The best idea in the world, or a note on the continued meaninglessness of democracy (post-Trump)

Whither democracy after Trump? The election victory and current presidency of Donald J. Trump makes it relevant to raise the question of democracy, once again. Because in many ways Trump appears as a type of democratic coup in which democracy is hijacked by a populist television celebrity and construction tycoon. Trump is thus perceived as a threat to democracy, and his fight against the media and the courts has moved many a commentator into drawing a picture of a confrontation between right-wing nationalism and democracy.

But, unfortunately, there is no populist, totalitarian, or fascist excess, if by that we understand something essentially different from national-democratic normality. The opposition between populism/fascism and democracy, in which an anti-fascist and democratic mobilization becomes the answer to Trump – as, among others, the American, feminist philosopher Judith Butler suggested in her first reply to Trump’s victory – is a short circuit, that excludes alternatives by invoking the status quo, which has long since shown itself to be an exception.1 Just ask the black population in the US or refugees and migrants in/on their way to Europe.

The populism analysis is, in other words, bad. Simply stated, the argument is that Trump the populist appeals to the people in a suspect manner, his explicitly nationalist rhetoric short circuits  representative democracy and clears the way for racist, misogynist, and Islamophobic policy. Beyond any doubt, Trump’s political program is ultra-nationalist and takes the shape of a late capitalist fascism based on exclusion of all that is non-American, including everything from outside threats such as Muslims and Mexicans to inside threats such as black people and feminists. However, the problem with the populism analysis is that it so clearly affirms democracy: It leaves the mainstream as, well, mainstream, as the infallible norm, which it is better to defend and follow. In this way, the opposition becomes the democrats against the populists, in which populism is the bad, the absence of arguments and a mobilization of the worst in the soul of the people, while democracy is the good, which we must defend. Democracy is good, even though the wrong candidate was elected.

As Giorgio Agamben has shown in his comprehensive Homo sacer project, the truth however, is that there is an intimate link between democracy and fascism.2 Democracy depends on a founding ambiguity, by which democracy means both the power of the people and government, the form through which power is legitimated and the manner in which it is exercised. Democracy is the movement between these two poles. As formulated by Agamben, democracy is the carrier of a biopolitical class struggle, which is constantly threatening to break out. And constantly does. The so-called refugee crisis in Europe is a good example; the EU and European nation states have turned the Mediterranean into an enormous mass grave, and are doing anything possible to prevent refugees entering Europe.

In the West of today, democracy equals national democracy, by which the representative democracy with its political parties, elections, and formations of government is rooted in a nation state, with all the racist radicalization and rule by decree through the guise of a state of exception this makes possible. In the course of the last two decades, we have been witness to the ways in which these national democracies have stepped up the fight against terror, and invoke this when restricting civil liberties and criminalizing forms of political protest, or attempting to go after them in the courts, and most of all in the desperate attempt to avoid refugees and migrants setting foot on European soil. The border regime, which has been built up in the EU these last 25 years, but also in Australia and the US, is pre-Trump evidence of the fascist dimension of nation-state democracy, in which some lives are not only identified as an external virus threatening the national community, but are also subjugated and treated as inferior. The authoritarian turn, which Trump represents, is in fact already present. The need, constantly expounded, to protect our culture trumps everything. We can push the formulation in order to say: Trump is already present in our refugee policy.

In the period between the two World Wars, Karl Korsch described the relationship between fascism and democracy.3 For Korsch, there was no essential difference between the bourgeois democracies and fascism, there was rather an internal connection, such that bourgeois democracy had an inherently fascist dimension. Because of this, Korsch did not want to abstractly oppose democracy with fascism. As he drily remarked, a modern electoral system – with town halls and debates, elections, etc. – never stopped the creation of concentration camps or prevented fascism. Every democratic country has or can get its own Dachau, Korsch wrote. Thus, defending of democracy in order to avoid an authoritarian turn does not work. It never has. This was crucial for Korsch. It does not mean, that Korsch relativized the horrors of Nazism. The point is, that in certain situations democracies ‘voluntarily’ commit suicide, because they prefer law and order, no matter how brutal and murderous these are, to disorder. This was, according to Korsch, the situation in 1922 Italy as well as in 1933 Germany.

The conclusion to the analysis of both Korsch and Agamben is this: it is a mistake to put democracy opposite fascism or suggest a popular front to defend democracy against Trump’s fascism. For the council communist and the Italian philosopher, this is to misunderstand the founding ambiguity of national democracy, by which fascism is an immanent possibility and not an external threat. The fact is, that in a state of emergency it is possible for national democracy to turn down its democratic dimension and ratchet up the national dimension, and thereby intensify its exclusory logic, which all along has been working in hiding and on the margins (in the colonies or on the border). This is exactly what we see happening with Trump.

