery would be really the only possibility for true democracy because it takes the people as such as the legitimacy and not any other capacity that they may have.  Any other approach is a way of offering a legitimacy by a measure that is pseudo-democratic, always a way of finding a way around the people even in justifying their role by reference to the measures of wealth, good birth and knowledge.

Voting as Legitimating Ruse for Oligarchy

Rancière argues that voting in representative democracy is a cover, an act of legitimating where there is no real choice:

Otherwise said, representation was never a system invented to compensate for the growth of populations.  It is not a form in which democracy has been adapted to modern times and vast spaces.  It is, by rights, an oligarchic form, a representation of minorities who are entitled to take charge of public affairs.  Historically, it is always first and foremost states, orders, possessions which are represented, whether they are regarded as entitling one to exercise power, or are occasionally given a consultative voice by a sovereign power.  Nor is the vote in itself a democratic form by which the people makes its voice heard.  It is originally the expression of a consent that a superior power requires and which is not really such unless it is unanimous.

He goes on to describe representative democracy as the rule of “natural elites”–a fact which the Trump transition, despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric, would seem to confirm.  Different factions of the powerful, the Ivy League educated, the friends of bankers all present different ways of appeasing the people in various ways that still result in serving the interests of the powerful, as Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest confirms.  In a sentence that made me laugh in light of this past election, Rancière writes,

Universal suffrage is a mixed form, born of oligarchy, redirected by democratic combats and perpetually reconquered by oligarchy, which puts its candidates, and sometimes its decisions, to the vote of the electoral body, without ever being able to rule out the possibility that the electoral body will behave like a population that draws lots (54).

This notion of representative democracy as elite makes sense if we think of representation as distancing.  Representation requires determining a standard for representation, so that if the representation is otherwise than by lottery, it denies that the people as people alone are the legitimating factor, rather, some knowledge, judgment of what it means to be good (which requires asking good for whom) or other contribution makes one person more worth representing than another.  Representation then points to the view that the people always more a problem, but that the best of them could adequately rule.  Then, not the people, but the best (in some sense), can legitimately rule.  This then is not democratic.

This is why it is absurd to devolve the blame down to the people.  That works effectively to continue to take power from the people, those who have the least power and who it would now seem most likely to be harmed by the billionaires coming into this administration.  The people provide cover, they legitimate the oligarchy that operates under the name of democracy, and they provide cover for the failures that do not really ever provide change.  But no established “representative democracy” ever expects the people to really take power.

This is also why people should not suppose that the “deep state” will restore democracy as much as it will restore the right elites in the institutions that they are invested in, preserving those institutions in order to preserve the reputation and wealth of the elites who benefit from a certain perception of the American government at home and abroad.


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Danny Layne #

    Thanks, A. I’m considering using this text for class and so this summary is very helpful- I might even assign it as a required supplement. D

    March 4, 2019

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