Text of lecture at Eurozine:

… The voters who in 2004 regarded Bush as the worst American president of modern times, and who desperately hoped for Kerry’s success, were also constitutionalists. When Kerry lost, they were sick at heart. But they did not dream of fomenting a revolution. Leftwing Democrats are as committed to preserving the US constitution as are rightwing Republicans.

But if, instead of asking these two groups whether they believe in democracy, you had asked them what they mean by the term “democracy”, you might have received different replies. The Bush voters will usually be content to define democracy simply as government by freely elected officials. But many of the Kerry voters – and especially the intellectuals – will say that America – despite centuries of free elections and the gradual expansion of the franchise to include all adult citizens – is not yet a full-fledged democracy. Their point is that although it obviously is a democracy in the constitutional sense, it is not yet a democracy in the egalitarian sense. For equality of opportunity has not yet been attained. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening rather than narrowing. Power is becoming more concentrated in the hands of the few.



Le Point carries a fascinating interview of Marcel Gauchet, in which he lays out a scheme for political history.  Leaving behind a “heteronomy” in which spiritual ideals unified complex soceities, democracy has set forth on an unending process of historical development, often contradicting its intentions to elevate the individual and guarantee their equality.  There is no “moment” in which democracy is achieved and perfected, no time when it reaches its final form.  Gauchet sees an ever-evolving institution that nowadays is narrowly focused on infrastructure.

How Gauchet deals with the initial stages of political modernization interests me most.  The state, supposeably the institution in service of the society of individuals, bears little relationship with them.  Indeed, the major transformations that define the early democratization are not the emancipation of individuals, but the atomization of the Old Regime and the reorganization of individuals into a society according to the interests of the state.

… first [in the process of democratization] is the political, with the appearance of this bizarre object that we call the modern state: not a transcendence incarnated in individuals who command but an abstract power.  Former royal  power was a machine that tied heaven and earth together.  The state is a machine that unties them and constructs a disembodied system of power that is the instrument by which the human community governs itself by its reason alone. . . .

The irony of history is that the absolute state produces what it will destroy, that which we call the absolute individual. . . . In order to create connections between individuals, it must start by disconnecting them.

First the state, than the individual.  Moreover, the state makes the individual in its own image.

This does not stray far from modernization theories, except that Gauchet emphasizes the state more.  While the state may wish to make subjects/citizens who are economically useful (Gellner), it also seeks to limit political participation.  (Ascribing personal motivations to an impersonal agent is itself problematic, but I’ll overlook that.)  The state, in general, finds popular participation a nuisance, seeking to limit it by empowering one group above others, filtering public opinion through parliamentary institutions, or offering a sense of fulfillment through a spiritual nationality.  An identity between state and public is largely elusive, and compromises are made.  The Terror itself reveals how quickly the state’s project of creating its own public devolves into violence.

Gauchet also recognizes the excesses of democracy and liberalism, especially as manifested in the “religious mold” reproduced by so-called secular regimes.  Still, he invests the process with a sense of positive progress:

The liberal may be a fanatique, but he permanently produces a society that disclaims his own zealousness.

Perhaps, but it is only tenable if society willfully prevents that zeal from becoming an institution.  It is not the fanatical liberal who destroys itself, but society that bounds him.

Gauchet appears to follow much of what Ranciere, Rosanvallon and the like have written about democracy.  Its institutions tend to constrain, rather than elevate, the democratic voice.  Gauchet, however, does not want to critique the democratic project, in as much as it is a continually process.  What he does not address is how the public at large will be able to take control of that process and direct it to its own benefit.