The limits of our zeal to reform other people's lives

Hatred of Democracy
May 18, 2007

How does somebody such as Tony Blair, who was and is fundamentally a well-meaning social democrat, come to be seen in both the Arab world and among large swaths of the allegedly democratic West as a war-mongering demagogue? The answer, argues Jacques Rancière in this brief but piercing essay on the definitions and redefinitions of the term "democracy", is not quite as simple as you might think. In other words, Blair is not simply a victim of the fatal miscalculations of his advisers or indeed his own hubris but rather the inevitable product of a social system that prizes democracy as an infallible abstraction but refuses to contemplate the messy, sometimes painful and occasionally impossible application in the "real world" - whether this be in Baghdad or Birmingham.

The title refers to the fear or hatred of democracy engendered by an elite that feels its power and superiority threatened by the application of equality for all. From this rather obvious starting-point, Rancière makes the slightly more interesting and nuanced claim that the concept of democracy is not at all, as we are normally taught in the Western canon, universally prized but instead carried within itself its own discontents. He then develops the even more intriguing notion that in the 21st century it is not enough, as it was in the previous century, to set democracy against totalitarianism in a Manichean play of opposites.

The Islamic world, just to give one example, does not sufficiently exist or function as a totality for this binary opposition to work: hence the impossibility of either setting the Western model of democracy against non-Western models, and the even more insane approach of attempting to export, by force of arms, a political and philosophical model of society that is entirely inappropriate outside the culture that produced it.

Rancière begins with a list of the concrete ways in which democracy can be undermined in the name of freedom - from the ban on the veil in French schools to reality TV. But his real purpose is to signal that beyond these essentially minor challenges to the concept of democracy, there is a more serious paradox inherent in the term: this is the flaw, identified by Plato and other political philosophers, that democracy promises material freedoms under the law of an abstraction. When and where those material freedoms do not exist or cannot be provided for then democracy as an abstraction is insufficient to control public order. So, in Algeria in 1992 a civil war begins between the defenders of "democracy" - the army, the government - and those ordinary people who voted an "anti-democratic" Islamist party into power. This same political drama is being enacted across the postcolonial world; indeed, it forms one of the double-binds of postcolonial politics.

Rancière is equally acute when he turns his gaze towards France, the home of Enlightenment values and an unruly and potentially violent population of immigrants who are often set against those values because they have yet to see the material rewards of money or social success. The same nihilism, he says in an elegantly casual remark, characterises the recent generation of French intellectuals who have prized suicidal despair or cynical punk posturing over real thought or action (Rancière is referring to the Situationist theoretician Guy Debord, who killed himself in 1994, and Maurice G. Dantec, the novelist and self-styled cyberpunk philosopher, who is now resident in Québec).

To return to Blair and the limits of "democratic fundamentalism", the present catastrophe in Iraq provides more than ample proof of Rancière's bold assertion that we need to rethink the relationship between democracy and power before setting in motion any more wars in the name of "freedom".

Andrew Hussey is head of French and comparative studies, University of London Institute in Paris.

Hatred of Democracy

Author - Jacques Rancière
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 106
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 9781844670988

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