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Paradoxes of democracy

Antonio Caronia

All the versions of this article: [English] [slovenščina]

For many years, the inhabitants of the Susa Valley, in Italy, have been struggling against the construction of a new fast railway (Tav) between France and Italy. These struggles - as several commentaries have already pointed out - pose a pressing question about democracy. An imposing and expensive public work, the new railway is important for the entire country, but it would primarily upset the environment and life of the valley residents, affecting probably their health, due to the presence of asbestos in the mountains which are to be excavated. It is beyond doubt that the project was adopted by democratic institutions (the Parliament, the Government, the Piemonte Region). But do these institutions have the right to use representative democracy to impose a choice, when the people directly concerned are opposed to it? The valley inhabitants’ opposition is steady and long dated: they claim their objections were never seriously taken into account by different governments (both the left- and right-wing ones). The residents may be right or wrong, but one thing is sure: this event shows that political "democratic" structures (that is, a Parliament elected by fair and correct procedures) alone cannot assure "democracy". The valley residents see the decision for the new railway as an antidemocratic and authoritarian imposition, even if the formal rules of "democracy" have been kept.

The question of the relationship between formal (or representative) democracy and direct democracy was already posed in the experiences of ancient times (in Athens and Rome), but it was raised again in modern times, during the democratic revolutions of Great Britain, United States and France. It was also present in the experience of the workers’ movement and in the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is becoming topical again, as new information and communication technologies allow everyone to be directly connected in real time. Between the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called "Californian Ideology" [1] referred to Thomas Jefferson’s thought to theorize an "electronic democracy", capable of overcoming representative institutions. Republican leader Newt Gingrich and the failed presidential candidate Ross Perot used these ideas to promote a plebiscitary concept of democracy, very similar to Peronist "television democracy" theorized and realized in Italy by Silvio Berlusconi. This idea of democracy widely uses marketing techniques, such as surveys and polls: but there is no guarantee for the citizens that the expressed opinions (often manipulated and warped) will be taken into account by political and market leaders. Janez Janša too, in his DemoKino, raises a similar doubt.

Other questions about democracy arise when we consider international politics. Let us just think of the weakness of the European Parliament, or of the rejection by the people in France (and other countries) of the proposed European constitution; of the United Nations crisis, or of the international arrogance of the US government. Every time the question arises: how to make governments acknowledge the orientation of public opinion? In the years 2001 and 2003 the world peace movement organized the most impressive protests ever against the Iraq war: but the Bush administration kept its policy, undisturbed. The reference to war reminds us that the problem of democracy is closely linked to those of justice and law. In the modern era, the push toward democracy was deeply rooted in a craving for justice. It was believed that power in the hands of the people would suppress inequalities and injustice, that it would create a fairer society. Things did not go that way, as we know. There is another reason for that (and this is the third question I want to raise): economy never got along well with democracy. And capitalist economy (always an important sphere of human action) in its post-fordist version is more and more invading contemporary life.

In fact, the problem of democracy appears today in a situation that is characterized by three main features: the dictatorship of economy over all aspects of individual and associated life; the establishment of Western society as the Empire; the widespread presence of war as a tool to expand this Empire. The combination of these features makes the development of democracy difficult and hampers the potentialities of digital technologies, whose use is restricted (this is an attempt of governments and corporations) in order to strengthen class domination. It suffices to think of the role of technologies in fields such as: the preparation and conduct of war; the control of migrations; the introduction of work "flexibility" to reduce and control workers’ rights.

It would therefore perhaps be useful to offer some further reflections on the idea of justice and the foundations of law.

