PostDemocracy Yannis Stavrakakis
The term “postdemocracy” has recently emerged in sociology and political theory as part of an effort to conceptually grasp and critically mark the late modern pathologies of liberal democracy, especially in relation to late capitalist conditions.
In premodern societies religious imagination was the predominant discursive horizon for the inscription and administration of negativity. Following the dislocation of this horizon, it seems that political modernity has oscillated between (at least) three responses vis-à-vis negativity: utopian, democratic, and postdemocratic. The first response, reoccupying the ground left vacant by a dislocated premodern metaphysics, is best exemplified by some of the mutations of modern political utopianism. Utopia is used here in the strong sense of the word, as a fantasmatic discourse that offers final political solutions from the point of view of a subject supposed to know (the party, the leader, etc.), whose opaqueness and authority is never questioned in itself. A closer look, however, reveals that this desire to overcome negativity is also likely to produce negativity: whenever a conscious attempt has been made to realize such fantasies, to institute human reality according to a plan which promises to resolve social contradictions once and for all and dissimulate political antagonisms, the results have been disastrous.
If this is the case, then surely one of the most urgent political tasks of our age is to go beyond utopian fantasy and reinvent transformative politics in a postfantasmatic direction. But what does it mean to move in such a postfantasmatic direction? One can encounter elements of such a political project in what is usually called the democratic invention or the democratic revolution. This brings us to the second response to negativity and contingency present in political modernity, the response which is closest to assuming—either consciously or unconsciously—responsibility for its irreducible character. No final resolutions are promised here, no political Aufhebung; antagonism is and remains constitutive. “Democratic revolution”—an expression which comes to us from Alexis de Tocqueville but was radically refashioned by Claude Lefort and others—marks a discontinuity from the heteronomous legitimacy of the premodern ancien régime to a new form of social political institution; a society becoming aware of its own historicity, its own limits, a form of society that opens itself up to a continuous process in which it questions its own institutional structures and power relations, a society that detaches itself from fixed markers of certainty. The place of power now appears as an “empty place” which can be occupied only temporarily: “There is no law that can be fixed, whose articles cannot be contested, whose foundations are not susceptible of being called into question. Lastly, there is no representation of a center and of the contours of society: unity cannot now efface social division.” Democracy, according to Lefort’s orientation, institutionalizes “the experience of an ungraspable, uncontrollable society,” in which even the identity of the sovereign people “will constantly be open to question.”1 This has clearly been the boldest attempt to institute a political order on a lack of ultimate foundations and it is characteristic of a modernity worthy of its name.
During the last decades, however, the ideological hegemony of the neoliberal consensus has attempted to naturalize the fiction of a nonantagonistic “third way,” beyond left and right. Both conservative and social-democratic forces have followed this course, which has undermined the agonistic registering of division entailed in democratic institutions. It is in this metapolitical orientation that one encounters the roots of the postdemocratic imaginary. Indeed, postdemocracy is founded on an attempt to exclude the awareness of lack and negativity from the political domain, which leads to a political order that retains the token institutions of liberal democracy but neutralizes the centrality of political antagonism. Jacques Rancière is a political theorist who has used this term.2 A whole chapter is devoted to consensus democracy or “postdemocracy” in Rancière’s Disagreement.3 According to his scheme, this is what postdemocracy denotes:
“the paradox that, in the name of democracy, emphasizes the consensual practice of effacing the forms of democratic action. Postdemocracy is the government practice and conceptual legitimization of a democracy after the demos, a democracy that has eliminated the appearance, miscount, and dispute of the people, and is thereby reducible to the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests”.4
This diagnosis is congruent with the sociological observations of Colin Crouch, elaborated in his book titled Post-Democracy: while the formal aspect of democratic institutions remains more or less in place, politics and government are gradually slipping back into the control of privileged groups in a way reminiscent of predemocratic times.5 Elections and electoral debate, which can still change governments, are transformed into a “tightly controlled spectacle,” managed by professional experts and restricted to a set of issues selected by them, with most citizens reduced to a passive, apathetic role. Behind this facade—but not beyond the terrain of visibility—“politics is shaped in private by the interaction between elected governments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business interests.”6
In some cases—and this is indicative of a more general trend—what accompanies the development of postdemocracy is an outright identification of democratic form with the “necessities” of globalized capital:
