Coup in Brazil, Protest at LASA


At the annual Latin American Studies Association Congress in New York. This year is the Association’s fiftieth anniversary, and as part of the celebrations they planned a special event in which former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso would discuss democracy in the region.

But in Cardoso’s own country, democracy is in trouble, as President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT) has been impeached in circumstances that are dubious at best. And as Perry Anderson notes, in his essential article “Crisis in Brazil”, Cardoso doesn’t exactly have the cleanest of hands in the mess:

Due to preside over the case against Dilma on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was Gilmar Mendes, a crony Cardoso had appointed to the Supreme Court, where he still sits, and who has never made a secret of his dislike of the PT. But Dilma was lesser prey. For Cardoso, the crucial target for destruction was [former PT President] Lula, not simply for reasons of revenge, however much this might be savoured in private, but because there was no telling, given his past popularity, whether he might be capable of a political comeback in 2018 – when, if Dilma survived till then, [Cardoso’s party] the PSDB should otherwise be able to count on steering the country back to a responsible modernity.

There’s more, much more. Read the whole article. (David Miranda offers a rather briefer sketch in The Guardian.) But the point is that Cardoso is hardly the person to be lecturing anyone about democratic process.

So various petitions were circulated, calling on LASA to withdraw its invitation. Rather than doing so (and defending its decision on the grounds that it “cannot endorse a particular side”), the organization apparently simply changed the title of the session. But in any case, for whatever reasons of his own, a couple of days before the congress was due to begin, the former president indicated that he was no longer able to attend.

Still, the banners had already been painted, the t-shirts printed, so a brief demonstration took place nonetheless, as the photo above indicates. “FHC Golpista” translates as something like “Cardoso, coup-mongerer.” In some ways it’s a shame that Fernando Henrique ultimately chose to decline his invitation; it left the protest a little at a loss. More generally, though, as the Left is in crisis throughout the region (voted out in Argentina; impeached in Brazil; in meltdown in Venezuela) it’s good to remember that, whatever the undoubted failures of left-wing parties and leaders, there are always external forces looking for their chance to pounce.


If Oedipus has a tragic flaw, then it’s surely beside the point to talk of “pride” or the like. Or at best it’s incidental.

For what’s striking about Oedipus’s predicament is how hard he has tried to avoid it. It’s not as though he ends up killing his father and sleeping with his mother by accident, out of some negligence or lapse. Rather, he’s spent the better part of his life trying to ensure that he never sees his parents again. All from the very best of intentions.

Oedipus is in every sense of the term (except the one that counts) a “good guy.” He works ardently for both public and private good, and is loved by all for his efforts. He wears his heart on his sleeve and never shirks responsibility: “Here I am myself [. . .] I am Oedipus” (7, 8). Called upon to resolve the trauma Thebes is suffering, to rid the city of the plague, he pledges to do his best in every way, and to put all of his formidable energy to work. He feels his people’s pain: “I have wept through the nights, you must know that, / groping, laboring over many paths of thought” (78-9). He’s no distant tyrant, savoring the delights of power and luxury. He feels personally invested in the search for the old king Laius’s murderer, even though it happened before he arrived in the city, even though it would be easy enough simply to blame the people who were there then for burying the trauma at the time.

In short, Oedipus is the very model of the ideal modern politician. Would that there were more like him. And not only because at the end he (almost literally) falls on his sword for something that was not really his fault, assuming responsibility for a disaster he never intended to bring about and circumstances that he could never have avoided.

Except that the irony is that if it weren’t for his impeccably good intentions, everything would undoubtedly have turned out very differently. It was only because he fled Corinth, seeking to avoid his fate, that he met Laius at the crossroads. And it was only because he solved the Sphinx’s riddle, so freeing Thebes from the monster’s malevolent presence, that he can marry Jocasta and taint her, too, with the blot of incestuous union.

In other words, it’s not just that his good intentions don’t save him. They are what get him into all this trouble in the first place. They are his tragic flaw.

All too often over the past decade or so, politicians have tried to cloak themselves in the defence of good intentions. Some years back David Runciman wrote a marvelous article about Tony Blair, who appealed always to his own high-minded humanitarianism and sense of conscience as exculpation for the disasters that ensued on his watch. Indeed, in part this was precisely his justification (for example) for the war on Iraq: yes, the people in their hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets against military action on such a shaky foundation. But the Prime Minister argued that the fact that he went to war anyway (whether or not he “sexed up” dodgy dossiers and the like en route) showed that he was not some populist swayed by the views of the many. He was a principled man who followed his own sense of right and wrong.

My colleague and friend Max Cameron at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions would no doubt applaud this concern for morality and ethics amid–and against–the tumult of democratic politics.

