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rething the democratic project Arrow vol 4 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 1, 2005


Rethinking the Democratic Project:
Rorty, Mouffe, Derrida and Democracy to Come

Jane Mummery
The University of Ballarat


The problem of democracy

I can think of nothing so important in this country at present as a rethinking of the whole problem of democracy and its implications. (Dewey 1937, in Cahn 2000: 326).

1. Seeing democracy as a problem is perhaps a controversial beginning point. Democracy, after all, is the West’s favoured export. We in the West seem to want to introduce it everywhere as the answer to every social and political ill. We believe that it should be the norm, and on that basis certainly are not interested in the reciprocal trade of political or governmental systems. However, since the events of 9/11, democracy has increasingly also been described as being under attack, on which basis we supposedly need to safeguard it from threat. In either case though, democracy itself is seen as clear-cut. Endorse it or resist it, we all think we know what democracy looks like and what it entails. However it is this very clarity that I believe to be illusive. More specifically I see it as problematic that much of the recent rhetoric within the public sphere about democracy, which has been focused on the need to protect democracy from threat (whether the threat is from a dangerous outside such as terrorist activity, or from internal dissension), is grounded in the perspective of an identity-based ‘us’ versus ‘them’ logic. Indeed I would suggest, rather controversially, that this logic is simply not able to make any useful contributions to our thinking about the democratic project.

2. At the same time however I certainly concur with the desire to sustain the democratic project. Dewey’s claims that democracy represents the ‘best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality’ (in Cahn 2000: 321) might sound grandiose to our ears, but we would probably accept that the democratic project is inextricably intertwined with that of emancipation. And it is on this basis that we would probably also agree that just as the project of emancipation is never achieved once and for all, so too the belief that democracy—and by extension its outsides—is beyond question is simplistic.

3. Given these points, then, I believe that it is well past the time to seriously consider some of the alternative democratic possibilities that have recently been outlined in contemporary continental philosophy. Hence what I want to explore in this essay are the anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist projections of democracy envisaged by Richard Rorty, Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Derrida. Beginning from Mouffe’s demand to begin ‘thinking about democracy in a different way’ (2000: 124), this essay will start with a brief exploration of this imperative, outlining some of the associated issues of seeing democracy as inextricable from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ logic. I will then move to critically assess the ‘redescribing’ of the democratic project as begun by Rorty, Mouffe and Derrida. Finally we need to think about where this redescribing might get us. Do these different projects deliver a better export? That’s both far too early to say and not quite the right question. However, I will argue that it is perhaps only through such redescribing that the current debate about democracy can advance.

Democracy and identity in the public sphere

[D]emocratic logics always entail drawing a frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, those
who belong to the ‘demos’ and those who are outside it. This is the condition for the
very existence of democratic rights. (Mouffe 2000: 4).

4. With regards to the discussion in the public sphere of such events as 9/11, the War on Terror, the Bali Bombing, and the accompanying issue of the status of refugees, three things are immediately obvious. Firstly much of this discussion has ended up revolving around a contested notion of democracy, secondly this discussion has been strongly influenced by an identity-based logic, and thirdly the resultant strict separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been used to constrain this discussion in very particular ways. Certainly public discussion of the afore-mentioned issues within Australia has degenerated on several occasions to exchanges of name-calling and attempted silencing between strictly separated camps, both of which see themselves as supporters of democracy (Mummery & Rodan 2003). The inter-relationship of these points has also been exemplified in the rhetoric of the Bush administration since 9/11.

5. The prevailing rhetoric, for instance, described the attack of 9/11 as a threat to democracy, with the Bush administration insisting that the nations of the world must either ‘join us, or face destruction’ (Chomsky 2001: 75). This conflation—tying democracy in with ‘us’ and ‘our way of life’ and seeing it as threatened by ‘them’—has of course been a highly visible thread throughout discussion of these events in the public sphere (see Mummery & Rodan 2003, Nasser-Eddine 2002). For instance we had Ronald Steel of the New York Times assuring us (members of Western democratic systems) on the 14th September 2001 that ‘“They hate us because we champion a ‘new world order’ of capitalism, individualism, secularism and democracy that should be the norm everywhere”’ (cited in Chomsky 2001: 117). Similarly John Howard in an open letter to the Australian people assured us that the Bali Bombings were committed by ‘a murderous group of Islamic fanatics who despise the liberal democratic, open life of Western nations, such as Australia’ (The Australian 26 Nov 2002).

