Hating Democracy I: In Our House, Research Time, 18/10/2016

Reading Jacques Rancière is a lot of fun. He’s efficient – writing short, dense books. But he’s also fun to read – those books steer clear of over-technical jargon and they get straight to the point. There's nothing ambiguous about Rancière’s writing. You see it, it confronts you, and you deal with it.

Because it’s nothing if not confrontational. You don’t write a book called Hatred of Democracy and expect to avoid upsetting people.

Who hates democracy here? Certainly not Rancière, though he does hate a lot of what gets called democracy. Though he doesn’t name the individuals, the introduction to Hatred of Democracy expresses nothing but bile toward the racist nationalism and enforced secularism that's near-universal to his country France.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, recently said that
she would ban all conspicuous religious symbols in all public places, if
she becomes President. In the name of France's liberal secularism.
When he wrote about that, my first instinct was to think of Marine Le Pen and Bernard Henri-Lévy as examples of each. 

It made sense to me at first glance. Maybe that’s because, while Rancière was writing in 2006, I was reading in 2016 so could see more obviously (and unfortunately) how Le Pen’s socialist nationalism* and Henri-Lévy’s secular liberalism dance together.

* Where have I heard of a formula like that before? It sounds weirdly familiar.

It's a peculiarly European problem. Even more peculiar than European – a Western European problem and very much a French problem as well. That singular kind of opposition to freedom in the name of democracy. Perhaps it’s Dutch too

A devotion to liberal secularism and tolerance turns you against freedom

You can split democracy in two ways, you see. One side, you focus on democratic institutions – parliaments, courts, political parties, bureaucracies, welfare services, public utilities, police, and so on. Call that, just for the sake of the argument we’ll be having over the next few posts, civic democracy.

Now look at the other side of what we call democracy in this split. This is the freedom to do whatever you want with your life as long as you don't hurt anyone. I often joke with my friends and co-workers, when they float the idea of doing something harmless that they haven’t before – “Of course! Why wouldn’t you? We live in a democracy. You can do whatever you want!”

Maybe just call that liberty. 

The problem is that you can very easily confuse civic democracy with liberty. As if conformity to the institutions of your country was the same as being free to live as you wish, as long as those institutions were governed by democratic norms like representation, management transparency, and the freedom to criticize them.

Patriotic French citizens demonstrate for their religious freedoms.
But institutions don't free you. At least not entirely. They can certainly provide you with benefits you need to secure your material freedom – like subsidized or not-for-profit utilities, welfare payments, or the protection of your civic freedoms. 

Institutions demand something of you that constrains your freedom – loyalty. Conformity. Since the institutions of a state are closely entwined with a country’s culture, conformity takes on a powerful moral imperative as well as a political command to be loyal.

Look at the example of France. Racist nationalism has grown there (and throughout Europe) in response to large waves of Muslim migrants. Public suspicion of migrants and Islam’s association with terrorism drives the alienation of that minority community. And that alienation tends to swing more members to embrace the fanaticism of terrorism in Islam’s name. The cycle continues.

The response is all too often to push Muslim migrants to conform to secular French life. The freedom of secularism becomes a freedom of fealty, turning away from how you want to live. 

Even though a headscarf doesn't hurt anybody and the moralities of those who choose to wear it are far more diverse than the garment’s opponents believe. And the secularism of the French constitution is rooted in its cultural Catholicism to begin with.

The French case, which Rancière writes about, is a very clear example of a common mistake people make about politics – taking civic democracy to be material liberty. As though loyalty to democratically governed institutions was the same as freedom.

This is just one of many ways you can call yourself a democrat while hating freedom. . . . To Be Continued

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