There’s no need to doubt the intentions. We might even be prepared to admit that Blair was and is a “good” man. Precisely the kind of good person that some want to see more of in politics. But if Blair’s example alone isn’t enough, then Oedipus the King reminds us of the bad that good men do.

Or to put it another way: this is a further argument against meritocracy, our contemporary form of what the Greeks themselves called “aristocracy.”

fmln ’09

Click here for all your Salvadoran election news. In short, the FMLN have won a plurality in the Legislative Assembly, but not an absolute majority, and indeed have not done as well as predicted. They also lost the mayoralty of San Salvador.

And see here for a helpful analysis of why the Salvadorans will be going to the polls again in a few weeks’ time. (Via.)


I admit that this review is fairly negative, but what can you do?

Waisman, Carlos H., and Raanan Rein, eds. Spanish and Latin American Transitions to Democracy. Brighton: Sussex Academic Pres, 2005.

The Preface to Carlos Waisman and Raanan Rein’s co-edited Spanish and Latin American Transitions to Democracy opens by declaring that “this volume compares the political and economic transitions that have occurred in Spain and Latin America over the past three decades” (vii). But the book does little of the sort. Rather it collects six essays on Spain and adds a further five on Latin America; only one of these makes even the most token of gestures (and it is little more than a token) towards comparative analysis. Any such analysis, then, is up to the reader to undertake at his or her leisure. All of which rather belies the Preface’s subsequent declaration, that “this comparison is a natural one” (vii): in fact it is not, it would seem, natural for any of the contributors to this volume.

The failure to compare the two case studies, however, is not necessarily a cause for disappointment, at least judging from Waisman’s Introduction, in which he does indeed attempt to consider Spain and Latin America together. Waisman argues that the Spanish transition is a “paradigmatic case,” but that the Latin American transitions differ from it on just about every count. A strange paradigm, then, surely? So whereas Spain (Waisman argues) boasted a healthy civil society, a consensus over past trauma, positive demonstration effects from regional neighbors, a strong state, and cooperation from the European Community and the USA, Latin America lacked each of these five pre-requisites for a successful transition. Hence, Waisman concludes, Latin America is “likely to remain at the margins of modernity” (13). But if the result of such a comparison, then, is once again simply to use Europe as a yardstick by which to condemn an implicitly “premodern” Latin America, then we should be glad that this volume’s contributors have not been tempted to go down that road.

Fortunately, the collection’s essays on Spain are much more interesting than either Preface or Introduction might suggest. Moreover, each one of them gives the lie to Waisman’s assertion that the key to Spanish success has been “state effectiveness” (6). In different ways, they emphasize the Spanish state’s weaknesses: the historical myopia and short-termism of its leaders in Enric Ucelay-Da Cal’s analysis; its popular illegitimacy that bolstered social movements in José María Marín Arce’s account; its increasingly diffuse sovereignty vis-à-vis the regions in Xosé-Manoel Núñez’s essay; its inability to deal with Basque nationalism in Ander Gurrutxaga Abad’s contribution or with nationalist violence in Juan Avilés’s; and the unexpected effects of its half-hearted educational reforms according to Tamar Groves. Indeed, so often do these six authors refer to what Ucelay-Da Cal terms Spain’s “weak systemic loyalty and underlying doubts of political legitimacy” (41) that, pace Waisman, we might even suggest that it is a certain measure of state ineffectiveness and incapacity that has been central to the Spanish transition.

The essays that follow, on Latin America, are far weaker than the contributions on Spain. Luis Roniger’s overview stands out, perhaps above all for his repeated and rather bizarre attempt to present Colombia as a model democratic polity, and his praise for that country’s “most dynamic elites” for their “profound vision of democratic public co-existence” (144). The little matter of the ties between said elites and paramilitary forces goes strangely unaddressed, except with the note that such violence is a “blemish” (134). By contrast, Roniger’s whipping boy is Venezuela, which “seems to have lost this shared vision in the last few years” (144). Yet the notion that there ever was such a shared vision of communal well-being will come as a surprise to, say, Caracas’s urban poor: they have understandably backed Hugo Chávez on the grounds that his attitude is rather more inclusive than that of the elites whose political monopoly he has overthrown.

Like Waisman, Roniger cloaks his political judgements behind the norms and the jargon of mainstream political science. But he can’t quite shake pervasive metaphors that are now second nature within such discourse. Strikingly, for instance, he suggests that some nations and some publics evince “immaturity” compared to others (132). This of course is an age-old trope, dating back at least as far as Las Casas, for which the “Old World” is adult while those who can do no better than “thinking themselves as part of the civilized world, by visiting or following attentively the centers of diffusion of new ideas and styles” (151) are condemned permanently to childishness.