Law, violence, war

Walter Benjamin considered the question of violence in a paper written in 1921, Zur Kritik der Gewalt (Critique of Violence) [2]. He linked the idea of violence with justice and law, which, according to him, define the sphere of moral relationships. He analyses this link in the fields of natural law and positive law: "natural law," he writes, "tends to ’justify’ the means through the justice of ends, while positive law wants to ’guarantee’ the justice of ends through the legitimacy of means." But, in any case, the link between means and ends (set by nature or assumed by reason) is assured by violence. This assumption is made easier for Benjamin by the German word Gewalt, which means both "violence" and "authority" or "established power". A similar link can be found in the English phrase to enforce the law, which suggests that it is impossible to think about the law without referring to a certain violence, both at the origin, when the law is first created, and repeatedly, when the law is "applied." But Benjamin wants exactly to deconstruct this link, showing that law and justice are two separate and somehow opposite dimensions. According to Benjamin, the law, which is indissoluble from power, comes from a mythical violence (in his words, a "simple manifestation of gods"); justice, on the other hand, is linked with divine or "pure" violence (Benjamin’s examples are taken from the Bible). Benjamin finds this law-justice polarity in the difference, exposed by Sorel, between the "political" general strike and the "proletarian" general strike: the first aims to conquer the state, and its violence has a blackmail feature ("we’ll come back to work only if..."); while the latter aims to completely destroy any state power, it sets itself as a "sheer means", and therefore, paradoxically, it carries no violence. In the wake of his alliance between historic materialism and theology (expressed in the first of his Theses on the Philosophy of History), Benjamin refuses any mythical violence, both the one that "sets" the law, and the one that "maintains" it: "divine violence," he writes, "which is the sign and seal, but never the means of sacred execution, may be called sovereign violence."

Almost seventy years later, Jacques Derrida went over this essay in his text Force de loi. Le "Fondement mystique de l’autorité" (Force of Law. The "Mystical Foundation of Authority") [3]. Here the French philosopher tries to deconstruct the conceptual structure of Benjamin’s writing, calling into question the difference between the "setting" and the "maintaining" of violence in the field of law. According to Derrida, there is something similar in the primary action that interrupts the pre-existent conditions (through a war, or a general strike) to build a new law, and in the repeated practice of the enforcement of the law: the common element is interpretation. Every time we establish the law (as well as the language) we use an "interpretative force," we refer to the possibility of repeating that action, in order to interpret it in new conditions: in other words, every foundation carries in itself, implicitly, the application, and every application always refers, somehow, to the foundation. It is in the interweaving of these two dimensions that Derrida finds "what Montaigne and Pascal call ’The mystic foundation of authority’." "Given that the origin of authority, the foundation or setting of laws can only be grounded on itself, authority and law are in turn a violence without grounding. It does not mean they are ’illegal’ or ’illegitimate.’ In the moment of their foundation they are neither legal nor illegal. They go beyond the opposition of ’grounded’ and ’not grounded,’ as well as of every foundation or anti-foundation." In other words: "there is no justifying language that can or must claim to have a metalinguistic role in the performatory dimension of the establishing language, or of its dominant interpretation."

That is why it is not easy to have a juridical foundation of democracy. The argument must be rather different. In Zur Kritik der Gewalt, Benjamin discusses a statement by Kurt Hiller ("above the happiness and the justice of an existence - there is existence in itself"), and he concludes: "It is false and mean to hold that existence is superior to the just existence, if existence is intended as mere life (...). In fact, man cannot, at any price, be said to coincide with the mere life in him, no more than with any other of his conditions and qualities, not even with the uniqueness of his bodily person." This remark is especially relevant now, when the war in the biopolitical era intends to realize the right to existence for the concerned people, rather than destroying them. These are the claims of the western powers, and they are surely not only lies, or disguises of more material interests. But with this "humanitarian" concept of its military and economic interventions (to free peoples from dictatorships, to bring "democracy"), the West arrogates itself the right to decide what is the "right" existence (the one lived under western rules and habits). Thus, the right choice to oppose the war and really ground a "democracy" would be to claim the right to justice, rather than to practise the justice of law. Because the practice of justice implies the freedom of every human being and every human community to self-determine the conditions of their life and development.

Is democracy really useful?

