Of Humans Jammed Between History and Progress

We tend to take for granted that human progress is a thing. Plato, famously, argued that humanity is regressing, going from a supposed Golden Age (perhaps the ‘State of Nature’ described by Hobbes, Rousseau, and others) all the way through Bronze and worse. This narrative helped the Christians, who also accepted in general that the past (Garden of Eden) was glorious, while the present is bad, and the future is worse (Judgement Day). It was during the late medieval times that this perception started to shift, as advances in medicine, science, philosophy, technology, etc. led to various developments and new found hope.

Hegel supported the view that human progress is positive, even if knowledge itself is only appreciated a posteriori (“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”), but his ideas were subsequently taken by Marx who took the whole notion to the next level. Darwin, a contemporary of Marx, with his theory of Evolution, helped proliferate views that progress is inevitable: Just as in the biological kingdom, so in the human, evolution and progress are natural tendencies. Ever since Marx, many philosophers have guessed that progress must be a de facto condition of society.

The experiences of the WW2 certainly put a brief dent to such unqualified optimism. But from the ashes of the most destructive world war in human history, a new optimism emerged: Human Rights. The general consensus is that post-1945 is the Human Rights era, defined by globalization, the spread of international institutions and global governance. Even through the worse moments of the Cold War, there was a general desire to appear ‘human’ to others, and to appeal to notions of common humanity. It would seem that idea(l)s of human progress were being vindicated, as the 20th century saw human rights spread to millions of new subjects across the world.

When Fukuyama declared the End of History in the 1990s, he certainly believed that this river current cannot be reversed. But Fukuyama did not heed Hegel’s words, nor did he wait for any of the dust to settle. His hubris did not allow him to see that history is not a progress, but a narration; not an inevitable ‘going forward’, but a series of events which we contextualize. Sadly for him, the dusk is here, and in 2016 we see signs that the lauded ‘progress’ that so many philosophers of recent centuries wished for or believed in is but a mere vagary.

There is no such thing as ‘progress’, and ‘human rights’ is nothing but a specific part of history — not an inevitable reality, or a pre-destined stage of our species’ evolution. The only thing that truly exists is Politics, the endless struggle between those who are everything and those who are nothing. It is within this endless struggle for Truth and Being that we operate in, and the pendulum does not simply swing in one way, but goes back again, pulled by the gravity of everyday human actions. History cannot end, and herein is the fallacy: we cannot assume that things will get better. We cannot assume that human rights, human achievements, human destiny will manifest in better and better ways. We cannot predict the future, and we can only tell the past as we understand it, and not as it was and had been.

At the turn of 2016, the world for many is a darker place. Human Rights are on the retreat everywhere (see the series of news articles I have curated for you below), and now just as much as ever we need to be vigilant, we need to be political. In Frederick Douglass’ words, that magnificent visionary man whom I love, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress” — “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”.

Everyone, have a Happy New Year, and may 2017 be an interesting year. May it be a year that we steer this ship back on track; not because it is pre-destined to happen, but because we are not ready yet to give up on our journey as a species. Wish you all happiness, love, and fulfillment!

Are we heading towards a ‘post human rights world’?

International Law in the Age of Trump: A Post-Human Rights Agenda

Theresa May ‘will campaign to leave the European Convention on Human Rights in 2020 election’

Britain in 2030: Brexit and Robotics herald inequality, mass unemployment

Space Exploration Could Herald the Beginning of the Post-Human Era

The Richest 62 People Are As Wealthy as Half the World’s Population Combined

 PS: Perhaps this blog won’t be MIA anymore. I will try to post more often than once per 3 years, promise.


This ‘rant’ is a preliminary exploration of the concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘[the] democratic’, ‘the political’, and intends to propose a definition of democracy influenced by J. Ranciere. Although at this stage it reads as a response to the first chapter of Saward’s book Democracy (2003), the intended outcome is a fuller overview and engagement with various definitions of ‘democracy’ and ‘the political’ from a liberal, critical and postmodern perspective. These additions will come in further updates.

Saward (2003: vii) asserted that “on one level, you could even say that democracy is the contest over its meaning”. This is what I am going to address first. The problems Saward (2003: 8) observes on the topic of “what is democracy” (“is it just elections happening?”) is in my opinion merely an outcome of conflating what “democracy does” from what societies “expect” democracies to do (i.e. hold elections). It is a common mistake: The human mind is pre-occupied with deducing outcomes, and it is easy to misunderstand the outcome of a process as being inherent in its nature. The problem in this case is that the function has little to do with mere government, but with the ethos and direction of society. We have mistakenly used democracy to describe certain political procedures, whereas democracy is the actualization of the political (which I will come to define in Rancierian terms).

