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The radical demos

Neal Curtis

It is now a regular occurrence to see higher education treated as a commodity, students referred to as customers, the university seen as a competitor in a marketplace, and the humanities regarded as economically unproductive. That higher education should be privatised and for-profit and that teaching and research is legitimate only when it directly contributes to economic growth are part of the new common sense of free-market capitalism that has come to dominate all aspects of social life. In a recent book,1 I argued that despite claims to plural, open and democratic government, this new common sense is evidence that we live in increasingly dogmatic times in which alternative, more collective, communal, socially responsible visions of socio-economic organisation and the place of education within that vision are increasingly closed off and rejected as unrealistic, if not deluded, fantasies. We live in an age, then, in which the neoliberal privileging of the private in the form of a mysteriously divine ‘free market’ or the indisputable sovereignty of the individual have become fundamental and irresistible tenets of our belief system; a form of civil religion, one might say.

The term I used to describe this condition is ‘idiotism’, and is derived from the Greek word for private, idios. Idiotism therefore speaks of an age in which a deregulated market of private interests and its medium, the commodity form, have become the arbiters of all social value. Against this, and buoyed by the financial crisis of 2008, talk of a communist alternative has been on the rise as even mainstream commentators have difficulty hiding all that was correct in Karl Marx’s analysis of capital. While I would argue that the solutions to the world’s problems (resources, poverty, social inequality, climate change, loss of biodiversity, health) can only come from a communal approach, I would also claim that any such ‘commonism’2 can only be pursued if at the same time we recover the radical character of democracy. Part of the problem, however, when articulating change is the need to find a name around which the desire for change can come together, and in this regard democracy still has a lot of purchase in the popular imagination. Neither closed around the atomised individual nor any predefined dogma, democracy—or rather the demos—is, as I hope to show, open in the sense that it is both public and permanently creative.

The difficulty, of course, is that the term democracy has fallen into such disrepute. After the collapse of Soviet communism, the supposed victory of the capitalist democracies has in reality more closely resembled the consolidation of plutocracy governed by an unaccountable oligarchy. Although we may vote for politicians and their parties, it is increasingly the ratings agencies, banks, and large transnational corporations that determine policy. Democracy has lost its political essence and is now used as a technique for social management. In this situation freedom is little more than the satisfaction of preferences within a clearly bounded set of commodified options. This means an integral part of any attempt to move beyond neoliberal oligarchy must be to reclaim this name for a genuinely progressive, diverse politics.

What’s in a name?

The word demos (δεμος) is interesting when addressing idiotism because it is the logical and linguistic opposite of idios (ιδιος). In Greek, where idios signifies the private and the personal, the word demos means that which is common or public. This can mean something that is held in common, such as land, or demos can refer to the public as a body of people. This is of further interest because in Greek demos has come to refer to the plebeians or common people as well as the citizenry, meaning it refers to both those excluded from the political process and those central to it. The link to the land is also suggested in the name Demeter (Δεμήτηρ), goddess of agriculture. Here demos has a strong connection to work, as well as to making and authorship. This means that buried deep inside democracy is a connection to the commons, and to labour, from which the current form of democracy as privatised consumer choice is very far removed.

A second double meaning of the word demos also has political potential, I believe. When thought in terms of the citizenry, the demos is integral to the polis understood as the city-state, yet it can also refer to a rural region or district and was originally understood to be the opposite of the polis. If we take the polis to simply represent the state, then the demos has a very particular relation to it in that it is both intimate yet foreign, integral yet separate. The demos is resistant to being simply subsumed by the state, however it might be conceived. There is a distance between state and demos that prevents the state from claiming the demos. This space is absolutely essential to the criticality and creativity of democracy and must be recovered in an age in which citizenry and state are collapsed into a free market deemed to be the perfect expression and synthesis of both. My point is that no representation or institution can be adequate to the demos, but that this is not a deficiency. Quite the contrary, the lack of fit between the demos and its representation is the source of radical possibilities, and in this the university has a very important role to play.

Democracy against aristocracy

Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala have recently referred to our current form of political organization as ‘framed democracy’.3 For them, democracy in the West is largely restricted to a set of descriptions about human nature and the best means for satisfying that nature that reinforces both the dogma of free market economics and the social hierarchy that dogma supports. An important part of this framing is the argument that we have achieved the ultimate form of socio-economic organization and all that is left to do is roll it out across the globe, but as I have already intimated, democracy is allergic to such closure or to such administration. To articulate this I wish to briefly turn to three philosophers: Jacques Rancière, who argues that democratic politics does not aim at consensus but is in fact a ‘rationality of disagreement’;4 Jan Patočka, who argued that democracy is tied to the birth of history, not its end;5 and Cornelius Castoriadis, who argued that democracy is the continual expression of the human capacity to create new forms of social organisation.6 It is these three factors of disagreement, historical opening, and collective creativity that take us to the root of what is so important in the word demos.