The naturalness of democracy

The mobilization to defend democracy tells us a lot about democracy today. As a starting point, we are all democrats, of that there is, naturally, no doubt. Democracy is unconditionally a positive. Traditionally, democracy is defined as a form of government in which the people decide. Democracy is majority rule. That’s democracy as opposed to aristocracy, in which an elite decide, or oligarchy, in which the strongest are in charge. In democracy, the people have the power. That would be the trimmed-down, simple definition. But, if we make a list of democracies and politicians who claim to be democrats and be for democracy, we will quickly find that democracy is, perhaps, not such a coherent thing as we normally consider it to be. Politicians as different as Evo Morales, Angela Merkel, Robert Mugabe, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Raúl Castro, Thaksin Shinawatra, Vladimir Putin, and our friend, Donald Trump, all define themselves as democrats, and North Korea and China as well as the US and Denmark, but also Morocco and Iran, understand themselves as democratic states with regular elections, all be it of rather different types. In other words, if we start taking a closer look at the many different democracies that exist today, we quickly find that the term democracy lacks substance. It quickly becomes clear, one is tempted to say, that democracy is a rubber stamp, which can approve very different content. If we look at the real world, and examine Denmark, Norway, but also Turkey and, let’s say, Indonesia, we quickly find that there is no single democracy, and that democracy does not equal a single specific type of government nor a specific political culture, it is more likely a multiplicity of overlapping but also contradictory regimes, institutions, and ways of life. However, what is surprising is that this multiplicity does not really challenge the discourse of democracy. All the different, often contradictory types of democracy actually seem only to confirm the importance of democracy today. No one is leaving the club for this reason. We are all always already democrats. Rather than being emptied of meaning or appear problematic, the concept seems to float above the waters. It is not really troubled by the various exceptions. Rather, It is exactly exceptions or ‘mistakes’ that seem to confirm the idea of democracy. North Korea and Mugabe are ‘local conditions,’ they are details that do disturb the total image. That there are both democratic constitutional monarchies (Denmark), republican democracies (France), as well as apartheid democracies (Israel), military democracies (Egypt), state communist democracies (North Korea) and even imperial democracies (Japan), does not appear to truly matter. The idea of democracy is not weakened or undermined by the concrete variations, it only appears to become more important. The exceptions are in some way already included in the idea of democracy, which does not suffer from the polysemy, but still manages to appear as a universal principle. We are all democrats today.

In this sense ‘democracy’ is the very heart of the political discourse of today, the automatic go to thing. It is a magical word, an incantation that does not only start political processes, but also endows events and actions with meaning. For democracy; against Trump. The word is used all the time; we understand it intuitively; thus the automatic: ‘we are all democrats’. What, of course, would the opposite even be?

But, behind the apparent and self-evident, is hidden a multiplicity or absence of meaning. Because actually, democracy does not really mean anything, or that is, of course it does, the term connotes a lot, but way too much. It means way too many things at the same time. But, even though it is not consistent, does not make a coherent object, and points in all possible directions, it is nevertheless the keyword in the present epoch. It determines a horizon and is the epoch. Our epoch. In reality, democracy equals the suspension of the political and not the implementation of the political. Democracy is the most important political term, but it is incoherent. And it first and foremost functions as a preventive annulment of any possible challenge to the current mixture of national democracy and capitalism.

The best idea in the world

Democracy is the best, that’s how it is. Everybody is for democracy, and the support for democracy transcends any political opposition. Republicans and Democrats in the US, The Red-Green Alliance and Danish People’s Party in Denmark, everyone is for democracy. Of course, this has a lot to do with how democracy within the last couple of decades has become the opposite of terrorism. A funny expression of the success of democracy can be found in the poll that Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten carried out in 2014, in which democracy came in first followed by freedom and love.

In November 2014, the newspaper asked its readers to elect “the best idea in the World.” The winner of the poll was democracy. The poll took place in connection with the publication of the anthology 50 idéer der ændrede verden [50 Ideas that Changed the World], edited by the former value theorist Hans-Jørgen Schanz, published by Aarhus University Press.4 In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner, which took place on November 9 – a date with great historical significance: the Fall of the Wall– the paper had presented various candidates to the title of the best idea in the world. Tolerance, love, the market, the soul, the nation, truth, happiness, art, rationality, and forty other ideas. But it was democracy that ran away with the title. Love and freedom came in next. But democracy was the best idea in the world, according to the 926 of Jyllands-Posten’s readers, who cast a vote.5

The poll tells us much about democracy today. First and foremost, of course, that democracy is something good. Nothing less than the best idea in the world. Of course, it was no great part of the paper’s readership that took part in the poll, with a circulation of 100,000, 926 is not very many, but democracy did come in first.

