Democratic traits?

Last week I bought a book which was first published in 2009 as Democratie, dans quel etat? The English translation has just been published this year.  It is a collection of essays examining what is meant by the word ‘democracy’. The first essay, “The Democratic Emblem” by Alain Badiou, is what I am focusing on in this post.

Alain Badiou offers a rather cynical view of democracy. He first criticizes the Western tendency to suppose that the “democratic world” is superior to the rest of the world. Fair enough. Then he harks back to Plato, specifically book 8 of The Republic, in which “Plato applies the term demokratia to a way of organizing the business of the polis, a certain type of constitution.” (8) After a few words about how both Lenin and Plato saw democracy as no more than a particular form of state, he says, “The capacity of the democratic emblem to do harm lies in the subjective type it molds; and, not to mince words, the crucial traits of the democratic type are egoism and desire for petty enjoyments.” (8)

Here I have to take issue with what Badiou takes for granted. In the shadows of the words, “the subjective type it molds” many debates of twentieth century French philosophy lurk. Specifically, Louis Althusser seems to have influenced professor Badiou’s perspectives. Badiou was a student of Althusser and has built his intellectual career on Althusser’s peculiar slant on Marxism. Althusser’s cryptic remarks on ideology and how it molds the subjectivities of individuals haunted my university studies as well. It was pivotal to the raising of my political consciousness to puzzle through what it means for mental and physical habits, hopes, preferences, styles of reactions, all that constitutes subjectivity, to be shaped by the various ideologies that exist in the societies we are immersed in. Althusser at times in Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses seems to think of “ideology” as a mysteriously united force in the universe –sort of like the Nothing in The Never ending Story –which threatens to swallow everything that is not it. Badiou appears to be thinking along similar lines when he accuses democracy of molding a subjective type with the traits of egoism and desire for petty enjoyments. He makes no attempt to distinguish the subjective type that the democratic emblem molds from what any other ideology molds, such as capitalism, protestantism, science, or the communism which he endorses. He seems to just see contemporary society as egoistic and desirous of petty enjoyments and blames that on democracy. What is it about democracy that could create such traits? It is much more complicated than Badiou’s sweeping statement implies.

Continuing on with Alain Badiou’s article, he goes on to accuse democracy of being stuck in a perpetual youthfulness void of the wisdom of age.  This, again, he claims is based on Plato. Badiou says, “Plato’s thesis is that sooner or later this manner of existence, grounded in the indiscipline of time, and its correlative form of State, representative democracy, will bring about a visible manifestation of their despotic essence. Because that is what it comes down to: the real content of all that youth and beauty is the despotism of the death wish.” (13). Badiou implies that “death wish” is a Platonic term –though it is a Freudian generalization –when, immediately after the last quoted sentence he says, “That is why, for Plato, the trajectory that begins with the delights of democracy ends with the nightmare of tyranny. ” (13)

If democracy is to end in tyranny, it seems to me that it is because it has never really been separated from the economic tyranny of the aristocracy, not because of the youthful lustiness which those old Greeks saw everywhere they looked. If democracy is to become the organizational principle of empowering communities to thrive and encourage positive traits it will be through becoming conscious of what non-democratic traits are woven into our institutions and minds, rooting those out and envisaging new ways to organize our communities and free our minds.