6. When framed by this rhetoric, then, democracy itself is seen as under threat and our ‘way of life’ needs to be protected against ‘them’. Now it hardly needs to be stated that along with this division into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ comes the assumption that ‘our way of life’—seen as indissociable from the institutions of a liberal democratic Western society—is both right and good. Furthermore it exemplifies the ‘solution that other people will necessarily adopt when they cease to be “irrational”’ (Mouffe 2000: 65). ‘We’, in other words, hold the moral high ground against which the actions of ‘them’ can only be described as ‘irrational’, ‘barbaric’, ‘murderous’. Bush, for instance, in his address to the nation of 11 September 2001 describes the actions of this ‘them’ as ‘evil despicable acts of terror’ (ABC News Live Coverage, 12 Sep 2001). Good and evil, in other words, are seen as clear cut and as not at all problematic. Democracy, in turn, represents a self-evident good.

7. It is also evident, then, that this logic and framing has held pride of place in the Western public sphere. However what I want to ask is whether this construal of democracy is as self-evident and unproblematic as it seems. After all, what exactly is this democracy that is threatened? Or, as Derrida asks us, who is this ‘we’? (1978: 153). Now when we try to answer these questions, we seem to go in circles. The obvious thing to be said about this ‘us’ is that it is the ‘us’ of a liberal democracy, an ‘us’ informed by the valuing and defence of both individual freedoms and human rights. (Our politico-philosophical tradition has indeed been unfailing in defining democracy as the valuing of both liberty and equality, and in claiming that democracy is the best realisation of these values.) At the same time, it is also self-evident that it is just this ‘us’ that stands at the core of all the rhetoric proclaiming that democracy as ‘our way of life’ is under threat. And it is just this sort of rhetoric that can also be found in such sites of public discussion as letters to the editor. For instance, letters published in The Australian in the aftermath of 9/11 asserted that:

September 11 was clearly a declaration of war on the civilised world and action must be taken to defend our security … (Bird, The Australian 2 Oct 2001).

and that,

This is not a battle for territory or the spoils of war. It is a clash of values. Western, liberal … individual notions of freedom, liberty and equality. The freedom to live our lives the way we choose. (Schmulow, The Australian 4 Oct 2001).

8. Seen this way our notion of democracy is not in question. Democracy is not only seen as having a very clear-cut identity, but as being beyond question. After all we all know that it is the institutions and discourses that defend such values as ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘opportunity’ and ‘justice’—values which are themselves seen as self-evident. I would even go so far as to say that under this formulation democracy legitimates itself as the institutions and defence of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice, whilst freedom, equality, opportunity and justice are seen as intrinsic characteristics of democracy. So far, then, this all seems to be a matter of public accord. However I want to point out that what this entails is the understanding that these values themselves comprise a substantive idea of the common good that is in turn defended as the ideal of democracy and our way of life. In either case, neither these values nor democracy are scrutinised.

9. And this I believe is where we reach a problem. Specifically I see as problematic the way this commonsense consideration of democracy assumes that ‘our way of life’ is founded upon identity, upon a coherent, consensual and substantive idea of both ‘us’ and the common good. Now this sort of understanding of the democratic project is, of course, informed by the presupposition of the imperative of such Enlightenment precepts as rationality, autonomous individuality and universality. Specifically it is from an acceptance of these precepts that the democratic project can be assumed to be inextricable from a neutral—hence rational and self-legitimating—and self-evident common good that has been accepted and supported by all members of the ‘demos’ despite any surface differences. Indeed it is this expected consensus regarding the common good that marks the identity and boundary of the ‘demos’ and ‘our way of life’ and, of course, ‘us’. On this basis, then, ‘our way of life’ is clearly defined as against that of ‘them’, with the resultant effect that any dissension or indecision within the former needs to be assimilated or eliminated. As Bush put it in a speech to Congress, ‘either you are with us, or the terrorists’ (ABC Four Corners, 18 Feb 2002), an attitude further reinforced by an increasingly common belief that the expression of any dissension or criticism of this division marks one as un-Australian and/or anti-American.

