Thursday, February 23, 2006

Does democracy have a sense?

Until this semester, the entirety of my studies about politics and philosophy have originated in normative and essentialist sources---from Aristotle and Plato to Locke and Rousseau, to Hegel and Marx, to Taylor and Macmurray; since I have started reading Wittgenstein, I have found that there is a meaningful challenge that can be raised when one combines philosophy of language with communitarian quests.

In the normative tradition, especially for non-liberals or critics of liberalism (see Rousseau, Hegel, Marx), community has a strong sense; thus, democracy, derived from the demands of community, is something entirely different than what liberals tend towards when defining democracy.

How do we solve the problem of contorted, twisted meanings, between the two traditions (liberal and non-liberal)? Is it merely an issue of language? Or more an issue of circumstance?

The word democracy carried a negative connotation for two thousand years. At the influence of Aristotle, democracy was viewed as the rule of the poor and the rule of the many; this strain of thought, even through the epistemological changes brought upon the world by Descartes, was carried forward. In the modern period, it seems safe to summarize the period by pointing out that aversions to democracy were softened by references to limited governments built around both the preservation of private property, the protection of individual endeavors (e.g., speech, life, etc.), and in some cases, the welfare of marginalized groups or institutions (cf. esp. Kant, through Rawls).

This modern tradition of liberalism, though with many representatives (Locke, Mill, Hobbes, Kant, and to a certain extent Rawls, Taylor, and Nozick) carried political thought forward, through a gigantic shift in political practice: democracy became a code word for good government by the time the careers of both Rawls and Nozick were is now acceptible to support democratic institutions, and promote its well-being...

That is, unless democracy is the rule of the poor and the many. It seems that the idea of a "many" has survived the history of political thought concerning democracy, but, not that of a "poor." It would appear as though the advent (and purported death) of communism (or strains of communistic thought) turned liberal governments away from conceiving of democracy in a sense whereby the government was seen to be in the hands of the poor.

But, what does that even mean? Why is it significant to note that democracy has lost any communitarian sharpness, any possible radical elements, in favor of the relatively calm and plain everyday use "democracy," which signifies, roughly, "representative government," "civil liberties," "individual rights," "capitalism," and "liberalism"? Why have these concepts taken on such a clear meaning of "goodness"?

Clearly the poor and the many remain "bad." But, those concepts are no longer signifiers of "democracy." Neither is it the case that any strong sense of communitarian association could take on the meaning of the word, 'democracy'--although, if the liberals successfully hijacked the word "democracy," perhaps the communitarians can eventually do the same?

There is an important conclusion here: political words are difficult because they are rallying cries at bottom; references, preferably with very vague meaning. If I, as a communitarian, employ the term "democracy," and equate it with a system of associations, how is that any different than a liberal employing the term "democracy," and equating it with a system of institutions?

Here's where the turn back into essentialism comes (hold on to your hats, Wittgensteinians): perhaps the meaning of political words is in the use-value, the utility, of the actual persons that compose such corresponding political associations or institutions: perhaps, for instance, "democracy" only clearly means "democracy" whereby there is clearly a democratic practice occurring--this is a confusing outcome, for we have yet to figure out what democracy actually means. But, this is also a valuable outcome, for it allows for the possibility of criticism of the prevalent political order: if persons use the word 'democracy,' and yet there is no 'democratic' association apparent, the word is meaningless; there is no manifestation of its term.

What is the outcome for "community," like "democracy." Is it the case that "community" is that which we do not have? Is "community" a manner in which we do not act? When we use the word community, is it meaningless? Where do we find community? What is its meaning?

Is there any difference between "community" and "slab" for Wittgenstein?


Stuff to read if you'd like to trace some of the thoughts here:

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, secs. 1-184
Alain Badiou, Metapolitics
Ellen Meiksins Wood, "Demos versus 'we the people'," from Democracy Against Capitalism
Neal Wood, Tyranny in America
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, I.6
Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society and Modern Social Imaginaries


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