‘Highly Speculative Reasoning on the Concept of Democracy’ by Alain Badiou

The word “democracy” is today the main organizer of consensus. What the word is assumed to embrace is the downfall of Eastern Socialists States, the supposed well being of our countries as well as Western humanitarian crusades.

Actually the word “democracy” is inferred from what I term “authoritarian opinion.” It is somehow prohibited not to be a democrat. Accordingly, it furthers that the human kind longs for democracy, and all subjectivity suspected of not being democratic is deemed pathological. At its best it infers a forbearing reeducation, at its worst the right of meddling democratic marines and paratroopers.

Democracy thus inscribing itself in polls and consensus necessarily arouses the philosopher’s critical suspicions. For philosophy, since Plato, means breaking with opinion polls. Philosophy is supposed to scrutinize everything that is spontaneously considered as “normal.” If democracy designates a normal state of collective organization, or political will, then the philosopher will ask for the norm of this normality to be examined. He will not allow for the word to function within the frame of an authoritarian opinion. For the philosopher everything consensual becomes suspicious.

To confront the visibility of the democratic idea with the singularity of a particular politics, especially revolutionary politics, is an old practice. It was already employed against Bolsheviks well before the October Revolution. In fact, the critique addressed to Lenin – his political postulate viewed as nondemocratic – is original. However it’s still interesting today to peruse his riposte.

Lenin’s counter-argument is twofold. On the one hand he distinguishes, according to the logic of class analysis, between two types of democracy: proletarian democracy and bourgeois democracy. He then asserts the supremacy, in extension and intensity, of the former over the latter.

Yet his second structure of response seems to me more appropriate to the present state of affairs. Lenin insists in this that with “democracy,” verily, you should always read “a form of State.” Form means a particular configuration of the separate character of the State and the formal exercise of sovereignty. Positing democracy as a form of State, Lenin subscribes to the classical political thinking filiation, including Greek philosophy, which contends that “democracy” must ultimately be conceived as a sovereignty or power trope. Power of the “demos” or people, the capability of “demos” to exert coercion by itself.

If democracy is a form of State, what preordained philosophical use proper can this category have? With Lenin the aim – or idea – of politics is the withering of any form of State, democracy included. And this could be termed generic Communism as basically expressed by Marx in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Generic Communism designates a free associative egalitarian society where the activity of polymorph workers is not governed by regulations and technical or social articulations but is managed by the collective power of needs. In such a society, the State is dissolved as a separate instance from public coercion. Politics – much as it voices the interests of social groups and covets at the conquest of power – is de facto dissolved.

Thus, the purpose of Communist politics aims at its own disappearance in the modality of the end of the form separated from the State in general, even if it concerns a State that declares itself democratic.

If philosophy is predicated as what identifies, legitimizes or categorizes politics’ ultimate goals, much as the regulating ideas acting as its representation, and if this aim is acknowledged as the withering of the State – which is Lenin’s proposition – and what can be termed pure presentation, free association; or again if politics’ final goal is posited as authority in-separated from infinity or the advent of the collective as such, then, with regard to this supposed end, which is the end assigned to generic Communism, democracy is not, cannot be a category as regards philosophy. Why? Because democracy is a form of the State; let philosophy assess politics’ final goals; and let this end be as well the end of the State, thus the end of all relevance to the word “democracy.”

The “philosophical” word suitable to evaluate politics could be, in this hypothetical frame, the word “equality,” or the word “Communism,” but not the word “democracy.” For this word is traditionally attached to the State, to the form of the State.

From this results the idea that “democracy” can only be considered a concept of philosophy if one of these three following hypotheses is to be rejected. All three are intertwined and somehow uphold the Leninist view on democracy. They are:

Hypothesis 1: The ultimate goal in politics is generic Communism, thus the pure presentation of the collective’s truth, or the withering of the State.
Hypothesis 2: The relation between philosophy and politics entails the evaluation of a certain politics’ final goal, its general or generic meaning.
Hypothesis 3: Democracy is a form of the State.

Under these three hypotheses “democracy” is not a necessary concept of philosophy. It can only become such provided one of these three hypotheses is dropped.

Three abstract possibilities follow:

1. Let generic Communism not be the ultimate goal in politics.
2. Let the relation between philosophy and politics not be one of scrutiny, enlightenment or legitimization of the final aims.
3. Let “democracy” imply something else than a form of the State.

Under any of these three possibilities the structure according to which “democracy” is not a concept of philosophy is put into question. I would like to analyze one by one these three provisions which allow for the consideration or reconsideration of “democracy” as a category of philosophy proper.

