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Democracy disassembled

Tomislav Medak

Toutes les versions de cet article : [English] [slovenščina]

Published in Demokino - Virtual Biopolitical Agora

Ever since its inception in ancient Greece, democracy has permanently been subject to suspicion. So much so that there are good grounds to assume that raising suspicion is what is immanent to the inner workings of democracy itself and that it is, and this is what my argument here shall be, the virtue of democracy to raise and not to dispel suspicion. My argument shall also be that it is this excessive ability of democracy to unsettle the order of things that is being transgressed in contemporary liberal-parliamentary regimes.

In Aristotle’s account of the forms of government, democracy - rule of the people - ranked suspiciously, almost indistinctively close to its negative form of ochlocracy. The incontrollable political affects and appetites of the governed who are also governing made no guarantees that the government had the idea of what a good life, as purpose to all things political, might be. Unless the political rule was with the virtuous few, endowed with the privilege of spare time they could dedicate to producing knowledge of what a good life might be, there could be no good government at all. But more to the point, what constituted a good government was the association of knowledge and a form of life, ability of passing an informed decision on what life in body politic should be.

And this is where the notion of democracy in Aristotle’s account unveils itself to be more than a mere ignorance, a lack of knowledge. Dissociation of knowledge and form of life that democracy was being made suspect for turns out implicitly to be a critique of a privilege granted to a particular form of life - that of Greek aristocratic men - to reproduce itself as normative knowledge and ultimately as political life. A critique of the ability to decide upon life and to decide upon it from a position available only to some, where life itself becomes subsumed to external considerations producing exclusions and reproducing inequalities in life itself. And this dissociation of knowledge and life, limitation on ability to decide upon life, is what remains at the core of democracy until the present day.

The unguaranteed wisdom of the governing and the incontrollable affects of the governed secure democracy’s immanent interpellative claim to change the order of things. Not democracy as a form of rule in contemporary liberal-parliamentary regimes, but democracy as irruption of the claim to equality into the oligarchical production of inequalities in those regimes. Democracy, in the succinct words of Jacques Rancičre (La haine de la democratie, Fabrique, 2005), "as equality of inequality".

To come to the point, democratic political dispositive is thus premised on the withdrawal from the political decision making of those aspects that enable equal liberty to deliberate, on the prohibition of decisions on its conditions of possibility. If procedure is to be democratic, no decision can be made privileging ones over others. Democratic politics rests on the withdrawal of life from deciding power.

Yet, the history of regimes referred to as democratic has been the history of failures to abstract from decisions on conditions of possibility in political dealings. It has witnessed over and over again the irruptions of life into the political arena and extension of political power to where it can not have power without ceasing to be what it is. Thus the ruling were made subject to suspicion of corruption, the ruled were made subject to suspicion of the rule of the mob. Corrupt politicians and popular sentiments.

Regardless of the withdrawal at the heart of the democratic dispositive, life was however always targeted for reinsertion into the political system of power. The first such modern system of reinsertion developed in the 18th and 19th centuries with the liberal economies, which, as Foucault described in his lectures at the Collčge de France starting from 1979, marked the shift from sovereign disposition over life (and death) to the governmentality regime of improvement of life. Along with other systems of reinsertion that developed at the time, such as disciplinary institutions and humanities, the science of government over life or governmentality developed via the economic system of provisioning and fulfilling the needs. The emerging modern biopower took control over life by resigning the decision making power over life to self-regulatory mechanisms of the free market and later also to optimizations of the welfare system.

DemoKino demonstrates how this tendency of resigning life to self-regulatory control has in the biopolitical regime of present-day global economy been taken to its paroxysm and how underlying complexity transgresses the interruptive claim of democracy to equal inequality, leaving it in a deadlock where there’s nothing it can do. While the science of government in the teachings of economic globalism instructs the governing executives of the world that the only remaining option is to optimize to capital flows and flights, where there’s nothing for legislating powers left to pass decision upon except to accept the dismantling of the welfare system and surrender of life to a mere pursuit for profit and to proletarization, the ability of the governed to invoke democratic irruption has been reduced to mediatized opinion on overcomplex issues of life. Life has nowadays become unwithdrawable from the political arena and contemporary biopower has, with the closed-circuit system opinion guided politics, authorized everyone to pass decisions over matters of life. Democratic withdrawal of life from the arena of political decisions is thus precluded and transgressed. Everyone is included in decision making and yet everyone is excluded from withdrawing and abstracting to a universalist position. And this is what constitutes the absolute inclusion of contemporary biopolitical racism.

But, if the history of subtractive assemblies of political representation has always also been the crisis of assemblies facing up with more than they can decide upon — the matters life; if life always tends to become reinscribed into politics, we will ultimately maybe have to pay heed to Bruno Latour’s proposition that what remains is to pursue a history of assemblies of things that dissemble and ways to dissemble - a new democracy for humans and non-humans, for the living and non-living.


Sonja Grdina