TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Democracy: Visible or Invisible?

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Wes Tirey looks at Norberto Bobbio’s ” Democracy and Invisible Government,” from Telos 52 (Summer 1982).

“Democracy,” writes Jacques Rancière in Hatred of Democracy, “first of all means this: ‘anarchic government,’ one based on nothing other than the absence of every title to govern.” He adds: “Democracy is . . . the primary limitation of the power of forms of authority that govern the social body.” While Rancière’s suggestion that democracy is ‘anarchic government’ indeed seems paradoxical, and by all means requires careful unpacking, one thing that can be taken from it is that democracy is to be seen. That is to say, a political regime that requires active citizen-participation in which the body politic is self-governing requires political activity to therefore be made public.

In “Democracy and Invisible Government,” Norberto Bobbio explores the challenges that a legitimate democracy faces against becoming “invisible.” He writes:

Somewhat inelegantly, one could define the rule of democracy as the rule of public government in public. The expression is only apparently inelegant since “public” has two meanings: one is the opposite of “private,” as in the classic distinction between ius publicum and ius privatum, stemming from Roman jurisprudence; the other is the opposite of “secret,” which means “manifest,” “plain,” or “visible,” rather than belonging to the res public or state.

Democracy as “visible government,” continues Bobbio, “brings to mind the image of the agora or of the ecclesia, an image transmitted to us by political writers of all times.” Indeed, one may think of Hannah Arendt’s romantic account of the Greek polis in The Human Condition. Arendt writes that the polis was

intended to enable men to do permanently, albeit under certain restrictions, what otherwise had been possible only as an extraordinary and infrequent enterprise for which they had to leave their households. The polis was supposed to multiply the occasions to win “immortal fame,” that is to multiply the chances for everybody to distinguish himself, to show in deed and word who he was in his unique distinctness.[1]

Moreover, “its foremost aim was to make the extraordinary an ordinary occurrence of everyday life.”[2] Yet for some, democracy will ultimately fail to maintain itself. Commenting on Plato, one of democracy’s most famous critics, Bobbio states:

In a passage in the Laws which speaks of the time when people were subject to laws and gives as an example their respect for musical laws, Plato relates how, due to poets imbued with bacchanalian enthusiasm, there arose a deplorable confusion in music and people began to disregard musical law; thus “public stages turned from silent to full of sounds, as if they understood what is beautiful or not in art, and instead of an aristocracy of music there was a miserable “theatrocracy.” Immediately thereafter he redefines this newly coined term, theatrocracy, as “democracy in musical matters,” interpreting it as the effect of the popular pretension of being able to speak everything and of no longer recognizing any law.

Thus democracy’s lack of a philosopher-king makes it an unworthy regime compared to the noble men governing and guiding the perfect State. Is it the case, then, that the divide between democratic proponents and democratic opponents is a divide based on the idea of nobility? In other words, is it nothing more than a struggle between the body politic as capable of exercising their nobility through speech and action in public space and the educated statesmen exercising their nobility over the body politic?

Indeed, the development of nation-states has made it difficult for much of what goes on in modern politics to be visible to those affected. Local governments, on the other hand, are, as Bobbio writes, “inspired by the principle that ruling is as visible as it is near.” Moreover:

The public character of city government is more direct, precisely because the visibility of administrators and of their decisions is greater, or at least one of the arguments used by the defenders of local government, the argument to restrict and multiply centers of power, is based on the citizens’ greater opportunity to look into matters that concern them and to minimize the invisible government.

Yet, borrowing from both Plato and Aristotle, Bobbio writes that a statesmen’s invisible decision making may be masked as a “noble lie” or “sophistical argument.” But if that is the case, I would argue, it is not due to the body politic not being worthy enough to receive what lies behind the nobility of the lie; rather, it is due to the fear that the body politic may rebel against the possible absurdity or non-citizen interest that lies behind the nobility.

Can democracy, then, ever be visible? For Bobbio, “every form of government has a tendency to shield itself from its subjects by hiding itself and other things, or by secrecy and concealment.” Moreover, even democracy “cannot do without ideological power . . . and persuaders.” Yet if it is a regime in which the ideological power is used and renewed by the body politic itself, rather than a regime in which ideological power is wielded behind the curtain, then it is, by all means, democratic. Moreover, if it is a regime in which a citizen may persuade in public, rather than a regime in which statesmen (or, in our liberal democracies, “representatives”) speak “noble lies” or deal behind closed doors, then it is democratic, as well.

The challenge of maintaining democracy still lies within the problem of space, which as Bobbio notes, was for Rousseau “only feasible in small republics.” “But,” continues Bobbio, “today it is no longer an extravagant imagination to think that direct democracy is made possible by the use of computers.” Eerily he asks, “why can’t the same use of computers render possible a detailed knowledge by those who hold power of citizens, even in a large state?” Indeed, the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, coupled with the mindless passivity of technology usage, illustrate a dialectic particular to contemporary democratic concerns. Is the question, then, not whether democracy can be visible but whether it can be accessible?


1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), p. 175.

2. Ibid., p. 176.

Read the full version of Norberto Bobbio’s “Democracy and Invisible Government” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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