Where can I find real democracy?

Simon Critchley has a short piece in The Guardian today, on the lessons and future of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. It argues that these events show us that ‘true politics’ involves two things – ‘a demand that flows from the perception of injustice’; and ‘a location where that demand is articulated’. There is, he concludes, therefore ‘no poitics without location’.

I’m interested in this sort of argument, and its appeal to these contemporary events, because they resonate with some of my own intellectual predispositions, yet I find something troubling about them (I’ve been trying to express some of the worries while e-chatting recently with Mark Purcell at Paths to the Possible about some of these things). I like the idea that politics, of the sort we like at least, democratic-y politics of a more or less radical sort, arises from a ‘felt sense of injustice’ as Honneth puts it somewhere, and have been trying to write about this idea and how it might be used to think about the relationships between democracy, place and space. So I keep writing papers which have titles like ‘locating democracy’, but the point of them is that actually (democractic) politics doesn’t have a location at all, it’s dispersed across different spaces; it might not even have a proper relation to any specific spatial figure of whatever sort.

Critchley’s piece is just one example of a range of academic commentaries which tend to repeat fairly uncritically the self-representation of activists about the political forms of Occupy, Indignados, and other movements – that these really are the emobodiment of a genuine re-birth of direct, consensual democracy stripped of the parasitical intrusions of representative politics. That’s what ‘real democracy’ turns out to mean.

I think it should be possible to affirm one’s solidarity with these movements without necessarily reiterating these claims without question. It should be possible to analyse the rhetoric and practice of anti-representation in these movements – ‘no parties, no banners’ – as a phenomenon worthy of investigation, not just present such claims as a matter of fact. Jodi Dean and Jason Jones have a really interesting piece on the question of how to think representation in relation to OWS, and it’s one of the few things of it’s sort that I can think of (it’s part of a special edition on the topic of ‘in defence of representation’). I’ve just started reading Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy, and it seems to me, for example, that these movements might fit quite well into his genealogy of the emergence of new modes of democratic legtimacy based on values of proximity and presence – my point being that what is required is an analytic imagination that can recognise the emergence of new forms without simply reproducing simplistic dualisms between direct and representative democracy which, while politically effective perhaps, don’t have much interpretative purchase if you think about it for a moment.

Back to Critchley; his piece starts out with a standard narrative device, we’ve all done it: power, as the ability to get things done, has become spatially divorced from politics, the means of getting things done (a globalization cliché he draws from Bauman). Well, maybe, maybe not, but even if this were the case, it would seem to require some thought about how poloitics can be re-spatialised to match the scaling up of power – an argument made by various traditions of thought, including plenty of geographers, and a staple of David Held-style cosmopolitanism. This is easier said than done in theory and practice no doubt, and the diagnosis might just be flawed anyway. But what I’m not sure about is whether Critchley’s conclusion from his starting point follows at all – that the divorce means we need to think about ‘true politics’ in terms of the figure of location. Something seems to get to go astray in the reasoning that starts by saying that power and politics have become too distant from one another and end up by saying that the most effective response is to take a stand in one place (after all, the most interesting aspect of these movements might well be not their ‘occupation’ strategies per se, but the movement of the strategies – that’s why they are called movements).

The attachment to location seems to have something to do with Critchley’s chosen view of contemporary protest movements as embodying values of directness, horizontality, assembly – it’s just one example I think of more general intellectual ‘moment’ in which the idea of true politics and real democracy has become associated with an image of the spaces of politics and democracy as real, physical places of co-presence and gathering together.

If one goes back to Critchley’s point about demands and injustice, then the figure of location seems, again, not to be quite adequate. If demands need to be articulated, then I’m not sure they need a location at all – a specific point, a localisation in space and time. They are, after all, articulated – a demand has a spatiality that is open to connection, combination, joining up. Not one of punctual presence or location. The space of demands generated by injustice is strung out, not gathered together.

Which doesn’t mean that ‘real spaces’ aren’t important. I just think it might be better to think of these spaces of demonstration as enacting a demonstrative force that is better thought of in terms, say, of the idea of spaces of address developed by Kurt Ivesen‘s work on public space. Or of locations as starting places, temporary stopping points. Which might well be move akin to the political geography of ‘occupying’. Even then, though, there might be pause for thought – Crtitchley ends with a call to move on and apply the force of this ‘true politics’ to the London Olympics, a recommendation which might well suggest a form of politics reduced to the purely tactical, tracking the eventalization of the world wrought by spectacular capital with events of its own. So much for getting things done.

And one final thought – Critchley is one of my favourite thinkers, his book on ethics and deconstruction was a fundamental influence on my thinking as a graduate student. It’s one place, though not the first (that was an essay by Nancy Fraser) where I remember learning about the importance of Claude Lefort to a whole strand of French thought that at that time was still being rudely called postmodern. I just wonder, remembering those things I learnt from reading Critchley back then, whether an analysis of true politics and real democracy that rests on the idea that power and politics have become divorced hasn’t lapsed into a certain sort of romantic amnesia about which it should really know better. Conceptually, normatively, the idea that power and politics should be married together, as it were, might be only rather ambivalently ‘democratic’, at best. Which isn’t to say that they should be separated, it’s just that what matters is the quality of the relationship. And conceptualising that relationship, its optimum shape, needs better analysis than can be provided by claims about the importance of location or the form of ‘true politics’.

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2 thoughts on “Where can I find real democracy?

  1. Dear Clive,

    Thanks for this post – some really interesting and big issues covered here. I think you’re spot on about Critchley’s piece. As a geographer, I really liked the way he tried to foreground space and place into his argument, yet think he’s kind of gone the wrong way with this. Your need to get beyond a ‘true’ form of politics is key, but I also think that temporality is key here, especially to things like Occupy – the idea of occupation is, to my mind, both an extension of long standing ideas about occupations as a vibrant form of protest that actually claims a certain space, but is also about opening up ‘the system’ (be it democracy, authoritarianism, capitalism or whatever -ism is being resisted) for a period of time. The length of time that these places can be occupied, and the government response to them, tells us a lot about the nature and shape of a political system – and that, crucially, is where their potential as demonstrative forces lies, and helps us to move beyond the ‘local’ spaces of the sites they occupy, and, as you rightly say, allows a sense of articulation beyond relatively crude sense of space as a container for protest that some analyses of Occupy have tended to rely upon. Anyhow, really enjoyed this piece!

    Cheers

    Andy

    • Hi Andy
      Thanks for the comment – and yes, I think you are quite right, it’s the temporalities of such practices that are crucial, and which has the most interesting implications for thinking about their spaces, and public space more generally – it would seem to imply, for example, a much more contingent as well as strung out sense of where you might find spaces for effective public action.

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