“Terror at the heart of power”: notes on the death of democracy

Let us be quite clear: democracy has long been dead.

An opinion shared by continental philosophers, politics professors, and Daily Mail columnists alike, it needn’t sound particularly controversial. Attribute it to the bureaucracy of the parliamentary system. Blame it on the unelected figures who run the judiciary (or on those across the channel in ‘Europe’). Place responsibility at the feet of the governmental institutions, whose veins are clogged with the muck of corruption (remember that story?). Otherwise, identify the inevitable pitfalls of representation (1). Demonstrate the censoring of dissensus (2). Consider the fetishisation of democracy itself as the central obstacle to real rule by the people.

In an abrupt and brilliant performance in demystification, Alain Badiou writes the followingThe word “democracy” is today the main organizer of consensus. […] Actually the word “democracy” is inferred from what I term “authoritarian opinion.” It is somehow prohibited not to be a democrat. Accordingly, it furthers that the human kind longs for democracy, and all subjectivity suspected of not being democratic is deemed pathological. The magnitude of the value we attribute to the notion of democracy inaugurates the closure of difference that democracy in practice is supposed to protect. We cannot be sane nor good if we show scepticism about this most virtuous of virtues. In other words, everything is up for debate except the value of that debate itself.

Meanwhile, the shoring up of this “authoritarian opinion” brings with it – disguises – the simultaneous amelioration of democratic participation. While praise for democracy is ubiquitous, normative, imperative, the mechanisms by which the demos, the populace, ‘the people’ can influence government has shrunk. This remains true despite the west’s recent political earthquakes, Brexit and Trump. Maybe these were protest votes, maybe they were a rejection of the ‘political elite’. Regardless, the outcome has been business-as-usual: a murky world of behind-the-scenes decision-making in which those decisions made are made for the benefit of the economy. We believe we can choose, we believe we can change things, we can hold to account. However, whilst professing and praising this power, democracy today ‘produces an oligarchically instituted form of governing in which political power seamlessly fuses with economic might’ (3)

***

Yesterday: Attacking That Which is Dead

I rehearse these arguments in light of the response to yesterday’s attack at Westminster. A man drove a Hyundai through the crowds on Westminster Bridge before stabbing and killing a policeman. The attacker in turn was immediately shot and killed. Following the five deaths that resulted from the atrocities (three members of the public alongside the policeman and the attacker), the symbolic import of the murders’ location became clear to the media at large. The Daily Mirror and City A.M. ran the same headline this morning – ‘An Attack on Democracy – whilst The Independent published an editorial with a similar message. Meanwhile, The Guardian continued the trend – this time making liberal use of scare quotes – and The Telegraph used the same language.

Contrary to the comments of both the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ (see Toynbee’s article cited above), there is little that divides the mainstream commentariat less than the analysis that follows ‘terrorist’ incidents. We are told by them all, with only the most subtle of variations, that ‘western values’ are at stake. We are told that the attacker was a pervert, either deranged or pure evil (usually depending on the colour of their skin). We are greeted with democracy’s reanimated corpse – accompanied by a triumphant fanfare – precariously erected only to be once more condemned to death.

***

Again, let’s be clear: if democracy is dead, it wasn’t Islam that killed it.

Yesterday’s attack took as its focal centre – its symbolic and geographical centre – London’s Houses of Parliament. It is not difficult to see therefore how it has been spun as an attack on a concept, on a value, on a practice. Maybe it was such an attack; it has definitely become one through the incorporeal transformations that the discourse inculcates.

However, it was far from the first attack on this victim.

Khalid Masood murdered four innocent people yesterday – an act condemnable enough in itself. His violence was despicable, despicable and stupid. The violence of ‘the stupid twat’: ‘the violence that knocks someone in the face, simply because – as the stupid twat might say – it “doesn’t like the look” on his face. This face is denied truth’ (4). Difference is denied; otherness is erased; life is deleted.

But democracy was long dead before him. Democracy is dead, yes, but it is Theresa May, David Cameron, Blair, Thatcher – take your pick – that have killed it.

***

(1) See Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Image of Thought’, Difference and Repetition

(2) Jacques Ranciere, Dissensus

(3) Erik Swyngedouw http://www.variant.org.uk/events/pubdiscus/Swyngedouw.pdf

(4) Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image

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