10. However, despite all the public affirmations of the above scenario, I would argue rather that it is this intolerance towards either serious dissension or indecision within the democratic project that is the problem. Democracy and our way of life, after all, are far from being either self-evident or beyond question—for instance, there is no single model of government that exemplifies democracy as such—and any belief that they are suggests tendencies towards complacency and towards not dealing well with either difference or change. Consequently the issue, as I see it, is that of opening this restrictive and essentialist logic of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ into a logic (and practice) better able to take account of pluralism, dissension, and criticism. As Mouffe puts it:

The problem we face … [is] … how to envisage a form of commonality strong enough to institute a ‘demos’ but nevertheless compatible with certain forms of pluralism … [W]hat is at stake is the very formulation of a pluralistic view of democratic citizenship. (Mouffe 2000: 55).

11. In other words, if we want to hold onto the democratic project whilst also recognising the need for scrutiny and ongoing debate with regards to it—a need that the indeterminacy of democracy certainly encompasses—we need to recognise that democracy, along with our notions of identity, need to be redescribed in terms of pluralism, dissension and, to borrow from Derrida, undecidability. Further I believe that we need to accept that these notions will remain contested and incomplete, impossible to fully realise. Such possibilities are, I believe, now being usefully explored in the form of anti-essentialist thinking about democracy carried out within contemporary continental philosophy. After all, as Mouffe again asserts,

it is only in the context of a … theory that takes account of the critique of essentialism … that it is possible to formulate the aims of a radical democratic politics in a way that makes room for the contemporary proliferation of political spaces and the multiplicity of democratic demands. (Mouffe 2000: 17).

12. The next sections of this essay, then, will outline and critically assess the anti-essentialist and anti-foundationalist thinking of democracy to come as delineated by Rorty, Mouffe and Derrida respectively.

Rorty: democracy as shared conversation

Democratic action, in … [Rorty’s] … perspective, does not require a theory of truth
and notions like unconditionality and universal validity but rather a variety of practices
and pragmatic moves aimed at persuading people to broaden the range of their commitments
to others, to build a more inclusive community. (Mouffe 1996: 5).

13. In promoting a pragmatism that he characterises as anti-essentialist, Richard Rorty is famously concerned to talk up what he calls a post-philosophical culture distrustful of any urge to search for truth with a capital T (Rorty 1996a: xl). Rorty further suggests that his post-philosophical culture is best characterised by the practise of sharing context-specific vocabularies, conversations and communities. It would thus be a culture that is no longer desirous of trying to ground or legitimate itself through any so called universal philosophical truths. In such a community what would matter instead would be the accepting of the contingency of every conversation and practice. We would have to accept that our institutions and discourses are constitutively floating and ungrounded, and that we can only construct and justify our practices with reference to the practices of others. Hence in Rorty’s words such a community should ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, admire them while they last, and leave botanising to the intellectual historians of the next century’, thus keeping ‘pragmatic tolerance going as long as we can’ (1996b: 219, 229).

14. Now what this means is that we should henceforth give up trying to justify or legitimate democracy once and for all. As one of many ongoing conversations and practices, democracy needs no ‘context-transcendent’ grounds or truth insofar as it can only operate through sharing both conversations and contexts, and what he calls a ‘sentimental education’ (1996b: 17, 1998b: 176). Seen in this way democracy can and should only be a matter of ‘pragmatic, short-term reforms and compromises’ with an aim of accommodating competing interests (1996b: 17). To put it another way, democracy here exemplifies the building of ‘social hope’ (1999; cf. Santos 2003). In Rorty’s words:

[The pragmatist thinks] … that in the process of playing vocabularies and cultures off against each other, we produce new and better ways of talking and acting—not better by reference to a previously known standard, but just better in the sense that they come to seem clearly better than their predecessors. (Rorty 1996a: xxxvii).

