Sat Nov 8 13:37:31 CST 2008
or, on becoming obama's people.
one interesting question underlying recent discussions surrounding obama's
election is, how should democratic societies conceive of a leader's role?
does a leader merely represent the popular will, or does the leader help to
create that popular will? is obama the sum total of his supporters' demands
for change, or does his figure cast a shadow over his supporters (and now,
over all citizens), in some sense constituting the body politic?
taken too far, we can immediately see a fascist potential: if a leader tries
to wholly embody his people, then we're not far from kim jong-il territory;
however, if we go too far in the other direction, the classic worry is that
we end up with 'mob rule' - plato's critique of democracy.
so where's the proper balance?... what liberals like stroube have trouble
wrapping their minds around, and more conservative theorists grasp from
the get-go, is that politics as such is a response to the absence of such
a balance: there's danger in too much centralization and there's danger
in too much balkanization, and there's no way to eliminate the possibility
of either without also dispensing with politics altogether.
obama may not be malcolm x's son, but there's a silent x that follows his
name. cynics criticize this x-factor as trying to be 'all things to all people'
and many leftists of stroube's ilk will conclude that obama's candidacy is
defenders of obama may reply that it's not that obama is two-faced,
but that representation itself is a two-way street, and radical defenders
of democracy may point to this as democracy's saving grace: it is empty.
that means it's in no small part up to us what obama represents. neither
him or us exist before the process that'll write our history. how democratic
that process is, it's true, remains to be seen, but we ought to beware of
seemingly radical rejections which, if taken seriously, would make an
impossible best the enemy of the real good that's now possible.
i highly recommend ernesto laclau's 'on populist reason' (2005) for its
clarity on these matters -- here's two representative quotations...
_ pages 158-9:
Let us concentrate on what is involved in a process of representation under
democratic conditions. Democratic theory, starting with Rosseau, has always
been highly suspicious of representation, and has accepted it only as a lesser
evil, given the impossibility of direct democracy in large communities like
modern nation-states. Given these premises, democracy has to be as
transparent as possible: the representative has to transmit as faithfully
as possible the will of those he represents. Is this, however, a fair
description of what is actually involved in a process of representation? There
are good reasons to think that it is not. The function of the representative
is not simply to transmit the will of those he represents, but to give
credibility to that will in a milieu different from the one in which it was
originally constituted. That will is always the will of a sectorial group,
and the representative has to show that it is compatible with the interests
of the community as a whole. It is in the nature of representation that the
representative is not merely a passive agent, but has to add something to
the interest he represents. This addition, in turn, is reflected in the
identity of those represented, which changes as a result of the very process
of representation. Thus, representation is a two-way process: a movement
from represented to representative, and a correlative one from representative
to represented. The represented depends on the representative for the
constitution of his or her own identity. So the alternative that [Ernest] Barker
describes [namely, 'either the leader represents the will of his following, or
the following represents the will of the leader'] is not one that corresponds
to two different types of regimes - it is, in fact, not an alternative at all: it
simply points to two dimensions which are inherent in any process of
It could be argued that although the two dimensions are inherent to
representation, the latter would be more democratic whenever the first
movement - from represented to representative - prevails over the second.
This argument, however, does not take into account the nature of the will
to be represented. If we have a fully constituted will - of a corporative
group, for instance - the representative's room for maneuver would
indeed by limited. This, however, is an extreme case within a wider range
of possibilities. Let us take, at the opposite extreme, the case of marginal
sectors with a weak degree of integration into the stable framework of a
community. In this case we would be dealing not with a will to be
represented but, rather, with the constitution of that will through the very
process of representation. The task of the representative is, however,
democratic, because without his intervention there would be no incorporation
of those marginal sectors into the public sphere. But in that case, his task
would consist less in transmitting a will than in providing a point of
identification which would constitute as historical actors the sectors that
he is addressing. As always, there will be some distance between a
sectorial interest - even a fully constituted one - and the community at
large; there will always be a space within which this process of
identification will take place. It is on this moment of identification that
we have now to concentrate our attention.
_ pages 170-1:
We know that there is an insurmountable abyss between the particularity
of groups integrating into a community - often in conflict with one another
- and the community as a whole, conceived as a universalistic totality. We
also know that such an abyss can only be hegemonically mediated, through
a particularity which, at some point, assumes the representation of a
totality which is incommensurable with it. But for this to be possible, the
hegemonic force has to present its own particularity as the incarnation of
an empty universality that transcends it. So it is not the case that there is
a particularity which simply occupies an empty place, but a particularity
which, because it has succeeded, through a hegemonic struggle, in
becoming the empty signifier of the community, has a legitimate claim to
occupy that place. Emptiness is not just a datum of constitutional law,
it is a political construction. Let us now consider the matter from the other
side: that of the place as empty. Emptiness, as far as that place is
concerned, does not simply mean void; on the contrary, there is emptiness
because that void points to the absent fullness of the community.
Emptiness and fullness are, in fact, synonymous. But that fullness/emptiness
can exist only embodied in a hegemonic force. This means that emptiness
circulates between the place and its occupiers. They contaminate each
other. So the logic of the King's two bodies has not disappeared in
democratic society: it is simply not true that pure emptiness has replaced
the immortal body of the King. This immortal body is revived by the
hegemonic force. What has changed in democracy, as compared with the
anciens regimes, is that in the latter that revival took place in only one
body, while today it transmigrates through a variety of bodies. But the
logic of embodiment continues to operate under democratic conditions
and, under certain circumstances, it can acquire considerable stability.
Think of a phenomenon such as Gaullism. One could say that one of the
fundamental hegemonic defects of the French Fourth Republic was its
inability to provide relatively stable symbols to embody the empty place.
At this point, however, we have to move the argument one step forward.
Empty signifiers can play their role only if they signify a chain of
equivalences, and it is only if they do so that they constitute a 'people'.
In other words: democracy is grounded only on the existence of a
democratic subject, whose emergence depends on the horizontal
articulation between equivalential demands. An ensemble of equivalential
demands articulated by an empty signifier is what constitutes a 'people'.
So the very possibility of democracy depends on the constitutions of a
democratic 'people'. We also know that if there is to be an articulation/
combination between democracy and liberalism, demands of two different
types have to be combined. Combination, however, can take place in two
different ways: either one type of demands - liberalism, for instance, with
its defense of human rights, civil liberties, and so on - belongs to the
symbolic framework of a regime, in the sense that they are part of a
system of rules accepted by all participants in the political game, or they
are contested values, in which case they are part of the equivalential
chain, and so part of the 'people'. In Latin America during the 1970s and
1980s, for instance, the defense of human rights was part of the popular
demands and so part of the popular identity. It is a mistake to think that
the democratic tradition, with its defense of the sovereignty of the
'people', excludes liberal claims as a matter of principle. That could only
mean that the 'people''s identity is fixed once and for all. If, on the
contrary, the identity of the 'people' is established only through changing
equivalential chains, there is no reason to think that a populism which
includes human rights as one of its components is a priori excluded. At
some points in time - as happens today quite frequently in the international
scene - defense of human rights and civil liberties can become the most
pressing popular demands. But popular demands can also crystallize in
entirely different configurations, as Lefort's analysis of totalitarianism
shows. It is on this variety in the constitution of popular identities that
we must now focus our attention.
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