To be or not to be a democrat: Anarchy beyond democracy

We formerly shared the excellent series of essays from the Crimethinc collective critically evaluating the notion of “democracy”.  That the debate is not closed for anarchists is evident from the simple fact that it continues (e.g., Robert Graham‘s very recent essay on the subject).  More profoundly, the relation between anarchism and democracy has been definitive of anarchism as such, with different anarchisms gaining body in their relation with democracy.

Below, we post a modest reflection on the matter, largely inspired by a brief essay by Giorgio Agamben, entitled “Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy”, published in the english language volume, Democracy: In What State? (Columbia University Press, New York, 2011).  To further help situate the discussion, Agamben’s essay follows.

“Democracy” is a radically ambiguous concept.  It identifies a constitutional form and its source of legitimacy in the sovereignty of the people, as well a form of government, a type of administration of populations, an economy.

What in turn holds the two poles of this duality together is sovereignty, the power that effectively generates the space of legality through the exclusion of illegality, the exception that lies beyond the law, while defining it.

The question of democracy’s legitimacy, by contrast to aristocracy and/or monarchy, is today largely meaningless.  Democracy is simply assumed as legitimate, for it is the governance that hides behind the political scientific typology of constitutions that reigns and is its own raison d’être.  And between it and “non-democratic” governance, the difference is simply one of degree and detail.  (For example, the Emmanuel Macron government of France, to escape the legal conundrum of having to perpetually extend every six months the now two year old state of emergency is simply seeking to enshrine all of the measures of exception in “ordinary” law.  Le monde 09/06/2017).

The shift and confusion between the two senses of democracy, and blindness with regards to the role of sovereignty, render any debate about the virtues of democracy fruitless.  And this applies equally to the debate within anarchism about democracy; a controversy as old as anarchism itself.  To quote Proudhon:

“The nation, so long a victim of monarchical selfishness, thought to deliver itself for ever by declaring that it alone was sovereign. But what was monarchy? The sovereignty of one man. What is democracy? The sovereignty of the nation, or, rather, of the national majority. But it is, in both cases, the sovereignty of man instead of the sovereignty of the law, the sovereignty of the will instead of the sovereignty of the reason; in one word, the passions instead of justice. Undoubtedly, when a nation passes from the monarchical to the democratic state, there is progress, because in multiplying the sovereigns we increase the opportunities of the reason to substitute itself for the will; but in reality there is no revolution in the government, since the principle remains the same. Now, we have the proof to-day that, with the most perfect democracy, we cannot be free.” (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is property?)

What is of interest in Proudhon’s reflection, whether he was himself aware of the matter, is that the aforementioned ambiguity is present in the text, that is, the tension between legitimacy and governance, and the awareness – and thus the criticism of democracy – that sovereignty, the executive power of governance, is the problem.

The difficulty cannot however be overcome with alternative, more “representative” forms of democracy (e.g. direct, participatory, etc.), for governance has nothing to do with legitimacy, while what binds the two notions together, sovereignty, is an exercise in violence.  How than can there be an anarchist democracy?  Is the idea of anarchism in this context itself clear?  If anarchism is taken as a critique of all sovereignty, of governance as the management of populations and their ways of life, then what remains of “democracy” for anarchism to defend?

And what if sovereignty is in the end a fiction, serving only to clothe and mask the incommensurability of legitimacy and power?  Stripped away, what could then emerge are in fact peoples, shaped not be sovereign authorities, but as autonomous, self-governing forms of life.

Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy

Giorgio Agamben

The term democracy sounds a false note whenever it crops up in debate these days because of a preliminary ambiguity that condemns anyone who uses it to miscommunication. Of what do we speak when we speak of democracy? What is the underlying rationale? An alert observer will soon realize that, whenever she hears the word, it might mean one of two different things: a way of constituting the body politic (in which case we are talking about public law) or a technique of governing (in which case our horizon is that of administrative practice). To put it another way, democracy designates both the form through which power is legitimated and the manner in which it is exercised. Since it is perfectly plain to everyone that the latter meaning prevails in contemporary political discourse, that the word democracy is used in most cases to refer to a technique of governing (something not, in itself, particularly reassuring), it is easy to see why those who continue, in good faith, to use it in the former sense may be experiencing a certain malaise. These two areas of conceptuality (the juridico-political and the economic-managerial) have overlapped with one another since the birth of politics, political thought, and democracy in the Greek polis or city-state, which makes it hard to tease them apart. An example will show what I mean. The basic term politeia may not be familiar to readers without Greek, but they have seen it translated as The Republic, the title of Plato’s most famous dialogue. “Republic” does not, however, exhaust its range of meanings. When the word politeia occurs in the classical writers, it is usually followed by a discussion of three different forms of politeia: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, or six if you count the three corresponding parekbaseis, or deviant forms. But translators sometimes render politeia with “constitution,” sometimes with “government.” In The Constitution of Athens (chapter 27), Aristotle characterizes the “demagogy” of Pericles this way: “demotikoteran synebe genesthai ten politeian,” and a standard English translation runs “the constitution became still more democratic.” Aristotle continues with the statement that “apasan ten politeian mallon agein eis hautous,” which the same translator renders as “brought all the government more into their hands.” To make his translation coherent, he ought to have written “brought all the constitution more into their hands,” but that would obviously have created a difficulty.

