Friday, August 04, 2006

Down With People!

The hatred of democracy is certainly nothing new. It is as old as democracy itself for a simple reason: the word itself is an expression of hatred. It was originally invented as an insult, in ancient Greece, by those who saw the ruin of all traditional order in the unnameable government of the multitude. It has remained a synonym of abomination for all those who believe that power belongs to those destined for it by birth or by talents. So too for all those today who consider the divine law as revealed in Scripture the sole legitimate basis for the organisation of human communities. This hatred is certainly today extremely violent. It is not however this latter hatred which is the object of this book, for the simple reason that I have nothing in common with those who express it and therefore nothing to dispute with them.

Flanking this hatred of democracy, history has known various forms of its critique. The critiques have acknowledged its existence, but only to assign its proper limits. The critique of democracy has taken two major forms historically. There has been the art of aristocratic and learned legislators who have tried to compose their legal systems given the assumption that the fact of democracy is irreversible and cannot be resisted. The making of the US Constitution is a classic example of this work of the composition of forces and the institutional equilibrium and mechanisms designed to extract from the ineluctable fact of democracy the best one can hope for, strictly containing democracy to preserve two benefits considered as synonymous: the government of the most fit and the protection of the order of property. The accomplishment of this critique in action naturally nourished the accomplishment of its opposite. The young Marx did not err at all in unmasking the reign of property as the foundation of the order of the Republic. Republican legislators made not the least mystery of it. But he knew how to fix a standard of thought which has not yet been invalidated: the laws and the institutions of formal democracy are appearances beneath which and instruments by and with which the power of the bourgeois class was exercised. The struggle against these appearances became therefore the path to a "real" democracy, a democracy where liberty and equality would no longer be represented in the institutions of law and of the State but incarnated in the forms of material life and sensual experience themselves.

The new hatred of democracy that is the object of this book doesn't derive from either of these models, even though it combines elements borrowed from both. Its spokespersons all live in countries which declare themselves not only democratic States but democracies tout court. None of them seek a more real democracy. All tell us that there is already too much. But none of them focus their complaints on the institutions which pretend to incarnate the power of the people nor do they propose any mesure to restrain that power. The mechanics of institutions which enthused Montesquieu, Madison, or Tocqueville don't interest them. It is of the people and their moeurs that they complain, not of the institutions of their power. Democracy, for them, is not a corrupted form of government, it is a civilisational crisis that affects society and the State through it. ...

...The double discourse on democracy is surely not new. We are used to hear that democracy is the worst form of government with the exception of all others. But the new anti-democratic sentiment gives this formula an even more troubling cast. Democratic government, it tells us, is bad when it allows itself to be corrupted by democratic society which wants all to be equal and all differences respected. It is good, on the other hand, when it calls individuals to the energetic defense of the values of civilisation in the war that is the struggle of civilisations. The new hatred of democracy can therefore be summed up in a simple thesis: there is only one good democracy, that which represses the catastrophe of democratic civilisation....

We begin the analysis, isolate the principle of the new antidemocratic discourse. The portrait that it draws of democracy is made up of traits previously laid at the door of totalitarianism. It proceeds therefore by a process of disfigurement, as if the concept of totalitarianism, fashioned for the needs of the Cold War, becoming useless, its traits could be disassembled and reassembled to remake the portrait of that which was its supposed opposite, democracy. We can follow the stages of this process of disfigurement and recomposition. It began in the 1980s with an initial operation calling into question the opposition of the two terms. The terrain of this operation was the reconsideration of the revolutionary heritage of democracy. Emphasis has very properly been allotted to the role played in this operation by François Furet's Penser la révolution française, published in 1978. However the double action of this operation in that work has not really been fully grasped. To return the Terror to the heart of the democratic revolution is, at the most visible level, to destroy the opposition which had always structured the dominant opinion. Totalitarianism and democracy, Furet teaches, are not truly opposites. The Stalinist reign of terror was anticipated by the French revolution's Reign of Terror. Now, this reign of terror is understood not as a detour from the Revolution, on the contrary it was constitutive of its project, an inherent necessity and the essence itself of the democratic revolution.

To derive the Stalinist terror from the French revolutionary terror is not necessarily a novel proceeding. Such an analysis can be integrated into the classic opposition between liberal, parliamentary democracy, founded on the restriction of state power and the protection of individual liberties, and radical egalitarian democracy, sacrificing individual rights to the religion of the collectivity and the blind fury of crowds. The renewed denunciation of terrorist democracy seems therefore to lead to the refoundation of liberal, pragmatic democracy finally delivered from revolutionary fantasms of the collective body.

