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Democracy as Dialectics: Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic’s Critique of Democracy as a Limit

The following paper was presented at the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.


Two french communist authors recently devoted a book to an attempt at the systematic demolishment of the logic of democracy. What makes their gesture interesting is that their critique of democracy is made in the very name of autonomy, equality, and emancipation, that is, of the very principles that democracy is supposed to promote and uphold. One usually knows how to react to attacks on democracy coming from the other side, from those who ground their arguments in a celebration of some sort of hierarchy principle, those who deduce the political from an ontology of violence, or aim at naturalizing orders and political differences. In those cases there is usually not much to be said at all, because anti-democratic arguments are usually not recognized as belonging to the same conversation as democratic ones: when they are actually heard, anti-democratic arguments are usually subject to different logics of validation, enunciation and justification than democratic ones. This is for instance what the notion of extremism generally does: to locate a voice or an argument outside of the recognized universe of discourse, and hence somehow deprived of an equal standing, possibly subject to some version of the old Jacobin motto: “there shall be no freedom for the enemies of freedom.” The paradox is interesting in itself, because it betrays the presence of a certain politics of thought and speech that is already at work way before we get to discuss in a rational process the truths of political forms, and yet has substantial effects on what is heard (and not heard) in the supposedly transparent sphere of public discourse. It also forces us to recognize the recurring, foundational role of the limit, of the gesture that at the same time opens up and delimits the space of what is possible and what is acceptable, which is often overlooked or simplified in the context of democratic theory.


None of this is alien to the polemics that Nesic and Dauvé are wishing to sustain, for they are well aware of what tends to happen when one decides to set fire to the totems of the tribe. In a sense, their provocative effort could be understood precisely in that sense: as an attempt at a genealogy of the very limits (of discourse, of practice, of meaning) that democracy implies in itself. There is something in their critique, however, that complicates the convenient picture of the anti-democratic extremist (a picture through which the old, rich tradition of the communist critiques of formal democracy is often dilluted and dispensed with). That something has to do with the very spirit of their critique, with what is moving it and why. In fact, Nesic and Dauvé affirm that a truly equal and free society (one that, them being communists, would be without capital, without waged labor, without the State) could only be accomplised through the autonomous action and movement of a free, self-organized, self-determined majority. In their own words, a communist revolution is the “expression of anyone’s ability to act as a subject and to take part in a community that is defined by its actions and not by any predetermined identity, a community that invents itself in practice and produces its own direction.”

We recognize here many of the elements that are essential to the philosophy of democracy (the rule of the majority, the principles of social equality and individual freedom, the image of society as a process of collective self-determination). And yet, this sort of communist autonomy could not recognize itself in the same name that, from ancient Greece, has absorbed the aspiration of the people to live free and able to collectively determine itself. On the contrary: for Nesic and Dauvé, democracy stands as the effigy of multiple forms of separation, alienation and powerlessness, which must be overcome and abolished in order for those very principles to be possible. So that here we are not dealing with a merely “external” critique of the democratic ethos; nor with any sort of attack grounded on historical or political circumstances. The goal is not an amendment or an improvement of democracy either, as in those dialectics of perfectibility that are supposed to lead once and again towards an open, unending democratic progress. The argument blames the logic of democracy for making it impossible to reach the very principles that it originally sets forth, (the collective practice of autonomy, equality and political emancipation). Against the false dilemma of the lesser evil (democracy is the least worst form of government!) and the resolutive projection of desire (democracy is not this: is something else! There is a real democracy to come!) Dauvé and Nesic aim at thinking democracy as the name of a self-contradicting problem, and its radical critique as a necessary premise for its overcoming, for moving, as the title of their book proposes, Beyond Democracy.


The democratic problem, according to this diagnostic, is illustrated by its own history. The classical ideal of democracy collapsed a long time ago under the weight of the logic of representation; today, the people has no other reality than that of a collective fiction, and with rare exceptions, everybody knows that the principle of “governing and being governed” (which offered the political backbone of that ideal) only applies to a very small fraction of the population, to the point that democracy is associated with little more than the pacific replacement of political elites, the passive enjoyment of individual rights, and the preservation of the juridical State apparatus inherited from modern liberalism. Of course, this is not only a question of how many people, and how often, do participate in government. The problem is more fundamental, because that fictional demos mixes in a whole of allegedly equal people individuals who are very different from one another: democracy makes as if political equality consisted in the fact that the vote of an oligarch and that of a homeless person were worth exactly the same.

