Cutting Democracy’s Knot – Angela Mitropoulos, Brett Neilson

In his first extended speech in the midst of the rebellions of the banlieues and an officially declared state of emergency, French President Jacques Chirac announced that the problem confronting France was ‘a crisis of meaning, a crisis of reference points and an identity crisis.’ Some time before this, Jean-Luc Nancy had remarked that ‘the “crisis of sense” is, first of all and most visibly, a “crisis of democracy”‘ (1997: 90). If, in the events of November 2005 in France as in so many others, it is possible to discern the connections between Chirac’s crisis of meaning, foundation and identity, and that of democracy which Nancy alluded to, it is no less the case, we would argue, that such crises have become as constant as the emergencies that shadow them. Indeed, given that these crises proliferate with an unrelenting–not to mention increasingly militarised–assurance, their routine characterisation as the anachronistic re-appearance of totalitarianism (or sovereignty or fascism) in or against democracy seems incapable of offering more than platitudinous demands for a postponement of responsibility. Whatever else democracy might imply–which is to say, however emptied of meaning it and its formal correlate of citizenship might be–it neither finds nor seeks repose at one pole of the oscillation between a juridico-commercial emptiness and a totalitarian plenitude, between, in other words, the citizen and the subject, by turns more or less empty or more or less absolute. On the contrary, democracy is this very oscillation and, hence, this very ‘crisis’.

Therefore, the pretexts for putting democracy in question, in what follows, are by no means contingent, even if the coincidence of those pretexts with the series of proper names–Nancy, Tronti and so on–through which that questioning occurs, here, arguably might be. Sometimes Nancy’s remarks on democracy fleetingly reference the theme of a ‘democracy to come’ or, at other times, are so fragmentary as to suggest a reluctance before the very question itself. Even so, we would suggest that Nancy’s writings, no less than Tronti’s, put democracy in question, albeit in what are often rather hesitant and sometimes contradictory ways. Nancy has noted that, since WWI, democracy presents itself as the ‘general principle of humanity, if not humanity’s End’ and takes the form of the conquest of ‘eco-technics’ (2000: 123). For Mario Tronti in turn, democracy has saturated the very horizon of politics as the mark of the triumph of economics. Therefore, without for a moment suggesting that their analyses are of a piece, we would like to weave some of their writings together, with our own preoccupations, ‘just this once’ as it were. This weaving, for us, is due to imperatives that, while hardly programmable, are nevertheless imposed by the weight of the present political conjuncture upon the not-now, the inundation of any other time by the present time, in which the semblance of the future functions as the idealised disclosure (and exoneration) of the current political system.

Briefly, what animates our exploration of democracy–far more than it does either Nancy’s or Tronti’s (even if similar themes are present)–are questions pertaining to border policing and migration, the complex of colonial politics operating as both a ‘Westernisation’ of the globe and the colonialisation of metropolitan spaces and, not least, the relation of this to the boundaries and constitutions of the political. From this perspective, and however much of a risk the reckoning is, the meaning and practice of democracy as the sovereignty of ‘the people’ cannot be denied. No matter the presumed tactical or pragmatic elasticities that might be afforded by any given conflict over who ‘the people’ are at any given moment, such conflicts always play themselves out according to a biopoliticised complex in which political decision (or, at the very least, a political calculus that produces less decision as a moment of differentiation than indifference) aligns to a more or less racialised sense of who ‘the people’ are. For us, this condition is as untenable a ground for politics as it is unbearable.

In the foreword to The Inoperative Community, Christopher Fynsk notes that Nancy’s ‘other politics’ cannot be approached as a response to ‘programmatic imperatives’ but, instead, it should be seen as an endeavour to ‘answer to an unforeseeable event that escapes any instituted order of meaning and constitutes the site where the question of the very meaning of political existence is reopened’. We might note here that the unforeseeable is reducible neither to the structure of the event nor the messianic, however weak or strong, or however much this might be construed in a quasi-transcendental register. Indeed, escapes from the instituted order of meaning would also include the daily traversals of the borders of the political as they occur in the movements of the undocumented, at least insofar as these crossings suggest a persistent disorder in the economy of the visible that imagines it can foresee everything. That said, if Fynsk’s remarks point toward the difficulty of summarising a politics that seeks to expose itself (or to expose politics) in the very process of writing, they nevertheless deftly summarise the experience of reading such writings as the tense-ness of responsibility (1991: xxvi).1 To put this another way, while the programmatic is by no means reducible to–and perhaps it is at odds with–the imperatives of a tension between the now and the not-now, it is nevertheless under the unbearable weight of the present that this tension unfolds and responses are obliged.