For Rancière, the disagreement that is democracy consists of the political conflict ‘over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it’.7 Politics, for him, is about the emergence and appearance of this or that party, group or class that had previously not been part of the established political order. Politics, he argues, ‘makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise’.8 Working against this is what he calls the ‘police’ function that seeks to maintain the already described or permitted distribution of who counts, speaks or is represented. It is the ‘allocation of ways of doing [. . .] being [. . .] saying’ in line with existing forms of power.9 For Rancière politics is fundamentally ‘antagonistic to policing’ because it breaks with the given configuration of parts and ‘divisions of the police order’.10 Importantly, this is not an occasional problem, but happens all the time because politics ‘runs up against the police everywhere’.11

The second characteristic of politics, for Rancière, is that the division between those who count and those who do not is perpetually challenged through the pursuit of equality. More specifically, it is a challenge to the structure of inclusion and exclusion that defined Greek aristocracy. This is especially pertinent today as the current oligarchy that governs the global economic system can more readily be likened to a new aristocracy, and a counter-revolutionary one at that. Alain Joxe uses this term to describe the way in which capitalist oligarchy increasingly rolls back the advances of the eighteenth century democratic revolutions and reinstates social division and elite power equal to the absolute monarchy which the age of revolution sought to do away with.12 For Rancière, politics is precisely the disjoining of government from what is perceived to be the natural difference contained in the title aristos (best). It is opposed to all forms of paternity, which would include the paternity of the market and its technocrats. In line with this, Rancière argues that the police function continually tries to reduce the public sphere to the rule of experts (a new form of title) and those who wish to make it their ‘own private affair’, but democracy is the ‘struggle against this privatization’.13 Democracy is the opening up of politics. It is the disruption and displacement of the social and political order as it is given. As a consequence, government by title continually represents equality as catastrophic for democratic civilisation; as the anarchic, excessive ‘disorder of passions’.14

Democracy and the end of history

If the current aristocratic oligarchy is at odds with democracy, then so too is the prominent feature of its propaganda, namely the idea that with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism, history ended with the victory of capitalism. Although the emergence of a militant form of Islamism, world-changing new technologies, and political movements exemplified most recently by Occupy and the uprisings collectively referred to as the Arab Spring give a clear indication of how history is alive and well, and even the author of the original end of history thesis, Francis Fukuyama,15 has had to correct the absurdity of his claim, there remains the general belief that capitalism remains the ultimate social and political form. Amid this attitude—part hubris, part hysteria—it is worth reading a collection of essays by the Czechoslovakian philosopher Jan Patočka who was himself part of the Czechoslovakian democratic movement known as Charta 77, and died in custody following police interrogations about his involvement.16 Although the topic of Patočka’s study is the relationship between philosophy and history, philosophy is presented as a moment of disruption and displacement whereby democracy comes to take the place of aristocratic rule and the mythological world upon which ancient Greece was based.

Patočka’s ‘First Essay’ begins with a definition of freedom as openness.17 Freedom here becomes a form of questioning. It is essential for humans to constantly ask questions about who we are, how we should act and what we should strive for. For Patočka, if history signifies anything, it is the moment where this openness is made explicit and becomes a philosophical problem. What he calls ‘the preproblematic world’ is a world of ‘pregiven meaning [where gods] stand over humans, ruling over them and deciding their destiny’.18 Much in the way ‘the market’ reigns over everything today, the gods of the current aristos attempt to render the world unproblematic, save for the technical problem of global delivery. The gods of the preproblematic world assumed the police function that regulated everyday life and preserved social order. What Patočka called ‘the journey of history’19 is not, then, simply finding this or that thing to be a problem, but problematising ‘the whole as such’.20 History, then, is not the recording of ‘facts’, or the ‘keeping of annals’,21 but the ‘shaking of life as simply accepted’.22 The world erupting as a question is therefore the acceptance of an ‘unsheltered life’,23 and the emergence of democracy is that moment where philosophy opens up history and history becomes politics understood as the questioning of the world.

