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Re: <nettime>the myth of democracy and reactivism
Ian andrews on Wed, 24 Oct 2001 19:42:40 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime>the myth of democracy and reactivism

>On the last panel of the TiLt conference, which was entitled "Sabotaging the
>New World Order", a panelist spoke about what he saw as a reactive culture in
>activism (both media and other kinds as far as I remember) that operates in
>opposition to things (is 'anti') but doesn't propose alternatives, as well as
>the idea of 'reinvigorating' democracy (I'm going off my memory here, so this
>may not be an exact recreation of his talk. This was the basic gist of it as
>far as I remember though).
>Quite a few people, both on the panel and in the audience, received his talk
>quite well.
>I didn't though.

The panelist in question was Marcus Westbury. I have forwarded your
critique to him. Marcus said that he might post a write up of his talk to
Nettime soon.

 I think its pretty unfair to engage in a critique of a talk exclusively
from your own memory of it, especially when you attribute quotes to that
person which are highly inaccurate.

I found his talk refreshing and inspiring because it opened up a field of
inquiry which is hardly ever brought up in forums of this type. Too often
these confernences are dominated by constant presentation of the same sets
of ideas (with minor variations), which are received with nods of approval
from an audience of the pre-converted. It was interesting to hear something
which, instead, stimulated thought, questions and arguments.

I will not give a representation of Marcus' talk from my own memory of it.
Rather I will try to concentrate on certain resonances between his ideas
and those that I expressed in my previous post where suggested the use of a
certain spirit of Marx (and the Enlightenment) in combination with a
reconfiguration of democracy.

>"Get back to the 'real' democracy"

  I don't think Marcus said anything resembling this at all. I did hear him
say something about resurrecting useful tools from the historical concept
of democracy such as the "seperation of powers" (police, judiciary, church,
parliament, etc.). Its not a question of a return to some previous era, or
some idealised past. Its more a question of utilising tools, finding new
mechanisms, creating new structures that can help provide a means toward
affirming social change, while avoiding the duplication of current power
relations, and avoiding the solidification of these ideas into doctrine.
Democratic processes, of some form or other, along with a certain
irreducible idea of justice (disassociated from law), such as the (Western)
concept of human rights, seem to me at the present, to be the only way
forward from our present position, to affect global social change, and
assume a universal responsibilty for the planet, without falling into the
Western trap of attempting to represent the desires of the other. I have
suggested previously that we combine these tools with what Derrida refers
to as "a certain spirit of Marx," namely, a critique that can undertake its
own self-critique, which resists solidification into ideological dogma, and
must be distinguished from all the apparatuses of the Marxist state, party,
etc (and which also must avoid the onto-theological movement of Hegelian
dialectics). .

>Democracy as an ideal / idea is constantly thrown up - from the Zapatisitas to
>international NGO's to the idea of participatory democracy on the blockade to
>parliamentary democracy (the most common form of the ideal/idea).
>The basic concept though, is the latter - the kind of parliamentary democracy
>that is characterised and associated with the Nation-State.  The basic concept
>is not informed by current realities - ie, we don't generally associate
>oligarchy with democracy thought this is what democracy in its most general
>sense current amounts too (and has pretty much always amounted too).

This raises some questions. Is it possible for democracy (or any other
social order)to exist independently of the nation-state?  Can we dispense
of the institution of the nation state without dispensing with the concept
of public ownership, or perhaps more importantly, channels and mechanisms
of public control? Is it enough to want to replace the concept of the
nation-state with something which is merely its idealized negation (or even
something which is unthought). The suggestion that some kind of society
that can naturally evolve outside of the nation-state schema, that  would
be a "society in which we wish to live" simply by _not_ being a
nation-state, this simple state-denial, embodies an even greater idealism
than the ideal of democracy. This particular anti-state brand of idealism
seems to carry with it all the problems of right-wing born again Christian
idealism, or even neo-liberal free market idealism, for me to feel
comfortable with it. I think the challenge here is to rethink democracy
from the perspective of the public sphere whilst, at the same time
resisting the power relations of the capitalist (or any other) nation

For example, one of the most urgent questions of today involves the
question of resposibility. As governments absolve themselves of
responsibility, handing it over to market forces, where it vaporises under
the dubious principle of trickle down economics, the question returns: who
will take responsibilty? Who will take responsibility for the dispossed,
the economically discarded, the environment, world health, etc. The answer
must be "all of us." But we need some mechanism to do this. I can't say
what this could be, at the moment, but I would suggest that it involves a
number of strategies, including the rethinking of the concept of the state
that radically distances it from paternalism, and that incorporates, as
Marcus suggested, the idea (from the liberal democratic state) of the
seperation of powers, and a multiplicity of channels (perhaps through
autonomous social actors).

