Hillary Clinton, Microfinance, and an Actually Democratic Alternative

Thomas Frank has an article in the latest Harper’s (April 2016) that I found to be really good work. The piece is, overall, a complaint about Hillary Clinton, but it registers some very specific, and, I think, important criticisms. The most compelling for me was Frank’s dismantling the idea, championed by all the Clintons, that microcredit is the way to help people in the global South out of poverty. This way of thinking[1] assumes that the problem poor people have is that they are “unbanked,” and so the whole effort is to “bank” them, i.e. have them enter into debtor relations with global corporate financial institutions. The larger agenda, and Frank breaks out the italics to drive it home, is to “extend Western banking methods to encompass every last individual on earth.” The large banks, unsurprisingly, are all for it. In this light, the criticisms of Clinton for taking huge speaker fees from big banks take on real weight.

Frank points out that microcredit has been a disaster in the short term, in that it has produced little development and lots of debt. But of course, even if revenue trickles were being created in the short term, in the long-term the idea of extending debtor relations across the globe, “banking” a greater and greater percentage of the world’s population, is to the advantage of the banks and the disadvantage of everyone else.

In this context, I want to point to the work of Mahila Milan, a network of poor women in India who come together to pool their savings and manage that money collectively. I am not an expert on their work, but from what I understand the gist is that women who participate in Mahila Milan recognize that 1) they do not have access to financial resources, and that is a problem, but 2) they do not think streaming themselves into the formal banking system is the best solution to that problem, and so 3) they organize their own pool of money, and they also organize their own system for managing that money. The results are not perfect, I am sure, but the network does offer participants more access to money when they need it, without causing chronic indebtedness among members. Moreover — and I think this may be even more important — through their participation in the network, members grow stronger in their ability to both manage complex financial systems and collectively govern their community.

[1] Frank notes that this way of thinking is enthusiastically shared by the Gates Foundation.


Everyday Code

Here is the text from my talk at the AAG conference last week. It was for a really great session organized by Joe Shaw and Mark Graham (who are at the Oxford Internet Institute) on “An Informational Right to the City”.


Everyday Code: The Right to Information and Our Struggle for Democracy


Henri Lefebvre proposed a right to information, and he thought that right must be associated with a right to the city. I want to urge us to understand both those rights in the context of Lefebvre’s wider political project. That wider project was the struggle for self-management, what Lefebvre often called “autogestion,” and what I prefer to call democracy.

Lefebvre articulates his wider political vision in terms of what he called a “new contract of citizenship between State and citizen.”


This contract is made up of a series of rights, which include the right to the city, to services, to autogestion, and to information. Clearly this agenda looks very liberal-democratic; one might expect that a minimal State will guarantee individuals this list of rights. But this is not at all Lefebvre’s vision. Instead, he is calling for “a renewal of political life,” for a generalized political awakening among people. Lefebvre hopes this awakening will constitute a revolution, through which people decide to become active participants in managing their affairs themselves. This new tide of popular political activity, if it can sustain itself over time, will eventually make the State (and capitalism) superfluous, and they will wither away. And so Lefebvre is proposing a very strange sort of contract between citizens and State, a contract whose aim is to render both parties obsolete.

Key to understanding Lefebvre’s wider vision is this right to autogestion. In English it means “self-management,” and traditionally it referred to rank-and-file workers taking over the management of their factory from the factory’s owners and professional managers. Lefebvre advocated that kind of autogestion, but he also wanted to extend the idea, beyond workers as political subjects and beyond the factory as political arena, to a range of political subjects and political arenas. He was aiming at something people at the time called “generalized autogestion,” in which all people take up the project of collectively managing all matters of common concern.

That last idea is important, that autogestion is a project. It is not a utopia, not an ideal community at the end of history, without the State, in which people manage their affairs entirely for themselves. Autogestion is, instead, a project. It is a perpetual struggle by people to become increasingly active, to manage more and more spheres of their lives for themselves.

So of course information is critical here. Effective and enduring self-management, by whatever agents in whatever arenas, requires that people have access to and effectively use the information that is relevant to their common affairs. And so the right to information is a part of the contract that Lefebvre proposes. In our own liberal-democratic vernacular, the “right to information” would mean something like: individual citizens have the right to access information that is being kept from them for some reason, usually by the government. But if we understand the “right to information” in the context of Lefebvre’s wider project, I think we will conclude that access to information, people having information, is necessary, but it is not really the main point. What matters most, in the context of autogestion, is what people do with the information they have. Once they have access to it, do they engage with it? Do they appropriate the information—which is to say, do they make it their own—and put it into the service of the project of autogestion?

If we understand the right to information this way, with Lefebvre, I think we will tend to frame the problem of information differently than it is usually framed. The problem isn’t so much that we are being prevented from getting the information we need. There is more information available to us than we know what to do with. The problem is, more, how can we become active, appropriate the information available to us, and use that information effectively in our project to manage our affairs for ourselves.

And so I want to draw our attention away from much discussed struggles to gain access to information, like Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. While such struggles are germane to Lefebvre’s wider project, they tempt us to assume that once we have access, the struggle is won. But it isn’t. And so I want to draw our attention to the struggle to appropriate and use the information we already have access to. Are we engaging with it actively and incorporating it effectively into our political project of autogestion?

To do this, I am going to talk about something quite a bit less sexy than government secrets, or big data, or all the new forms of geographical information we use.


I am going to talk about the software that runs our personal computers. That is, I want to talk about how we use, understand, and interact with the information—the software code—that structures our everyday digital environments: window managers, system trays, power managers, and so on. These programs are, increasingly, the medium through which we engage with the world. Do we understand how they work? Are we able to? Do we care?

Everyday (Digital) Life: GUIs


The larger paper addresses three main topics, but it’s this first question of Graphical User Interfaces that I think sheds the most light on this issue of whether we use and appropriate the information on our desktops.


A graphical user interface (GUI) is a program that allows a user to issue commands to a computer without knowing the actual commands themselves. A GUI opens a window on the desktop and presents the user with buttons, drop-down lists, check boxes, and tabs with which the user can, through a series of mouse gestures and clicks, tell the GUI what changes s/he wants to make.