15. In other words, Rorty’s conception of a democracy to come is of a pragmatic, indeed fallibilist, liberal democratic practice which will supposedly achieve a gradual ‘increase in our ability to see more and more differences among people as morally irrelevant’ (1998b: 11). Now, such a conception of democracy to come is of course utopian and is further constrained by Rorty in some very particular ways. That is, despite rejecting the possibility of there being any one ultimate democratic conversation, Rorty nonetheless assumes that the conversations and practice of democracy will unfold along a particular trajectory—that, in fact, already exemplified by the ‘institutions and practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies’ (1983: 585). Rorty further follows Walt Whitman in seeing democracy as American, saying that ‘the words America and democracy [are] convertible terms’ (1998a: 17).

16. Rorty’s conception of democracy to come is thus that of the ‘American dream’ of ‘we liberals’. It is a utopian vision where tolerance is to be encouraged, suffering and sadism minimized, and people, who are of course still autonomous and rational, become nicer to one another. However, as can be seen, this conception rests on some problematic assumptions. First of all, Rorty doesn’t question either the identity of ‘we-liberals’ or the actual notion or institutions of liberal democracy, let alone his vision of democracy as American. He also doesn’t try to justify the utopian nature of this democracy, simply saying that ‘there is not much use for my brand of futuristic romanticism until you have established the standard institutions of constitutional democracy’ (cited in Niznik & Sanders 1996: 124). What all this means, then, is that despite rejecting the possibility of there being any one final vocabulary for democracy to come, Rorty nevertheless assumes that the best democratic vocabulary will be found through universalising the American liberal democratic model. And this entails that Rorty assumes a consensus on what a liberal democracy means and substantiates.

17. Now, considering that Rorty calls on the one hand for an increase in tolerance—for letting a hundred flowers bloom—this underpinning desire for consensus seems on the other hand to be rather problematic. Specifically it seems that his conception of democracy to come assumes and requires a strict distinction between the private and the public. That is, any actual pluralism is to be contained within the province of the private sphere. Overall then Rorty’s democracy to come seems to depend upon the projected transparency and acceptance of a specific democratic future present. Although delineated as an anti-essentialist practice, Rortian democracy not only demands the containment of pluralism, but slips into complacency with regards to the identity and role of ‘we liberals’ and the basic institutions and identity of liberal democracy.

Mouffe: democracy as agonistic pluralism

18. In contrast to Rorty’s conception of democracy to come, Mouffe argues vehemently against any alignment of the democratic project with either consensus or complacency, seeing them as threats to the very possibility of democracy. Indeed, Mouffe argues that ‘the belief that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible … is something that puts [democracy] at risk’ (1993: 8). For Mouffe (as it also is for Derrida), the democratic project is constitutively agonistic and pluralist. It marks and sustains the practice of contestation rather than any substantive consensual notion of the common good or even a ‘we’. As such, Mouffe’s conception of a democracy to come—first explored with Ernesto Laclau in their Hegemony and Socialist Strategy—is of an ongoing democratic struggle where what is at stake is the development of a ‘pluralistic view of democratic citizenship’ (1993: 10).

19. For Mouffe, then, the modern democratic project with its desire to see itself as organized around a single idea of the common good, is simply unable to take account of the ‘contemporary proliferation of political spaces and the multiplicity of democratic demands’ (2000: 17). Further, in order to achieve this focus, Mouffe argues that any redescription of democracy needs to focus on the democratic process rather than its product. Once seen in this light, we also need to recognise that the democratic project is constitutively impossible to ever actually realize. As Mouffe tells us, ‘radical democracy also means the radical impossibility of a fully realized democracy’ (1992: 14).

20. In delineating radical democracy in terms of the ongoing process of democratic struggle, Mouffe stresses that there can be no determinate democratic project, and that any struggle against subordination cannot be confined to any one given example of subordination. What this means, then, is that the democratic project must be seen as a practice occurring not only with regards to individual struggles but at their intersections or overlaps. Democratic practice and logic must as such be plural, set on establishing not so much a common good, but a ‘democratic ethos’ where the aim is to establish in turn what Mouffe calls ‘a chain of equivalence among the different democratic struggles so as to create an equivalent articulation between the demands of women, blacks, workers, gays and others’ (1996: 5, 1993: 77). Now any such articulation, Mouffe stresses, can obviously only be based on links that are contingent, variable and unpredetermined. The ‘we’ of this democratic project thus does not possess any given identity—it is rather only ever partial, provisional and highly contingent. That is, the ‘we’ of the pluralist democratic community is made up of the contingent sets of social relations established through the development of equivalences and common concerns, a process which takes the form of continuous and indeed transformative negotiations.