In this context it is worth praising the essay written by Tamar Groves, who I take to be the youngest of the twelve contributors; she is certainly the only one still studying for her PhD. In a book that is at best uneven (plagued also by poor translations and seemingly non-existent copy-editing), her essay is much the most interesting. And it is, moreover, a study of childhood, of the political sensibilities in rural Spanish schools in the early 1970s. Groves explores the complex interactions between Francoist state initiative, liberal pedagogical theories, teacher mobilization, relative isolation, and schoolchildren who soon demonstrate they have minds of their own. These young people are aware that they are ignored and looked down upon. But they show incisive critical spirit towards such condescension, and their response to the tired discourse of the older generation could be applied to much of the standard line on Latin American democracy, as evidenced by this collection: they point out that it is “sin razonar y creemos que sin pensar” (123).


I half-followed the brouhaha over various weeks in the Letters pages of the London Review of Books about John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s article, “The Israel Lobby”. (Links to the correspondence that the article provoked can be found on the LRB site, at the end of Mearsheimer and Walt’s article.)

LRB debateAnyhow, in response, the LRB organized a debate at Cooper Union, entitled “The Israeli Lobby: Does it Have Too Much Influence on US Foreign Policy?” Thanks to ScribeMedia, the entire debate can now be viewed online. I recommend it.

Panelists at the debate were John Mearsheimer, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Martin Indyk, Tony Judt, Rashid Khalidi, and Dennis Ross, with Anne-Marie Slaughter as moderator.

Just one small thing I noted, which could perhaps be added to Charlotte Street’s Notes on Rhetoric, is that Mearsheimer and Walt are repeatedly accused of “selective quotation.”

While I guess I understand what is meant by this accusation, in fact it is nonsense, a tautology. Of course quotation is selective. Even when an entire article or speech or discourse is quoted, that too is a selection. We may not like or may disagree about the principles of selection, but the charge of selectivity is itself bogus.


The question regarding democracy is whether or not we can imagine an anti-democratic, or better non-democratic, politics. In other words, is politics tied to democracy, or can it be imagined beyond democracy?

(A supplmentary question might then be whether or not we can and should imagine a beyond to politics itself: a post-politics.)

The prevailing consensus would seem to be that politics is unimaginable without democracy, that it is only democracy that opens up the possibility for politics. Without democracy, all we are left with is (variously, or perhaps in combination) power, administration, fanaticism, hatred.

Jacques RanciereSuch is the view of Ernesto Laclau, but also, for instance, Jacques Rancière, who writes:

There is politics, the art and science of politics, because there is democracy. Politics is encountered as already present in the factuality of democracy, in the very strangeness of the combination of words which joins the unassignable quantity of the demos to the indefinable action of kratein. (On the Shores of Politics 94)

Rancière traces the mixed fortunes of both politics and democracy from its invention in Athens to the current “end of politics.”

For Rancière, democracy (and so politics) is characterized by three conditions, which together constitute a split and antagonistic subject:

Politics is a function of the fact of democracy, of the way in which democracy’s factuality presents itself in three forms: the appearance deployed by the name of the people, the imparity of the people when counted and the grievance connected with the antagonism between rich and poor. (96)

In our post-political, post-democratic age, all three of these conditions are now undermined, ironically for the sake of democracy’s correction or perfection, in other words to erase the split that (for Rancière) characterizes the democratic subject:

Exhibition in place of appearance, exhaustive counting in place of imparity, consensus in place of grievance–such are the commanding features of the current correction of democracy, a correction which thinks of itself as the end of politics but which might better be called post-democracy. (98)

There is, however, a tension in this formulation: first, the declaration that this correction only “thinks of itself as the end of politics” implies that in fact politics continues; and second, the admission that this correction of democracy is itself in the name of democracy implies that it is less post-democratic than, in fact, a limit internal to democracy.

Meanwhile, the threat of post-democracy, as Rancière sees it, is that it summons up “the spectre of the great all-devouring Whole” (65), “the rule of the principle of unification of the multitude under the common law of the One” (88), an “ochlocracy” (33), that is, the “turbulent unification of individual turbulences” (31). And what is most monstrous about this threat, we are told, is that its unity is impossible, fantasmatic, and depends only on the violent, passionate exclusion of the racialized other; it conjures up therefore a world of “fear and hate” (36), “the return of the animalistic aspect of politics” rather than “the democratic virtue of trust” that inheres in democracy’s “polemical space of shared meaning” (60).

So democracy has to be split, has to depend on inequality and grievance, so as to ward off the threat of radical difference incarnated in the multitude and its purported others.