Let me take you through one very small example. On my machine, the monitor resolution is changed by issuing this command:

xrandr --output HDMI-0 --mode 1280x960

‘xrandr’ is the program that issues the command, the –output flag tells the computer which monitor to adjust, and the –mode flag tells the computer which resolution to set that monitor to. I can make these changes directly, by typing the command above into a terminal window and pressing enter. Or I can use a GUI. In my case that would mean using a mouse to click the “Launch!” button in the top-left corner of the desktop, which would show me a base menu of options. Clicking “settings” on that menu opens another menu, on which I would click “display.” Then the GUI opens a new window, and it makes a query to find out which monitors are available to use. It then presents me with an icon for each available monitor. I click on the icon for the monitor I want to change, then I select the resolution I want from a drop-down box that offers me all the resolutions that monitor is capable of. Then, behind the scenes, the GUI will issue the “xrandr” command above, and the resolution will change. At this point, most GUIs will even check in with the user and ask if the new resolution is acceptable, to which the user responds by clicking the “yes” button or the “no” button.

Nearly all of us use a GUI to change our monitor resolution. We rely on it. We don’t know how to change the resolution directly. We don’t know what command to issue. We don’t know how the command works; we can’t avail ourselves of the many powers it has. We don’t know how to find out the actual names of the monitors, the ones the computer uses, or what resolutions they can operate at. We need the GUI to help us. And it does. It doesn’t trouble us with the specifics: it issues the command in the background, out of our view. We are probably not even aware a command is being issued at all. The monitor just changes. The GUI takes care of it. It takes care of us.

While this example may seem almost painfully trivial, still, it matters to us whether the monitor is set to the right resolution. If it wasn’t, it would be hard to get work done. But even though it matters to us, we don’t really know how to tell the computer directly to behave the way we need it to behave. We are illiterate, most of us, unable to read and write the simple commands the computer understands and responds to. We need the GUI to read and write for us. We are helpless without it.

And so we users are alienated from the information that runs our desktops. In the paper I call this a “soft alienation,” rather than a hard one.


In hard alienation, we are being actively prevented from accessing information by some intentional means, such as a government’s claim to secrecy or a corporation’s claim to intellectual property. Soft alienation is alienation that we can overcome, often with only a little effort. To return to my xrandr example, no real barriers exist to prevent me from learning xrandr. It is installed by default on my operating system. Its manual is included, it’s only 2,100 words, and it’s comprehensive. Xrandr can be mostly learned in about a half an hour. It is a powerful command that is capable of much more than what the GUI can do. And yet most of us don’t learn xrandr. We rely on the GUI.

So in soft alienation, we are choosing to be alienated, choosing to let others produce and manage information for us. The impetus for this kind of alienation does not lie outside us, it lies inside us. The struggle against this alienation will be different from the struggles where ‘we’ confront ‘them’ because they are oppressing us. The struggle will be, instead, a struggle within, a struggle between the part of us that wants to be passive and alienated, and the part of us that wants to be active and master the information that matters to us.

How do we engage a struggle like that? I don’t think we should try to defeat our bad desires, those that want us to be passive and dependent. I think we should focus on our good desires—our desires to actively manage the information that runs our desktops—and we should try to cultivate those desires. What we need is simply to start doing the right thing, start building up our ability to access and master information. We need to read the xrandr manual, start issuing commands, and see what happens. When it works, we can try out other features of the command. When it fails, when we break something (which we will), we can figure out how to fix it, or we can turn to others who have had the same problem, and they can help us. As we build our strength in this way, by practicing, by exercising our good desires, I think we will develop a taste for it. We will come to enjoy the feeling of learning a command, issuing it directly to the computer, and seeing the changes happen. We will come to prefer that way of interacting with our machines over the alienation of the GUI. This feeling—call it pleasure, or joy, or delight—is vital. It will have to be there if we are going to succeed. It isn’t a cheap pleasure, the kind of thrill we get when we see the redesigned Apple OS for the first time.


It’s a deeper pleasure, slower burning but longer lasting, that we can settle into, that we can make a habit out of.


I have been focusing my attention on the desktop, on this little world we inhabit so intimately, and I have tried to give some account of what Lefebvre’s right to information would entail in that world. But of course this session is on “An informational right to the city.” And so what about the city, and the urban, both of which were so important to Lefebvre? In making the argument that our little desktop worlds matter, I am not saying, at all, that the city no longer matters. Both matter. However, I am willing to say that the two struggles are analogous, almost to the point of being isomorphic. In managing the information on our desktops for ourselves, we users must become active, aware, and alive; we must decide to take up the project of producing and managing this newly-vital realm for ourselves. The gist of the right to the city, as Lefebvre understood it, is the same: those who inhabit the city must take up the project of actively producing and managing urban space for themselves. They must overcome their desire to be ruled, to have urban space managed for them, and they must discover the delight of governing the city for themselves.

And of course the struggle for our desktops and the struggle for the city are only two of the many struggles that matter. When Lefebvre turned his attention toward the city and the urban inhabitant he was trying to generalize the concept of autogestion, beyond the factory and beyond the working class, to the city and the urban inhabitant.


There is no reason to think we should stop there. The school, the family, the military, the desktop: all are arenas in which we can pursue the project of autogestion. I am happy to think of these all as essentially equivalent political struggles. We shouldn’t nest or hierarchize them: a struggle for autogestion on the desktop is no more or less important than a struggle for autogestion in the city, or the home, or the school. Each moves us farther down a path toward autogestion, toward managing our own affairs for ourselves. Each teaches us the habits, skills, and attitudes we’ll need to maintain the struggle. Each trains us to know what it’s like to appropriate a sphere of experience, to take up the challenge of being the author of our own lives. Each reveals to us our own power to create, to manage, and to decide. Each helps us know what it feels like: the pleasure, or joy, or delight, of autogestion. Each is a little project—both individual and collective—to save our lives. What we need to do is not to rank them or prioritize them; we need to notice them, amass them, connect them together into a spreading project for generalized autogestion, into a spreading project for democracy.

Castoriadis? Yes, please!

