Giorgio Agamben: Introductory Note on the Concept of Democracy

From Theory & Event. Vol. 13, No. 1, 2010.

agambenAny discussion of the term “democracy” today is distorted by a preliminary ambiguity that condemns those who use it to misunderstanding. Of what do we speak when we speak about democracy? To what form of rationality does this term actually pertain? A slightly more attentive observation would show that those who discuss democracy today understand this term sometimes as a form of the body politic’s constitution, sometimes as a technique of government. The term thus refers both to the conceptuality of public law and to that of administrative practice: it designates power’s form of legitimation as well as the modalities of its exercise. Since it is obvious to everybody that, in contemporary political discourse, this term is more often related to a technique of government – which, as such, has nothing especially reassuring about it – one understands the malaise of those who continue to use it in the first sense in entirely good faith.

That the interlacing of these two conceptualities – juridico-political on the one hand, economico-managerial on the other – has deep roots and is not easily disentangled will appear clearly in the following example. When we find the word politeia in the classics of Greek political thought (often within the context of a discussion about the different forms of politeia : monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, as well as their parekbaseis or deviations), we see the translators render this word sometimes as “constitution,” sometimes as “government.” Thus, in the passage of The Athenian Constitution (§ 27) where Aristotle describes the ‘demagogy’ of Pericles, the English translator renders demotikoteran synebe genesthai ten politeian as “the constitution became still more democratic.” 1 Immediately thereafter, Aristotle adds that the multitude apasan ten politeian mallon agein eis hautons , which the same translator renders by “brought all the government more into their hands” 2 (obviously, to translate by “brought all the constitution”, as consistency would have demanded, would be problematic).

Where does this veritable ‘amphiboly’ come from, this ambiguity of the fundamental political concept, by virtue of which it appears now as constitution, now as government? Here it will suffice to indicate two passages in the history of Western political thought in which this ambiguity appears with particular evidence. The first is to be found in the Politics (1279a 25-27) when Aristotle declares his intention to enumerate and study the different forms of constitution ( politeiai ): “Since politeia and politeuma mean the same thing, and politeuma is the supreme power ( kyrion ) of cities, it is necessary that the supreme power be in the hands of one, of the few, or of the many […].” The standard translations give here: “Since constitution and government mean the same thing, and government is the supreme power of the State […].” Although a more faithful translation would have had to preserve the proximity of the two terms politeia (political activity) and politeuma (the political entity that results from this), it is clear that Aristotle’s attempt to mitigate ambiguity by means of this figure he calls the kyrion constitutes the essential problem of this passage. To employ modern terminology- not without somewhat forcing the link – constituent power ( politeia ) and constituted power ( politeuma ) come together here in the form of a sovereign power ( kyrion ), which appears as that which holds the two faces of politics together. But why is the political divided, and on what basis does the kyrion articulate this split, while stitching it together.

The second passage is to be found in The Social Contract. In his 1977-78 lecture course, Security, Territory, Population , Foucault had already demonstrated that Rousseau posed precisely here the problem of reconciling a juridico-constitutional terminology (“contract,” “general will,” “sovereignty”) with an “art of government.” 3 But, from the perspective that interests us, it is the distinction and the articulation between sovereignty and government, which is the basis of Rousseau’s political thought, which is decisive. “I ask my readers,” he writes in his Discourse on Political Economy , “to distinguish clearly also the public economy of which I shall be speaking, and which I call government , from the supreme authority, which I call sovereignty ; the distinction is that the latter has the right to legislate […] while the former has the power only to execute […].” 4 In The Social Contract , the distinction is reaffirmed as an articulation between general will and legislative power on the one hand, and government and executive power on the other. Now precisely what is at issue for Rousseau is simultaneously distinguishing and tying the two elements together (this is why at the very moment in which he formulates the distinction he must vigorously deny that it constitutes a division of the sovereign). 5 As for Aristotle, sovereignty – the kyrion – is at once one of the terms in the distinction and that which binds constitution and government together in an indissoluble knot.

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