The transformations of the production and circulation of knowledge due to the advent of digital technologies have sharpened the political problem of the forms of democracy: a problem raised, in different ways, both by the "anti-globalization" or "new globalization" movements, and from the most "political" sectors of the free software movement. Some philosophers too have made reflections on the relationships between real and formal democracy. In a recent interview [4], Jean-Luc Nancy said:

We are waiting now, I think, for the display of new forms. One doesn’t wait for individuals, for some great thinker or artist. The great thinkers, the great artists only come when forms are available. There are times, indeed, that have forms, and times that have not. The great effort of contemporary art is to find forms. We live today in a general deformation, that’s the reality we live in. (...) Democracy is always fulfilled in the form of representative democracy. But there is a kind of democracy that has no form, and that’s the direct democracy, the democracy of councils, or committees, of soviets. So, beyond the realized democracy there’s some other political form to be found [added italics, a.c.].

Nancy’s words clash with the superficiality with which the experiences of the 20th century direct and alternate democracy were gotten rid of: they were too hurriedly identified with the oppressive and dictatorial states that usurped their names (Soviet Republic), but, as a matter of fact, those states could only be established on the repression of those experiences. The reference to workers’ councils and soviets could, indeed, be a key for the reflection upon the crisis of representative democracy (and politics in general) and possible new forms of social life. After all, representative democracy (i.e., the only form of democracy ever realized in history in an effective and steady way) is a fruit of the alphabetic brainframe and the press (according to MacLuhan’s thought). It is not so strange, therefore, that at the end of the alphabet’s era there is "some other political form to be found": and these possible new forms have something to do with the new techniques of post-alphabetical (digital) communication.

But perhaps democracy is not the only issue to be considered, or rather it cannot be separated from social transformations and political measures that humankind needs in order to resolve its important and difficult problems. It is necessary to take into consideration the cycles of social conflicts and struggles in the 20th century to understand the present social and political situation worldwide. Mario Tronti, a scholar and an exponent of the left-wing movement called "operaismo" , reflecting on the 1970s defeat of the working class (defined by him as "the last great historical form of social aristocracy"), warns the new social subjects trying to build the conditions for "another possible historical breakdown" against being harnessed in "the net of the present ’real democracy’":

Democracy today is not the power of the majority, it is the power of all the people. There is a process of standardization, of massification of thoughts, feelings, tastes and behaviours, which expresses itself in the common sense. (...) After the fading of the glorious days of class struggle, neither the great bourgeois nor the petit bourgeois won. The middle classes, in the literary sense, won. Democracy is just this: not the tyranny of the majority, but rather the tyranny of the middle-class man. And this middle-class man gathers in mass within the Nietzschean category of last men. [5]

The digital leap, the "emerging identities" that are looking for "a higher form of consciousness" according to Derrick de Kerckhove’s words, request not only new scientific theories for the interaction of the ideas of matter and information; they also request new tools to understand society and to move within social conflicts. These new emerging identities mainly rise among the immaterial knowledge workers, who are the mark of our time. In his latest book, McKenzie Wark calls them "hackers", and urges them with the same slogan with which Marx and Engels addressed, a century and a half ago, the working class [6]. In order to fully develop all the social strength of technological innovations, to make social conflict bear new equilibrium, not new troubles, we will first of all need to study the processes occurring in the behaviour and the imagination of these workers.


Sonja Grdina




[1For a critique of the "Californian Ideology", see Richard Barbrook’s and Andy Cameron’s essay, "The Californian Ideology. A critique of West Coast cyber-libertarianism,"http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/theory-californianideology.html

[2Walter Benjamin, "Zur Kritik der Gewalt," in Gesammelte Schriften, Band 2, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankurt am Main 1972-1989.

[3Jacques Derrida, Force de loi. Le "Fondement mystique de l’autorité", Éditions Galilée, Paris 1994.

[4Roberto Ciccarelli, "La Repubblica smarrita senza forma," Il manifesto, November 12th 2005.

[5Mario Tronti, "Per la critica della democrazia politica," in: Guerra e democrazia, manifesto libri, Roma 2005.

[6McKenzie Wark, A hacker manifesto. Immaterial workers of the world united!, Harvard College 2004.