And so, in the second fragment on politics that appears in The Sense of the World, which forms part of Nancy’s attempt to rethink his earlier writings on community, he outlines ‘the political necessities of today’ in the combination of four terms: subject, citizen, sovereignty, community. This conjunction, he argues, ‘organizes, saturates, and exhausts the political space closing itself today’. Nancy goes on to discuss the ‘social tie’ (lien)–variously translated as the knot and the (k)not–whose very failure might be construed in the presupposition that it has already been tied. ‘How’, he then asks, ‘to think the tie as always still to be tied? How, that is, instead of conferring sense on the presupposed knot, to make the tying of the (k)not into sense itself?’ (1997: 103).

It might be added that, in order to make this tying of (k)nots possible, without the presupposition that they have already been tied, it is also necessary–an imperative, if you will–to cut the knot that ‘organises, saturates, and exhausts’ the sense of the world. Indeed, it is the cut that precedes, makes possible, and perhaps even obliges the tie, or else there is merely a continuum in which no ties are possible. In The Experience of Freedom, Nancy describes the continuum as ‘the absence of relation, or rather it would be the relation dissolved in the continuity of substance.’ Therefore, he argues, being ‘is not’. Here, perhaps, is why the (k)not must play out the different senses in which knotting (the lien but also nouage) might be understood without thereby effacing the not. He goes on to write that being has ‘no being except the discreteness of singularities’ expressed in the ‘each time, just this once: each time, it cuts itself off from everything, but each time as a time (the strike and cut of existence) opens itself as a relation to other times, to the extent that continuous relation is withdrawn from them’ (1993: 66-7).

This is restated, but also reformulated, in the second fragment on politics as ‘singular interlacings’: ‘neither the “one” of a substance nor the “one” of a pure distributive count’ (1997: 113). In this reworking, it is not simply a matter of distinguishing singularities from the substantive identifications of community (as was the focus of earlier writings), but also from the formal, yet calculable emptiness of citizenship. To momentarily abridge some of the argument, Nancy insists that this nexus–the four instances of subject, citizen, sovereignty, community–which currently exhausts the horizon of politics is marked by the ‘unravelling of the antinomy’ between the formal emptiness of citizenship and the ‘devouring’ appropriations of totalitarianism or theocracy: ‘the nothing-of-the-subject [as citizen] becoming the absolute subject of an appropriation as powerful as it is empty, an appropriation whose logic and global figure would be “capital” itself’ (1997: 109).

We would add that, if democracy has currency, it is precisely because it firmly brackets the four instances of subject, citizen, sovereignty and community, binding them together in a continuum in which the tensions between them are both displaced and suspended, but by no means in the manner that Nancy suggests that displacement might productively occur. That is, these tensions are specifically played out as conceptual oscillations that confer the character of a continuum on spatial partitions and temporal schema. Therefore, we would insist that the cut here would be of the nexus itself, even that which might be expressed as a figurable ‘coming’ that would make ‘of the future a present’ (2002: 26). This is no less the case when propositions of the sovereignty of the people are modified or obliquely proffered as the overture of a non-constitutional variant of community. Before exploring this more fully, let us also note that, elsewhere, Mario Tronti has insisted on the imperative of cutting the knot.

In a lecture entitled ‘L’Enigma Democratico’, delivered at the Università Nomade in Padova in January 2005 and subsequently published in the manifestolibri collection Guerra e democrazia, Tronti insisted that the time has arrived to cut ‘the knot of democracy’. This knot, he explained, not only links social and political structures with traditions of thought, but also binds these together internally. Historically, democracy displays both a practice of domination and a project of liberation. At times of crisis and exception, these two aspects come into conflict. However, in the present moment–which, for Tronti, is a period of normality–these two aspects integrate or, to use Nancy’s terms: form a continuum. These are not two faces of democracy but a combined nexus. Moreover, according to Tronti, today there is such disequilibrium in these relations that only the aspect of domination is evident. For him, this is why the knot of democracy can no longer be untied–so as, presumably, to be retied in a more favourable manner but nevertheless continuous with the name of democracy–but only cut.