This means that the rise of philosophy and politics in the founding of Greek democracy is not the founding of a solution, but the founding of an interminable questioning. Paradoxically, what unites the Greeks in the demos is a ‘unity in conflict’:24 the founding of political disagreement. Patočka states: ‘Polemos is what is common. Polemos binds together the contending parties, not only because it stands over them but because in it they are at one’.25 Polemos, translated literally as war or conflict, is, for Patočka, a sort of existential ‘shaking’. He writes: ‘[the] unity it founds is more profound than any ephemeral sympathy or coalition of interests: adversaries meet in the shaking of a given meaning and so create a new way of being human—perhaps the only mode that offers hope amid the storm of the world: the unity of the shaken but undaunted’.26 History and politics—and especially the democratic politics that signalled the emergence of the world as a problem—mean having the courage to be drawn into the shaking of meaning and the demand to invent the world anew. Contrary to democracy presented as the end, democracy is in fact the beginning or rather a recurring beginning, the persistent inception of a radical questioning and a challenge to what is already ordained.

Democracy and social inception

To say a little more about this inception that emerges from the questioning of the world, we can turn to the work of Cornelius Castoriadis. For Castoriadis, the politics which is coeval with the emergence of philosophy and democracy ‘amounts to the explicit putting into question of the established institution of society’.27 In this reading, the polemical nature of the demos is the permanent tension between the image or form (eidos) of society that has been instituted and the instituting imaginary that continually offers innovative images of alternatives. In this regard, democratic philosophy ‘constantly tests its bounds’ and is absolutely not the business of priests.28 Akin in many respects to its usage by both Rancière and Patočka, the demos is the recurrence of a questioning and a challenge. Democratic politics is therefore the continual creation or ‘coming to light’ of ‘another relation’29 between the instituting and instituted imagination, and ‘does not halt before a conception, given once and for all, of what is just, equal, or free’.30 History, then, is not the gradual emergence of the true form of human society, but the continual eruption of a polemical truth without end. Importantly, it must also be noted that this inception of new social forms is not the work of atomised or sovereign individuals: the work of what he also calls the ‘radical imaginary’ is always the creation of ‘a common world—kosmos koinos’.31 The demos is thus an interruption in the established public order brought about by the continual opening up of questions pertaining to who we are and how we should live together.

All of this means that democracy can only be at odds with the current situation defined by a new aristocratic social order, and the god-like market that supposedly brings an end to both history and the radical social imaginary. Today, social creativity is tied to technocratic adjustment and entrepreneurial innovation all tuned to the furtherance of profit, but this, if it is to be referred to as democracy, is a profoundly impoverished democracy. It is a situation that must be refused and I believe demos could and should still be the name for such a refusal. We, the people, need to take democracy back from the self-appointed gods, and the university has a significant role to play in this. With the media largely co-opted into the new common sense of markets, freedom of choice, competition, privatisation, deregulation, and ‘wealth creators’, the university remains the only public institution outside of the current dogmatic groupthink. This is one reason why the university is increasingly under attack as being unproductive and out of touch; it must be brought to heel. The financial crisis of 2008 that still dominates social and economic policy today has also given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the privatising ideologues to roll back the remnants of public service that have thus far resisted the neoliberal revolution. Using the excuse that the country can’t afford it, efforts have been renewed to subject the university as a public institution to the purifying spirit of the private sector, where survival is determined by the ability to provide what customers want.

The university has always contributed directly to the economy and to industry through a whole range of scientific and technological innovations. While its police function has been to manage the boundaries of knowledge and the social hierarchy that accompanies those boundaries, the university has also been the producer of heterodox thinking and radical ideas thereby contributing to dramatic social change. It has also been assumed that the university is an institution that tests what people think they already know and challenges what the already think they should do. Of course, the humanities have always had an important role to play in the university. Unlike the universals taught by the natural sciences, where truth is taken to be a correspondence between a statement and an object, a correspondence that is the case in every instance, the universal gathered together under the auspices of the humanities is a different order of truth altogether. What is universal to the humanities is that human beings interpret the world to which they belong. This is a truth that speaks to creativity more than correspondence. While correspondence is absolutely necessary, it is not sufficient to explain the truth of our humanity. This other, perplexing, creative, conflicting, paradoxical, infuriating truth is where the humanities resides and it needs some protection within a public institution still resistant to the idea that the answer to all human questioning has been found, and that the only role the university has is to better advance the correspondence of all social relations to that truth. In this respect, to speak of democracy is to speak of the university and to speak of the university is to speak of democracy. In both instances, they speak of the need to bear witness to the fact that the world as it is currently described is inadequate.