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.

14 thoughts on “Δημοκρατία

  1. Would you really consider democratic a system in which everyone could participate in governance, but only a few did? That seems like it might be stretching the idea a bit far.

    I don’t see where you mention “rights” in the “Stop Traffic” post. You mention the law as antagonist, but I feel like “rights” are often conceptualized as moral facts pre-existing law.

    • 1) One would hope more than a ‘few’ would participate. But surely people ought to be able to abstain if they wish. Otherwise, what would become of the Amish?

      2) Yeah, the question of rights in the earlier post isn’t raised explicitly.

      3) It’s just that notion of pre-existing moral facts that annoys me. Rights, I think, are a bit like property: they’re defined by social consensus.

      • Maybe rights, *some* rights are part of the genome, like language.

        Or maybe a kind of portable ‘territorialism’ … you know, “one fights better on land one regards as one’s own.”

      • 1) I was asking more about what the word “democracy” would really mean in such a context. I’m not into forcing people to do things, but the phrase “nonparticipatory democracy” sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to me.

        3) There is a classic conservative argument against people being born with equal rights, along the lines that it’s meaningless to decree an equality that inheres nowhere in the actual state of affairs. Is that the sort of thing that bothers you about “rights”? Would it be fixed by rephrasing to say that we would like a society where those “rights” are the norm?

        • One would certainly hope that participation rates would be fairly high — high enough that the (relatively) few nonparticipants wouldn’t be a sign of something wrong, but just an entailment of the general bloody-mindedness of human nature.

          As regards equality, I think the question of whether it’s justified in nature, or by some kind of Kantian entailment of the way we think, is unanswerable. So I prefer to say that I want equality because I want it. I advise other people to want it too, and I try to persuade them to take this view because the closer we get to equality, the better off most people will be. They may not buy this as an empirical argument, of course; or they may not buy it because they’re all hung up on the question of ‘rights’. That’s why I’d like to blow all these speculative cobwebs off the topic and concentrate on what we *want*.

  2. Switzerland is a “democracy”. Most of the rest of the western countries are “republics” with “representatives” that may or may not do what the majority of their constituents want them to do.

  3. It’s worth noting that trying to use political words in a technical manner is completely useless. Not only do ten different people give “democracy” ten different meanings; one person may give a word five different meanings, often interchangeably in the same argument. A reality of language very much capitalized on in the academic profession. Ideally words could be given some sort of ISO appendage indexing them to a repository of definitions so they could be used fruitfully. Like democracy-ISO001 might refer to the historic usage in ancient Greek philosophy; democracy-ISO321 might describe the US political system etc. Much like the technical usage of “spin” in physics. Saying that…

    When I contemplate My Utopia(tm) I’m inclined to believe the concept of “rights” would become meaningless disappear.

    The distinction is often made between a right and a privilege; the implication being that for a right there is no precondition, such as passing a test. But in practice I’d argue the difference is trivial; and just about any right I can think of at least requires the arbitrary precondition of citizenship. Either way, a right implies the existence of a power to grant that right–even if it is negative; e.g., We will not (absolutely) prevent a woman from having an abortion. A power, in this case the state, has decided explicitly what it will not prevent women from doing and made it a law–a concession it assumes it can take away any time it chooses.

    Of course many rights, like abortion and civil rights, did spring originally from popular pressure; but they’ve been repacked and sold back to us in a crappy, bowdlerized consumer form effectively subverting the original, much more radical intentions of their advocates.

  4. Democracy [?:] – to extent it moves beyond mere ideology, is in the ‘Streets’ – is transcended, not by ‘mob rule’ or ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ but truly ‘free and associated’ beings.

    This man, L. Cohen, is helping to produce it – So can you.

    ‘Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering.
    There is a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.’
    ~ Leonard Cohen

  5. Pardon my diversion but you might find this interesting : the other day I was walking through the McGill campus and for the first time I saw an anti-Obama booth. It was quite refreshing because for the most part, the Canadians and Quebecois love this fool but I found their poster even more amusing. They had a picture of MLK alongside a picture of Obie. On the MLK side it read, “I have a dream” and on the Obie side it read “I have a drone”! Call me a simple minded old bird but I loved their poster.

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