For Tronti, the critique of democracy is profoundly linked to the refoundation and rethinking of liberty. And, like Nancy, he locates this imperative in a certain exhaustion of politics: democracy is no longer understood as the best of a bad bunch of political systems but as the horizon on which the meaning of politics is exhausted. Tronti contends that this condition results, above all, from the triumph of economics over politics that culminated in, and by all that is implied by, the year 1989. He goes on to insist that it is not capitalism as such which defeated the working class but democracy: the workers’ movement may well have forced changes upon capitalism but, as it turns out, it was killed by democracy. There are two main symptoms of this: the identification of homo democraticus as homo economicus and, not least, the rise of ‘the society of proprietors’–or ‘mass bourgeoisie’–that finds its expression in the contemporary apolitical systems. He adds that the latter repeatedly, in their electoral moments, divide almost evenly as so-called progressive and reactionary blocs. This, for Tronti, is ‘real’ or actually-existing democracy. Democracy finds its limit in what it is. In other words, as was the case for socialism during the Soviet era, democracy comes to be so incarnated in its present condition that it is no longer possible to recuperate the symbolic order once evoked by the word.

To cut the knot of democracy, we would argue, is neither to fall back on a totalitarianism of the state nor to propose, as is frequent in assertions of a ‘democratic deficit’, that the current conditions of democracies result from an insufficiency. Moreover, claims that really-existing democracies are an inauthentic manifestation of democracy as such, perversions of the idea of democracy, merely function to compel concrete proliferation in the guise of a benevolent but somehow interminably postponed progression which defers liberty through democracy. Despite Nancy’s concerns over being ‘charged with Jacobinism, even terrorism, if not outright Fascism or, in another version, nihilism’ for his remarks on democracy (1993: 170), the reckoning with democracy cannot, with any sense of the imperatives of the present moment, be evaded. Indeed, it is perhaps just this hesitation that, contrary to much of his writings, reinstates national identity (the community of the one) in Nancy’s (2005) recently stated support for the law against the veil. It is not, therefore, the refusal of democracy as the ground and limit of politics that risks embracing the reinscription of the one over and as the condition of the many, but the continued recourse to a politics of the demos that organises the many as just so many variants of one, in a more or less bloody fashion. Indeed, it is precisely because Carl Schmitt was so rigorous in his defence of democracy that he was prepared to admit its exceptions.

According to Tronti, democracy is now, as it has always been, what the doctrine says it is: the kratos of the demos. It posits an identity between sovereign and people, both of which are, however diversified or diffused, fundamentally univocal notions, undivided and indivisible. At the heart of democracy, writes Tronti, lies an enigma: he argues that democracy, as both Schmitt and Kelsen–those two great political theorists of the 20th century who otherwise disagree on everything–recognised, gives rise to an imperium based not on the will of individuals as such, but on a collective will, a more or less anonymous state persona that is, simultaneously, auto-representative and mystical. It is not simply that democracy operates as an empty signifier, as both ÂŽižek (1996) and Laclau (1997) have noted. Nancy writes that ‘our entire history’ seems to show that the empty figure of the citizen is persistently turned over to the identifications of the subject. And, he adds, ‘democracy without identification’ would ‘be without any demos or kratein of its own’. Subject and citizen represent–as Nancy will insist in the second fragment on ‘politics’ (1997)–‘two postures of the claim to sovereignty and the institution of community’. The citizen folds into the ‘politics of the modern subject’, as the ‘laicised theology, or if one prefers, a romanticised theology, of the “people”, “history”, and “humanity”‘. Nancy emphasises that it is ‘the word people‘ which marks the turn of the citizen–who otherwise circulates as ‘a mobile complex of rights’–toward the theological ground of the subject. He asks, and goes on to answer in the affirmative, whether the citizen and subject ‘are not in an intimate solidarity or connivance’ (1997: 108).

