Some on the left are taking a dismissive attitude to the idea of representative democracy. Chris Nineham reviews a new book of essays by leading left intellectuals which shows how dangerous this attitude is.

Giorgio Agamben et. al., Democracy in What State? (New Directions in Critical Theory, Columbia University Press, 2011), 144pp.

Neoliberalism has been very bad for democracy. The corporate capture of politics has robbed people of much of the leverage they felt they had on the democratic process. Even more, this book shows it has also led some on the left to completely lose their bearings on the issue.

As it has turned out, democratic failure has been the mainspring of revolt against the crisis of neo-liberalism. ‘You don’t represent us’, ‘the people want the fall of the regime’, and ‘democracy now’, are cries being taken up by people in main squares all around the Mediterranean and beyond. This book, a selection of essays about democracy by prominent left intellectuals published in 2009 in France and translated into English this year, shows how unprepared most of the left was for these developments.

The reasons are simple. Many of the contributors take such a bleak view of what has happened to mainstream democracy that they tend to assume the whole project itself is fatally flawed. Conclusion; democracy, at least as we know it, will not be a central issue for the left.

The book is full of eloquent descriptions of how democracy has been hijacked. For Wendy Brown ‘even democracy’s most important if superficial icon, “free elections”, have become circuses of marketing and management, from spectacles of fund-raising to spectacles of targeted voter “mobilization”. As citizens are wooed by sophisticated campaign marketing strategies that place their voting on a par with choosing brands of electronics, political life is increasingly reduced to media and marketing success’ (p.47).

Outrage at how business manipulates democracy combines with the view that the whole concept has been co-opted during the Cold War. The two thoughts taken together lead again and again to the gloomiest of outlooks. For Kirstin Ross for example, ‘it is difficult to overstate the enormous gain Western governments managed to consolidate when they successfully advanced democracy as the opposing counterweight to communism. They had actually gained control of the entire word for themselves, leaving nary a trace of its former emancipatory resonance’ (p.97). And for Alain Badiou, ‘democracy, the emblem and custodian of the walls behind which the democrats seek their petty pleasures, is just a word for a conservative oligarchy whose main (and often bellicose) business is to guard its own territory as animals do, under the usurped name world’ (p.8).

For some it is the people who are to blame; in Wendy Brown’s view ‘the majority of Westerners have come to prefer moralizing, consuming, conforming, luxuriating, fighting, simply being told what to be, think and do over the task of authoring their own lives’ (p.55). However, for other writers the problem lies with democracy itself. Alain Badiou uses the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato to support his argument that the only way to make truth out of the world is to ‘assume the burden of not being a democrat’ (p.7). Democratic man for Badiou is reduced to an atomised pleasure seeker, trapped in the immediate, unable to grasp the idea of collectivity or even any real sense of the world (p.14).

In easily the book’s best essay, Daniel Bensaid shows how far this kind of thinking has spread and how dangerous it is. In particular he dissects Jacques Ranci√®re’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s rejection of representative democracy as a hopelessly alienated practice (p.39). Ranci√®re’s view that representative democracy is ‘fully and overtly an oligarchic form’ leads him to suggest the drawing of lots as an alternative. As Bensaid argues, such a move would abolish politics in the sense of an organised deliberation from which all sorts of proposals, counter-proposals, and therefore informed and tested decisions can emerge (p.38). It should be added that these are not just academic debates. Reports from Greece, Spain and elsewhere suggest that these kinds of ideas have some purchase on the mass movements.

Now of course bourgeois democracy has always had very serious limitations, and thankfully they are becoming more and more obvious. But to write off all its achievements is a foolish mistake. Such contempt for actually existing democracy is almost always a sign of cynicism about ordinary people’s political capacities. Badiou’s contempt for democratic man who ‘lives only for the present, transient desire is his only law’ reeks of pessimism if not paternalism. The Arab uprisings have shown that pessimism to be misplaced. In any case, serious historians of democracy should know that bourgeois democracy is itself almost always the product of mass struggles. Scenes of tens of thousands of young people demanding a politics that takes account of their needs and desires should convince that popular disengagement with mainstream democracy is a result of a sense of its limitations rather than mass de-politicisation. It is not only intellectuals who can sense the hollowing out of the political process.