Let’s assume that the ultimate goal of politics is not the pure assertion of collective presentation, is not the free association of men, disengaged from the State’s principle of sovereignty. Let’s assume that generic Communism, even as an idea, is not the ultimate goal of politics. What can then be the goal of politics, its practice’s finality, much as this practice involves, or questions, or challenges, philosophy?

I think two main hypotheses can be construed in light of what is viewed as the history of this question. According to the first hypothesis, politics’ aim would be the configuration, or the advent, of what can be termed “the good State.” Philosophy would be brought forward as an examination of the legitimacy of the State’s various possible forms. It would seek to name the preferable character of state configuration. Such would be the final stake of the debate on politics’ goals. This is indeed related to the great classical tradition in political philosophy, from the Greeks onwards, devoted to the question of sovereignty’s legitimacy. Now, of course, a norm appears on the scene. Whatever the regime or the status of the norm, an axiological preference for a distinct type of state configuration relates the State to a normative principle as, for instance, the superiority of a democratic regime over a monarchic or an aristocratic one, for any particular reason. That is, the convening of a general system of norms sanctions this preference.

As a passing remark let’s say this situation does not apply to the hypothesis in which the ultimate goal in politics is the withering of the State, since you are not dealing with “the good State.” For the case you are dealing with the political process as self-cancellation, that is as engaged in the cessation of the principle of sovereignty. It does not concern a norm associated with the state configuration. It rather concerns the idea of a process that would bring about the withering of the entire state configuration. The singularity of withering does not belong to the normative question as it can be exerted upon the persistence of the State. On the other hand, if politics’ ultimate goal is “the good State” or the preferable State, then the emergence of a norm seems ineluctable.

Now, this poses a difficult question in that the norm is inevitably external or transcendent. The State, in itself, is objectivity without norm. It is the principle of sovereignty, or of coercion, endowed with a separate functioning necessary to the collective as such. It will obtain its determination in a set of regulations stemming from subjective topics. These are precisely the norms that will introduce the subject of “the good State” or the preferable State. In our present situation, that is, the circumstance in our parliamentary States, the subjective relation to the issue of the State is regulated according to three norms: the economy, the national question and, precisely, democracy.

Let’s consider the economy first. The State is accountable for assuring a minimal functioning of the circulation and distribution of goods; it falls into disrepute as such if it proves exaggeratedly incapable of complying with this norm. In the sphere of the economy broadly, whatever its organic relation to the State, the latter is subjectively accountable for the functioning of the economy.

The second norm is the national question. The State is under a set of regulations such as the nation, the representation on the world scene, national independence, etc. It is accountable for the very existence of the national principle at home and abroad.

Thirdly, today democracy is itself a norm as it’s considered within the subjective relation to the State. The State is accountable for knowing wether it is democratic or despotic, for its relation towards instances such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of action.

The opposition between dictatorship and democracy is something that functions as a subjective norm in the evaluation of the State.

Thus the actual situation of the question subordinates the State to the threesome normative of economic functioning, national evaluation and democracy. Here “democracy” acts as a normative characterization of the State, precisely as what can be termed the category of “a politics,” not of politics in general. “A politics” is what regulates a subjective relation to the State. Let’s say that the state configuration regulating its subjective relation to the State under the three aforementioned norms – economy, national question, democracy – may be dubbed parliamentarism, though I prefer to call it parliamentary-capitalism. However, since “democracy” is here summoned as the category of a particular politics – a particular politics whose universality is quite problematic – we should refrain from defining it as being in itself a philosophical category. At this level of analysis then “democracy” unfolds as a category characterizing – by means of the formulation of a subjective norm in relation to the State – a particular politics, which I deem to call “parliamentarism.”

So much for the case with regard to the hypothesis that politics’ ultimate goal is in determining “the good State.” What you get at most is that “democracy” turns out to be the category of a particular politics, parliamentarism. This is not a definite reason to posit “democracy” as a philosophical concept.

What we are examining here is the ultimate goal of politics when this goal is not generic Communism. Our first consideration was that politics aimed at establishing the best possible State. It follows from there that “democracy” is not necessarily a concept within philosophy.

The second possible reasoning leads you to the notion that the ultimate goal of politics is none other than itself. In this case politics would not address the issue of “the good State” but would be its own goal for itself. Conversely to what has been reflected previously, politics would then become a movement of thought and action that freely eludes the dominant state subjectivity and propounds, convenes, organizes projects ill-suited for consideration and representation within the norms under which the State functions. In this case politics is presented as a singular collective practice estranged from the State. Again that kind of politics, in its essence, is not the carrier of a State agenda or a state norm but instead the development of what can be termed as the dimension of collective freedom, precisely in that it avoids the normative consensus represented by the State – provided the State is assessed by this organized freedom.