For Tronti, what is at stake is the univocal and mystical melding of kratos and demos–the state and the people–in the creation of a single body that would replace the doubled body of the king, forever shadowed by sacralisation. And it is this identity that has remained unassailable by the class conflicts that, from the 19th to the late 20th centuries, would struggle to reveal the ideological basis of this nexus. Yet, as much as democracy is identity, writes Tronti, so liberty is difference. Here is the cut that severs the knot of democracy which binds together institution, theory, constitution and doctrine. Tronti is explicit about his debt to the feminisms of the Libreria della donne and Diotima: the concept and practice of liberty is the concept and practice of difference. It is a concept and practice that questions the universalism of the demos, undermines the naturalised character of the individual, and heeds the warning: non credere di avere diritti–don’t believe you have rights. Last, but not least, it sunders and places in opposition those two terms that are so often collocated to describe the political disaster of the present time: liberal democracy. For Tronti, the problem of democracy must be confronted on two sides: a deconstruction of democracy and a constitutive theory of liberty, not as the libertas minor of the market but the libertas major of the autonomy of the political. Nancy, for his part, notes a warning that speaks to both this distinction but also obliquely references the debates about ‘global citizenship’ that have obtained in Europe: ‘are we not in the process of learning that the virtual advent, or in any case the almost universally desired advent, of a world citizenship (beginning with that of Europe)’ is in danger of ‘corresponding to the triumph — of what has been called “market democracy?”‘ (1997: 108).

Indeed, it is through an examination of the intersections between democracy and the market–or, more accurately, labour as well as the labour market–that the four instances of subject, citizen, sovereignty and community are bound together in a continuum whose particular tensions are displaced as geopolitical divisions and through the borders of the demos (Neilson and Mitropoulos, 2006). To put this another way: it is here that the ostensibly heterogeneous logics of equality and domination both coincide and spread out as demarcations of the globe, in the formation of segmented and differential labour markets, brought into relation and dominated by, as Marx put it, the general equivalent. It may well be incidental that Nancy’s discussion of ‘politics’ in The Sense of the World is bisected by the fragment on labour, where he defines ‘ecotechnics’ as ‘the global structuration of the world’, ‘the reticulated space of an essentially capitalist, globalist, and monopolist organisation’ (1997: 101). But in insisting there that the question of labour is that of a transition from ‘”surplus value” measurable in terms of labor force and/or labor time, to “surplus value” no longer determinable as “value”, and thus to a beyond of value’ (1997: 97), Nancy not only points to the possibility of something other than the constant plays within the hierarchy of value that the general equivalent of money instates, but also the very distinction between value and non-value that ultimately polices dissension by transforming conflict into competition, difference into diversification and, not least, all labours into labour-power, equivalent to all other commodities.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, though with quite different conclusions to those of Marx’s analyses of the general equivalent, ‘the principle of equality’ coincides with uniformity in the organisation of ‘common sentiments, which in democratic societies unite the sovereign and every member of the community in one and the same conviction, establish a secret and lasting sympathy between them’ (1963: 295).The common sentiment is, also, the common measure. Just as the general equivalent makes all activities commensurate by imposing a universal measure and calculability as the very character and assumption of relation (of the tie), so too democracy organises agreement, as the presumption that it already exists, prior to the appearance of any substantive dissent and, in its most citizen-like, restless aspects, in the form of a proceduralism.

Therefore, alongside the democracy of the market–and in relation to European premonitions of a globally extended constitution and citizenship–there is the democracy of the border. It is well known that the border, no matter how constantly it recomposes itself, entails processes of selective inclusion as well as exclusion. But, contrary to recent insistences that the border constitutes (according to Etienne Balibar, among others) the ‘non-democratic’ element of the demos, democracy no less than the market is the democratic element par excellence in the foundation of citizenship and politics. This is to say, there can be no democracy without the border. Even if that border is imagined as coextensive with the circumference of the planet itself, the border as a technology of inclusion-exclusion can still function, whether as the internal demarcation between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ forms of citizenship (which can be traced in the historically parallel trajectories of the granting of citizenship to more people alongside increasing stratifications within citizenship), or in the recourse to the revocation of citizenship itself, whose criteria and rulings have by no means disappeared but, today, proliferate. This is merely to note the formal operations of citizenship laws, without having touched on the casual operations of border technologies, as they are articulated through, say, the police checkpoints in the banlieues no less than in the demands that migrants (whether this status as a migrant is legal or semantic) must continually prove their belonging. In any case, without the border, there is neither demos nor kratos. This is why Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri can call, in the final chapters of Empire (2000), for a global citizenship under the sign of ‘absolute democracy’. Yet, the diplomacy that might seemingly favour the proposition of democracy as an empty placeholder for the question of ‘constituent power’ fails to confront the politics of the demos and the kratos that invocations of democracy set to work, not least because diplomacy is already a technique of statecraft and a form of address that distinguishes and fuses kratos and demos.

