Sunday, November 11, 2007

Democracy Part I: Democracy, Gesture and Power

The world has seen a fair amount of democracy over the last eight years. President Bush made it a cornerstone of his foreign policy. "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Inaugural Address by George W. Bush, The New York Times, Jan. 20, 2005.

From the Palestinian Territories, to the Ukraine, from Iran to China, from Venezuela to the United States, the air is filled with the scent of democracy—that palpable expression of the will of the people, thrusting from the street and into the apparatus of state as an irresistible force of nature. Or of some reasonable equivalent force satisfactory to those projecting power.


Even the Cubans speak fondly of democracy. See Fidel Castro Ruz, Reflexiones del Comandante en Jefe, Las Elecciones, Oct. 19, 2007 ("Nuestras elecciones son la antítesis de las que tienen lugar en Estados Unidos" "Our elections are the antithesis of those in the United States"). And not just nations but the political parties on whose power the apparatus of state rests. The Chinese understand this, at least in their theory. Senior CPC Official Expounds Intra-Party Democracy, People's Daily Online, Nov. 2, 2007 ("intra-Party democracy is the lifeblood of the CPC. The development course of the Party has repeatedly proved that only when the intra-Party practices are fully fulfilled can the Party cause be prosperous and emerging problems be corrected in time.").

And now Pakistan. A democratic revolution of lawyers and judges. Q&A: Pakistan's Political Crisis, BBC News Online, Nov. 11, 2007 ("Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry - ousted on the same day that Gen Musharraf declared emergency rule - has proven a thorn in his side with a number of judgements against the government. . . . He and other judges and lawyers have proved a focal point for opposition to Gen Musharraf and say his declaration of emergency rule is illegal.")

Democracy must be potent, indeed, to get the lawyers and judges off their office chairs and out onto the streets for a version of its exercise. Like the Greens and Blues of Late Roman Byzantium, the organized popular will provides a sporting event of sorts that can be cheered on by others. And so much healthier than the alternative; democracy and sports have borrowed the language of war, and less often its techniques. As has law—which now speaks foundationally of systems of government the way one used to speak of children born out of wedlock—legitimate systems are democratic and the others are bastards. The worst sorts of illegitimates, of course, are not those who are the products of defective parents, but those from cultures that ought to have known better. Democracy must be practiced just so to be just right.

All of these thoughts recalled to me a poem of Rimbaud I have read often and now share (in English):


The Flag goes with the foul landscape, and our jargon muffles the drum.
In great centers we shall aliment the most cynical prostitution, and massacre logical revolts.

In spicy and drenched lands!—at the service of monstrous exploitations, either industrial or military.
Farewell here, no matter where. Conscripts of good will, ours will be a ferocious philosophy, ignorant as to science, rabid for comfort; and let the rest of the world croak.
That’s the system. Let’s get going!

Arthur Rimbaud, Democracy, in New Directions (Louise Varèse, trans.) reprinted in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine: Selected Verse and Prose Poems 226 (Joseph M. Bernstein, ed., Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1947).

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