Hating Democracy II: Freedom As Chaos, Research Time, 20/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . So that's the general setup of the problem. If you take democracy to be democratic institutions alone, you’re going to end up being an opponent of what democracy really is. 

But what would that opposition be like? How would you understand people’s freedom if you were a democrat who thought that freedom was contrary to democracy?

Jacques Rancière is writing Hatred of Democracy in the year 2006, publishing it in 2007. There are few figures in world politics that embody these twisted hypocrisies in the understanding of freedom and democracy than George W Bush. 

The imagery of George W Bush definitely contributed to the disturbing
surreality of the terror experienced by a generally progressive person
living through the global politics of the 2000s.
Understanding the Bush years is part of what I want to do in Utopias. There is a subjective element to this as well. Utopias might get a little experimental as a philosophical text, being very explicit about the book’s nature as a response to the cultural and political problems of our own time. 

I think the best philosophy engages with its world in a very conceptual, abstract way – it can be an expression in concepts and ideas of its time and society. 

Here’s a not-so-coincidental example. Just as the cultural and historical context of the English Civil War helps us better understand Hobbes’ Leviathan, the context of the 21st century should inform ambitious philosophical work of our time and society.

So how does the Bush Administration and the politics of the time inform Rancière? They're the prime example of the terrible danger that comes when you think democracy is solely a matter of institutions. That democratic institutions are not just necessary, but also sufficient conditions of real democratic freedoms.

As Rancière describes, this premise makes you sincerely think you can create a democracy – literally a thriving democratic culture – at the point of a gun. With a military occupation. Because that is literally what they were doing to Iraq.

The Bush Administration were following the ideas they all developed as members of the Project for a New American Century think tank – building an American military empire, but an empire that would travel around the world installing democracies. Democratic, free societies whose governments upheld people’s basic liberties, who would naturally be American partners because of their shared love of freedom.

Alberto Gonzales was ruthless in his ideological devotion to the Bush
Administration, purging the Justice Department of attorneys who
questioned or critiqued the government's anti-terrorism laws. He was
also the most cartoonish failure of those years, dopily telling a
Congressional committee that he couldn't remember any of the
details of major activities in his own office.
Because they all thought that all you needed to do was knock down totalitarian institutions, install democratic ones, and people’s natural freedom would emerge. This is why they thought you could make a democracy with a military invasion. 

Here are some examples Rancière doesn’t bring up, but that I will. It’s why they thought no one would ever vote for Hamas in the Palestinian Territories in 2007 – because an election is a democratic institution and democracies don’t vote for non-democrats.

It’s why they cracked down on civil liberties in America itself, authorizing the mass data collection of the NSA, routinizing torture and secret rendition of terrorism suspects, federally prosecuting political enemies of the administration. They still considered them democrats because they were in democratic institutions, answerable to the press and periodically elected.

So how does Donald Rumsfeld describe free people? People literally having just been liberated from Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime? He’s sad for the public disorder after the invasion – people looting state institutions. 

But he’s sure that democratic institutions will channel that energy into the proper freedom. That's why the American military went to Iraq. 

Freedom is the goal of America’s invasion of Iraq, but raw freedom is a sad by-product of liberation. It’s disorder, chaotic, something unfortunate that needs to be brought to heel. 

Rancière doesn't collapse freedom into pure anarchy, but he's aware that
the liberty to do what you want is an essential element of government
by and for the people. My own conclusion is that freedom is only
possible among ethical people. So to build a perfectly free society,
we have to build a society where no one will be driven or desire to
harm others. I have no idea how that can happen, but it's a
wonderful asymptote to approach.
That understanding of freedom isn’t the freedom to live as you want and do as you like. It isn’t even genuine government of the people by the people. It’s the freedom of living under a particular set of institutions. The institutions are constraints, but they will shape people into their highest, most proper freedom. 

Yet even democratic institutions are still constraints. They ultimately involve coercion – police, armies, state violence whether by gun, jail cell, or fine. Institutions that punish malicious behaviour. 

Any punishment is constraining behaviour – it’s an ill done to you, which means that it takes away from what you can do. Just having to obey an institution’s rules does ill to you, even if it’s a nice institution that materially improves your life, as most democratic institutions do.

If you disobey the institution, you’re punished. And so for the threat of punishment, you conform your behaviour to the institution’s rules. You constrain yourself. The material freedom the institution may give you comes at a price of a degree of your liberty. 

Institutions are needed to constrain the chaos of real liberty. Democratic institutions are, accordingly, what transforms chaos into the ordered movement of a higher freedom – democracy. But what happens to a democratic society when they see freedom and liberty as an excess? . . . To Be Continued

No comments:

Post a Comment