“Democracy,” is it thus relevant? Yes, “democracy” is relevant “if democracy is to be understood in a sense other than a form of the State.” If politics is thus to itself its own goal insofar as it is able to withdraw from state consensus, it could eventually be termed democratic. Yet in this case the category will not function in a Leninist sense, as a State form. And this brings you back to the third negative condition with regard to the three Leninist hypotheses.

Here concludes the first part of our discussion, that is: what if the goal of politics is not generic Communism?

The second part of the discussion concerns philosophy itself. Let’s assume that philosophy is not related to politics as much as it is the representation or the seizure of politics’ ultimate ends, that philosophy has another rapport to politics and that it is not intended to evaluate – the appearance before a court – or legitimate politics’ ultimate ends. How does then philosophy relate to politics? What is the name of that relation? How are we to prescribe it?

There is a first hypothesis, namely that the task of philosophy would be what I call the formal description of politics, its typology. Philosophy would set up a space where politics are discussed in accordance with their sort. All in all, philosophy would be a formal apprehension of States and politics as it pre-elaborates or exposes the said typology to possible norms. Yet, when this is the case – indubitably this is part of the work of thinkers such as Aristotle or Montesquieu – it becomes apparent that “democracy” acts upon philosophy as the description of a form of the State. There is no doubt about it. Accordingly, the categorization starts from state configurations, and “democracy” becomes, from the viewpoint of philosophy, the description of a form of the State, as opposed to other forms such as tyranny, aristocracy and so on.

But if “democracy” designates a form of the State, the premise would then be asserted, regarding this form, about “the goals of politics.” Is it a matter of “willing” this form? If so, we are inside the logic of “the good State,” which is what was previously analyzed. Or is it a matter of going beyond this form, dissolving sovereignty, even democratic sovereignty? In this case we relapse inside the Leninist frame, the withering hypothesis. In any event, this option brings you back to the first part of the discussion.

The second possibility implies philosophy’s attempt to apprehend politics as a singular activity of thinking, of politics itself as providing for the historical collective a modality of thinking which philosophy must take in as such. Here philosophy should be understood – consensual definition – as the cogitative apprehension of thinking operational conditions in their different registers. If politics is deemed as an operative thinking, in a register of its own (Lazarus’ central thesis), then philosophy’s task is the grasping of thinking operational conditions in this particular register named politics. It follows that if politics is an operative thinking, it cannot be subservient to the State, it cannot be reduced to or reflected on its state dimension. Let’s venture a rather spurious proposition: “the State does not think.”

As a passing remark, the fact that the State does not think is the source of all sorts of difficulties for philosophical thinking as far as politics is concerned. All “political philosophies” adduce evidence that the State does not think. And when these political philosophies posit the State as leading the research on politics as thought, difficulties increase. The fact that the State does not think leads Plato, at the end of book IX in Republic, to declare that as a last resort you can pursue politics everywhere except in your own fatherland. And the same eventuality brings Aristotle to the distressing conclusion that once the ideal types of politics have been isolated, only pathological types are left in the real. For instance, for Aristotle monarchy implies a kind of State that does think and is reputed to be thinkable. Yet, in the real there are only tyrannies, which do not think, which are unthinkable. The normative type is never achieved. This also leads Rousseau to ascertain that in history all that exists are dissolved States, and no legitimate State. Finally, these postulates, which are extracted from within utterly heterogeneous political conceptions, agree on one point: namely, it is not possible to envision the State as the doorway to politics’ research. Perforce one comes up against the State as a non-thinking entity. The problem should be pursued from another angle.

Therefore, if “democracy” is a category of politics-as-thought, that is if philosophy needs to use “democracy” as a category to get hold of the political process as such, then this political process eludes the pervasive injunction of the State, since the State does not think. It follows that “democracy” is not here understood as a form of the State but differently, otherwise, or in another sense. And this is how you are brought back to the proposition positing “democracy” as something other than a form of the State.

Let’s then advance a provisional conclusion: “democracy” is a category of philosophy only when it indicates something other than a form of the State. Yet what is “something other”?

There lies the core of the question. It is a problem with conjunction. To what, other than the State, is “democracy” to be conjoined in order to become a real approach to politics-as-thought? There is a large political tradition pertinent to this, and I won’t go further into it. Let’s suffice to mention just two examples concerning the attempt to conjoin “democracy” to something other than the State thus allowing the meta-political (philosophical) re-examination of politics-as-thought.