When the competition was launched in Jyllands-Posten, all the fifty ideas were listed and briefly explained. About democracy it was stated that: “Aristotle and Plato found democracy to be a bad idea. Nevertheless, Ancient Greece was the cradle of democracy. It lasted for 300 years, before it was overruled by powerful men, and did not come back into play before the struggle of the people against absolutism in the 17th century.” In this description, not only is the historical perspective dominant, it doesn’t say a lot about democracy today. The myth of Greece as the cradle of democracy and the struggle against absolutism are what is described. There is not a lot about the historical development since “the struggle of the people against absolutism.” Perhaps this is an expression of how democracy has conquered in the West; even though Mihail Larsen, author of the article on democracy in Schanz’ anthology, does write that democracy “is not just something you have, it is something for which you must fight,” the threats against democracy are only described as coming from the outside.

It is interesting that it was Jyllands-Posten that set up the poll in collaboration with the Aarhus University Press. Of course, there are practical explanations of ‘local’ character involved; the paper’s offices are in Viby, outside Aarhus, where the university press is, naturally, also located.  So, it was an obvious collaboration and everybody got something out of it, the publisher a lot of attention for the book and the paper content for its culture and debate section. But that exactly Jyllands-Posten and its readers elect democracy as the best idea in the world is still interesting, given the history of that newspaper. Given the discourse the paper had in the 1920s and 30s – Jyllands-Posten expressed its unconditional support first for Mussolini and then later Hitler (“Mussolini saved Italy from the communist flood, for which a useless parliamentary government had made it ripe, and no one can question that his dictatorship has been a blessing for the Italian people. Germany was faced with a similar catastrophe when Hitler made his way into power”) – it is funny how the readers now choose democracy as the best idea, but then, the 1930s are long since gone. Or are they? In collaboration with the tabloid press, Jyllands-Posten played an important part in the Islamophobic turn in Danish politics during the second half of the 1990s with countless articles on asylum seekers cheating the Danish welfare system. And later, of course, the paper became the center of the so-called Muhammad cartoon crisis, when the paper wanted to give an extra notch to the bullying of Muslims living here by depicting their prophet as a terrorist and a pimp.

If, in connection with the poll in Jyllands-Posten, one was to attach a description of democracy in the West today, ‘self-evident’ would be a good suggestion. Today, we are all democrats, even if we are actually xenophobes. We bully Muslims living here, and do everything possible to prevent migrants coming and receiving asylum, but nevertheless democracy is a universal value, it is simply the best idea in the world. Today, we are all national-democrats, we all support democracy (and the nation state). Only a vast minority will proclaim to be against democracy. To do so would be to exclude yourself from any political debate. Democracy: Yes, naturally. Supposedly only people such as Abu al-Baghdadi from IS are against.

In other words, democracy appears so natural today, that is seemingly against nature to even consider an alternative. If something is not democratic, then it is because it has yet to become democratic. There are no alternatives, only a lack of democracy. In this way, democracy is an ideology, one which has now lost foundation in history and has grown to seem natural or to be eternal good. A mythology we might call it with Roland Barthes, or a ruling representation with Guy Debord, that is, a regulating concept, which in an active sense governs patterns of behavior and establishes structures of solidarity, creates the world in its image. To be against democracy is thus to be against all that is right. In this way, we can say that democracy is the insurmountable horizon of society; there is nothing behind or next to democracy. It is not only unquestioned, it is self-evident. It is simply the best.

The poll in Jyllands-Posten is in itself an expression of a development in which democracy has become part of an extended culture of participation, where everyone is active and encouraged to participate and make their voice heard. Just do it! Jodi Dean reads such tendencies as the emergence of a communicative capitalism, where democracy is another word for self-exploitation. Exemplary of this development is when computer and mobile phone companies like Apple and Telia make use of a democratic rhetoric of inclusion and participation and understand consumers as users and participants.6 Participation is the solution to everything. Dean sees this development as an expression of an appropriation of a once transgressive and critical position, by which new political subjects such as students, women, and migrants claimed self-determination and autonomy. However, this critique was turned upside down, it was turned into precarious labor and self-determination at work. The demands of autonomy and creativity became a blurring of the lines between work and leisure. Democracy became an environment, and – for the privileged few – the never-ending succession of life-style choices.

