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Riccardo Lovatini


Counter-democracy: “End of Politics” or “Unpolitical democracy”?

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In 1918, Thomas Mann1
argued that politics and democracy are part of an indivisible whole, and
precisely here lies the problem of democracy. His critique against democracy
was a critique against politicisation: if everything is up to discussion, even
the higher ethical principles can be called into question. Pierre Rosanvallon has
adopted a different approach. He is not an enemy of democracy, he is, as Nadia
Urbinati has suggested, a “critic from within”. In his 2008 book
“Counter-Democracy”, he explores the concepts of the “political” and “unpolitical”
in a very different way.

Rosanvallon’s work begins with a paradox, which he
defines as “the major political problem of our time” (p.1). Today, democracy is
unopposed as a political ideal – and the growing number of democratic countries
is an evidence of this -, but, at the same time, advanced democracies are
witnessing a “growing dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy”
(Donatella Della Porta). The decline or stagnation of participation rates in
elections, the decline in party membership, the loss of confidence in political
institutions and even anger against them are the well-known phenomena which
belong to this dissatisfaction, crisis or distrust.

Distrust is at the very centre of his work (the
subtitle of the book is indeed “Politics in an age of distrust”) and his
project is to “rehabilitate” distrust as a positive element of democracy. What
Rosanvallon is able to convey is that distrust of power is not a negative
force, rather it belongs to both the democratic and liberal traditions. What is
more, distrust underpins the different forms of counter-democratic powers –
oversight, prevention, and judgment – which he believes are, along
electoral-representative institutions, the essential components of the
“democratic experiences”. As Mark E. Warren has suggested, a large portion of
the book is reserved to a history (a genealogy) of how distrust has been
organized, how counter-democracy has worked. 
Indeed, the goal of the author is to see distrust in a new light,
showing how it is at the heart of a “new democratic era”. But, according to the
French thinker, counter-democracy has also an “inherent ambivalence”, which
could lead to negativity: for example, one extreme consequence of
counter-democracy is populism. But, as we will see, distrust plays also a
prominent role in what Rosanvallon calls the “unpolitical democracy”.

His analysis, and this is perhaps the most interesting
result, deals with the themes of the “end of politics”, “the unpolitical” or “depoliticization”
in an original way, and he does this coining the concept of the “unpolitical
democracy”. But firstly, we need to clarify Rosanvallon’s definition of
democracy. His “simple and compelling functional conception” (Mark E. Warren) of
democracy involves three pillars. The first is the realm of the
electoral-representative institutions. The second comprises what Rosanvallon focused
on in his book, that is counter-democratic powers. The third is “theoretical
political practice”, which produces “the rules that define a share world”, in
other words creates a common story for the community and gives meaning to
society. In this context for him, the political is “le travail du politique” or “the institution of civil society by
the political”, which consist of activities such as “the definition of
principles of justice, arbitration between the interests of various groups,
delineation of the relationship between public and private” (p. 291). In short,
the creation of a “shared world”. This third aspect is the key to explore his reflections
on “the unpolitical”: it is this creative function that democracy is no longer
able to perform, and therefore, without the creation of this shared world, it
remains merely an “unpolitical” democracy.

How is that possible and how it happened? Rosanvallon highlights
how counter-democracy is positive but, at the same time, essentially responsible
for the “depoliticization” of society. As a matter of fact, counter-powers of
oversight, prevention and judgment exercise a “negative sovereignty”, the use of
which delegitimates the traditional political powers it addresses. By doing so
they “dissolve the signs of a shared
world” (p. 23, emphasis in original), because their action is democratic but has “non-political effects”. This is why he rejects the idea of “the passive citizen”,
arguing that citizens are not less politically involved, they have moved to
different, counter-democratic forms of political participation. Secondly,
counter-democracy has a chaotic effect on the political sphere, introducing too
many levels and actors, and making it unintelligible for citizens. “But
visibility and legibility are two essential properties of the political.
Politics does not exist unless a range of actions can be incorporated into a
single narrative and represented in a single public arena” (p. 23). And it is
exactly this common narrative that seems to lack in today’s world.

Maybe, it is possible to find other insights on this
theme under the label “post-politics”. Japhy Wilson and Erik Swyngedouw define
it as follows:


“In post-politics, political contradictions are
reduced to policy problems to be managed by experts and legitimated through participatory
processes in which the scope of possible outcomes is narrowly defined in
advance. ‘The people’ – as a potentially disruptive political collective – is
replaced by the population – the aggregated object of opinion polls,
surveillance, and bio-political optimisation. Citizens become consumers, and
elections are framed as just another ‘choice’, in which individuals privately
select their preferred managers of the conditions of economic necessity.”2


So it seems that there is no longer the need for this
big picture political narrative, because the market has filled that space. Then
the job of politics becomes merely a management job within a predetermined context.
But Rosanvallon warns us that “the market is merely one manifestation…of the
phenomenon of decentralized decision-making”. So here the market is only a symptom
and not the cause of depoliticization.

Moreover, “the participatory processes” cited above can
be categorized under the concept of governance.

 Another way to look
at it is   



1 As reported in Urbinati Nadia, “Unpolitical democracy”, Political
Theory, n. 38(1), 2010: 65–92

2 Wilson, Japhy, and Erik Swyngedouw, eds. The Post-Political and Its
Discontents: Spaces of Depoliticisation, Spectres of Radical Politics.
Edinburgh University Press, 2014, p. 6

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