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.