The attempt to enclose democracy into specific ethics is an attempt to reduce the political and therefore democracy itself. Any such attempt is undemocratic by principle: Democracy as a legitimising term severely limits the ‘democratic nature’. Democracy is not ‘right’. This is a conflation of its meaning; an excuse and a way of perpetuating the particular. But this is not what democracy stands for. Democracy is by definition a change, a shift from ‘gone past’ into the immaterialised present. It is the attempt to encapsulate the ethics, spirits, rights of a society at a given time — most importantly it serves its true function when change occurs. Associating democracy with mundane choices is risky, because the making of choices is not inherent to democracy, and as such is not its true function. Democracy only lasts briefly in the grand scheme of things, and for that reason any attempt to position it rigidly and permanently is to deny the future of democracy. ‘Legitimation’ is an absurd concept. There is no such thing, because society only legitimates when it segments: When it considers a wrong versus a right. Democracy undoes the legitimation of past wrongs. And there are always ‘wrongs’ left hanging in the past.

Saward (2003: 11) explains that “democracy […can be] associated both with ‘the people’ and ‘the right result’. Although the phrase suggests all of the people, it appears to boil down to a majority of the people — suggesting perhaps that just over a half of the people can speak for the whole”. If democracy is understood as a series of historic practices, and its study is understood as the study of these practices which are associated with democratic politics, then perhaps democracy could be understood as being associated with ‘the people’ and ‘the right’. The problem is that both signifiers are empty: They are rhetorical constructions: Democracy ‘of’ the people is a misnomer. Democracy does not belong, it cannot be possessed, and any claims to its possession are only after the fact, in an attempt to legitimate the past. Democracy ‘by’ the people is also a misnomer. ‘By’ the people would somehow imply activity or a level of participation which is proving to be tantalisingly impossible with any society of any scale. Had any society achieved this elusive end of unity, democracy would be over, giving its way to something new — but such end is an illusion: Power never belongs to all the people (and I am very wary of using ‘the people’ to refer to some sort of unity, whether ideal or practical). If it did, democracy would have no need to remain in our minds as a conception of an abstract ‘right’ belonging to ‘the people’. That it does is proof that the ‘right’ is slipping away, and that the hands of ‘the people’ can never hold on to it. Because their existence is also in itself a political claim. Finally, democracy ‘for’ the people is merely empty rhetoric. All political choices are for someone and against someone. The assertion of anything done on the whole for them is empty for anything done ‘for’ someone, is always resulting in an expansion of ‘right’ and of ‘wrong’. Democratic societies may indeed be exclaiming that through specific, particular democratically inspired governments ‘address wrongs’ or ‘defend the right’, but that would only be true of specific, particular circumstances. To openly assume that something is ‘right’ is to deny the possibility of it being ‘wrong’. Democracy is not about limiting the wrongs that are rights and the rights that are wrongs: At least not at a deeper level. Superficial analysis of democratic politics may involve discussing legislature, parliaments, representation, participation or intent. A deep analysis would entail looking beyond mere historical problems of democracies past and present.

Saward (2003: 13) lists a list of signifiers of democracy. The list is indicative, but it is clear that what people signify as democracy merely is an extension of the historical practices associated with democratic politics and society. This conflation of democracy has allowed it to be used in ways that had little to do with what people wrongly misunderstand as ‘democracy’ being. Saward (2003: 14) agrees to this extent, stating that “[w]e might miss much of democracy’s power and richness as a concept if we try to soon to tie down its meaning to a single institution or principle or practice”. On this, I am in agreement. Yet, risking a lot, I will eventually have to choose a definition, if only as a guide that helps readers understand what it is that I am talking about when I throw the words around: ‘Democracy’, ‘[the] democratic’, ‘politics’, ‘the political’, ‘the people’. A definition that stays true to Saward’s comments would have to be a definition that allows democracy to be precisely this capability of society to change and re-assess right from wrong at any particular time. We often, for example, “[…] stress a mechanism as the core of democracy, while […] others stress a principle” (Saward, 2003: 17). A correct definition would still employ both, but with a difference: Democracy is not a static conception. If a mechanism in its particular nature, is defined as democracy, it generates a static understanding of democracy that mostly helps to deny the democratic capacity for change, even if it is a mechanism that suggests that change can be generated. If it is defined as a principle, it risks attaching specific ethics, norms and ideas — it is usurpation.

Democracy is the mechanistic principle of change (although I will propose a more elegant definition later). Anything less only limits democracy! Democracy is untameable. Its only limit is the present society, its spirit that enables or disables change. Democracy is not ‘correct’. It is not the rule of the majority. It is not even a form of rule. Society is the rule of ‘right’ — of particulars. But the measure of ‘right’ is neither static nor uncontroversial. Democracy is the outcome of the verification of a wrong. That it establishes rule or right is only an outcome. No one identifies water by its capacity to quench thirst.