(Capitalist) equality

Today, democracy appears indistinguishable from capitalism, they are inseparably connected and presented as the condition of each other’s possibility. Alain Badiou terms it capitalo-parliamentarism.7 For Badiou democracy today is simply an expression of “political impotence.” Today, the democratic ideology in reality functions as a smokescreen for the oligarchic structures of the economy.

In the 1840s, the young Marx described how political democracy goes hand in hand with the capitalist mode of production, and actually helps to hide its brutal hunt for profit.8 Democracy makes it appear as if there is political equality, as if the voice of a homeless person and a billionaire are actually of equal worth. But in capitalism, political equality, of course, covers an actual social inequality. In capitalist society, politics is a separate sphere in which power can circulate and even allow itself to be critiqued and challenged, without the material conditions of society being challenged. There is no meaningful relation between the socio-economical hierarchy and the political sphere, political identities are separated from socio-economic status, and political equality can easily co-exist with social exploitation and class inequality. This way, in the separate sphere of politics, the citizens can live out the fiction of equality, as long as they pretend as if they are equal, as if riches, income, work, and hierarchies do not matter. The conflicts of social inequality are in this way suspended or ‘forgotten’ in the political sphere. In the ballot box (and in front of the commodity) we are all equal.

A brief history of (late) democracy

The chorus is always that democracy is good. We don’t even need to debate that. But, we also know, that democracy is at the same time a strange, amorphous thing. It is the most important value of all; we do not compromise on democracy. But then, we do it all the time anyway. At least, we have done so several times these last couple of decades. The peculiar process in late November 2000, by which George Bush Jr. became US president even though he had lost the election, was a fine example. To arrive at the Bush victory, the Supreme Court decided that the votes from Florida were not to be recounted. Yes, only a minority of Americans vote in elections, and the entire process of states and the electoral college often result in the inauguration of presidents with the fewer votes, which is not so democratic to begin with, but still, this was the first time that the American national democracy became the stage of a veritable coup in which the counting of votes was outright prohibited (and thus the election of Al Gore as president was avoided).

The next example is provided by the same Bush, who after 9/11 increased the repressive side of the state and showed how small a contradiction there is between the occasional (and, given Florida 2000, somewhat selective) election procedures of the national democracy and government in a state of exception, with all that includes of state terror, wars of invasion, and an extensive system of torture. In reply to the attacks on The World Trade Center and The Pentagon, Bush declared ‘war on terror’ and suspended a number of civil rights in order to preserve the nation state. The Patriot Act and similar legislation undermined several of the founding principles of the rule of law, and made it possible for the American military to capture and detain people indefinitely. Thereby, a space between law and exception was opened, and could be used in various manners. The Guantanamo camp in Cuba is an example of how such a space works. Here, the sovereign detains subjects, who are said to be a threat to the nation. These subjects are deprived of their legal rights and exempted from the alternatives of international law – they are neither prisoners of war nor criminals who may have their cases tried in court. Democratic politics are, in this way, step by step changed into a continual security operation, in which the citizens’ civil rights can be suspended by reference to the threat of terror.

In the course of the financial crisis as well, we saw various examples of how interesting displacements may occur when oppositions between national democracy and the economy arise. In Greece and Italy, elected politicians were removed and replaced with financiers and former employees of the European Central Bank. What happened in Greece is quite telling: First the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, announced a referendum on the crisis package that the EU and IMF offered the country, then he was put in his place by Merkel and Sarkozy and forced to cancel the referendum, only then to step down and hand over the position to Lucas Papademos, the former vice president of the European Central Bank. A number of elections followed, at the end of which the neo-eurocommunist party SYRIZA formed a government with the mandate to renegotiate the terms of the crisis package. But the European Central Bank refused to change anything at all, and chose to close their ears to the wishes of the Greek population completely. The conclusion is, of course, that democracy is fine and all that, but there are other matters that are more important.

The image political take on this gradual emptying of the political is, of course, that the constantly increasing flow of images and representations hides the fundamental emptiness of democracy. In representative democracies, the real function of elections, as Cornelius Castoriadis writes, is not to allow the people to choose, but to equip them with the idea that the problems of society are much too complicated and best left to the political parties and the state.9 The election is a ritual endowing a certain model of society with visual consistency. It is important to catch the interest of the people, so whatever content remains in the empty shape of the ritual evaporates. Democracy is caught between wanting to pacify the voters – don’t worry we will answer all the complex questions – and at the same time preferably not vanquish them completely, so that they lose trust in the system. Therefore, elections become more and more spectacular, the voters are consumers of political decisions. The actual struggle, of course, takes place elsewhere. What is important is not the debate in front of rolling cameras by the candidates we may choose between, the actual struggle takes place earlier, ensuring that the question of the unsuitability of the nation state itself, but, of course, also private property and money, is never formulated. Some questions can never be posed inside the framework of national democracy.