There is a wealth of good stuff in Cornelius Castoriadis in general and in “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy” in particular. That essay, which can be found in The Castoriadis Reader, at times prefigures Ranciere, at others Hardt and Negri, and at others he parallels Freire. And it is all the best stuff in those writers that he resonates with. The part where he prefigures Hardt and Negri struck me particularly, given what I have been writing about recently:

Benjamin Constant did not glorify elections and ‘representation’ as such; he defended them as lesser evils on the grounds that democracy [which CC has defined earlier to be what we call (unnecessarily) “direct democracy”] was impossible in modern nations because of their size and because people were not interested in public affairs. Whatever the value of these arguments, they are based upon the explicit recognition that representation is a principle alien to democracy. This hardly bears discussion. Once permanent ‘representatives’ are present, political authority, activity, and initiative are expropriated from the body of citizens and transferred to the restricted body of ‘representatives’, who also use it to consolidate their position and create the conditions whereby the next ‘election’ becomes biased in many ways (276).

“The idea of a ‘State’ as an institution distinct and separated from the body of citizens,” he says later (278), “would not have been understandable to a Greek.”

If we work hard at it, maybe one day we too can achieve this same inability to understand.

Bernie Sanders: Away from Democracy

From a recent Washington Post article on Bernie Sanders…

Sanders said….Americans must turn to the federal government to oversee new sectors of their lives. He bristles at the idea that this might be considered an intrusion.

“You’re not ‘turning to’ the government. You’re assuming that the government is some kind of foreign entity,” Sanders said in an interview. “The government, in a democratic society, is the people.”

Sanders’ tack here is pretty disappointing. Faced with the objection, from the right, that his proposals will greatly augment the authority the government has to control people’s lives, he can muster nothing other than the extremely vague assertion that we live in a “democratic society,” and that, therefore, our government is identical to the people. Even when Rousseau proposed this cockamamie idea–that it is OK to surrender ourselves to the body politic because the body politic is the same thing as us–he understood it to be aspirational. Sanders recycles the ridiculous idea, but he makes everything worse by assuming, against all the evidence, that this fantasyland of a “democratic society” has already been achieved, here in 2015 America. That’s a pretty dumb assumption.

It’s a totally inadequate response to the right’s objection, and we should reject it out of hand. Sanders’ proposals will in fact increase government control of people’s lives, and as such, will be precisely the opposite of democracy.

What’s really going on, I think, is that Sanders badly wants to redistribute the social surplus from the rich to the poor, and he doesn’t much care if that gets done by government fiat. It has to be done, that’s the way we know how to do it, so on we go. That’s an understandable position in the current era (though I disagree with it), but Sanders’ doesn’t own it, choosing instead to cloak his Keynesianism in democracy by means of his spurious claims about our “democratic society.”

Sanders’ plan (the actual one, not the purportedly democratic one) is certainly better than a neoliberal alternative, but that is a very low bar. We are capable of much more than the Keynesian Welfare State. We are capable of real democracy. But only if we refuse to consign ourselves to the vain hope that this time, at last, everything will be better if we can just elect the right candidate to the presidency.

Chaos and Control 2: Deleuze & Guattari

In their book What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari tell us that “we require just a little order to protect us from chaos” (201). The book is an extended discussion of the proper uses of science, philosophy, and art that very much echoes my experiences with Rothko. D&G say that the three disciplines, each in their own way, are trying to help us commune with chaos without getting overwhelmed. Each “throws a plane over chaos,” or cuts a slice through it, carves out a little place for us to stand, a little eye of the storm. Or maybe the right image is that each provides us with a dwelling place, with an environment that is in the midst of chaos, and connected vitally to it, but it is nevertheless a “home” that we can make sense of and inhabit.

But I want to stress that I think we should not take them to be saying that both chaos and order are ethically equivalent, that we need to balance the two in order to live a good life. They are not making an Aristotelian argument, that the golden mean, the average, the middle road between chaos and order is best, most rational, most upright. That agenda is just a conservative lust for a stable status quo. At least that’s what it was in Aristotle, and I expect it was also in all those similarly conservative souls who third-wayed their way to the top.


D&G don’t want us to come to rest, fat and happy, in some sort of mean. Not at all. They want us to press on, always, out toward freedom, which is best. They want us to always strive to commune with chaos, as fully as we can, without going up in flames. Even if we must have a plane, some form of consistency that shields us from the pure motion/energy of chaos, that doesn’t mean the plane is an ethically good thing. It’s just functionally necessary. We should always leave it, push ourselves on toward the life-force of chaos. It is true that we cannot live in chaos, that we must always return to the plane, always “come home” from our travels. Home, order, the plane of consistency: these are all necessary, but they are not what is good. What is good is what we can do when we are “abroad,” what we can learn, what we can become. We must return home, but when we do we should make sure “no one will recognize us any more when we come back” (191).

Philosophy, and art, and to a lesser extent science, are obligated to give us just enough order to keep us safe from destruction, but their mission is to connect us with chaos. Their purpose is to allow us to draw from its life-force, to touch off as many becomings as possible. That is the ethical and political project D&G champion. Never come to rest, even if we must rest, never settle into order, even if we require a little order to survive.

From this perspective, Rothko’s pictures, with their frames protecting us from chaos, have to keep us from being overwhelmed, sure, but that’s their obligation, not their mission. Their mission is to plug us in to chaos.

I think something very similar applies to democracy, and that’s what I will try to write about next.

Democracy without the State

Below is the text of the talk I just gave at the Policy & Politics conference in Bristol (England). As you can see, I was very conscious of the audience, which I was not quite sure I had a handle on, but which turned out, I think, to be a group of people who think a lot about government and policy, but do so very critically and intelligently. So my message, that we need to get serious about thinking democracy without the State, was in a sense a message “from beyond,” but one they were able to hear and engage with, even if they did not fully accept it. Also important to know is that the theme of the conference was “Democracy, Inequality, and Power.”

[The paragraphs in brackets were part of the talk, but they were offered as asides. Those with a “***SKIP***” tag were in fact left out.]



When you find yourself on a list of plenary speakers like this one, in which all the others have really deep track records of academic achievement, you ask yourself what the heck you are doing here and what you can contribute. I don’t have their record, I am not a social scientist, I don’t study inequality, I am not even British.