In the linking of the demos and kratos, and aside from the unitary and mystical identifications noted by Tronti, there lies a series of banal, affective and material identifications–such as populism–which are strung out along the continuum that joins geopolitics to biopolitics. To understand, and indeed to cut, these links, which might be specified here as more anthropological than ontological, it may be just as instructive to consider the neoconservative turn of the US imperium as the fanciful, and by now forestalled, projections of European constitution. For, in the present moment, more so than in the whole period that stretched from 1989 to 2001 that was characterised by the tying of aid to democratisation and the United Nations’ formulation of the democratic template, it is the armed export of democracy as well as the blurring of peace and war within the borders of existing jurisdictions that shapes the political horizon on which democracy has been installed. Throughout modern history, borders were a device for the neutralisation of war, or, as Carl Schmitt put it, a mechanism that made possible the expulsion of war from the political space of the state, the regulation of war among states and, it should be added, the permanent ’emergency’ zones of colonial spaces outside and as the condition of the Westphalian contract.

But today war plays an increasing role in shaping the social relations within unified political spaces while conflict itself tends to develop independently of the regulations set up by international law and other global institutions. In ‘War, Right, Sovereignty — Techné‘, Nancy not only suggests that the ‘right to wage war excepts itself from the law at the very point that it belongs to it both as an origin and an end’–which is to say, also, that war ‘creates a new law, a new distribution of sovereignties’–but he insists that the ostensible ‘archaism’ of war must be thought according to the specific condition in which ‘the war/police action of global humanity puts the “ends” of man directly into play.’ Here, it is ‘democracy as such’ which is granted the right to war, thus ‘transforming war into the defense of the res publica of humanity’, more often than not conducted under the banner of human rights (2000: 123).

In this context, we would add, the mobilisation of an opposition to war on democratic grounds has tangibly failed to challenge the current, ethico-military play of the jus bellum. Indeed, it is far less the case that the ostensible re-appearance of the ‘archaism’ of warmongering by democracies scandalises, than that such actions are absolved and legitimated on the grounds that such governments are democratic. Democracy invites an indifference towards violence, which is to say: political (and ethical) distinctions are routinely made between democratic governments which torture, lie, terrorise, abuse and intern and those juntas, other organisations (such as private militia), or even individuals that do so. It is not violence as such, even less the extent or harshness of violence that is thereby put into question, but the agent. In this sense, what distinguishes democracy is not that it does not resort to violence or that it does so with less cruelty. On the contrary, the demos affords itself an exclusive right to violence or, as Thomas Dumm puts it, democracy is ‘always risking violence and destruction in the name of itself’ (2005: 179). What marks democracy’s violent prerogative is not simply the assertion of an ethico-juridical right to inflict violence–particularly where it amounts to a defense of the border of the demos and against those who either do not belong to or are said to threaten it–but also its insistence on a protection from it. Thus it is declared that democratic governments cannot be overthrown by violence but, as the recapitulation of the jus bellum, one is obliged to go to war against undemocratic tyrants or, to borrow Nancy’s phrase, ‘bad leaders’, to which he adds: ‘those governments judged to be dangerous to the good of all peoples, (“civilised”)’ (1997: 183).