The first instance concerns the direct conjoining of “democracy” to the masses political activity – not to the state configuration but to its immediate antagonism. For usually the masses’ political activity, its spontaneous mobilization, comes about under an anti-state drive. This produces the syntagm of mass democracy, which I’ll style romantic, and the opposition between mass democracy and democracy as state configuration, or formal democracy.

Whoever happens to have experienced mass democracy – historical events such as collective general assembling, crowded gatherings, riots, and so on – manifestly notices an immediate point of reversibility between mass democracy and mass dictatorship. Inevitably the essence of mass democracy is translated into a mass sovereignty, and this mass sovereignty becomes in turn a sovereignty of immediacy, of assembling itself. The sovereignty of assembling exerts – pattern formations Sartre termed “group-in-fusion” – a fellowship of terror. Here Sartrian phenomenology persists indisputably. There is an organic correlation between the practice of mass democracy as internal principle of the group-in-fusion and a point of reversibility with the immediate authoritarian or dictatorial element at work in the fellowship of terror. Looking into the issue of mass democracy itself notice that it is not possible to legitimate the principle after the sole appellative of democracy, since this romantic democracy immediately includes, in theory as well as in practice, its reversibility into dictatorship. You are dealing thus with a pair democracy/dictatorship that avoids an elementary designation, or eludes a philosophical apprehension, under the concept of democracy. And what does this entail? It entails that whoever assigns legitimacy to mass democracy, at least today, does so on the basis, or rather from the viewpoint of the non-state perspective of pure presentation. The appraisal, even under the appellation of democracy, of mass democracy as such, is inseparable from the subjectivity of generic Communism. The legitimization of this couple of immediacy – democracy/dictatorship – is only conceivable if the pair is thought, and valorized, from the generic point of the withering of the State, or from the perspective of a radical anti-state attitude. Actually, the opposite pole to State consistency, which precisely shows up in the immediacy of mass democracy, is a provisional representative to generic Communism. We are now brought back to our first major hypothesis: if “democracy” is conjoined to “mass,” the goal of politics is actually generic Communism, whence “democracy” is not a category of philosophy. This conclusion is empirically and conceptually established by the fact that from the perspective of mass democracy it is impossible to differentiate democracy from dictatorship. It is what has obviously enabled Marxists to employ the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It should be our understanding that the subjective valorization of the word “dictatorship” thus rested on the presence of such reversibility between democracy and dictatorship as it historically appears in the figure of mass democracy, or revolutionary democracy, or romantic democracy.

We are left with another hypothesis, a quite different one: “democracy” should be conjoined with the political regulation itself. “Democracy” would not be related to the figure of State or to the figure in political mass activity, but would rather relate organically to political regulation, provided that political regulation is not subservient to the State, to “the good State,” when it is not systematized. “Democracy” would be organically tied to the universality of political regulation, to its capability of universality, and thus the word “democracy” and politics as such would be bound. Again, politics in the sense that it is something other than a State program. There would be an intrinsically democratic characterization of politics, insofar as its self-determination is posited as a space of emancipation removed from State consensual figures.

There is some evidence of this in Rousseau’s Social Contract. In chapter 16, book III, Rousseau discusses the issue of the establishment of the State – apparently the opposite topic we are discussing here – the issue of the institution of the State. He comes up against a well-known difficulty, namely that the causative instrument of government cannot be a contract, cannot proceed from the dimension of a social contract in the sense that this contract acts as founder of the nation as such. The institution of the State concerns specific individuals, and this cannot be carried out by means of a law. For Rousseau a law necessarily implies a global association relating the people to the people and thereby cannot involve specific individuals.

The institution of the State cannot be a law. And this suggests that it also cannot be the practice of sovereignty. For sovereignty is precisely the generic form of the social contract and it always connotes a relation of totality to totality – of the people to the people. Apparently, we face an impasse here. A decision is needed, a decision that should be at the same time special (since it establishes the government) and general (since it’s taken by the “totality” of the people and not by the government, which does not yet exist and will eventually be established). However, it is impossible, for Rousseau, that this decision result from the general will, since every decision of this kind should be manifested in the shape of a law or a deed of sovereignty. And this can only be the contract agreed upon by all the people and all the people, a contract that bears no particular character. You can also posit the question this way: the citizen votes the laws, the governmental magistrate takes the concrete measures. How are particular magistrates to be appointed when there aren’t yet any magistrates, but only citizens? Rousseau pulls himself out of this difficulty by stating that “the institution of government is accomplished by the sudden conversion of sovereignty into democracy so that without sensible change, and merely by virtue of a new relation of all to all, the citizens become magistrates, and pass from general to particular acts, from legislation to the execution of the law.” For many this was a singular conjuring trick. What does this sudden conversion without any modification of the organic relationship between totality to totality mean? How does a mere displacement of this relation, which is the social contract as instituting the general will, allow for the proceeding to the possibility of initiating particular political acts? Basically this means – leaving aside the formal argumentation – that democracy is originally referred “to the particular character of the interests at stake in political regulation.” Political regulation with its particular interests at stake – in the last resort it only has particular stakes – is confined to democracy. Rousseau’s case for the establishment of government is but one symbolic example. Generally speaking, the universality of political regulation – much as it evades the singular holding of the State – can be deployed as such only when particular interests are at stake and is constrained, when deployed under particular stakes, if only to invest the democratic form in order to remain political. Here a primary conjunction between democracy and politics effectively takes place.

