Monday, October 19, 2009

identity and ideology in a democratic society-- is all lost?

Claude Lefort examines democracy in terms of the spatial relationships between different spheres of society and what is at stake in the disjuncture between them. His article is filled with examples of inseparable and separable forces and the kind of society in which their existence results. According to Lefort, the means to a totalitarian society, such as Nazism, is for the unbreakable merging of power with knowledge, and thus with state and civil society (13). It seems to me (and maybe I am misinterpreting) that Lefort admires the openness, and “self-transparency” (13) of the totalitarian regime. Unlike democracy in which everyone is supposedly given their own, individual opinion, totalitarian societies embrace homogeneity and are proud to be a “People-as-One” (13).

Modern democracy, beginning with Tocqueville’s early explorations of Democracy in America, seems to obscure the identity of the individual subject. He writes,
Democracy is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty. It inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and as to the basis of relationships between self and other, at every level of social life.(19)
But unlike a unified totalitarian society, the process of anonymizing the individual is masked by the democratic notion of universal suffrage (everyone counts! But you not a substantial individual, you are a number! (19)), the misunderstood role of the actually anonymous citizen stems from the fiction, as Lefort describes, that the democratic institutions are a set of “delimited” (11) spheres. There is a “double movement” at play, however, that simultaneously hides some dis-junctures/junctures within the framework of democratic society and exposes others. What is at stake in this convoluted conception of the individual and the misunderstood enmeshing of realms in our democratic society?

Lefort, in asserting the flaws in Tocquevilles critique, pinpoints that the positive aspects of democracy society are exactly those with allow political philosophy to flourish in the first place: the “counter-influence is always at work…counteracting the petrification of social life” (16). In a regime such as the Nazi’s in which all think as one according to one ideology, there is little room for counter-influence within the society. Democracy, however, allows for individuals to express themselves “in the face of anonymity” (16). It leaves room for “the rise of demands and struggles for rights that place the formal viewpoint of the law in check” (16) due the bureaucratic organization of balanced government.

How could we take Lefort's analysis to a global level? What does the fact that the Nazi regime, and many other totalitarian regimes, were taken down by outside forces? Perhaps there is some level of people-of-the-world-as-One when it comes to human rights. But then what do we make of Thomas Keenan’s examples of terrorists waving to the camera as they destroy villages? Does that mean that there used to be such a thing and the media has rendered it obsolete? Or does the fact that I even question the existence of a global concurrence on human rights demonstrate the masking of disjuncture that occurs in the democratic institution?

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