Tuesday, April 05, 2005

What is democracy?

Simon Critchley, writing in Culture Machine, provides an interesting definition of democratic politics, drawn from Ernesto Laclau's radical democracy project.

Politics is, Laclau and Critchley argue, inherently contingent, about power, argument, differences that cannot be resolved. But a lot of politics seeks to hide this, by erasing
"traces of power, force, will and contingency by naturalising or essentialising that context. For example, Kosovo was, is and always will be Serbian; Macedonia was, is and always will be Greek, etc. Much, perhaps most politics tries to render itself and its operations of power invisible by reference to custom or tradition or; worse, by reference to nature or God; or, worse still, by custom and tradition grounded in nature or God – this covers most options."
Critchley continues, though, to identify what is special about democratic politics.
we might say that only those societies that are self-conscious of their political status, their contingency and their power operations, are democratic. What I mean is ‘self-conscious’ at the level of citizenry, not at the level of the Platonic guardians – the prince or the latter’s philosophical adviser. Machiavelli and Hobbes, it seems to me, were perfectly well aware of the contingency and political constitution of the social but did not exactly want this news broadcast to the people... Democracy is thus the name for that political form of society that makes explicit the contingency of its foundations and operations. In democracy political power is secured through operations of competition, persuasion and election... So democracy is distinguished by the self-consciousness amongst citizenry of the contingency of its operations of power, in extreme cases by the self-consciousness of the very mechanisms of power.
The word constitution is important here. It emphasises the contingency, the fluidity, the unfinishedness of real politics.

And, against the grain of postmodern philosophers, Critchley gives a concrete example: the US presidential elections in November/December 2000.
"The very meaning of democracy turned on the self-consciousness of the mechanisms of election, from the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county to the quasi-theological discussion of the nature of the Floridan chad. This self-consciousness of the contingent mechanisms of power infected, it seems to me, every layer of the political and legal apparatus, right up to the Supreme Court, and arguably had the beneficial effect of leading voters to raise the Rousseau-esque question of the legitimacy of their social contract."

(The rest of the article, by the way, is an intensely academic discussion of some of the finer points of different versions of postmodern theory - I wouldn't particularly recommend it.)

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