I guess what I am is someone who has thought about and written some on democracy, on the idea and practices of democracy. So I thought what I would do today is offer a contribution along those lines. What I plan to do, we’ll see how it goes, is to introduce into the conference what I anticipate will be a minor current of thought. My idea is that this minor current will haunt the discussions we have over the next two days, haunt them in what I hope is a productive way, a way that is sympathetic to the tenor of thinking at the conference, but that raises critical questions of that thinking, and thereby stimulates new (and maybe even better) currents of thought.

I have structured my contribution in the form of two claims:

The first claim is that the best way to understand the two terms “democracy” and “the State” is in a way that makes them mostly antithetical to each other, as political operations that move us in opposite directions.

The second claim is that in this time of troubles, in which the political and economic powers that be have driven us into the crash of 2007-8, and then doubled down on their failed model by imposing austerity in both the metropolis and the hinterlands, what we need, what can save us, is democracy. We need to focus our energies on the project of becoming democratic, the project of retaining our own power and learning to use it to govern ourselves.

Becoming democratic involves the positive act of learning to use our own power, but it also involves a negative act: we must refuse to surrender our power to entities outside of and above ourselves. The quintessence of such entities is the State, but of course multinational corporations, international institutions (UN, World Bank, the Troika, etc.), churches, and trade unions fit the bill as well.

Taken together, these claims will have a tense relationship with those who advocate more robust government policy designed to redress the worsening socio-economic inequality in our world today. While it is likely that option would result in greater equality, I argue that it would vitiate the project of becoming democratic. To be sure, a robust welfare State is without a doubt preferable to the neoliberal alternative, which offers neither equality nor democracy. But I want to insist that we are capable of more than the welfare State. We are capable of democracy.

Democracy can be much more than we think

What do I mean, democracy? Democracy, as I am about to conceive it, is a mode of life in which people struggle to reclaim their power and learn to use that power to manage their affairs for themselves. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll explain what I mean by way of an etymology.

Democracy is made up of demos and kratia.

We think we know very well what demos means, but in ancient Greece, by which I mean the Greece in which Plato and Aristotle fashioned their political theory, demos typically referred only to the poor, to those who had to work for a living. The demos were always more numerous than the rich, but they never encompassed the whole population. They were always the largest faction, but they were a faction all the same. For Plato and Aristotle, then, democracy referred to a system of government in which that larger faction controlled the affairs of the polis. In the modern era, of course, and this is readily apparent in Hobbes, demos has come to mean everyone, all persons without qualification. And so we are in the habit of thinking of democracy as a political system in which everyone rules.

The second part of the word, kratia, is perhaps a bit more complex. We typically use words like “rule” or “govern” to represent it in English, as I just did, and so we are in the habit of thinking that kratia signifies the power of one entity over another. And kratia does in fact have those connotations, both in the way it was used in Plato and Aristotle’s Greece, and in the meaning of our own words that bear its imprint (like aristocracy, bureaucracy, meritocracy, etc.). Kratia in this sense refers to a power that controls, that limits, even a power that dominates.1 And in fact this word, kratia, is the most direct point of contact with Greek for our word “democracy”: the ending “-cracy” is most closely connected to kratia. But kratia‘s own etymology can be traced deeper, if we choose to, to another, more basic, word: kratos. Kratos means something less specific: it refers to strength or power or might. Those who are partial to Spinoza, and Nietzsche after him, will see the opportunity here: we can understand kratos to mean the power humans have to act into the world, their capacity to affect the world around them in some tangible way. In this sense, kratos takes on a meaning more like “power to,” which is to say humans’ power to create something new, to invent, to produce changes in our world.2 And so if we return to the first word, kratia, we can reappropriate its meaning. While it does bear the meaning of “power over,” it also evokes, from down deep in its roots, the idea of “power to,” the idea of our human capacity to act into and change our world.

And so this line of thinking offers us the opportunity to understand democracy as a condition in which demos and kratia are bound together, in which all people without qualification (demos) retain their power to act into and change the world (kratia), and they use that power to manage their affairs for themselves.

[I don’t mean to give the impression that I think my etymology of kratia has revealed its true meaning, and that we have been getting it wrong for all these years. Rather I am saying that kratia contains both ideas, that each is very much present in the word’s origins. And so, we can choose, if we wish, to emphasize kratia‘s meaning of “power to” rather than its meaning of “power over.”]

The State Is What Hobbes Said It Is

The founding operation of the modern State is to move precisely in the opposite direction from democracy as I have just described it. To make that argument, again begging your patience, I need to talk about Hobbes.

Hobbes argued passionately that we need a State, because only the State can save us from ourselves. Without the State, living in what he called the state of nature (which is to say the condition of being outside of State society), we are in a condition of total war. This war is a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of each person against all other persons.

This war exists because in the state of nature each person has the natural right, the right of nature, to use his or her own power to ensure his or her own survival. There are no codes, moral or legal, that govern the use of that power. Therefore, Hobbes argues, there is nothing at all to prevent one person from harming any another, even to the point of killing them, if he or she thinks it will help them survive. And so the condition of war exists precisely because in the state of nature each of us retains our own power and has the right to use it as we see fit. The solution to this intolerable condition, therefore, is for us to surrender our power. To what? Not to another person or persons, since persons having power is precisely the problem. We surrender our power to an artificial person, a made-up entity, the modern State. The specific function of the State is to be other than, or outside of, ourselves. We cede our power to this artificial person that is other than ourselves in order to keep us apart from our own power, to alienate us from it. [Marx’s word for alienation is instructive here: entfremdung = to make strange something that is now familiar.] This alienation is the whole point: us having our power is what endangers us, and so we must be separated from our power in order to keep us safe. And so Hobbes makes crystal clear that the founding act of the State is to separate people from their power.

[This context is ideal for understanding Nietzsche’s claim that the State is the coldest of cold monsters: it is a cold monster, an artificial person, by design.]

In addition to this alienation, there is another critical element to this relation between natural persons and the artificial one: the artificial person is not only separate from us, it also transcends us. It is above us; it has power over us. It is, in a word, sovereign. Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei.


There is no power on Earth that compares to it. It is a mortal God. It must be so. If its power is not ultimate, if its power is not raised above all other powers, then any natural person (or group of natural persons) can reassert their own power, retake matters into their own hands, reassert their right of nature to do whatever they must to survive. But of course this would be disaster for Hobbes: people having their power is precisely the cause of the bellum. So State power must be above all other powers. That is why we speak of the capital-S State, and its capital-L Law. It gets a capital letter because it is at the head, it comes first, it is above all other powers on Earth.