Worse still, one-sided contempt for bourgeois democracy all too easily leads away from any kind of formal democracy and towards an idea of change coming from somewhere other than mass involvement in politics. We have seen how Jacques Ranci√®re suggests by-passing representation to establish some random process. For Badiou, change if it comes, will not be the outcome of conscious development of ideas or organisations but the product of a spontaneous eruption, a primordial event, ‘the force in the breast of the assembled and active people driving the State and its laws to extinction’ (p.14).

In his contribution to the book, Žižek too suggests that there is a kind of radical politics that somehow transcends representation and creates a bond between leader and oppressed which can be allowed to escape democratic oversight or mandate:
‘What this means is that the ultimate question of power is not “is this democratically legitimized or not” but what is the specific character (the “social content”) of the “totalitarian excess” that pertains to sovereign power as such, independently of its democratic or undemocratic character?’ (p.119).

Such ideas are fraught with danger. Glorifying spontaneity, or randomising decision-making, rules out any kind of political development or understanding of history that could be brought to bear on the present. Abandoning representation means the end of political groups proposing and contesting ideas in the midst of the struggle. It means the end too of leaderships being tested in practice and held to account by those to whom they are responsible. Far from leading to better solutions, these are paths to confusion, indecision or even back to monolithic forms of rule.

All this is a million miles away from the approach Marx and his supporters took to bourgeois democracy. Marx knew from his own experience of struggling for it the limitations of ‘formal’ democracy, but he also knew that it was a huge improvement on the absolutism it replaced: ‘Political emancipation (recognition of civil rights) is a great advance; it is certainly not the ultimate form of human emancipation in general, but it is the last form of human emancipation in the order of the world as we know it to date’ (Marx, On the Jewish Question, 1844, quoted by Bensaid, pp.42-3). The Arab rebellions prove the importance of any democratic breakthrough to social struggles. For years strikes and economic protest have been viciously repressed in Egypt. Now the democratic movement there has inspired and enabled the biggest strike wave for generations.

Democratic and economic struggles have always been closely intertwined. The fact that discontent with neoliberalism is finding expression in democratic struggle partly expresses a sense of the scope and scale of the challenges we face. Just as the neo-liberals have adopted a society-wide, even global perspective in their attempt to re-engineer the world, so there is a growing consciousness of the need for a root and branch reshaping of society amongst activists. The demand for the democratisation of society is a logical expression of the need for fundamental change.

The problem with bourgeois democracy for Marx was not the idea of representation. He did not counterpose ‘formal’ democracy with some kind of mystical, ‘organic’ alternative. Democracy will always involve some kind of formal structure. The problem with actually existing democracy for Marx was that it was not democratic or representative enough. Bourgeois democracy was a system of rule that was ideal for the capitalist class because it hid their economic domination behind a veneer of political representation. Politicians would be elected, but the capitalist still owned the factory while the state was actually run by unelected bureaucrats, judges and generals.

Working-class democracy would actually mean a much more thoroughgoing form of representative politics, in which representation would be tightened, not relaxed. Marx championed the practice of the Paris Commune of 1871 which insisted all elected delegates should be regularly re-elected and instantly recallable. However, it would also mean democracy would be expanded to all areas of society including the economy. Only then would decisions about production and distribution, the most important decisions in any society, finally come into the public domain. Working-class revolutions tend to throw up new forms of organisation that can root democracy much more deeply in society.

This was the significance of the soviets or workers’ councils in Russia in 1917 which brought together representatives from factories, working-class communities and from soldiers and peasants. Yet the Russian revolutionaries continued to participate in the bourgeois constituent assembly even while the soviets were gaining in strength. This was because they understood that it is only by testing the limits of bourgeois forms of democracy that workers and the poor will be won to the superiority of working-class forms.

Revolutionary, working-class democracy is not the opposite of the bourgeois ideal, it is in fact the only path to the fulfilment of the great cry of the French revolutionaries of 1789 for ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.