This is something that Marx explains in On the Jewish Question: in modern capitalism, an illusory political equality among individuals covers up, drains and sustains the fact of their social inequality. Politics is thus constituted as a separated sphere of life in which power can circulate, renovate itself and even be questioned and challenged without substantially affecting the material constitution of society: between the socio-economic hierarchy and the political sphere, there are almost no meaningful points of contact at all, so that political identities are dissociated from socio-economic status, and political equality can perfectly well coincide with social exploitation and class inequality. Within that separated sphere, the citizens can enact the fiction of equality provided that they behave as if they were not different: in order to be juridical and political equals, they have to dissociate themselves from everything that marks and conditions their everyday life, their income, their work, their social burdens and relations, the hierarchies and forces that they weigh upon others or that others do weigh upon them. The conflicts and opposed interests that result from social inequality are thus suspended, forgotten or dilluted in the isolated spaces of the political. The result is well known: a diminished political people, enormous but passive, with limited and circumscribed capacities, equally distributed among all with the sole condition of not using them (almost) anyways for (almost) nothing at all.


The book’s thesis is that such a displacement, by which beings who are unequal accept or are forced to treat each other as equals, is not exclusive of democracy: it is rather the ideological presupposition of the market itself, of the capitalist exchange, of waged labor. Capitalism, they explain, is also based in the alleged equality of what it reunites, in the “free” and “equal” exchange of goods and services, money and commodities, time and work, and in the constant staging of the competition between agents that relate to one another under the conditions of a supposed, abstract, fallacious equality. This is the continuity between capitalism as a logic of equivalencies and democracy as a mechanism that is capable of sublimating social differences in order to (re)distribute political power, time and again, in a pacific and symbolically effective manner. Democracy appears hence as the ideal form of capitalism, as the political supplement that completes and reinforces it, organizing the management and the appeasement of social conflicts, dilluting in the image of “the people” the manifold inequalities and divisions among the subjects that allegedly form it. Democracy acts then as the transmission lever of the capitalist logic that dissociates politics from the moments of production, constantly recreating thus the limits of an economy in which social needs and identities are determined and administered through the necessary mediation of labor. For Nesic and Dauvé, Democracy is the proper name of this fundamental split: it is the name of a collective form of activity that, despite its semblance of equality, is essentially unable to modify its own social contents and determinants.


The problem, however, is that democracy is not only the name of the separation and political encasing operated by capitalism. Democracy is also the name of a historical capacity of resistance, of the combats for the material emancipation of labor, of the immanent struggle between the “two cities,” the social division between the rich and the poor, that fractures the inside of the social and makes impossible the closure of power in a perfect self-representation. This is the name of democracy as popular power, as resistance and disruption, the expression of a demos that is both the name of the lower classes and of the social whole, of the part opposed to the whole, of their impossible equation and adequation. Against the proper name of democracy as a limit arises then this second, common name, an improper name that expresses itself through its own conceptual and historical movement, no matter how contradictory and how many times interrupted.


Western capitalism is no longer in a position to ensure the growth and sustained improvement, however tenuous or marginal, of the living conditions of the majority of the working and middle classes. On the contrary, the financial reproduction of capital through pure and simple dispossession of resources, goods and human capacities, is making so that for a growing share of those who suffer this offensive, the conflict assumes the appearance of an irresoluble clash between capitalism and democracy. This process, which can be easily seen in the contexts of crisis in Southern Europe (and before that, with dramatically more substantial results, in the South American political processes of the last decade and a half), is far from being the effect of an ideological mystification. To put it in vaguely Rancierian terms, what is being thus rediscovered and reshaped is nothing other than the silent valence of the unequal, of those who resist their own erasure and representation, who strongly reclaim the political voices and bodies they have been deprived of. This mobilization of the demos that renounces its own passivity sabotages the very boundaries of the political: it transgresses the realms of enclosure, galvanizes the material body of society, subjects to discussion not only each of the limits that hold the weight of the social, but the very logic of separation that produces and reproduces them. In moments like these, the split of democracy is actualized once again: democracy is the dual name of the constituent power undoing its constituted representation, draining the blood of the sovereign political body.


The name of democracy is fractured indeed, split into these two charged polarities, separation and emancipation, the limit and its transgression. The extremely insatisfactory character of both the “radical” critiques and the blind apologies of democracy might well be due to the confusion or the subjection of one pole to the other. What still makes democracy a powerful, dynamic political concept is neither its identification with any set of rules, principles or institutional forms, nor its sheer celebration as the unmediated realization of the political freedom of the people, whatever that faithful thought might ultimately mean. Rather, it is precisely this impossibility of dissipating the fracture, it is this self-differing structure, what keeps democracy moving: two names and a single movement made of encounters, dissolutions and contradictions, a winding dialectics that opens up the space for political struggles and interventions. Here is as well where the question of the limit could be re-posited best. For it is the irruption of democracy within democracy, the attempt at the democratization of democracy and the politization of politics, what gestures today at social progress and political emancipation. It is that fissure within the democratic name that can be effectively politicized, and hence challenge, transgress, break through the capitalist enclosure of the political, and turn politics once again into what it is, a battle for the tracing and retracing of limits and capabilities.

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