[***SKIP***It doesn’t hurt, Hobbes thinks, that this power is not only sovereign by contract (and therefore by right), but also that this collected power is so terrifying that it is able to “overawe them all,” just in case anyone takes it into their head to reassert their natural right to their own power.]

It is important to remember that Hobbes is very careful to ascribe to us the decision to alienate our power to an authority outside of and above us: we make these moves ourselves, voluntarily, by making contracts with each other. He says we do this because our reason tells us that the State is our only option, the only thing that will save us from total war.

There are many extraordinary things going on in Hobbes. I have talked about how he establishing the seminal argument for the modern State. But another extraordinary thing that is taking place here is that he is establishing the modern State in the ground of a new, modern idea: the idea that originally people are equal and sovereign over themselves. All of early-modern political thought—especially Locke and Rousseau—adopts this assumption uncritically, and it quickly becomes an axiom of thought, despite the fact that it was rarely held either by the ancients or by those in the Middle Ages. Even if the principle aim of these modern thinkers was to get us to abandon this sovereignty, even so it is there, in their work, described in great detail, this “natural” or original condition in which we are a multitude of persons who retain our own power and use it to manage our affairs for ourselves. Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau are arguing, in other words, that our original condition is democracy, and that the purpose of the modern State is to move us out of our original democratic condition.

[Those familiar with Jacques Ranciere’s work will recognize that he has been arguing something similar, although he situates the discussion in the Greek polis of Plato and Aristotle. Ranciere reads those thinkers as similarly engaged in a concerted effort to build a legitimate political order that can capture and control our original condition of democracy, which for Ranciere is a condition of equality in which anyone at all is qualified to speak and to participate in politics.].

I have been focusing my attention squarely on Hobbes because he offers the most clear-eyed and honest argument for the modern State. At the same time, I am conscious of the common objection that what the modern State actually became is not Hobbes’ absolutist State, but Locke’s more limited, liberal State . This is true, at least in countries with so-called ‘liberal-democratic’ governments. But the difference between the two thinkers—Hobbes’ State of absolute authority and Locke’s State of limited authority—should not cause us to miss what they share. In both thinkers, the nature of the political operation involved in founding the State is precisely the same: people surrender (some measure of) the power they have in the state of nature to an invented entity outside of and above themselves. Even though Locke grants the legislative only limited powers (which are to judge and enforce the Law of Nature), he nevertheless insists that the legislative must be sovereign within those limits, that people must surrender their original power to carry out those functions for themselves. [***SKIP***In Locke, interestingly, there is a double alienation, first of the power of each of us to a body politic, and then of the power of the body politic to the legislative.]

[It is worth saying that precisely this same dynamic exists in Rousseau as well: people surrender every last bit of their power to what he calls the “body politic.” Here there is a new wrinkle, which is that Rousseau imagines the body politic to be made of the whole of the people themselves, rather than an artificial person, as in Hobbes, or a part of the whole, as in Locke’s legislative. But only a little reflection reveals that Rousseau’s body politic is no less an artificial entity, because all persons are not, in fact, part of one body. The body politic is just as invented an idea as Hobbes’ artificial person. In Rousseau the power of each of us is alienated no less fully than it is in Hobbes, to an entity no less outside ourselves, and that entity is no less sovereign over us.]

Again, though Hobbes formulates it with greater clarity, all of the political thinkers who articulated the logic of the modern State agreed that it is founded on the same political operation: people surrender their power to an entity that is separate from and sovereign over them.

The liberal-democratic State is not democracy

And so this line of thinking leads us to conclude, with clear eyes, that the State is not and can never be the same thing as democracy. The State works in the opposite direction from democracy.

And yet, we are constantly conflating the two:

“Egypt is making the transition to democracy…”

“We live in a democracy…”

“Inequality is in danger of producing a divided democracy…”

Those of us who live in a national society ruled by a liberal-democratic government will commonly say we live in “a democracy.” We regularly conflate the liberal-democratic State with “democracy.” But our liberal-democratic State, because it is a State, operates to transfer power from people to an entity separate from them, and that entity is given the sovereign authority to make laws that people must obey. The liberal-democratic State, therefore, just like all States, works in the direction of oligarchy rather than democracy: it is a regime that alienates the power of the many and transfers it to a few.

Of course the existence of elections, in which people are enjoined to participate in the selection of (some of) those who will represent them in the State,3 does mean that those representatives are weakly accountable to people. This does introduce something that resembles a democratic element into the State relation, in the sense that the power of the representatives is not entirely disconnected from the wills of people. But this democratic element only asks people to decide who their power will be surrendered to; it does not ask them if they want to surrender it. It assumes they want to surrender it. Elections therefore renew and reaffirm the contract by which people surrender their power to the State. People participate directly and willingly in the transfer of their power to the few, and that participation strongly legitimates the oligarchical relation that the State institutes.

With respect to the question of (in)equality, the form of the liberal-democratic State we typically think of first is the Keynesian Welfare State. Certainly not all welfare States are the same, nor are all Keynesian policy regimes the same. But to the extent they imagine a role for the State in analyzing the problem of inequality, in devising redistributive solutions, and in implementing those solutions…and to the extent they assume that the State acts on behalf of the people in this way, these political regimes work us away from democracy, away from the active management of our affairs for ourselves.

Not democracy, but becoming democratic

If even the liberal-democratic State, and even in its Welfare-State form, moves us away from democracy, if winning elections, changing policy, and introducing new Laws are all working in the wrong direction, what then should we do instead?

Maybe we could just “go back.” Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau all thought that we were originally democratic, before we surrendered our power to the State. Maybe then it is just a matter of sloughing off the State, of voiding the contract in order to return to our original democratic condition?

I wish it were that easy. But democracy isn’t an original condition to which we can return. It is, instead, a joyous and difficult project to remake our future. It is a project that can never be finished. It is not a state of being in which we are at last reunited with our primordeal power, and all of our problems are resolved. It is instead an open-ended project, one that is best conceived of as a struggle to become democratic. We must constantly renew our determination to retain our power, and constantly refuse the temptation to let someone or something else manage our affairs for us. And we must constantly learn how to use that power more effectively. Moreover, we have to figure out how to do all this together: democracy is always necessarily a collective project, and as such we must always be deciding what democratic community means, and how we can best realize it.

