Rad dem

In his essay “Deleuze and Democratic Politics,” from the collection Radical Democracy: Politics Between Obstinacy and Laclau Abundance and Lack, Paul Patton writes:

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze says that democracies are majorities and that they do not provide optimum conditions for philosophical criticism: ‘We lack resistance to the present.’ However, resistance to the present does not imply the rejection of democracy, but rather resistance to the present state of public opinion, public policy and the existing institutional forms of democratic politics.

And so it repeats at least once a paragraph for fifteen pages: Deleuze displays a hatred of democracy, and Patton insists that Deleuze is not against democracy as such, only its actually existing form; Deleuze says some unflattering things about the apolitical, unphilosophical turn to rights, and Patton protests that “Deleuze refers to particular historical phenomena. Nothing in what he says implies rejection of human rights, the rule of law or democratic government as such. His criticisms have to do with the manner in which these are represented: as ‘eternal values’, as ‘new forms of transcendence, new universals'”; even though Deleuze “says that being on the left is not a matter of government […] and clearly aligns leftist politics with minoritarian politics, he nowhere says that this has nothing to do with democracy”; and so on. And on. Deleuze, according to Patton, seems to be antidemocratic, but he’s not really because he’s only talking about democracy’s actual failings, not its essential nature.

Obviously, I have a problem with this in that I read Deleuze as more of an anarchist, not as a liberal. And I’m particularly annoyed by the distinction Patton endlessly draws between a thing’s essential being and its singular expressions, a maneuver that seems to me more than a little un-Deleuzean (especially coming from someone who’s written two books on Deleuze and translated another). But Patton, however unwittingly, perhaps embodies most perfectly the spirit that flows through the entire book: an appeal to and reshaping of certain authorities, which are marshaled in order to show that some vaguely defined thing called radical democracy is the horizon of contemporary politics. Billed as a deathmatch between theories of lack (Lacan, Levinas, Laclau) and theories of abundance (Spinoza and Deleuze and a few of his acolytes), there’s nothing really much at stake here, however, except the proper division of philosophers. Radical democracy itself, for instance, is never defended with any great passion, giving the book a tone of gloomy end-of-history-ism, which Simon Critchley concedes when he states that “we are stuck with the state, just as we are stuck with capitalism.” Given this state of things, the authors seem to be saying, radical democracy, whatever it is, is the best we can hope for.

Even though one of the authors insists — and I think the rest of them would concur — that institutions and freedom are (would be?) central to radical democracy, the book is largely silent on what the institutions and freedom would look like, just as it doesn’t offer any thorough critiques of present-day institutional processes or ideas of freedom, which are no less central to liberal democracy. The authors say nothing about, for example, liberal democracy’s wholly negative notion of freedom — i.e., freedom as lack of compulsion, which is necessary to enter exchange relations — or about the hierarchical structure of liberal democratic institutions. Given this reticence and the authors’ stated political hopes, we can assume that Yannis Stavrakakis speaks for them all when writes:

It is also true that most forms of democracy — liberal democracy included — still contain a kernel of [radical] potential — often repressed and marginalised and certainly in need of revitalisation and re-activation. I see such a re-activation as one of the most urgent tasks of contemporary theory.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with democratic institutions that more democracy won’t cure. And sneaking in here with this testament to democracy’s essential viability is a certain vanguardist fervor, one that animates much of the book. Stavrakakis’s statement that it is contemporary theory’s task, and seemingly its alone, to activate a radical democratic awakening is perhaps a cartoonish version of this faith, but it’s more visible in what’s missing: Aside from a few lazy allusions to “Seattle,” the book is mostly devoid of references to actual political movements afoot in the world. The authors’ ignoring, and ignorance of, politics that refuse, elude, and operate under democratic axioms both reinforces democracy’s insuperability and reaffirms that politics is, before it becomes action, the responsibility of theoretical professionals.

Perhaps, though, I’m being a bit harsh. Each of the articles does have its moments, and in particular I like Lasse Thomassen’s attempt to wrestle with exclusion-inclusion, Lars Tonder’s negotiation between immanence and transcendence, and Nathan Widder’s reading of the disjunctive synthesis. I especially appreciate Jane Bennet’s article, which among other things reckons with excess, contingency, construction, and surprise. But even in her attempts to expand what is thought of as political to the nonhuman, she performs a reterritorialization that, it seems, radical democracy is incapable of avoiding: Animals and plants and cell phones can indeed be included in the political, but to do so they must, as must human activity, be subsumed and organized under the demos.

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3 thoughts on “Rad dem

  1. Yes, now I remember. I knew I had read about that book somewhere, but I couldn’t recall when or where. (I was led to it by Critchley’s book, which I read over Christmas.) Good post. I’ll have a look also at the draft of the review you link to in the comments.

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