21. Like Rorty, then, Mouffe believes that any redescribing of democracy requires an anti-essentialist approach. However unlike Rorty, Mouffe doesn’t seem to end up presupposing any particular trajectory or utopian identity for democracy. Whereas Rorty envisages the universalisation of the liberal democratic model and the expansion of the community of ‘we liberals’, Mouffe proposes a system of democratic equivalences and hegemonic articulations that sustain the pluralism of a provisional and contingent ‘we’. Furthermore, unlike Rorty’s projection of the community of ‘we liberals’, Mouffe’s ‘we’ allows for—indeed demands—conflict and struggle. As a plurality, Mouffe insists, democracy is necessarily agonistic, insofar as the sustaining of difference is the sustaining of dissension. Indeed it is on this basis that radical democratic practice can only call for the establishing of equivalences and not consensus or identity. Hence what this means is that the crucial problem in democratic politics for Mouffe is not the expansion of either the community of ‘we liberals’ or the ‘institutions and practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies’, but the establishing of these democratic equivalences in a process she sees as the transformation of antagonism into agonism. In Mouffe’s words:

When there is a lack of democratic political struggles with which to identify, their place is taken by other forms of identification, of ethnic, nationalist or religious nature, and the opponent is defined in those terms too … as an enemy to be destroyed. (Mouffe 1993: 6).

And hence,

the aim of democratic politics should be to provide the framework through which conflicts can take the form of an antagonistic confrontation among adversaries instead of manifesting themselves as an antagonistic struggle between enemies. (Mouffe 2000: 117).

22. However what this assumes is that both this aim and the pluralism that is its context should be conflated with the political domain, with Mouffe indeed regarding the political as essentially irreconcilable with the ethical. Basically, in arguing that a healthy democracy entails the clash of divergent positions (1993: 6), and the resultant (short-term) negotiations, Mouffe also contends that this process of clash and negotiation cannot be understood via the ethical. Far from seeing ethics as the most appropriate way of establishing and sustaining pluralism, Mouffe sees such approaches as unrealistic with regards to the political domain. As she puts it:

The kind of pluralism they [ethical approaches] celebrate implies the possibility of a kind of plurality without antagonism, of a friend without an enemy, an agonism without antagonism. As if once we had been able to take responsibility for the other and to engage with its difference, violence and exclusion could disappear. (Mouffe 2000: 134).

23. In other words, if ethics—and Mouffe deals at various times with pre-modern, modern and postmodern ethical approaches—is assumed to be unable to ‘acknowledge the hegemonic nature of every possible consensus and the ineradicable violence that this implies’ (2000: 134), then any desire to found a community based on ethical tenets—such as tolerance, for example—would simply mark a denial of reality. And, for Mouffe, it is definitely ‘not through such a denial that democratic politics is to be secured and enhanced’ (134-135).

24. It is thus in terms of this apparently ‘necessary hiatus between ethics and politics’ (2000: 140), that Mouffe’s depiction of democracy to come most strongly marks itself off from Rorty’s and, as we will also see, Derrida’s. In contrast to Rorty’s conception of democracy to come as the promotion of tolerance through the privileging of consensus and harmony (with plurality being quarantined to the private sphere), Mouffe argues that every truly democratic community requires that both pluralism and its character of conflict are recognised as constitutive of the public sphere. Nevertheless, whilst Rorty relegates the possibility of pluralism to the private sphere as counterproductive to the establishing of a democratic community, Mouffe doesn’t dismiss ethics totally. Although she contends that ethical approaches are not adequate by themselves to establish or sustain democracy or democratic pluralism, she does assert that it is the ‘never-ending interrogation of the political by the ethical’ that best informs democracy to come (140).

