The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy

This is an older post, I forgot to publish…

I received my copy of Mark Purcell’s newest book today and I immediately read it cover to cover. What follows is some first thoughts and a synopsis, and I imagine that as time passes I will be able to understand more fully the profundity of this work.

The book is decidedly about cultivating the “virtual object” of democracy, such that we are always on a path to it, never fully reaching it, but always becoming. Democracy is not some ideal utopia or endpoint, it is a process of continual realization of the power and potential of people to not only govern themselves, but to assure the fullest possibility of their potential, of their creativity, and of there productive ability. Democracy is something which has been continually assaulted and co-opted, but something that still lurks in places, in people, who practice governance of themselves, sometimes in revolutionary and reactionary movements against state or capital oppression  It is hidden in the “not-inferno” (of Calvino and Marco), the places where being alive and human exists in everyday life among all the darkness and stupidity (David Foster Wallace).  This is what Lefebvre calls transduction, or the “way to cut a path that leads beyond the actual world already realized and toward a possible world yet to come” (Purcell 2013:21).  Lefebvre is striving for augestion generalisee,  or generalized autogestion, or “self-management”.   Purcell easily makes this connection to the idea of democracy, a radical democracy, of people governing themselves autonomously together.

Purcell’s picture of democracy, his will to democracy is a coalescence of multiple actors, understanding them as multiple in themselves.  By this he notes that the Nietzschean idea, rather even before Nietzsche, the multiplicitous soul, the soul as social structure, as a node in a complex web of relationships. This is important because he envisions an overlapping will to democracy that comes from portions of many theorists thought, yet, not essentializing any of their work or even worse, their being.  Classifying one as a Marxist and another an anarchist is not really useful; rather, Purcell suggests that we trace historically and contingently their theoretical insights into their will to democracy.  In this way a number of desires, passions, wills, all stream together in these works coalescing in Purcell’s vision of democracy.

Purcell does not downplay the influence of Marxist thought in some of the authors he addresses, namely Lefebvre, Laclau and Mouffe, Gramsci, Ranciere, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, but he explains they have different interpretations and uses according to their own wills and desires.  Purcell is able to draw out, in a critical and sustained discussion of each of these influential political thinkers, their desire for democracy. In Lefebvre he sees it as autogestion in which people “reject the oligarchy and heteronomy of capitalism and the modern state. Instead they govern themselves directly…it is democracy in all spheres of life” (Purcell 2013:41).  More importantly, perhaps, is the spatial dimension of democracy that Lefebvre introduced, such that appropriation of space becomes the transgression of capitalist and state centered power.

With Deleuze and Guattari, Purcell finds their will for democracy in their quest to flee from the apparatuses of capture which suspend, alienate, reappropriate, and inhibit desiring production. Their political project is revolutionary and radically democratic.  The aim is to flee along lines of flight, to escape the state and capitalist cages which prohibit desiring production, and to make connections freely with others to realize the fullest potential and creative possibilities of people. The project is to regain the power which comes from people, who surrender their power to a constituted power, one that suppresses and alienates desire, labor, and productive capabilities, such that they can then govern themselves.

Hardt & Negri have a smaller impact, seemingly, on Purcell’s vision. He appreciates and appropriates Hardt & Negri’s concept of Empire to merge with Deleuze & Guattari, something which I think is quite powerful. By this, I mean he explains that Empire is actually a power force which creates peace in the capitalist political economy only through suppression of freedom and gets fed by the leeching and exploitation of desiring-production, a cage if you will. But the multitude harnesses the power to create a new Empire, a radical alternative, reclaims autonomy and institutes new democratic forms. Purcell sees Hardt & Negri’s multitude as a force for political awakening directly tied to a new commons, a new land, absolute democracy.

Purcell was also influenced by the work of Laclau & Mouffe and their work that engages Gramsci’s hegemony. The main idea is the understanding of politics as having components of coercion and consent, hegemonic orders, in an irreducibly plural field. Liberal democracy attempts to alleviate this pluralism through creating notions of objectivity through the escalation of reason above all.  Desire, passion, and all else is not just sublimated, but cast off or caged in total.  But Mouffe and Laclau argue for a re-hash of liberal democracy, not a complete renunciation of it.  They vote for a radicalization of democracy, to embrace an agonistic politics (instead of an antagonistic politics) which allows “political” argumentation, that is, contemplation and argument over the meaning of the universal values (equality, justice, truth, liberty, etc), but those are still held at the center, in the institutions which shape Mouffe’s democracy. This, I think is incompatible with Deleuze & Guattari, and Purcell addresses this issue,  because Mouffe and Laclau argue for a hegemony of radical democracy whereas D&G argue for multiple lines of flight, a breakthrough, and a generalized flight from the capitalist, liberal democractic order.

Another important influence on Purcell is the work of Ranciere, an important component in his conceptualization of democracy. I feel, however, that this influence is by far understated because, in fact, Ranciere’s views are expressed quite heavily in Purcell’s rendering of democracy. Purcell claims that Ranciere valorizes the importance of disruption, but not a breakthrough. That is, Ranciere suggests that democracy requires anarchy, and of the operation of an almost autonomous “other”, or those who have been decided to not have logos.  Ranciere suggests that when the “other” begins to act as if they were equal, the engage in the “critical act of politics, and of democracy. It is an act that disrupts the assumptions of the establish order, an act by which the part of those who have no part claim and demonstrate with their voices and their bodies that they are indeed capable of logos, that they can very well take part, that they can assume and active role in the affairs of the polis”(Purcell 2013, 68). Purcell points out that Ranciere’s conception, stemming from Platonic and ancient greek philosophy, is spatialized by Lefebvre in a more powerful argument and theory.  And Ranciere does not envision any horizon, breakthrough, or realization of a generalized democracy, because he negates the possibility of a society without inequality.  I think this is highly influential on Purcell, combined with Lefebvre, because it sort of suggests that democracy is something that will never be fully reached, it is not a state of being in a society, but rather, a process of becoming. So I think Ranciere’s vision, although less optimistic in some senses, is influential because it advocates for struggle in the face of seemingly unending inequality and “police order” (partage du sensible).


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