The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"The state of a person's being democratic"

Democracy in What State?Review - Democracy in What State?
by Giorgio Agamben et al.
Columbia University Press, 2011
Review by Eric Chelstrom
Oct 4th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 40)

Democracy in What State? brings together an impressive collection of European and American intellectuals. Each author offers their interpretation of and answer to the questions: "Is it meaningful to call oneself a democrat? And if so, how do you interpret the word?" There are as many approaches to these important questions as there are authors participating in the volume. The collection far surpasses the sentimental clichés that are offered by way of answers in many spheres. The authors employ a rich collection of historical analysis of the evolution of democracy, varied appreciation for the range of meanings the term can have and a depth of understanding about the complex set of forces operative in democratic states. With the economic and political turmoil already witnessed in the early twenty-first century, this collection is very timely.

 

          The title of the collection is purposefully ambiguous. The question, "democracy in what state?" can be taken to mean, at least, three things. First, it asks about what shape a democratic government, a state, takes. One does well to remind the reader that European tradition differentiates between nation, a cultural unity, and state, a legal unity. Second, the title asks, what democracy itself should be in order that it be accepted, in what state should democracy be in order to be worthy of its typical accolades? Finally, the title asks what is the democratic attitude, the state of a person's being democratic.

 

While the collection is largely grounded in the French philosophical tradition, not all of its essays are so extravagant in the playful usage of language as that tradition's critics tend to expect. In large, the authors are relatively clear and maintain their distinctive voices. Giorgio Agamben discusses the historical relation between constitutions and governments, focusing on the Greek origins of these concepts and revelatory features of the Greek terminology. Alain Badiou places contemporary democractic practices under the gaze of Plato's classical critique of democracy. This is done in order to clear a space for meaningful discussion about the nature of democracy in the contemporary world. Daniel Bensaïd discusses institutionalization and its effects on democracy, though the essay's style presents serious challenges to the reader. Wendy Brown's focus is on how the democratization of societal expectations has generated undemocratic effects and tendencies. Jean-Luc Nancy compares the form of democratic rule with democracy as an end of human action, as an outgrowth of our being forced to come to terms with not having an eternally prescribed end. He sees democracy as an attempt to come to terms with the infinite range of human possibilities for action. The interview with Jacques Ranciére draws attention to the egalitarian presupposition underlying democracy. Kristin Ross shed a light on hierarchical relations that emerge in the practical implementation of democracies. She examines how the manipulation of democratic process, as a means of cloaking entirely undemocratic interests, is used effectively by the powerful in getting what they want. The effect of these practices results, sometimes purposefully, in disenfranchising the voting public. Finally, Slavoj Žižek roundly criticizes the one-size fits all way of thinking about democracy. He argues that mindset is more interested in the infliction of a political framework on a people than allowing political self-determination. At the very least, Žižek establishes how, even if their motives differ, the effects of those who seek to possess the state's power and those who seek the dissolution of any state whatsoever often result in the same end: a holier than though sort of violence against those subject to rule. The mixture of disdain for government and thirst for political control on the part of the Tea Party movement in the United States offers an illustrative example of Žižek's concerns. The irony being that in a democracy, one is supposed to value freedom and, in the name of freedom some policies result in systematically removing freedoms from others. The resulting subjugation of groups to those seeking power is itself entirely anti-democratic.

 

If there's a principal criticism of the volume, it is that for the ambitious topic and all-star cast of authors, the collection falls somewhat short of one's anticipations. Some of the essays do not offer sufficient support or motivation for their claims, or fail to make clear what their position amounts to in practical terms. Certainly this is not a critique applicable to all the contributions. Brown's article is meticulous and impressive in its ability to quickly establish a rich, multifaceted analysis of those forces working contrary to democratization in contemporary democratic states. Ross' and Nancy's articles are also especially noteworthy.

 

A secondary criticism of the collection is that, taken as a whole, the essays tend to be unsatisfactory toward approaching any pragmatic recommendation for the concerted democrat. While that may not be the aim of the authors, the consistent theme of democracy as a praxis -- a practical activity and attitude lived by individuals -- leaves many of the authors open to this line of criticism. If democracy is a praxis, then how does one go about living democratically, living a democratic life? Abstract theoretical frameworks are of little help in that regard.

 

On the whole, the book is recommended to a wide range of readers. It may serve to spark meaningful debate about what democracy is and what values democracy should represent. The authors are lauded for reminding us that democracy is neither a necessity nor easily guaranteed. Democracy must be secured in and through the acts of the democrat, and cannot be done so effectively unless the individual seeks to cultivate a democratic character. Through the actions of democratic peoples, each democracy has its individual character. As such, there is no demand that all democracies understand democracy in the same way. Without democratic actions, the promised value of a democracy will be unfulfilled, thwarted, or co-opted by other purposes.

 

The more difficult question to answer, once one has determined what a democratic character entails, is to ask whether or not that is valuable in relation to its alternatives. Some of the authors point out that the answer implicit in our attitudes and actions is too often "no". The word of caution and call to action alone make the volume something many of us should not just read, but discuss with others.

 

© 2011 Eric Chelstrom

 

Eric Chelstrom is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grand Valley State University. His research centers on issues in social phenomenology, i.e. the role of consciousness in the social world. He is currently working on a manuscript for publication titled, Social Phenomenology: Husserl, Intersubjectivity, and Collective Intentionality. His doctoral research was directed by Kah Kyung Cho at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.


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