Democracy for (re)sale

November 21, 2009

Old revolutionary boredom got it in there first, which, I guess, saves me the trouble of writing up some thoughts on the Kristin Ross talk, ‘Democracy for Sale’. What I am going to do is suggest a couple of things as regards to the question at the end of the piece concerning Ross’s insistence on the “importance of ‘democracy’ as a label”.

The gist of the talk then, was an assertion of the need to reclaim democracy as a term of the left, of a signifier of a genuine emancipatory politics as opposed to the rather meaningless tag that it has become today. So, first up, problems with democracy as term: arguably, its current use as empty signifier is caught in the double bind of being validated only with a (usually prefixed term) such as representative, direct, or parliamentary. What democracy signifies then, is a mode of governance, but the actual content and structural action of this mode are governed by the qualifier that the comes before the term democracy, the signifier before the empty signifier, which is itself, empty, without the attachment of the empty signifier of ‘democracy’.

Why ‘democracy’ as label is important is that in spite of the contemporary emptiness of the term – it affords the recognition of a democratic immanence within democracy – of a democratic spirit understood by Ross in the original sense. In eschewing the recent calls for new names in order to orientate the project towards the reclaiming of existing terms, Ross provides accessibility and makes the project relatable. At the conference on Badiou (words to come) Ross questioned Badiou qua philosopher, for dealing in a philosophy that she thought had passed, a philosophy of abstracts rather than ideals: of words over practice. I think this indicates the real nature of the project, it exists for Ross, not in the abstract, but must be grounded in terms relevant to the real world: to be understandable to the people in order to achieve the desired efficacy.

The suggestion of this came in the example of the Irish no vote. When an audience member asked why she had picked this example, as opposed to the more direct democratic moments of the Greek riots, the response was that it caused “panic” in the European elites. That in discovering a democratic moment within an oligarchal democratic system, the obvious immanence of the project of reclamation is revealed. While Ross was happy to acknowledge the Greek riots as a democratic moment, she chose not to make it the focus of the talk – and of the wider project – precisely because of its (radically) oppositional status. Whether this is a positive thing is debatable as it accedes to the hegemonic drive that contrasts such moments (of direct action) as oppositional, as other, and as a threat to the existing order. But in doing so, both gives them validity and shapes the conception of the whole in relation to them.

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