‘The People’

Trump ought to be an occasion to examine national democracy, because it is within this framework he became president, but unfortunately it seldom occurs. Actually, most analysis unfolds in a manner that precisely avoids analysis of national democracy. One way, in which this happens, is to use the concept of populism and then blame ‘the people’ for voting the wrong way. In other words, the problem is the people, not democracy. But, in fact, it is the democratic system which, so to say, creates ‘the people,’ who then are faced with a choice (Clinton v. Trump). So, it is not the people who elect Trump, but rather the representative national democracy which produces the people as the voting subject, as Jacques Rancière writes.10 The founding operation in representative democracy is not the choice between the various candidates, mapped onto an historically handed down, but rather arbitrary scale going from left to right, but the production of the people as the political subject. However, this operation is not really visible. Since the people vote and choose this or that candidate, it appears as if this act is the actual political action, as if it is the most important gesture in democracy. But it is not. The production of the people is prior to this. With Althusser, we may call it an interpellation, a complex operation whereby a subject with agency and self-awareness is produced, one which sees itself as the starting point of political action, but in reality is an effect of a structure.11 In this case representative democracy, is more about the people retrospectively giving power to an individual or a party, than the people having political agency or electing someone.

The foundational operation of representative national democracy is to produce the people, which then successively gives its votes to the advantage of one or the other candidate. The election makes it appear as if the people have power and elect a president or parliament, but it is actually the other way around. In the US, the election in November was between Trump and Clinton (we forget for a moment that there were other candidates, not least Jill Stein of the Green Party), a flamboyant billionaire, construction tycoon, and reality star, and a former First Lady and Secretary of State. That is, two candidates who only with great difficulty can be seen as expressions of the American people. So, the process is the other way around, the democratic system creates the people. In other words, it is Trump who effectively has produced (a particular representation of) the American people, not the American people who have chosen Trump.

The election of Trump occurred against the back drop of the transformation of politics into administration, which has occurred over the last three decades, where progressively more areas have been left to the ravaging of market forces. In this process, Trump appears as a different brand, more ready and willing to advance racist and protectionist solutions12. He marks a difference. But is, of course, at the same time also continuity, in that the US, in Joel Olsons words, has always been and is still a white democracy, where all in principle are equal, but white people more so than everyone else.13 Equality and privilege goes hand in hand in the US. From 1607 to 1965 citizenship was a racial privilege in the US, and to this day white people are equipped with invisible, unearned privileges from which they can retain or improve their situation. On paper, the US is a color-blind society, whiteness is no longer a state-sanctioned distinction, but in reality, the US is still characterized by white supremacy. This is clear from all the statistics, whether it is on infant mortality, incarceration, stop and search, education, housing, riches, or unemployment. The election of Trump confirms this situation, and only an end to whiteness as a sociopolitical category can create the conditions of possibility for an American democracy. That would almost be half a revolution. The whole would be when the critique of national democracy – the process of destitution – is combined with the critique of capitalism. This is the program. There is plenty to be done for the anti-nationalist forces.

1 Judith Butler: “A Statement from Judith Butler”, e-flux conversations, 11. november, 2016.
2 Giorgio Agamben: Homo sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
3 Karl Korsch: Staten og kontrarevolutionen (København: Jørgen Paludans Forlag, 1972); idem: Marxism, State and Counterrevolution (Amsterdam & Hannover: Offizin Verlag & Internationaal instituut voor sociale geschiedenis, 2017).
4 Hans Jørgen Schanz (ed.): 50 ideer der ændrede verden (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2014).
5 Lars From & Klaus Dohm: “Læserkåring: Demokrati er verdens bedste idé”, in: Jyllands-Posten, 9. november, 2014, pp. 6-7.
6 Jodi Dean: Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2009).
7 Alain Badiou: Un parcours grec. Circonstances, 8 (Paris: Lignes, 2016).
8 Karl Marx: “Critical Notes on the Article: ’The King of Prussia and Social Reform. By a Prussian”.
9 Cornelius Castoriadis: “La source hongroise”, in: idem: Quelle démocratie? Tome 1 (Écrits politique 1945-1997, IV) (Paris: Sandre, 2013), p. 595.
10 Jacques Rancière: Hatred of Democracy (London: Verso, 2006).
11 Louis Althusser: “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 127-186.
12 Wendy Brown: “We are All Democrats Now”, in: Theory & Event, vol. 13, nr. 2, 2010.
13 Joel Olson: The Abolition of White Democracy (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).