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violent democracies « Previous | |Next »
December 14, 2007

In Democracy's Violent Heart a review of Daniel Ross' Violent Democracy in Borderlands Mathew Sharpe says that Ross brings to contemporary Australian political debates:

resources from traditions in continental European thinking that are usually disregarded—when they are not dismissed—in the Australian public sphere. By doing so, Ross' book invites a wider, non-philosophical audience to raise far-reaching and deeper questions about the nature of politics. In particular, as Violent Democracy 's title suggests, Ross's concern is with how and why our political life always seemingly involves violence, whether this is inevitable, and what can and ought to be done about it....The argument of Violent Democracy challenges from the start any benign ideas we might have inherited that modern democracy is "the solution to the violence of tyranny and chaos".... Ross does not accept the story that liberal democracy is that political system which, historically as today, secures the peace by separating state and public life from people's private passions and religious convictions. For him, all democracies —as political systems that wrest sovereignty from the few and reassign it to 'the people' —have a "violent heart".

Sharpe adds that Violent Democracy runs two arguments about democracy's "violent heart". The first argument is that "the origin and heart of democracy is essentially violent". There is no democracy without the beheading of the King, or the 'taming' of the frontiers. The book's second contention is that "the violence of democracy has changed, or is unfolding in a certain direction, across the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries". Doesn't any political regime—whether tyrannical or democratic or oligarchic, etc.—depend upon a violent founding act, wherein the new rulers oust the old ones and lay claim to being the people's champion and spokesperson?

The second argument is the one I'm more interested in. Ross argues that since 9/11 it is

not so much war that has changed, but the way in which democracy imagines itself. 'Democracy' seems to be rethinking itself, no longer on the ground of transcendent law based in the sovereignty of a people. Law is reconfigured on the basis that there is an enemy, internal and external, against which it is necessary to act rather than react.

Sharpe says that Ross reads the changes being undertaken by Western democracies in response to the 'war on terror' as highlighting a key tension in the constitution of any democratic polity, between the necessary institutions of "military rule", grounded in the executive authority of the Head of State and "the Law", enforced by the police, and in liberal democracies (since Locke at least) conceived as a means of protecting the people itself "even against" the executive fiat of its leaders.

History since 9/11 would seem to reeinforce Agamben against Foucault: contemporary biopolitics is not superseding or undermining the power of the sovereign. Rather, it is increasingly the corollary of conscious attempts by elements within the liberal democracies of the US, UK and America to re-institute sovereign executive power in the face of changing contemporary circumstances.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 05:09 AM | | Comments (0)
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