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’.

Thinking about democracy

Via Thomas Gregersen’s ever informative Political Theory blog, a link to a paper by Claus Offe on what can and can’t be expected from deliberative politics; and a link to the ABC Democracy blog of Reza Javaheri, which contains news of a translation of Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy. The ABC Democracy blog is great – regular posts about democratic theory, theoretically informed political analysis of ongoing events in Iran and the Middle East, and a resource on political theories of non-violence.

Concrete utopias

I spent a couple of days earlier this week attending a seminar on ‘the post-political city’. Lots of interesting talks about new forms of political action from around the world, yet all strangely framed by the idea that the world has been progressively ‘de-politicized’. There is something wonderfully self-confirming about the post-political narrative – on the one hand, it bemoans how there isn’t enough ‘proper politics’ these days; then, when you find examples of more or less contentious politics going on, this just confirms that the energy of ‘proper politics’ will always erupt against strategies of de-politicization which are meant to be all pervasive. All of which seems to confirm a suspicion that Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere and others behind the post-political analysis have managed to generalise a particular sort of personal disappointment into a broad claim about de-politicisation as a worldly condition, and in the process managed to get people to think that the only thing that counts as ‘real’ politics is a remarkably narrow strand of the totality of contemporary and historical collective action. I talked about how the post-political theme continues longer trends that can be found in discussions of the concept of ‘the political’, and if I had the time I would have said something a little more constructive about theorising politics ordinarily and how this might inform the analysis of urbanisation and politics. But I didn’t get the chance to spell that bit out – it will have to wait for another occasion.

The one thing I got from the seminar was a thought about why lots of ‘civic’ engagement these days does, in fact, openly describe itself as ‘not political’ – a few speakers mentioned this in passing. There are at least a couple of things going on here, I think: one, saying your campaign/organisation isn’t ‘political’ might be a good way of mobilising and enrolling certain types of people; two, of course, the same line might be an effective way of accessing corridors of power, by avoiding the appearance of being ‘partisan’. So, it’s obvious that this is a strategic line. Interesting, and worth thinking more about, but hardly evidence of the ‘post-political’, not as theorised by the neuvo-communists at least – there is, of course, a website enabling you to actively sign-up to be Post-Political, in this alternative sense. It’s a rhetoric of being anti-politician, while affirming a whole range of spaces of collective engagement beyond party politics and elections – hardly an indication of de-politicization.

The post-political analysis remains tied, of course, to an image of proper politics as all about fundamental ruptures. There is an interesting contrast with the style of political analysis found in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, which I managed to read last week sort of accidentally. It’s the culmination of a long-running project on the topic of Real Utopias, that has generated various other edited collections on deepening democracy, basic income, and other topics – all focussed on examples of institutional or organisational experiments in reviving, extending or inventing egalitarian, participatory political forms. It’s resolutely Marxist, but also convincingly egalitarian and democratic in a way in which evades recent ‘communist chic’ literature (it’s also been the subject of an attack by Russell Jacoby in Dissent, which sort of counts as a badge of radical honour I think).

Wright argues that a critical, emancipatory social science should be able to address three issues: an effective critical diagnosis (e.g. what is wrong with capitalism?); a persuasive and justifiable account of workable alternatives; and a convincing theory of transformation. His book is organised around these three dimensions. The book also acknowledges Wright’s attachment to Analytical Marxism (or no bullshit Marxism if you prefer) – it’s actually a rather good advert for this tradition of thought, if that is what it is. This aspect is evident in various ways: a style of functionalist argument in places; a disavowal of the labour theory of value, of course; and perhaps most tellingly, a consistent working through of the what the rationalities of unintended consequences means for visions of radical politics. Apart from the sustained attention to examples of experimental institutional design in democratic politics and economic practices, what is most interesting about Wright’s analysis is how he re-frames the temporality of radical change from these ‘rationalist’ premises – it leads him to reject strongly ‘ruptural’ images of social change, and focus more attention on ‘interstitial’, pre-figurative activities – hence the focus on ‘real utopias’. Not to everyone’s liking, I would suspect, but I find this a rather compelling type of analysis of how serious social theory can challenge the imaginations of political activism in genuinely critical and constructive ways.

Wright’s book is similar in one sense, at least, to Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the contemporary politics of human rights, The Last Utopia. Moyn probably has a different set of political affiliations to Wright, I would guess. But both focus in on the images of time that underwrite different imaginations of political change. They both locate transformative political action in institutional innovations which are far less than revolutionary too.

Moyn’s argument is that human rights is a very recent political discourse, from the 1970s and after, and not to be conflated with a continuity to ‘rights of man’ discourses. It is, more to the point, he argues, a discourse and movement that is resolutely post-utopian – which is informed by much of the same moral energy that informed previous ‘revolutionary’ models of politics but without the messianic belief. It’s an interesting argument, one informed by a strand of the same thinking about ‘the political’ that the post-political analysis comes from too, but with rather different political, and methodological, resonances – Moyn is a historian of ideas, translator and commentator on that strand of French theory about the political that includes Pierre Rosanvallon and Marcel Gauchet, and Pierre Clastres. In Moyn’s narrative, human rights as a contemporary movement is distinctive because it breaks the link between rights claims and state sovereignty – here is a sense throughout that this might qualify as a ‘post-political’ movement in a certain sense; but on the other hand, the emphasis is on this movement as rather effective organisationally, and not least in shaping global governance and legal regimes. After all, letter-writing might be just as effective a way of staking a claim to public space as protesting in a street or public park.

Moyn is also the editor of a new journal called Humanity, and has a blog too, both of which focus on this same set of issues – I guess the key difference between the ‘post-political’ analysis which sees depoliticization everywhere and this sort of work is the genealogical emphasis on the emergence of new forms of public action, not simply an ontologized lament for the decline of proper politics, understood in an entirely a priori fashion. Moyn has a piece in Dissent earlier this year in which he works through his own thesis about the newness of human rights with reference to the Arab Spring – which he sees as a version of an older, ‘rights-of-man’ style set of claims, shaped by claims for national citizenship and supposing sovereignty of the nation-state. It’s an interesting argument, not sure I wholly believe it, but it makes clear an aspect of the book more generally – the sense that it is the geographical framing of claims that distinguish the content of contemporary human rights discourses from previous discourses of universalism.