When the same fundamental political concept can be translated to mean either “constitution” or “government,” then we have ventured out beyond ambiguity onto the featureless terrain of amphibology (a term from grammar and rhetoric signifying indeterminacy of meaning). Let us train our gaze on two further passages from two classics of Western political thought, Aristotle’s Politics and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, in which this unclarity manifests itself with particular force. In the Politics, Aristole states his intention to itemize and analyze the different “constitutions” or “forms of constitution” (politeiai): “Since politeia and politeuma signify the same thing, and since the politeuma is the supreme (kyrion) power in a city, it necessarily follows that the supreme power resides either with an individual, with a few, or with the many’ (Politics 1279a 25 ff). Current translations run more or less like this: “Since constitution and government signify the same thing, and since government is the supreme power in the state … ” A more faithful translation would retain the closeness of the terms politeia (political activity) and politeuma (the resulting political outcome), but, apart from that, it is clear that the essential problem with this passage lies in Aristotle’s attempt to get rid of the amphibology by using the term kyrion. With a bit of wrenching, the passage can be paraphrased in modern terms as follows: the constituent power (politeia) and the constituted power (politeuma) bind themselves together into a sovereign (kyrion) power, which appears to be that which holds together the two sides of politics. But why is politics riven by this fissure, which the word kyrion both dramatizes and heals over?

As for the Social Contract, Michel Foucault gave a course in 1977- 1978 at the College de France showing that Rousseau’s aim was precisely to reconcile juridical and constitutional terms like contract, the general will, and sovereignty with an art of government. For our purposes, the important thing is the distinction—basic to Rousseau’s political thought—between sovereignty and government and their modes of interaction. In the article on “Political Economy” which the editors of the Encyclopédie commissioned from him, Rousseau wrote: “I beg my readers to distinguish clearly between the topic of this article, which is public economy, or what I call government, and supreme authority, or what I call sovereignty. The distinction lies in this: sovereignty has the right to legislate (le droit legislatif) . . . whereas government has purely executive power.”

In The Social Contract the distinction between the general will and legislative capacity, on one hand, and government and executive power, on the other, is restated, but Rousseau now faces the challenge of portraying these two elements as distinct—and yet articulated, knit together, interwoven. This is what compels him, at the very moment he posits the distinction, to deny forcefully that there could exist any division within the sovereign. As with Aristotle, sovereignty that which is kyrion or supreme, is at the same time one of the two terms being distinguished, and the indissoluble link between constitution and government.

Today we behold the overwhelming preponderance of the government and the economy over anything you could call popular sovereignty—an expression by now drained of all meaning. Western democracies are perhaps paying the price for a philosophical heritage they haven’t bothered to take a close look at in a long time. To think of government as simple executive power is a mistake and one of the most consequential errors ever made in the history of Western politics. It explains why modern political thought wanders off into empty abstractions like law, the general will, and popular sovereignty while entirely failing to address the central question of government and its articulation, as Rousseau would say, to the sovereign or locus of sovereignty.  In a recent book I tried to show that the central mystery of politics is not sovereignty but government; not God but his angels; not the king but his minister; not the law but the police—or rather, the double governmental machine they form and propel.

Our Western political system results from the coupling of two heterogeneous elements, a politico-juridical rationality and an economic-governmental rationality, a “form of constitution” and a “form of government.” Incommensurable they may be, but they legitimate and confer mutual consistency on each other. Why does the politeia get trapped in this ambiguity? What is it that gives the sovereign, the kyrion, the power to ensure and guarantee the legitimacy of their union? What if it were just a fiction, a screen set up to hide the fact that there is a void at the center, that no articulation is possible between these two elements, these two rationalities? What if the task at hand were to disarticulate them and force into the open this “ungovernable” that is simultaneously the source and the vanishing point of any and all politics?

As long as thought balks at tackling this knotty problem and its amphibology, any debate about democracy, either as a form of constitution or as a technique of government, is likely to collapse back into mere chatter.

(Agamben’s essay is available online in pdf format)


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