25. For Mouffe, then, the democratic project certainly does not have a clear-cut identity or community. It doesn’t need to have. Nevertheless it must be noted that she does configure radical democracy so that this partial, provisional and conflicted ‘we’ is itself the proper institute and telos of the democratic project. More specifically, we should also note that this democratic project appears to be inextricable from determinate struggles. That is, Mouffe seems to suggest that the political (and the democratic) encompasses conflicts and negotiations between determinate and identifiable groups or blocs. Its ‘to comeness’, in other words, is to do with the reality of ongoing struggles and negotiations between different interests, where interests and groups and negotiations current for now are not necessarily long-lived. It’s a ‘to comeness’ that is, however, also non-teleological, which recognises that an actual instantiated ‘perfect democracy’ is never achievable. Democratic struggle might be determinate, but democracy itself is never so.

Derrida: democracy as out of joint

26. In contrast to both Rorty and Mouffe, Derrida’s conception of democracy to come cannot be aligned with any determinate or proper institute or telos. Whereas Rorty’s democracy is enframed by particular existing institutions and practices of liberal democracy (and private tolerance), and Mouffe’s by the agonistic plurality of determinate democratic struggle, Jacques Derrida’s democracy to come is inscribed by undecidability, spectrality and risk (or ‘auto-immunity’ as he most recently put it in Rogues: Two Essays On Reason). Indeed Derrida stresses repeatedly that democracy to come is a promise disjoined from any possibility of proper or full actualisation. As such it cannot be tied into any ideal or empirical institutions, activities or possibilities, rather unfolding as a questioning comportment that constitutes a sustained ‘engagement with regards to democracy’ (Derrida 1996: 83). Democracy to come for Derrida is the repeating and sustaining of democracy as a question—indeed, as he states elsewhere, it is the repeating and sustaining of deconstruction itself (1997: 105).

27. Now this engagement with democracy as a question rests of course on what has been called the deconstructive affirmation of undecidability. Specifically, Derrida argues that all ethical and political decision-making (and note that he doesn’t separate these as two irreconcilable modes)—seen here in terms of an ongoing responsibility rather than any calculatable (and finite) obligation or duty—is inextricable from the ordeal of undecidability (1992: 24). In other words, he reminds us that such decisions can never be made according to any given system or programme. Rather undecidability, as Niall Lucy recently put it, ‘opens every decision (and keeps it open) to the possibility of being otherwise’ (Lucy 2004: 151). And it is this possibility that we must contend with, and which makes undecidability an ordeal that simply cannot be glossed over (see Derrida 1992: 24). Furthermore, Derrida insists that the ‘we’ implied in any such decision-making is also constitutively undecidable insofar as the ‘we’ cannot close itself off in its decision-making from the tout autre (1995a: 74), from that which exceeds the bounds of any ‘we’. After all, the ‘activating’ of any ‘responsibility (decision, act, praxis)’—and here we can include the activating of the self-determination of the ‘we’ and the ‘demos’—always takes place before any ‘theoretical or thematic determination’ (1995b: 26). In other words, the ‘we’ or the ‘demos’ is irreducible to any determinate community or indeed to any ‘onto-anthropo-theological horizon’ (1998: 16). A recurring question for Derrida, then, is simply who is this ‘we’?, and it is the asking of this question that I think is at the core of Derrida’s rethinking of the democratic project.

28. Now this is certainly not a question that Rorty asks. The ‘we’ of a Rortian democracy is very clearly the community of ‘we liberals’. Similarly although Mouffe is careful to not set any specific identity to this ‘we’, given that it is constantly under negotiation, she nonetheless appears to see it as comprised of the hegemonic articulation of determinate democratic struggles. Derrida, in contrast, argues that the ‘we’ of any ethical and political decision-making is inscribed with an irreducible undecidability. For instance, he reminds us that when talking of the ‘we’, we must also ‘speak of the ghost’ (1994: xix). In his words:

no ethics, no politics, whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just that does not recognize in its principle the respect for those others who are no longer or for those who are not yet there, presently living … No justice … [and I could just as easily say ‘demos’ here] … seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present … (Derrida 1994: xix).