Democracy can then be defined as what authorizes an individual investment under the law of the universality of political will. “Democracy,” in a way, names the political figures of the conjunction between particular situations and politics. In this case, and in this case only, “democracy” can be recaptured as a philosophical category. Hereafter democracy will designate what can be termed as the effectiveness in politics. Meaning politics when it conjoins with particular interests. Thus understood politics becomes free from its accountability to the State.

In order to pursue this contention you would expound on how “democracy,” in this conjunction to political regulation as such, refers in philosophy to the taking in of a specific kind of politics whose regulation is universal. Still this specific kind of politics may conjoin to the particular in a figure wherein situations transform so as to render impossible any other inequitable enunciation.

The reasoning of this position is rather complex and I present a brief outline. Let’s say that “democracy” posits the fact that politics – with regard to a politics of emancipation – is sooner or later related to the special nature of people’s lives, not to the State, but to people as they come forth in the public space. Again, politics cannot be itself, which is being democratic, in its dealing with this particularity in people’s lives, unless it dismisses all inequitable sense in the very dealing. For, if politics allows for an inequitable acceptation in its dealing, then it introduces a nondemocratic norm – in the original sense I am addressing here – and the conjunction is cancelled. This means politics is no longer competent to deal with the particular from the perspective of the universal regulation. Politics will deal with the particular differently; it will deal with it from the perspective of the particular regulation. Thus, the case would be that every particular regulation redirects politics towards the State where it is subjected to the constraint of state jurisdiction. Consequently, the word “democracy,” in its philosophical significance, presupposes a kind of politics insofar as the effectiveness of its emancipatory process works at the impossibility proper of all inequitable enunciation in concern with this situation. For the aim of this kind of politics to be real proceeds from the fact that these enunciations are, by means of such politics, not forbidden but impossible. Interdiction is always a rule of the State; impossibility is a regulation of the real.

Also democracy as a philosophical category is what “brings forward equality.” Or, what excludes from circulating as political nominations – or as political categories – any sort of predicate formally in contradiction with the egalitarian idea.

In my view, this very fact drastically restricts the possibility of using in politics, under the philosophical sign of democracy, any type of “communal” designations. For the communal designation or the identity assignation to the subsets as such cannot be dealt with after the idea of the impossibility of an inequitable enunciation. Consequently, ‘democracy” is that which regulates politics in relation to communal predicates, to subset predicates. Democracy is that which anchors politics to the element of universality proper to its destination. It will also expose articulations of race as well as sexual or social or hierarchic articulations, or an enunciation such as: “there is a problem with immigrants,” will undo the conjunction between politics and democracy. “Democracy” means that “immigrant,” “French,” “Arab,” “Jew” are words that inevitably bring calamity to politics. For these words, and many others, necessarily refer politics to the State, and the lowest and most essential function of the State is the inequitable breaking of mankind.

Ultimately, the task of the philosopher consists of exposing a certain politics to its evaluation. Neither in the sense of “the good State,” nor in the sense of generic Communism, but intrinsically, that is to say for itself. Politics sequentially defined as that which attempts to create the impossibility of the inequitable enunciation, might, by the slant of the word “democracy,” be exposed through philosophy to what I’ll call a certain eternity. Let’s say that by means of the word “democracy” thus conceived, by means of philosophy and philosophy alone, politics can be evaluated after the rule of the eternal return. Then philosophy takes hold of politics, not just as the particular or pragmatic avatar of human history, but as connected to a standard of evaluation, which upholds without ridicule, or without crime, that the return be foreseen.

In the end a very old word, a word very much worn, philosophically nominates those politics that overcome this ordeal: it’s the word “justice.”


*From Abrégé de métapolitique, Seuil: Paris, 1998.

This English version was published in lacanian ink 16 (out of print)