Tocqueville wrote: ‘I am persuaded that, in the end, democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man, and fixes it on man alone’ (1963: 180). In a similar vein, Marx argued that ‘political democracy’ is ‘Christian inasmuch as it regards man–and not just one man but all men’, man as an abstract locution–‘as a sovereign and supreme being’. He adds, ‘the sovereignty of man’ is democracy’s ‘secular maxim’ (1984: 225-26). Indeed, since Aristotle’s ruminations concerning the zoon politikon, it is figure of ‘man’ that has provided the basis for democratic thought and practice. Here again we can follow Tronti, who in ‘Politik als Beruf: The End’, follows Hannah Arendt by arguing that the ‘zoon politikon does not exist: it is false that there is in man a political element that is part of his essence’ (124). Politics, in his assessment, arises in the infra–the between or beyond ‘man’–and affirms itself as relation. It is a practice that creates, changes or conserves a world. And with this relational practice comes an encounter with contingency. Tronti writes: ‘We must liberate politics from the weight of necessity. It is this weight that has introduced to politics the elements of crisis’. Once again, as in the opening affirmations from Chirac and Nancy, the invocation of ‘crisis’ derives from the unbearable weight of the present. If, as Tronti argues, it is contingency which introduces the moment of political decision, the problem today is not, as Schmitt once claimed, who might decide on the state of exception. Again, let us quote Tronti: ‘If the sovereign decides on the state of exception, who decides today, not within politics, but about politics? This is what we really don’t know’ (128).

Throughout this piece, we have been intimating that there is a need to decide about democracy, to either accept democracy for what it is or to seek another politics. But, in seeking this other politics, we would argue that this decision cannot be allotted to any sovereign subject. In other words, if democracy fixes the imagination on ‘man alone’, we cannot expect ‘man alone’ to decide about democracy. Tronti’s affirmation of what we ‘really don’t know’ suggests why it is so misguided to settle the question of democracy by way of a deliberation of alternatives-to-democracy, or the demand for ‘examples’ of present experiments that would indicate a future, other politics. These are the performative demands of a subject that imagines itself as sovereign, who might weigh or measure democracy against this or that given proposition and then decide for itself– as ‘man alone’. Not only are these evasions of responsibility that collapse the not-now into the not-yet, in so far as democracy assumes the character of the exemplar of all politics. More importantly, this stance avoids the pressing questions of ‘Who is it that decides on politics?’ and ‘What is relation, the tie at any given moment?’ because it assumes these questions have already been answered. From the point of departure of these answers-already-given there can only be an unravelling, oftentimes in the form of a more or less violent competition over who the people are and, just as often, as the interminable categorical proliferations and additive pluralism of identity politics that can only construe the minor (or differences) as a hyphenised part of the people. That this unravelling has been matched by a similar inclination to deny what democracy is through a series of pre-fixtures–radical democracy, direct democracy, deliberative democracy and so on–keeps the game going, as it were, simply by insisting, once again, that democracy is the only game, the only politics, there is and might ever be.

The possibility of, as we would put it, a non-sovereign decision–of a distributed or diffuse decision that does not rely on the mystical and auto-representative identity of the people–is the question around which the critique of democracy turns. And while one might frame such a decision around, say, the way in which languages or forms of life might change, the attempt to reign it back to some new political subject, figured either as the many or the one, reinstates the endless oscillation between citizen and subject on the terrifyingly familiar and empty grounds of democracy as we know it. Democracy, we argue, binds us, and what ‘us’ might mean, in certain ligatures. It leaves us bound in an indissoluble knot, where divergent tendencies–the many and the one, citizen and subject, law and sovereignty, society and community–tighten against each other in ways that are at once mutually reinforcing and mutually antagonistic. To cut this knot involves a kind of total risk. It means breaking the swing between abstract formalism and substantive identity that democracy, as a political form, ‘manages’ but also is. And, thus, far from amounting to a radical gesture, cutting this knot is the uninsurable action that restores politics as a question of relation, of the tie and the decision to tie or not, of who it is that might enter into relation, and so on. These are the questions through which politics as a praxis might be reopened. It is, in short, a break for freedom that cannot be integrated to the tendencies of the day but which slices through the present with an incision that scrambles all tenses and leaves the political up for grabs.


1 In his writings, Nancy often return to the same theme, so as to rework prior questions in a different angle. In many important respects, they avoid the conclusive statement, and so we have opted to focus not on The Inoperative Community, but on his more recent work as it pushes up against the limits of his earlier writings. As an instance of this, it might also be noted that in Being Singular Plural Nancy draws back from the likely sloganisation of an ‘other politics’, suggesting that its only consistency lies in ‘opening up the horizon which has come to us both at the end of the long history of our Western situation and as the reopening of this situation’ (25).


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