There were some interesting responses to my last on some of the Lefty mailing lists — I mean really interesting; for once, I’m not being snide. In particular, there were some thoughtful attempts to rescue the idea of ‘rights’ in the context of democracy, which I tried to liquidate. (It’s an old habit of mine). Here’s Comrade McGee (not his real name, of course):
Formal democratic rights, the entitlement of all citizens to free political expression and association, is the true precondition for popular rule, for democracy. So then, the people do not “give” rights– it is the rights that constitute the people as a people, as a democratic subject.
I love it when you talk Hegel to me, McGee. But still, this leaves me wondering: If the people don’t give rights, where do they come from?
It’s possible, isn’t it, to imagine a democracy doing something bad — waging an aggressive or imperial war, for example. In fact it’s been known to happen.
One might wish for some countervailing force to prevent that. But then the people wouldn’t be sovereign, would they?
This is not to trash the idea of democracy at all, but to suggest what a deeply radical idea it is, in spite of the unthinking complacent cant about it ceaselessly spouted by the likes of Comrade Zircon, the media, and American politicians.
A democracy operating in accordance with my own ideas (probably shared, to a first approximation, by most of us) would certainly confer certain universal rights, and enforce them. But there’s no assurance that a democracy would operate in accordance with my own ideas. That’s why a real commitment to democracy, in any strong sense, requires quite a leap of faith — faith in the people. It’s a commitment without any reciprocal guarantees.
McGee, I guess, is trying to argue that certain rights — e.g. the right of universal participation — are implicit in the idea of democracy. I would say however that it’s the fact of universal participation — or rather, the fact that everybody can participate; some may prefer not to, like Bartleby — is what constitutes democracy, not the “right”.
But maybe this is a distinction without a difference.
If the word democracy is going to mean anything at all, there have to be some criteria for applying it; equal universal participation seems pretty good. Do you therefore want to characterize that as a ‘right’?
I don’t, mostly because conflating questions of sovereignty and questions of right seem to muddy the conceptual waters and darken counsel — as ha-Shem says somewhere.