I’m reading a couple of books for a review essay: Darrow Schecter’s Beyond Hegemony and Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen’s Radical Democracy.

Schecter’s book is smart but misguided, and essentially involves an attempt to rescue liberalism from itself–or what he sometimes terms “early liberalism” from its historical vicissitudes. He likes, in short, the ways in which Kantianism sets up formal legality over legitimacy, as legitimacy (he argues) always involves a compromise in which particular interests take precedence over the universal, and a forced reconciliation or fabricated consensus (hegemony) results. The problem, Schecter recognizes, is that Kant secured such a distance of legality from interest or need only by assuming a limited suffrage and so by excluding women, wage-earners, etc. from the sphere of politics. Moreover, even within such an attenuated public sphere, actually existing liberal democracy depended upon a covert subject, the white male property-owner, and his particular interests. Still, Schecter wants to maintain the notion that a disinterested (and so legitimate) legality is attainable. For this he turns (rather unconvincingly) to the libertarian or “guild” socialism of G D H Cole.

Still, however wrong, Schecter’s book is at least provocative and intelligent.

The same can hardly be said for Tønder and Thomassen’s collection. Its premise is to set up a distinction “between abundance and lack,” which essentially means playing off Lacanianism and Deleuzianism, all under the sign of radical democracy. The so-called Lacanians (because in fact they are Laclauians through and through) run through the same old moves about hegemony, constitutive outsides, tendentially empty signifiers, non-coincidence of desire, and the like. The so-called Deleuzians are, however, on the whole even worse, as they attempt to shoe-horn Deleuze within the framework of “radical democracy,” as bidden by the collection’s editors. Paul Patton’s piece, for instance, rather bizarrely tries to claim that Deleuze was a paid-up liberal democrat mainly based on the fact that he so seldom discusses liberal democracy. His argument is generally along the lines of admitting “there is no doubt that Deleuze is not a theorist of democracy in the narrow sense of the term,” but only to follow up with the thought that “it does not follow from this that Deleuze is hostile to democratic government” (54). Well, but you can’t make of a non sequitur a democratic theorist.

Meanwhile, the whole concept of “radical democracy” is a con. The tag “radical” is basically meaningless. And there is much confusion as to what purpose the adjective serves: is the notion that radical democracy is some new kind of democracy, exciting, different, and better than (say) liberal or neoliberal democracy? Or is it that democracy is itself radical, and what’s involved is merely a redescription to make democracy seem more exciting, different, and better than it currently appears? This ambivalence, which is never directly confronted, undermines the book’s very premises.


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