Also the relationship of activist groups to the (a) state also needs to be
rethought.   I find highly problematic the familiar situation where
activist opposition _to_ the very concept of the nation-state is presented
simmultaneously with demands for responsibility _from_ the nation-state.

>"The notion of "one person, one vote," for example, was one of the ideals
>toward which the various modern schema of popular representation and
>sovereignty tended. There is no need for us to argue here that these schema of
>popular  have always been imperfect and in fact largely illusory. There have
>long been important critiques of the mechanisms of popular representation in
>modern democratic societies. It is perhaps an exaggeration to characterize
>elections as an opportunity to choose which member of the ruling class will
>misrepresent the people for the next two, four, or six years, but there is
>certainly some truth in it too and low voter turnout is undoubtedly a symptom
>of the crisis of popular representation through electoral institutions."
>The question is not "how do we bring about a 'real' democracy", for there
>is no
>'real' democracy to base any comparison on.
 The question is, does this myth
>have an power to bring about a society in which we wish to live?
>I'd say no - its (his)tory is so tainted, from mercantilism, imperialism,
>division, patriarchy, racismŠetc, that it is near impossible to 'clear out'
>the concept and make it usable.

Does the concept of democracy neccessarily have to be intertwined with
capitalism, even though its (recent) history has been so? It has been the
familiar line of Western propaganda (particularly US) that the exportation
of democracy can only be achieved by establishing free market capitalism.
The propaganda argument goes something like this: the free market is the
means to democracy, which is the end, ie. the idealised concept of
democracy is used as a justification for capitalism.  Where as the reverse
is more to the point: democracy is the means to the free market, which
becomes the end. In other words the ideal of democracy is used by
capitalism as (imperialist) tool to expand its markets.  But does this
ensure that the use of the non-idealized, or pragmatic, concept of
democracy as a tool to achieve other outcomes, should remain an

Also, the whole history of suffrage, from the time when only the property
holding elite (men) were entitled to elect their parliamentry
representatives, to the present situation of universal suffrage, is
characterised much more as a movement _away_ from class division,
patriarchy and racism. Though, of course, this is not to say that universal
suffrage has eliminated these evils which are deep rooted.  We must
remember that these rights were not "granted" by the ruling class, the
invisible hand of the market, or any of the traditional configurations of
power, but were won by resistance and struggle. However, universal
suffrage,like the liberal democratic state, should not be regarded as an
absolute ideal, the end of history, or the ultimate high point of
civilisation, but rather as part of the political toolkit that we have at
our disposal. This trajectory of democratic reforms had its beginning with
the Enlightenment, and it is precisely this trajectory, away from the
traditions, religion and mythology that fostered patriarchy and racism,
that I would not like to see jettisoned (with the nation-state) in the new

There are also more substantial problems with
>the myth, the issue of 'representation' being the most important. Also, a myth
>so laden with historical baggage is all to easy prey for recuperation by the
>powers that we would claim it from. Its (his)tory makes it an 'unbalanced
>sword', always leaning towards its past of mercantilism, imperialism, class
>division, patriarchy, racismŠetc  in 'mythical' and cultural warfare.

I think what is missing here is the role of the mass media. The mainstream
media, owned by the the ruling class, carry all of this baggage and, to a
large extent, determine what democracy is. I believe that it is the media,
more than any other political institution, that succeed in radically
narrowing the scope of democratic choice. One way they do this is by making
sure that the political adgenda is dominated by economic concerns.
Political parties must play the game and add up all the accounts, balance
the books, and conform to the puritan ideal of "thrift" in order to appear
to be credible.  This limits the possibility of any long term vision, and
hence any possibility of social change.  Progressive political parties,
forced to reduce their ideas to a banal economic register, become pale
reflections of the conservative parties  If anything, the scope of
democracy needs to be expanded, perhaps in much the same way that the scope
of the labour movement expanded in the late 1960s.

I really think that we need to actively affirm some ideas for progressive
social change, not only for those who have been (traditionally) subjugated
by capitalism, but also those who have been incorporated into capitalism
(such as the mums and dads, superannuants, etc), and those who have been
simply discarded by capitalism. The prospect of a revolution against
capitalism is extremely remote, unless it comes, as you suggested, from the
South, in which case it would be so bloody that it would make the 20th
century look like a picnic. There   is no longer any opportunity for making
deals (such as productivity deals) with capitalism (to liberalise it),
since there is no longer anything (like the threat of communism) to bargain
with. We must look for new strategies, new tools....

Ian Andrews
Metro Screen

Email: i.andrews {AT} metroscreen.com.au
1981 - 2001 Metro Screen is a celebrating 20 years of access and
innovation in independent screen production.

Metro Screen
Sydney Film Centre
Paddington Town Hall
P.O. Box 299
Paddington NSW 2021
Ph : 612 9361 5318
Fax: 612 9361 5320

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