Theses on Occupy Wall Street (Part II)

It’s not that democracy’s bad, but …

As promised, here’s the conclusion to “Theses on Occupy Wall Street”. This time I have only one thesis to propose, although I had initially imagined another three or four. I was inspired to write this because of a talk I gave recently in which I discussed my concerns about the use of “democracy” as a rallying cry for protest movements like Occupy Wall Street.

Thesis V: Democracy isn’t enough

Two democratic dangers

One of the most dangerous ideas that has become acceptable in our time is that “democracy” names some kind of intrinsic value: so long as democratic mechanisms for registering opinions and establishing consensus are in place, we have not only the ideal political arrangement but also a pretty fair approximation of human freedom’s highest expression.

I don’t want to criticize the basic notion of democratic participation, i.e. that the same people who are subjected to the terms and conditions of the political order are the same ones who collectively determine the shape of that order; but absent some pretty difficult questions, that notion is very dangerous, because it either turns out to be vacuous or viciously circular. Plato touched upon the first possibility over two millennia ago in his Republic. The second has been discussed quite eloquently in our own time by the French philosopher Alain Badiou (who I admire but often disagree with, although he is quite right on this point).

… democracy, in and of itself, licenses only the competition of appetites and transforms the polis into a directionless plurality…

As Socrates argues in The Republic, democracy’s vacuousness consists simply in the fact that democracy, in and of itself, licenses only the competition of appetites and transforms the polis into a directionless plurality of desires that observe no underlying or overarching principle. What emerges then is an ultimately unhappy tumult that renders itself vulnerable to those whose desire takes advantage of and harnesses all the rest; those who simply desire power, in other words.

Alain Badiou’s argument, on the other hand, is that insofar as the effective operation of democratic mechanisms is taken to vindicate their results, those results are immediately legitimated beyond being merely lawful and legally binding. Ultimately, democracy itself is justified by the legitimate delivery of its own results: in other words, the medium is the message. And, worse, everyone is aware that this the case! Hence, says Badiou, “electoral democracy acknowledges the extent to which it is a site where impotence is the rule, the impotence of those who try to govern their actions and passions by the idea that, after all, the real is rational. Everyone can see that electoral democracy is not a space of real choice, but something that registers, like a passive seismograph, propensities that are quite different from an enlightened intention, and have nothing in common with the representation that a real thought can have of the objectives that the will pursues” (The Meaning of Sarkozy, pp.30-31).

Taken as its own end, the democratic exercise can only end up demoralizing people. And the bizarre expression of this demoralization is, in fact, the celebration of democracy itself.

“Everything sucks, but democracy won!”

The 2011 federal election provided a perfect example of this effect. After months of anxiety, the Conservative victory was received by a dismayed segment of the populace that reassured itself by reminding everybody that, after all, democracy had won, which is what really matters. Leaving aside the fact that it’s demonstrably false that democracy benefited from its own exercise in this case, it strikes me as absurd that anyone who vehemently opposed the tactics, political ambition and moral vision of Stephen Harper and his friends like Tom Flanagan would ease their grief by celebrating the successful use of the political equivalent of an abacus.

… any politics or style of political reasoning that doesn’t involve fundamental questions about what it means to be, is a pseudo-politics.

What’s common to both of these specifically democratic dangers is that the question of truth gets sidelined. By that I mean that in each case, for different reasons, the political question of the meaning of human existence is either caught in a bottleneck or set aside by a substitute. This implies a real existential problem is involved in politics, and that’s exactly what I want to suggest: that any politics or style of political reasoning that doesn’t involve fundamental questions about what it means to be, is a pseudo-politics. Yet we live with a political style that deliberately marginalizes that problem; not because we think we’ve discovered the truth, but because we think we’ve found a way to make it irrelevant. There are historical reasons for this, or so I’d like to suggest: it’s not just that people “give up” on truth wherever democracy pops up. For one thing, I don’t think we can assess the current situation without recalling, first, the emergence of the theme and problem of tolerance in the eighteenth century and, second, the totalitarian catastrophes of the twentieth. In light of the second, it makes sense that people might return to the promises of the first with renewed vigor. There’s nothing unreasonable about wanting a political style that allows us to set aside significant differences of value and perspective by agreeing to live with whatever compromises we can reach through democratically substantiated negotiations, is there? Why fight wars over “capital-T Truth” when you can split the difference?

Will the real postmodernists please stand up?

I’d also like to go further and suggest that another possible historical reason for our current situation has to do with a speculative position popular among North American academics in roughly the 1980s: the usual term for it is “postmodernism” and its calling card is a generalized skepticism about the notion of truth (and it’s impressive to formulate a generalization about such a nebulous and complex notion). I’m not the first to suggest that our political style is “postmodernist” or that our politicians are the best postmodernists out there, since for them truth is produced by consensus.

I’m also not the first to think that it’s far past time for truth to return to politics as a substantive question, problem and motivating force. Again, recall the totalitarian projects of the last century, born of competing visions of truth: for awhile, it seemed like mechanisms of consensus might protect us from those dangers. But what have the last ten years taught us, if not that safety is sometimes a little too dangerous? In any event, our style of political reasoning gives voice to another notion of “capital-T Truth”—just with the curious idiosyncrasy of systemically obscuring that fact.

Is it dangerous to argue that the political problem of what it means to be human is open to further negotiation, to argue for a new situation in which competing ideas about human existence come into conflict with each other? Absolutely. Does that immediately and completely signal the destruction of democracy as an idea, a possibility, and a reality? No. But democracy isn’t enough. Ideas about what it means to be human have to be in the mix for democratic mechanisms to produce results that aren’t incoherent or redundant. This means radically revising notions like tolerance: ought we tolerate virulent racists, for example? Am I being intolerant by posing that question seriously and not just academically, as an example in a thought experiment? Maybe, it makes no sense to pretend that these conflicts can be addressed without some degree of danger. After all, we’re talking about the kinds of disagreements in which each side considers the other to be attacking the possibility of an acceptable world. People all over the world are still ready to fight under the banner of the word “truth”. Where there’s truth, there’s danger, but I’ve had it with the dangers of safety.

But what have the last ten years taught us, if not that safety is sometimes a little too dangerous?

I’d like to pick up some strands of this month’s column in next month’s, which I’m planning on calling “Everyone is Don Quixote”. I’ll close for now; I write this the night before I fly home for Christmas. I’ve never missed a year, but this year I find myself especially trembling with excitement at the nearness of my time with my family, my friends and my beloved city. Maybe it’s because this year seems, more than any since 2001, to have turned history into a white-knuckle ride, and the comforts of home beckon more than usual.

Some years ago I was served by a bartender at the Fat Cat (I think) who told me that a Christmas greeting in her hometown is “all the joys”. I’ve always liked that, because it sounds like a wish. As a heathen who loves Christmas, I’d like to greet you also: All the joys! All the joys!

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