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.

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.


Isabell Lorey: Non-Representationist Democracy


Here is a nice piece by Isabell Lorey wherein she argues something very similar to what Ranciere, Hardt and Negri, Virno, and I do: that democracy and representation are opposites.  Democratic government is an oxymoron.  Lorey reads the uprisings in Spain and Greece (and perhaps Portugal) as examples of the kind of non-representational democracy she is calling for, a democracy captured in Spain in the slogan Democracia Real Ya.  She sees in those movements a manifestation of and experimentation with constituent power that I was trying to articulate as well in my talks at the AAG, especially in the session on local politics.

Empty the Churches of the Left!

Here is a new piece by Hardt & Negri, where they reject the pronouncements of “traditional political thinkers” who say the uprisings of 2011 need leaders, parties, and ideologies.*

Until there is a party and an ideology to direct the street conflicts, the reasoning goes, and thus until the churches are filled, there will be no revolution.  But it’s exactly the opposite! We need to empty the churches of the Left even more, and bar their doors, and burn them down! These movements are powerful not despite their lack of leaders but because of it. They are organized horizontally as multitudes, and their insistence on democracy at all levels is more than a virtue: it is a key to their power.

I think we need to get to the point where this kind of thinking is taken for granted, rather than something we still have to make a case for.  Then we can get on with the work of experimenting with horizontal organization, learning what it means to be a multitude, and discovering the power of democracy.

*e.g. Zizek, and Jodi Dean, who is much more nuanced and thoughtful.

Bird Democracy

If you are in Rome at dusk you may have the opportunity to see the starlings in flight.  They rise together into the air, a black mass of perhaps 50,000 birds, to hunt insects for their dinner.  The flock is cohesive, but it is constantly changing shape as the birds move about in pursuit of prey.  At times it looks like a funnel cloud, then it seems to flex like a great hand, then it is a wide ribbon, undulating purposefully.  You are aware the flock is a multitude of individual birds, but what you are watching is a single coherent thing, a pulsing life-form with an obvious intelligence, efficiently carrying out the task of finding, catching, and ingesting food.  Scientists tells us that there is no leader, that the flock makes decisions without any centralized system of command.  They call this emergent organization, which sounds inefficient and slow.  It isn’t.  The flock doesn’t take flight or turn or change shape gradually.  Despite its great mass, it can change direction in less than a second–so fast you catch your breath.  The flock seems not only to have a collective mind, but also to be able to change that mind in an instant.  Another thing: the mass can also change color or transparency almost instantly.  When the flat of their wings is facing you, the flock is solid black.  But as they fly toward you or away, as they show you their wings’ blade-edge, the mass changes, through dark gray, to silver, and then it even sometimes disappears entirely.  The whole flock, 50,000 birds, disappears in an instant.  And then before you can process what you are seeing, it reemerges again as fast as it vanished.  All of this is true.  You can see it on YouTube.

It seems the recent proliferation of relatively leaderless political movements forces us to at least consider the possibility that when we think about political mobilization, it might be OK again to look to the natural world for models.

Hobbes famously rejects this idea. In defending his argument that we need Leviathan, he dismisses the possibility of emergent human self-organization.  He gives (in Chapter 17) a long list of reasons why this is impossible: competition, reason, free will, language, etc.  Each of these reasons is rooted in the premise that humans are individual monads, each of whom has an individual will and individual interests that often vary from those of the whole community.

Deleuze and Guattari wage a campaign to dismantle this monad.  They very much want to unsettle the idea that we are self-contained individuals that can make independent and conscious choices outside of our embeddedness in a community of others.  Since Hobbes argues his Leviathan is necessary precisely because of the free will of such individuals, Deleuze and Guattari explore how we might pull those individuals apart.  They propose a process of carefully dismantling the self (as well as the body), of understanding ourselves as extremely complex multiplicities or assemblages that are embedded in a network of millions of other such assemblages.  In this vision, we can still be functionally coherent entities, but we more like a loose bundle in a network than a sealed-off monad.  We are radically open to our outside.  The various elements of our assemblage are subject to continual reshuffling, and elements are always joining and leaving (Thousand Plateaus, pp. 341-342).  Deleuze and Guattari are suggesting that each assemblage/self is constantly exchanging matter, ideas, emotions, affects with many other assemblages.  These assemblages all arise out of the same plane of immanence; each is simply a different contingent arrangement of the same shared stuff, both physically and metaphysicially.  They are following Nietzsche here (and even Plato before him), in his insistence that the soul is a complicated social structure rather than a single unified entity (Beyond Good and Evil, p. 20).

Hardt and Negri help make Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract line of thinking usefully relevant to the question of emergent organization.  They argue that contemporary neurobiology suggests that the human brain operates much more like Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage that like a discrete, self-contained organ.  The brain

does not function according to a centralized model of intelligence with a unitary agent.  Thought is better understood, the scientists tell us, as a chemical event or the coordination of billions of neurons in a coherent pattern.  There is no one that makes a decision in the brain, but rather a swarm, a multitude that acts in concert (Multitude, p. 337).

The flock of starlings, the human brain, the masses of people in the squares of Europe in 2011, these are all multitudes.  For Deleuze and Guattari the naturalism objection misses the point because unlike Hobbes they place humans very firmly in the natural sphere.  They contend that we are qualitatively the same sort of thing, made out of the same sort of stuff as an ant hill or a flock of starlings.  It seems to me this is a radical break from Hobbes and most modern political theory.  It means there is little difference between trying to get n soldiers to fire in unison without a general (as they put it in their example) and trying to get a single soldier to do so.  Either way, a large multitude of elements must be coordinated with no central intelligence and no unitary agent.  It is therefore not an implausible fantasy, this emergent organization, because it happens constantly, every time a person makes a decision or a flock of starlings turns or an unplanned crowd gathers, n soldiers without a general have to be organized to fire in unison.

Deleuze and Guattari offer the image of the wolf pack to suggest what it should be like, to be a part of a self-organized mass.  As with the flock, their pack operates as a band of equals with no central intelligence.  For each wolf, it is imperative to remain with the pack, for wolves must hunt together to survive.  However, each must also avoid being drawn into the center of the pack, where it will be destroyed.  “In becoming-wolf,” they tell us, “the important thing is the position of the mass, and above all the position of the subject itself in relation to the pack or wolf-multiplicity” (Thousand Plateaus, p. 29).  They recount the dream of a girl called Franny:

I am on the edge of the crowd, at the periphery; but I belong to it, I’m attached to it by one of my extremities, a hand or foot. I know that the periphery is the only place I can be, that I would die if I let myself be drawn into the center of the fray, but just as certainly if I let go of the crowd. This is not an easy position to stay in, it is even very difficult to hold, for these beings are in constant motion and their movements are unpredictable and follow no rhythm. They swirl, go north, then suddenly east; none of the individuals in the crowd remains in the same place in relation to the others. So I too am in perpetual motion; all this demands a high level of tension, but it gives me a feeling of violent, almost vertiginous, happiness (p. 29).

Deleuze and Guattari approve: “a very good schizo dream. To be fully a part of the crowd and at the same time completely outside it, removed from it: to be on the edge…” (p. 29).

Becoming-starlings.  Violent, vertiginous happiness.  Another world is possible.