I will be presenting a paper entitled “Toward a Counter-History of Democracy” at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia. My presentation will be part of the “Democracy Now” panel, which will take place on Friday, Sept. 2 from 8 to 9:30 a.m. in PCC, 108-A. Details and the full schedule are available here.
This paper, which is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy, proposes a critical investigation into the massive valorization of democracy in the contemporary political imaginary. It focuses on the ways in which the categorical and near absolute elevation of the term risks prohibiting any deep interrogation into the precise status of actually existing democracy. A normative consensus imposes itself with such force in our conjuncture that it is extremely difficult to speak of democracy without presupposing its intrinsic value, or even accepting that it is effectively the only legitimate form of government, if not the ‘end of history.’ We are not obliged to accept Fukuyama’s demagogical thesis to be trapped within the same political imaginary, as has been amply illustrated by the numerous critics of Fukuyama who have been satisfied to play one form of democracy against another. In resisting this ideological pressure, this paper proposes an untimely investigation focusing on the ways in which democracy has become a value-concept whose normative charge tends to subjugate its descriptive potential (to such an extent that the American government, for instance, can speak of ‘our democratic friends’ while referring to some of the most authoritarian political regimes). It sketches the broad outlines of a counter-history that takes much-needed ethnographic distance from the dominant political imaginary by resituating the contemporary democratic obsession in the long history of political cultures. It thereby sheds light on the historical contingency of the valorization of the concept of democracy, which is the result of a deep transformation that is only approximately 150 years old (with important variations across space and social strata). It also reveals the extent to which the mid-19th century reversal of opinion on the value of democracy did not correspond to an actual transformation of governmental structure but was instead part of a rebranding campaign in which oligarchic republics came to present themselves as ‘democracies’ founded for and by the people. This historical perspective establishes the basis for denaturalizing the normative structures and intellectual givens of the contemporary conjuncture, in part by revealing that what we call ‘democracies’ are perhaps best described as oligarchies. It thereby allows us to resituate democratophilia in a triumphalist historical logic that has been founded on the actual occlusion of history. Finally, this paper proposes to elucidate the political role played by this obfuscation of history and the various attempts to purify the political, notably by isolating it from its historical inscription in specific socioeconomic and cultural worlds. Instead of beginning with the classic question in political theory of the best form of government in general, a question that almost inevitably leads to the transfiguration of actually existing democracy into an absolute good independent of context, this paper concludes by asking if it would not be better to inquire into the elaboration of political practices in the broad sense of the term, meaning the collective and immanent constitution of common worlds of values, norms, representations, institutions and practices.