Review: Democracy in What State?

Columbia University Press kindly sent me a review copy of Democracy in What State?, a work that I eagerly devoured, both because of its all-star contributors — Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Daniel Bensaid, Wendy Brown, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Ranciere, Kristin Ross, and Slavoj Žižek — and because of its accessible style (even Nancy writes relatively clearly here!).

This collection originated in the French publisher’s desire to imitate one of the organs of the surrealist movement, which asked major thinkers to answer a seemingly obvious or banal question — and in our present age, the seemingly unquestioned assent everyone gives to democracy makes it a fitting target. The answers are various, drawing on the etymology of the word itself, the history of democratic movements and particularly of the French revolution and its aftermath, contemporary French debates around the concept (with Ranciere and Badiou figuring especially prominently in the others’ responses), and the relationship between democracy and communism.

As the Amazon page contains summaries of everyone’s contributions, I won’t duplicate that here, instead focusing on points that particularly grabbed my interest. For me, Nancy had the most interesting discussion of the word “democracy” itself, pointing out that the other “standard” forms of government all end in -archy (monarchy, oligarchy, even anarchy), while only democracy is a -cracy — leading Nancy to claim that democracy is without origin or ground, a “principled anarchy.” Wendy Brown provided perhaps the most concrete assessments of the obstacles to democracy, arguing that the breakdown in state sovereignty undermines democracy just as much as the “national security state.” Somehow globalization has produced a “negative sweet spot” (my term) where we have both not enough and too much state power. Daniel Bensaid, meanwhile, probably does the best job of tracing the contours of contemporary French debate, with particular attention to Badiou and Ranciere. Zizek’s article, while sharing many of the faults we’ve come to expect from Zizek articles, provides the most interesting angle on the relationship of democracy and communism, arguing for the “moment of truth” in totalitarianism (i.e., the need for a leader to crystalize demands into a program) and putting forth Chavez and Morales as potential contemporary representatives of the dictatorship of the proletariat who nonetheless operate within the system of formal democracy.

This book is a good introduction to contemporary French debates on democracy as well as a fun and thought-provoking read. The only complaint that I might register is that the volume could have been improved by the inclusion of Negri or Hardt, as their perspective came up for critique several times and they are obviously major figures within the generally “radical” circle represented by this book’s contributors. Overall, though, completeness of that kind may not be the most important thing to demand of a work like this, which ultimately serves only as an entry point or a useful pedagogical point of reference — a ladder that we kick away as we delve into the more detailed and rigorous debates that the book is pointing toward.

4 thoughts on “Review: Democracy in What State?

  1. Adam, once I get a copy of it for myself and read it, would you be interested in coming on my radio-show to discuss/review it – on the whole or some key essays – in the next few months? I am part of the collective that runs the Old Mole Variety Hour on KBOO 90.7FM – a community radio-station in Portland, Oregon. We could do it over the phone, unless you know you’ll be in Portland on a Monday in April or May, and it would probably go for 10-15 minutes. It doesn’t have to be live either; we could pre-record. I’m trying to get more relatively younger voices on the Old Mole (most of us moles are indeed Old [60+]).

  2. A bit surprised you didn’t comment on Agamben’s falsely humble “ preliminary note”. I found that most of the contributions for this volume, although interesting, were, so to speak, put “offside” by his remarks, which end with the following alert: «any debate about democracy, either as a form of constitution or as a technique of government, is likely to collapse back into mere chatter.»

  3. I thought it was typical Agamben bombast: “I am the first to notice this distinction that is absolutely crucial for even the most basic understanding.” In reality, the introductory note was primarily just a summary of The Kingdom and the Glory.

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