Becoming democratic is a difficult project because it requires effort and commitment to do things for ourselves. But it is joyous project too, because it connects us to our power to act into the world, our power to produce new ways of living together. It offers nothing less than the prospect of revivifying us as political beings.


I am sure that over the next two days we will hear in detail about how the current era is creating massive disparities in income, opportunity, and well-being. Inequality, and in particular the kind of inequality we face today, is a vital question that we must address. But I want to urge us to remember that it matters entirely how we address this question. My plea is for us to aspire to more than ceding our power to the State and letting it handle the problem of inequality, that we aspire instead to become democratic, to increasingly retain and learn to use our own power ourselves.

You are perhaps feeling at least a little uneasy: without the State how will anything get done? We can’t possibly do all this ourselves! More specifically and urgently, in an era of neoliberal austerity, how we be able to stem the rapid growth of inequality, and even redress it, without the State?

It is an understandable feeling. As I have said, refusing the State will not magically produce a functioning democratic society that will be immediately capable of permanently resolving the question of equality. However, if we do refuse the State, and we do take up the challenge of becoming democratic, I want to reassure you that part of what that project will entail is people using their power to decide together what equality means for them, and what amount and kind of equality is right for their society. We don’t have to think of equality as an outcome achieved for us by a power outside of and above us, we can think of equality instead as an ongoing concern of our always developing democratic practice.


If this shift, from relying on the State to relying on ourselves, still strikes you as a reckless leap into the void, as abandoning solid ground for the smooth sea, perhaps the best thing I can do is to remind you that even though we live under a State that separates us from our own power, we do not lack experience with becoming democratic. In fact, we have been working away at it for a very long time.


On this slide I have indicated just a few instances that are particularly compelling to me, but of course this is only a drop in the ocean of our democratic experience.

I have indicated three (among infinitely many) clumps of democratic experience, all of which I am happy to reshuffle and rethink:

In the blue clump is Labor, in which a particular group of people, workers, struggle to manage for themselves a particular set of affairs, economic production.

In the green clump is Community/neighborhood, in which members of whatever community—these can be physical or virtual—struggle to manage for themselves the affairs that matter to the community.

In the red clump is Popular Protest/Assembly, in which all sorts of people, on urban, national, or global scales, gather to voice indignation at the current state of affairs, and also to take up the project of building another world themselves.

None of these should be taken as the model case. All of them were partial; all of them had failings. They should instead be taken as clear evidence that we desire to become democratic, and that in fact our desire is not all that rare. Moreover, we act on that desire, we engage in an active struggle to become democratic. At times our struggle produces particularly strong blooms that reach the surface and present themselves to our consciousness. At other times the struggle works away quietly, unseen, in small, everyday contexts that only matter to small groups of people. Either way it is there. We are at work. In each of the cases on the screen, people who participated achieved significant growth, they discovered new capacities, both personal and collective, they debated and implemented ideas of equality, and they learned and practiced new techniques of communication and organization. All of it was achieved by people themselves. Nothing was perfected, but that does not mean nothing was accomplished. It is vital to pay very close attention to these experiences. They are a wide and deep common pool of resources that we can draw from in our ongoing struggle to become democratic.


We are sick, it is true. But it isn’t really inequality that is making us sick. What is making us sick is our alienation from our own political activity, our own power to decide and to act into to world. What we need, first and foremost, is to commit to becoming democratic, to taking up the challenge of deciding together what we want the world to be, and the challenge of bringing that world into being.

1It is a power that Spinoza calls potestas, Deleuze and Guattari call pouvoir, and Hardt and Negri call constituted power.

2This is what Spinoza calls potentia, Deleuze and Guattari call puissance, and Hardt and Negri call constituent power.

3This is described by Hobbes as natural persons “personating” the artificial person.

Jean-Luc Nancy on Democracy


Truth of Democracy, p. 15:

Democracy has not sufficiently acknowledged that it must also, in some way, be “communist,” for otherwise it would be but the management of necessities and expediencies, lacking in desire, that is, in spirit, in breath, in sense.

Without communism democracy would lack spirit, inspiration, breath…life. I suspect he might have this backwards, that communism is the management of necessities, and it is democracy that breathes life into communism, but either way, I like that he sees that these two ideas–assuming they are understood properly, at their root, and not in their corrupted, actually-existing senses–should be intertwined, and each can and should draw strength from the other.

My Etymology of Democracy (so far)

A section from something I am currently writing that I thought sounded true…

When people use the word democracy, what they usually mean is the liberal-democratic State, with its enshrined constitution, system for electing representatives, established parties, and legitimated laws. That is not democracy. It is an oligarchical structure whose purpose is to organize a vast effort to prevent democracy from emerging. So at the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the way I understand democracy is different from that usual meaning. What is more, my conception is actively opposed to that meaning. When I use the word, I mean something most might call radical democracy. I mean a community in which people actively manage their own affairs for themselves. Democracy is a way of living in which people continuously and actively use their own power to decide the future of the community.

To dig a little deeper into that general statement about democracy, I find it is productive to creatively explore the word’s etymology. Democracy is made up of demos and kratia (see, among others, Weekly, 1952; Soanes and Stevenson, 2008; Harper 2014). The second term, kratia, is typically thought to mean something like rule, government, or authority. It even holds traces of the idea of domination. And indeed the root of the word does in fact have those connotations, both in the way it was used in ancient Greece,1 and in the meaning of our own words that bear its imprint (e.g. aristocracy, bureaucracy, meritocracy, etc.). Kratia in this sense refers to a power that controls, that limits, that dominates. It is a “power over,” a power of one entity to control others, a power that Deleuze and Guattari often call pouvoir. And in fact kratia is the most direct point of contact with Greek for our word “democracy”: the ending “-cracy” is most closely connected to kratia. But kratia‘s own etymology can be traced to a more general word, kratos, which means strength or power or might.2 We can read this more general term, kratos, in the mode of Spinoza or Nietzsche, to mean something like the power that humans have to act into the world, their capacity to affect the world around them in some tangible way. In this sense, kratos takes on a meaning more like “power to,” which is to say our power to create, to invent something new, to produce. This meaning is quite close to what Deleuze and Guattari call puissance. And so if we go back to the first Greek word, kratia, we can reappropriate its meaning, insisting that while it does bear the meaning of “power over” or pouvoir, it also evokes, from down deep in its roots, the idea of “power to,” puissance, or our human capacity to act into and change the world.3