We have here, therefore, something like a mirror image of Negri’s conception of the multitude–with, of course, the difference that for Negri the multitude’s passion is not hatred but love.

Moreover, Hardt and Negri’s wager is that the (self-)rule of the multitude might still be termed democracy; indeed, that in that it escapes the entire problematic of (in)equality and identity that (as Rancière points out) bedevils democratic theory and practice, replacing it with the combination of commonality and singularity, multitudinous immanence is now a better bearer of the name democracy than are actually existing political regimes. “Post-democracy” therefore invokes this new, more democratic, democracy of pure immanence.

Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson condemn this move as at best a form of “diplomacy” (and “diplomacy is already a technique of statecraft”), but more importantly because it thereby “fails to confront the politics of the demos and the kratos that invocations of democracy set to work” (“Cutting Democracy’s Knot”). I’m not so sure; refusing to confront democracy’s entanglements might also be seen as a strategic evasion, another mode of cutting the knot.

More importantly, however, it would be worth taking seriously the notion that the multitude might equally be characterized by hatred as by love; I see no obvious reason for simply assuming that the multitude’s passion is the latter rather than the former. Certainly not if we look at groups that are otherwise organized very much along the lines that Negri argues are characteristic of the multitude: Sendero Luminoso or al Qaida, for instance. We need, at the least, to distinguish between multitudes good and bad–though that distinction may turn on ethics, rather than on politics.

Or take the image that provides Rancière with his book’s title, of maritime flows and desires that have to be domesticated by shepherds on shore. Rancière writes that

The great beast of the populace, the democratic assembly of the imperialist city, can be represented as a trireme of drunken sailors. In order to save politics it must be pulled aground among the shepherds. (1)

But without romanticizing shipboard life and lusts, and while recognizing that it was maritime power that built terrestial empires, can we not rescue a politics of perhaps something like democracy from the interstitial, unbounded spaces of the high seas?

Crossposted to Long Sunday.


Following on from my recent posts “tautology” and “radical”, here is my draft review of Radical Democracy and Beyond Hegemony: “Radical Philosophy?”. As it is a draft, please do not cite without permission.

As a taster, the conclusion:

Schecter’s critique of purported post-liberalism, as simply a warmed-over liberalism that conserves the worst rather than the best of what it claims to supercede, is a useful antidote to theories of radical democracy. His analysis of liberalism’s paradoxes, while not always novel, is also sharp and to the point. However, he might have considered more the possibility that we are already living in a posthegemonic age. Bush, Blair, and Co. hardly stir themselves much to fabricate consensus these days–indeed, Blair’s main argument for the war in Iraq is now that precisely the unpopularity of his policies is a guarantee that he is not merely bowing to the court of legitimate public opinion. Moreover, is not Schecter’s dream of a “constant exchange of information between producers [. . .] and consumers” (138) not already with us albeit in the form of questionnaires, focus groups, and the information derived from loyalty cards on the one hand, and advertising and the ideologies of business transparency on the other? We are already beyond hegemony, and whatever else radicalism might be, surely it does not involve rescuing liberalism, whether in its purer, idealist, form or in its corrupt, democratizing, incarnations.


More thoughts towards a review of Tønder and Thomassen’s Radical Democracy

In a quirk of sloppy copy-editing, one of the contributions to Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen’s collection, Radical Democracy, bears the running header “For an Agnostic Public Sphere” instead of the essay’s actual title, which is “For an Agonistic Public Sphere.”

But this confusion between agnosticism and agonism is perhaps symptomatic of the problems afflicting the very concept of radical democracy. For though its proponents repeatedly invoke notions of political combat and engagement, they all too easily slip into quiescent indecision.

Put it this way: it is far from clear what is “radical” about radical democracy behind the rhetorical display of terms such as agonism, antagonism, pluralism, and the like.

ballot boxIs radical democracy a specific form of democracy, comparable to but different from (say) the Athenian, liberal, or neoliberal variants of democratic practice? And if so, is it a democracy still to come, to be fought for as a perhaps utopian horizon of democratic thought and struggle?

Or is it, by contrast, a form of democracy in which some groups (new social movements, say) currently engage, in other words a counter-democratic actuality that has emerged since the end of the Cold War and the bad old days of class politics?

On the other hand, could radical democracy be found less either in the future or the present, but in a return to the founding moment of the so-called “democratic revolutions”? Is radical democracy then a rediscovery of an inherent radicality democracy once provided but has now lost? In slightly different words, is radical democracy simply another name for what Simon Critchley here terms “true” democracy?

Or finally, is democracy always radical? Is radical democracy really a tautology, in that democracy properly understood and described, even as it is played out currently in the real world, is necessarily in some way radical?


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.