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September 4, 2012

Is it at all meaningful to call oneself a “democrat”? Manifestly, one may and should answer both “no, it’s quite meaningless, since it is no longer possible to call oneself anything else,” and “yes, of course, given that equality, justice, and liberty are under threat from plutocracies, technocracies, and mafiocracies wherever we look.” Democracy has become an exemplary case of the loss of the power to signify: representing both supreme political virtue and the only means of achieving the common good, it grew so fraught that it was no longer capable of generating any problematic or serving any heuristic purpose. All that goes on now is marginal debate about the differences between various democratic systems and sensibilities. In short, democracy means everything—politics, ethics, law, civilization—and nothing.

This loss of significance we ought to be taking seriously, and we are, as the “inquest” the reader is holding in her hand demonstrates. The task for thought is to stop letting common sense pullulate with free-floating incoherencies the way it does now and force democratic nonsignificance to stand trial in the court of reason.

☛ “Finite and Infinite Democracy” by Jean-Luc Nancy, tr. by William McCuaig in Democracy In What State?, New York: Columbia University Press, [2009] 2011, pp. 58-59. Originally published as “Démocratie finie et infinie” in Démocratie, dans quel état?, Paris: La Fabrique, 2009, pp. 77-78 (excerpts: PDF).

In his monumental Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville observed the cyclic or episodic life of some aspects of the democratic process as it is punctuated by elections:

As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostiles camps, each of which assumes the name of its favourite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement; the election is the daily theme of the public papers, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present. As soon as the choice is determined, this ardour is dispelled; and as a calmer season returns, the current of the State, which had nearly broken its banks, sinks to its usual level: but who can refrain from astonishment at the causes of the storm? (tr. Henry Reeve, Vol. I, Chap. VIII, London: Longmans, Green, And Co., [1835]1875, p. 133; original French De la démocratie en Amérique)

Nancy’s short essay argues, among other things, that modern democracy does not only concerns political “citizens” but also ―and maybe more importantly― humanity itself, the very conditions that allow us to be humans (and this means precisely to be humans together). From this point of view, it becomes clear that democracy shouldn’t be reduced to or strictly identified with the casting of one’s vote during elections. Unless, of course, one agrees to be human only from time to time. It’s also clear, following Tocqueville’s observation, that democracy is not an answer but a problem: for example, how are we to think the divisions –“the citizens are divided into hostiles camps”– produced by the very attempt to give foundation to a democratic association (in his essay, Nancy quotes Kant and writes about the “unsocial sociability” of mankind)?

Previously: On Democracy: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Zizek

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