But this simple reading denies the double action of the operation. Because the critique of the Terror has a double basis. The critique called liberal, which recalls itself from the totalitarian rigors of equality to the wise republic of individual liberties and parliamentary representation, is from the beginning entirely subordinated to a wholly different critique, for which the sin of the revolution is not its collectivism but its individualism. According to this perspective, the French Revolution was terrorist not for disdain for the rights of individuals but on the contrary for sacralising them. Initiated by the theorists of counterrevolution in the aftermath of the French Revolution, taken up by the early 19th century Utopian socialists, consecrated at the end of the same century by the young science of sociology, that reading expresses itself like this: the Revolution was the consequence of the Enlightenment and its primary principle, the "protestant" doctrine which elevated the judgement of isolated individuals to the place of existing structures and collective belief. Breaking the ancient solidarities which had gradually interwoven the monarchy, aristocracy and Church, the protestant revolution had torn the social fabric and created atomised individuals. The Terror is the harsh consequence of this dissolution, and the will to recreate by the artifice of laws and institutions a bond that only natural and historical solidarities can weave.

It is this doctrine that Furet's book restored to a place of honour. He showed that the revolutionary Terror was consubstantial with the Revolution itself, because all the revolutionary dramaturgy was founded on ignorance of the deep historical realities which made it possible. The Revolution was unaware that the true revolution, that of institutions and moeurs, had already been accomplished in the depths of the society and in the wheels of the monarchic machine. The Revolution, from that moment, could be nothing but an illusion of beginning anew, in the form of a conscious will, a revolution already completed. It could be nothing but the artifice of the Terror, forcing upon a dismantled society an imaginary body. The analysis of Furet refers to the thesis of Claude Lefort on democracy as a disembodied power. But it bases itself even more heavily on the work from which it derived the materials of its reasoning, that is the thesis of Augustin Cochin denouncing the role of the "sociétés de pensée" at the origin of the French Revolution. Augustin Cochin, Furet emphasised, was not merely a royalist partisan of Action Française, he was also a thinker nourished by Durkheimien sociology. He was, in fact, the direct heir to the critique of the "individualist" revolution, transmitted by the counterrevolution to "liberal" thought and to republican sociology, which is the real foundation of the denunciation of revolutionary "totalitarianism". The liberalism exhibited by the French intelligensia of the 80s is a doctrine with a double base. Behind the reverence for the Enlightenment and the Anglo-American tradition of liberal democracy and the rights of individuals, one recognises the denunciation - very French - of the individualist revolution which rent the social fabric.

This double spring of the critique of the revolution permits us to understand the formation of contemporary antidemocraticism. It allows us to understand the inversion of the discourse of democracy which followed the collapse of the USSR. On the one hand, the fall of the Soviet empire was, for a very brief time, greeted joyfully as the triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, the victory of individual liberties over statist oppression, symbolised by the rights of man championed by Soviet dissidents or Polish workers. These 'formal' rights had been the primary target of the Marxist critique of democracy, and the collapse of the regimes built on the pretention of promoting a more "real" democracy seemed to indicate their resurgence. But behind the welcome accorded the assertion anew of the rights of man and of rediscovered democracy, the inverse was produced. From the moment that the concept of totalitarianism was no longer useful, the opposition of a 'good' democracy of the rights of man and individual liberties against a bad egalitarian and collectivist democracy fell, as well, into desuetude. The critique of the rights of man resumed immediately all its rights. It might lean in the direction of Hannah Arendt: the rights of man are an illusion because they are the rights of that naked man who is without rights. These are the illusory rights of men that tyrannical regimes have chased from their homes, from their nations, from all citizenship. Everyone knows how much this thesis has regained favour recently. On the one hand it arrived opportunely to support these humanitarian and liberatory interventions by States undertaking, as military and militant democracy, the defense of the rights of those without rights. On the other, it inspired the analysis of Giorgio Agamben, making of the "state of exception" the real content of our democracy. But the critique can also lean toward the marxist manner that the fall of the Soviet empire and the weakening of the movements for emancipation in the West have made available, anew, for all uses: the rights of man are the rights of egoist individuals of bourgeois society.

The point is to discover who are these egoist individuals. Marx understood these as the possessors of the means of production, that is the dominant class for whom the State of the rights of man is an instrument. Current wisdom understands this differently. And in fact a series of slippages suffices to grant to egoist individuals a completely new face. First we make a replacement everyone will allow us - that of "egoist individuals" with "avid consumers". Then we identify these avid consumers with a new socio-historical species, "democratic man".
- Jacques Rancière, La haine de la démocratie


  1. pleasure. its a good little book; i'll post a bit more presently...

  2. Anonymous6:56 AM

    I have been looking for sites like this for a long time. Thank you! » »