I am not arguing that my etymology of kratia reveals that its true meaning is “power to” or puissance rather than “power over” or pouvoir. Rather I am saying that the word contains both ideas, that each is very much present in the word’s origins. And so we can choose to emphasize kratia‘s puissance meaning rather than its pouvoir meaning. We are already doing the opposite, favoring the pouvoir meaning over the puissance one. So I am suggesting merely that we have the option to see a different meaning in the word, one that emphasizes kratia‘s potential to evoke the meaning of puissance.

The other root of democracy, demos, is similarly complex. Certainly we think we know very well what it means, especially in the context of the word democracy: it means “the people.” And by this term, we think, we mean all people, everyone. However, for the Greeks, and in particular in Aristotle’s conception of democracy, demos did not mean all people. It meant instead the many poor, or, to be still more precise, it meant those who worked for a living and so lacked the leisure time necessary to devote themselves to political participation as citizens. Aristotle (1997) calls this class banausos technitēs, rendered as “vulgar craftsmen” by Reeve. They are “vulgar” because they spend their time working, doing the tasks necessary for the city’s survival, and so they do not have the leisure time (schole) to participate fully in politics and develop their civic excellence.4 For Aristotle, “democracy” means government or rule by the demos, which is understood to mean this class of laborers who lack civic excellence. As a result, he is not surprisingly quite critical of the idea.

However, in the modern era this classical, limited idea of the demos was expanded to include everyone. Hardt and Negri (2004, p. 240) think this expansion can be traced to Spinoza’s Political Treatise, and to his concept of democracy as the absolute political form, the form in which all people rule. But the idea is already there in Hobbes (1996, Chapters 17-18), for whom political society is established when each person contracts with every other person, so that they all leave the state of nature and enter together into the commonwealth. Even though actual political communities in the modern era restricted participation in political affairs greatlyrestrictions based on property ownership, gender, race, religion, age, and the likethose restrictions are not there in Hobbes. In his text, all persons, undistinguished by any social categories, are party to the contracts that establish the polity. And so in the modern era, at least since Hobbes, the word demos means all people.

If we put the parts of this not-so-simple etymology back together, we get a concept of “democracy” that joins the modern idea of demosall peopleto a kratia that has been returned to its roots in kratos, or puissance, or “power to,” or the capacity of people to act into the world to create something new. And so, if we choose to interpret democracy this way, it becomes a form of life in which all people are joined to their kratos, and use it together to directly produce and manage their lives in common.

This condition of remaining joined to their kratos is important, because the principle operation of the modern State, the State as it is imagined in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and right up to the present day, is to separate people from their kratos. This separation is most palpable in Hobbes, where in the contract5 that creates the State, all persons agree explicitly to surrender the kratos they have in the state of nature to a power outside themselves, a power that is separate from and other than the people: the State or Leviathan. The State’s purpose is to use everyone’s aggregated power to control them, “to keep them all in awe,” as Hobbes puts it in Chapter 13, and thereby achieve peace. This separation is baked in to the design of almost all such foundational political contracts: people are separated from their puissance, and that puissance is transformed into a pouvoir that is used to rule them.

This same operation that separates people from their puissance also turns democracy into oligarchy. That is because people no longer retain their puissance and use it to rule themselves. Instead they surrender their puissance to a subset of society, to a governing few that has been set aside to rule the rest. This is, in fact, precisely the meaning of the word “oligarchy,” a community in which the few (oligos) rule the rest.

So, conceived in this way, democracy means people retain their kratos and use it to rule themselves. But if we choose to think of democracy this way, we must be alert to the challenges. Perhaps the most apparent one is that if we want to realize this democracy, if we wanted to be democratic in this way, then we would need to fully retain and use our kratos. This state of being, it seems clear, would be exhausting. It is not something we could sustain for long. It would require too much activation, too much effort.6 It would overwhelm us and leave us spent. And so it is necessary to think of democracy not as a state of being, but as a process of becoming. Democracy is better thought of as a constant struggle to become democratic. A struggle by everyone, all of us, to refuse to surrender our kratos, to retain it, to practice using it together with others, and to learn to more effectively manage our affairs in common.

1Here I mean, primarily, the way it is understood in Plato’s and Aristotle’s political philosophy.

2Douglas Harper (2014) writes that this Greek word has even deeper roots, in the proto-Indo-European kre-tes, also meaning power or strength.

3Spinoza, by whom Deleuze and Guattari are greatly influenced, expresses similar ideas to puissance and pouvoir in his work, using the terms potentia and potestas, on which see Holland (1998), who refers the reader to Gueroult (1968/1974)). Hardt & Negri (2000, 2004), also inspired by Spinoza, conceive of something very similar in their terms “constituent power” and “constituted power.”

4This distinction between faded from our culture only very slowly. As late as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (late 16th century), Puck uses the term “rude mechanicals” to describe the workingmen who are staging a play for the nobles.

5It is really contracts, millions of them. This fact is important, but it is beyond the scope of the chapter.

6“It would take too many evenings,” as Oscar Wilde was supposedly fond of saying (about both democracy and socialism).

Aristotle. (1997) Politics. Translated by C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York, Penguin.

Harper, D. (2014) Democracy. The Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed July 31, 2014. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=democracy.

Hobbes, T. (1996 [1651]) Leviathan. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2008) Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Weekley, E. (1952) A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Secker & Warburg.