“From an allegedly defunct Marxism, the supposedly reigning liberalism borrows the theme of objective necessity, identified with the constraints and caprices of the world market. Marx’s once scandalous thesis that governments are simple business agents for international capital is today an obvious fact on which ‘liberals’ and ‘socialists’ agree. The absolute identification of politics with the management of capital is no longer the shameful secret hidden behind the ‘forms’ of democracy; it is the openly declared truth by which our governments acquire legitimacy.”7
Chantal Mouffe has also contributed a lot to drawing our attention to the ideological characteristics of the emerging post-democratic imaginary and to demonstrating its effects on the way existing democracies represent, and deal with, dissent. In her last book, after sketching the characteristics of this postpolitical orientation, she focuses on the dangers it entails at both domestic and international levels.8 In a world still marked—globally and domestically—by inequalities of various forms, the marginalization of political antagonism, and the hegemony of consumerism, even though extremely successful—at least up until the current economic crisis—could not fully absorb the potential for dissent. Unable to understand and reluctant to legitimize the centrality of antagonism in democratic politics, the postpolitical, postdemocratic Zeitgeist forces the expression of this dissent—when it manages to articulate itself—through channels bound to fuel a spiral of increasingly uncontrolled violence: whereas a recognition of the adversarial nature of the political permits the transformation of antagonism into agonism, the taming of raw violence, a postpolitical approach leads to violent expressions of hatred which, upon entering the depoliticized public sphere, can only be identified and opposed in moral or cultural (and eventually military) terms. Indeed, when opponents are defined in an “extrapolitical” manner, “they cannot be envisaged as ‘adversary’ but only as ‘enemy.’ With the ‘evil them’ no agonistic debate is possible, they must be eradicated. Moreover, as they are often considered to be the expression of some kind of ‘moral disease,’ one should not even try to provide an explanation for their emergence and success.”9 Hence, at the international level, the preoccupation with “axes of evil” and “clashes of civilizations” and at the domestic level, the rise of racism, xenophobia and extreme right-wing movements and parties as well as the irruptions of youth violence in our cities and, most importantly, the difficulties in explaining and effectively dealing with such phenomena politically. Mouffe highlights that, even in such cases, a certain political frontier is drawn—since without an act of exclusion no identity can be constructed—but, at the same time, its political character is denied so that the postpolitical imaginary can remain intact. Indeed, cultural and moral enemies are continuously constructed and demonized. This also helps to legitimize the assault on the two pillars of liberal democracy—namely, equality and liberty—and to inject affective value into the postpolitical nexus.
Hence, within the postdemocratic political imaginary there is no need for a political (agonistic) registering of negativity. As a result, antagonism is neutralized. In effect, negativity and its affective value are displaced from the political field and reinscribed in—at least two—depoliticized ways. They are either reduced to a “clash of enjoyments” between different civilizations (at the global level), or, in domestic terms, reduced to a lack of particular products—to a lack, in other words, that can be “administered” through acts of consumption: through the consumption of products, discourses, fantasies, and even politicians. Moreover, within the post‑democratic universe, this authority structure becomes increasingly immune from criticism. Any resistance is either reabsorbed into the Disneyland of consumerist jouissance in a more or less conformist/cynical way, channeled into obsolete reoccupations of a nostalgic type with antidemocratic implications but (fortunately) limited appeal, or pushed to violent acting out or passages à l’acte, both internationally and domestically. The result has been an increasingly complex and explosive short-circuit with a variety of serious parameters (personal, economic, ecological, political, security, etc.) and no obvious solutions.
However, now that the economic crisis has openly and dramatically revealed the limits of the neoliberal metapolitical consensus—as a surprised Gordon Brown has recently put it, “what we did not see, nobody saw, was the possibility of market failure”—it is likely that the postdemocratic order has entered a terminal state. The way this will be administered remains of course to be seen—and a reactionary or neoauthoritarian course is as probable as a progressive one. Any outcome, though, will obviously be politically decided and offers the best chance for a reinvigoration of political participation and real social transformation, the best chance in decades for a reinvigoration and expansion of democracy. At any rate, politics and democracy seem to be back on the agenda.
1 / Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1986, p. 303–304.
2 / Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1998, p. 177.
3 / Ibid., p. 95–121.
4 / Ibid., p. 101–102.
5 / Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity, Cambridge 2004, p. 6.
6 / Ibid., p. 4.
7 / Rancière, Disagreement, p. 113.
8 / Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, Routledge, London 2005.
9 / Ibid., p. 76.
Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Polity, Cambridge 2004.
Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, The MIT Press, Cambridge 1986.
Chantal Mouffe, On the Political, Routledge, London 2005.
Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1998.
Yannis Stavrakakis, The Lacanian Left, State University of New York Press, Albany 2007.