29. As such the ‘we’ of this responsibility (along with the ‘we’ of democracy) is not confinable to any determinate community. It is a ‘we’ configured without recourse to border controls or the reassurance of any legitimated identity or programme. It is rather a ‘we’ that is simply marked by its openness to and inextricability from emancipatory practices. So configured, responsibility (and hence democracy) should definitely not strive to set conditions on the other demanding that it fit in with a certain identity. It should not, in other words, strive to categorise the other as simply either one of ‘us’ or ‘them’. Responsibility, after all, is a project that should not be extended (or not extended) according to specified identities. Further, it can never be finished with. ‘One is never responsible enough’ (1995b: 51), as Derrida reminds us:

If I conduct myself particularly well with regard to someone, I know that it is to the detriment of an other; of one nation to the detriment of another nation’ of one family to the detriment of another family, of my friends to the detriment of other friends or non-friends, etc. (Derrida 1996: 86).

30. What can be seen from all of this, then, is that Derrida’s projection of a democracy to come is inextricable from his redescribing of ethical and political decision-making, where this decision-making is shown to exceed any determinate borders. Now what this means is that democracy must remain always to come, always an open question to itself, the ‘theme of a non-presentable concept’ (1997: 306). It marks as such an engagement or a promise which is neither utopian nor realizable but spectral, and which takes place, as Derrida says, in a ‘here and now that I regularly try to dissociate from the present’ (1996: 83), but which is nevertheless always pressing and urgent. (It is worth stressing again here that for Derrida undecidability in no way means indecision or the refraining from decision-making.) In other words, Derrida’s democracy to come is a democracy that is ‘out of joint’—an ethico-political questioning and decision-making that is not quite reducible to determinate, future-present or utopian notions of democracy. It can also be described as that version of a ‘new international’ that Derrida speculates on and affirms in Specters of Marx—what he calls a ‘link of affinity, suffering and hope’. This is an ‘untimely link’ that is ‘without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class’ (1994: 85). An ‘alliance without institution’ (86), this new international (or democracy to come) is thus not bound by any identity-based logic of us or them, and cannot set any boundaries or identity on either the us or the them, rather marking a

promise to be kept, that is, to not remain ‘spiritual’ or ‘abstract,’ but to produce events, new effective forms of action, practice, organization, and so forth. (Derrida 1994: 89).

31. Democracy to come, then, is a questioning and decision-making that remains open and ongoing. Stressing the impossibility of any absolute separation between the public and the private, the political and the ethical, and arguing that saying ‘yes’ to emancipation cannot be a matter of saying yes only within specific constraints, Derrida’s democracy to come is the ethico-political project of deconstruction itself.

Democracy to come

Who knows what the democracies are coming to or what is coming to democracy
or what democracy is to come? (Caputo 2003: 19).

32. Having critically assessed, then, the anti-essentialist projections of democracy to come put forward by Rorty, Mouffe and Derrida, two things are clear. Firstly, each takes his or her starting point as the need to redescribe—and revivify—the democratic project of the enlightenment by deconstructing its delimitative ‘us’ versus ‘them’ logic. Each also aims—with varying degrees of success—to destabilise the complacency within which democracy and the ‘demos’ typically seem to subsist—complacency which I believe is not only illustrated by much of the recent public discussion concerning the role and status of democracy, but marks a problem with regard to the processes of democracy itself.

33. Also clear from the preceding elaborations is that none of these anti-essentialist projections are wholly satisfactory. Rorty, for instance, starts off by describing democracy to come in terms of a pragmatic approach of trying to accommodate different interests by sharing conversations in the name of social hope. However, when pressed, he informs us that he is aiming to universalise the American liberal democratic model. Mouffe, in contrast, wants us to envisage democracy in terms of dissension and articulation, where members of particular and historicised struggles are able to link arms forming a chain of equivalence. However, this seems to suggest that democracy is wholly contained within the domain of determinate struggles—a domain which also has a questionable relationship with ethics. In his turn, Derrida seems to suggest that democracy needs to remain undecidable and open, exceeding the determinate, a problem if the aim of rethinking democracy is simply to come up with an improved and actualisable ‘demos’.