Conference: Space, Place and the Performance of Democracy



Contested Exchanges: Space, Place and the Performance of Democracy

Fri 27 – Sun 29 March 2015

VENUE: Artaud Centre, Brunel University London

HOST: College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, Brunel University London

John Parkinson (Professor of Policy and Democracy, University of Warwick)
Davina Cooper (Professor of Law and Political Theory, University of Kent)

“Participation is an issue that has everything to do with the physical city and its design. For example, in the ancient polis, the Athenians put the semi-circular theatre to political use; this architectural form provided good acoustics and a clear view and of speakers in debates; moreover, it made the perception of other people’s responses during debates possible. In modern times, we have no similar model of democratic space – certainly no clear imagination of an urban democratic space.” (Richard Sennett, The Open City, URBAN AGE / BERLIN / NOVEMBER 2006 p.4)

The Arab Spring, Occupy Movement, England Riots, and the Ukrainian Revolution are events that show how dissent is at its most powerful when it spills over into public space and becomes a visible event for the world to see. Of course, these events also demonstrate the potency of digital media to circulate these voices of dissent to a wider global public sphere. They therefore add value to the argument that suggests every sort of public debate and ‘politics’ can increasingly be ‘democratised’ through online platforms and virtual presences. At the same time, politicians have been encouraging ordinary people to work together with voluntary, public and private bodies in order to revitalise local communities.

However, these developments have created tensions in cities and towns. On the one hand, a ‘deliberative’ approach to citizenship has arisen that attempts to listen to local grievances and seeks to ‘empower’ people in communities through the creative opportunities that public and private investment provides. On the other hand, cities and towns have increasingly privatised their public space through the likes of new shopping centres, redevelopment schemes, and private housing schemes. Alongside these networks of gentrification, many authorities, planners, and security forces have also installed new modes of surveillance in public space that code people’s behaviour in different ways, while different governments across the world have equipped their police and security forces with increased legislative powers to regulate cities and towns.

Taken all together, these processes have created assemblages of power, fissures and fluidities in public space. Deliberative opportunities have opened up for a whole network of ordinary voices to be heard in the public sphere, while new modes of control and governance would seem to confine these voices within configurations of control. Tensions between both of these mean that novel spaces for alternative assemblages and performances of activism, citizenship and democracy have the potential to arise.

But why might performance/s in such public spaces be considered fundamental to the democratic process? Where the performance of democracy is not considered a metaphor for action or intent but as something fundamental to the process itself, how have these performances grown or have been stifled within processes already described? In an age of digital media, what is in fact the value of physical space and physical bodies for democracy? What is the role of space and place in the performance of democracy as well as in notions of ‘public’ spaces that are increasingly difficult to define as ‘of the people’ /popular/ public?

In 2015, the biannual Artaud Forum would like to meet days before UK’s Parliament dissolves on the 30 March, itself the final dissolution before the UK General Election on 7 May, to consider these important issues. Indeed, at this critical moment of suspension, the Forum would like to interrogate the function and significance of place and space for (or against) the ‘performance’ of democracy, from a range of disciplinary perspectives that might include, but is not limited to, geography, history, politics, sociology, psychology, theatre, and architecture.

We therefore invite participants to submit abstracts / proposals on these themes.

Submissions might consider:

– * What spaces/places are needed and are used for the ‘performance’ of democracy? [How are these spaces being preserved or eroded?]
– * What is the impact of such disparate things as gated communities, tower blocks, shopping malls, city walls, etc., on the democratic process?
– * What is the impact of digital technology and/or social media on public spaces?
– * Are we to contest Habermas’s contention that the public has lost its critical/rational function and that far from being a space of discussion and debate, public space is merely a site for mass cultural consumption dominated by corporations and elites who validate particular viewpoints?
– * How do architectural and spatial arrangements impact on political behaviour?
– * What ‘public space’ can be/ is activated to enhance/ promote democratic processes?
– * What is the relationship between access and use of ‘public space’ in performances, and the public perceptions of the processes of democracy?
– * What is the role of the public space/sphere in challenging/establishing the individual citizen’s idea of ‘truth’?
– * How might new assemblages of democracy be created through networks of human and non-human material objects and practices?
– * How have our affects and senses of public spaces changed in recent years, and to what extent is this related to democratic performances?
– * To what extent have new modes of control, surveillance and socio-legal regulation shaped innovative performative spaces of democracy in society?

Topics (preliminary list):

– * The state’s contribution to transformative democratic politics and performance
– * Assemblages of affectual and emotional dissent in public space.
– * Performative articulations of democracy in public space
– * Theatricality, and the democratic process.
– * The changing nature of the public sphere.
– * Blurred boundaries between the public sphere and counterpublics.
– * Is it is the case that citizenship is now constituted through performative assemblages and networks?
– * Can we now identify different and often contested notions and theories of deliberative democracy at play in society?
– * What is the relationship between social media and to activism in public space?
– * How might we analyse changing identities in performative spaces of democracy and citizenship?
– * To what extent do mobile and fluid relationships in urban space impact on democracy?
– * Are class-based politics still relevant in new spaces of dissent?
– * What is the impact of the state and socio-legal regulation in cities and towns?
– * How do databases code distinct populations in society, which then effect democratic performances?
– * What are the ongoing consequences and effects of gentrification on the democratic process?
– * How might we think about the rise of innovative transgressive and utopic spaces of dissent?
– * Do new networks of social capital really exist in local communities? Or do these networks merely serve the interests of public-private partnerships?
– * Have community publics and forums been strengthened or weakened in the last few decades?
– * The importance of new configurations of materiality and material networks in cities and towns that challenge conventional notions of citizenship.

Please send abstracts (300 words plus biog) or proposals for installations, provocations, film or performance by 1st December 2014 to: cbass-conference-artaud@brunel.ac.uk

CONVENORS: Grant Peterson, Mary Richards and John Michael Roberts

Conference Fees:
Weekend: £45 / concession £35
Saturday or Sunday: £25/ concession £20
Friday night launch: FREE

Planning Against the Political

Jonathan Metzger, Phillip Allmendinger, and Stijn Oosterlynck have a new volume out.


Here is the publisher’s blurb:

This book brings together a number of highly innovative and thought provoking contributions from European researchers in territorial governance-related fields such as human geography, planning studies, sociology, and management studies. The contributions share the ambition of highlighting troubling contemporary tendencies where spatial planning and territorial governance can be seen to circumscribe or subvert ‘due democratic practice’ and the democratic ethos. The book also functions as an introduction to some of the central strands of contemporary political philosophy, discussing their relevance for the wider field of planning studies and the development of new planning practices.