Monday, January 3, 2011

Fetishizing Radical Democracy

We are, it seems, very into radical democracy. Positing that the field of the political is nothing more (and nothing less) than the competitive play of discourse permits scholars to advance compelling and appealing arguments such as the one developed in 1985's seminal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, where Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue that the most important political task is to remember that there is nothing outside the political (or the discursive) and so new hegemonic articulations (important shifts on the rhetorical landscape in which certain signifiers occupy new positions that correspond to new political opportunities) are possible no matter how the dark the times may appear for progressive politics.

In theory, of course, this articulated political is to radical critique what the printing press was to the word of God: a force to democratize the understanding of the social radically, turning the power of liberalism into a kind of bulwark against a pre-determined political by insisting that the political as it is constructed now could always be otherwise. And as Laclau explains more acutely in On Populist Reason, the vehicle capable of articulating new politicals is that of "the people", the ultimate democratic category, one who force of interpellation is powerful.

But what if there is a kind of hostility built in between the democratic ideal and the progressive social welfare state continuously supported by Laclau, Mouffe, and the like? After all, populism works on an imaginary terrain through the assertion that the people know best: that they know their interests, that their judgment is sound, and that internally these facts will be tautologically reaffirmed by the normative goodness of the will of the people.

All well and good. These very smart people are aware of the potential pitfalls: Mouffe's The Democratic Paradox is built around the persistent clash between liberalism and democracy. Liberalism, with its focus on the individual, is at a kind of structural loggerheads with the democratic ideal, whose committment to equality threatens to cancel the liberal committment to freedom. Still, however, both notions valorize the people: liberalism trusts the individual judgment and valuation of various markets, while the democratic ethos insists that an aggregation of the popular voice produces something marching in the direction of "the good life."

Neither account offers much bulwark against the threat that kept the Founders up at night: the tyranny of the majority. Moreover, republican political institutions exist in a way to counter both democracy and liberalism: their very existence signals a distrust of the individual's judgment or the voice of the people. Yet few theorists speak of advancing a "radical republicanism": it is assumed in advance that the interests of the people articulate to normative goods. If progressive political articulations are consistently structured around finding the voice of the people then there is a kind of subtle fetishism produced: we again attempt to find the people's "true interests", or to refigure/rearticulate them through discourse.

But the very idea of a people's interest is no political neutral. In fact, support for what individuals want supports individuality itself. This perhaps strikes us as no particularly troubling until we do a quick and brief survey of the kinds of discourses that pop up in say, the recent flare up of Tea Party movement. Here we see a series of discourses that unconditionally exist upon the sovereign individual. Moreover, these discourses are commited to a kind of radical eradication of productive relationships between government and citizen (cf. Sarah Palin's keynote address to the Nashville Tea Party rally).

If one sought to take up arms against the Tea Party discursively, one option advocated by the radical democracy crowd might be to produce a more effective version of the "popular will", one that would counter the radical individuality of the Tea Party with something like a set of popular demands for the expansion of the welfare state. The problem is that, viewed comparatively, the former arguments have a kind of build in leverage point for success by implicitly valorizing the individual. Discourses that bombard the state with paternalistic demands, but do so on individual/liberal terms, risk reproducing the very political terrain so sympathetic to the radical liberal individuality of the Tea Party. This, perhaps, is why a kind of republican vocabulary is necessary: it does not always trust the people, and so is capable of supporting with a kind of intellectual consistency support for the welfare state.


  1. Hrm. Well, rhetorically here's our competing appeals: "they're taking your happiness away" and "love your neighbor." Both rest on a tacit individualism, but one is of the terrible twos, and the other, of the idealistic teens. One appeals to the "the passions," while the other, "the will."

    Seems to me these appeals come prior to "the people"---that they hook before "the will of the people" caboose is hitched on. Perhaps I'm wrong about that, but if I'm right (and if I'm Francis Bacon reincarnated), then the radical democracy crowd will have to figure out a rhetorical appeal that appeases the inner toddler to that the Great Teenage can be argued for. That's a republicanism I can support.

  2. Interesting point. So you're saying that in any case individuals pre-exist and that constrains persuasion. And you are probably right they are both "pre" government (temporality is dangerous here).