34. However the problem here is just what Derrida’s democracy to come means and makes possible. Certainly one reading of it (recently set out again by Mark Lilla) suggests that because such a democracy ‘cannot be described or defended; it can only be treated as an article of irrational faith, a messianic dream’ (Lilla 2001: 186), it is of questionable utility. (Simon Critchley has similarly questioned the usefulness of the ‘rigorous and responsible undecidability’ of deconstruction—and thereby democracy to come (see Derrida 1997:105)—for the ongoing ‘necessity for political decision and political critique’ (Critchley 1993: 101; cf. 1992: 189-190).) In response to this point, however, I would argue with Morag Patrick that both Lilla and Critchley have misconstrued the force of Derrida’s democracy to come—a misconstrual based perhaps on their holding to ‘traditional presuppositions about the possibility of politics and the space in which it takes place’ (Patrick 1997: 172). That is, Derrida’s democracy to come is not an attempt to describe or deliver a particular futural democracy as such. Rather it is a reminder to us that a ‘demos’ that is not being actively and deconstructively questioned tends to meet only the interests, for instance, of one ‘ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market’ (Derrida 1994: 85). Derrida’s democracy to come is therefore a promise to do better with democracy, to not let ourselves stick with the already present, to not just keep on maintaining the existing ‘demos’ and its boundaries.

35. Of course, this is where another problematic—that of risk—arises with regards to the Derridean democracy to come, a problematic that Derrida has discussed most recently as ‘auto-immunity’ (see Derrida 2005). Specifically, in stressing the inescapable indeterminacy of democracy to come, Derrida also stresses its fragility. (Auto-immunity, after all, means the attack of one part of an organism against another.) That is, just as the undecidability inherent in decision-making opens that decision-making to the choice of the best and the worst, so too the configuration of democracy to come as a promise is not actually a guarantee for ‘producing something good’ (Haddad 2004: 43).

36. Now this is not a risk that either Rorty or Mouffe explore. Rorty, first of all, holds to a utopian view of democracy to come wherein a certain version of democracy needs only to be realised. And, on the other hand, Mouffe would perhaps argue that it is the process of contestation and negotiation that exemplifies democracy to come, not any particular outcome of this process.

37. Nonetheless, although these discrepancies between these formulations of democracy to come are important, I would suggest that the question now is whether each of these projections being individually divergent and, in some instances, somewhat unsatisfactory is actually a problem. And, given that the holding to determinate—and supposedly proper—pictures of democracy and the ‘we’ can itself be recognised as being at the very least problematic (see, for instance, Derrida 1994: 81-84, 85), I do not think so. Indeed, I would say that it is simply this very questioning of democracy and its ‘we’—and its resulting plethora of delineations—that shows the importance of anti-essentialist thinking about democracy to come. These projections show us, after all, that the ‘we’ of democracy, along with democracy itself, is not at all clear-cut, a point that I believe we need to keep in mind as public discussion as to what ‘we should do’ heads into exchanges of name-calling.

38. Now this is all very well. However another question that might arise here is whether these anti-essentialist depictions strain the practice of democracy too far. Are conceptions of democracy that resist essentialist logic and practices still viable? That is, if these revivifications of democracy cannot be extricated from undecidability and dissension, are they still useful? One of the achievements of Rorty, Mouffe and Derrida, among others, is to remind us again that a democratic way of life cannot actually be fixed. Democracy, along with a democratic way of life and the ‘demos’, is irreducible to any given formula or set of fixed criteria. Instead it marks a set of desires and practices—dissensions, dialogues and negotiations—that can never find completion. In other words, these projections keep on reminding us that democracy should be seen as a process rather than a product. (As John Caputo says, ‘there are no democracies, my friends, not yet, for a democracy is still to come’ (Caputo 1997: 174).) They also make clear to us that democratic practices are themselves contingent and debatable, that they will need to be adapted as situations change—and thereby that we should resist slipping into complacency with regard to existing practices. Hence what these depictions do is remind us to be vigilant, but with an eye to continuing debate rather than any associated desire to suppress dissent or otherness. After all, if democracy and the ‘demos’, and even the ‘we’, are always undecidable to at least some degree, then we simply cannot make hard and fast decisions of inclusion and exclusion—or indeed export—in their names.


Jane Mummery is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Ballarat. Her publications include the The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-metaphysical Ethics (Peter Lang, 2005) and articles on Heideggerian methodology and ethics, and the discourses of democracy utilised in the Australian public sphere. Her current research focuses on the ethico-political possibilities opened in contemporary continental philosophy. Email:


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