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democracy's violent heart Arrow vol 4 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 1, 2005



Democracy's Violent Heart

Daniel Ross, Violent Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Matthew Sharpe
Deakin University


1. For those of us born after the Vietnam war, it is difficult to recall a more politically charged period than that since 1996, in Australia and internationally. This period has well and truly silenced the anxieties of the early '90s that politics might disappear with a whimper behind the inglorious ('dry') business of 'economic management'. Yet what has woken us from this 'post-political' dream is scarcely less troubling for the prospects of our shared democratic life. This short period has seen the rise and fall of One Nation, the docklands struggle of 1998, East Timor, the Republican debate and referendum, the events of 2001—Tampa, children overboard, and 11 September—followed by the 'war on terror' prosecuted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on the 'home front' in terms of markedly changed political rhetoric, and legislation that challenges existing liberal divisions of power. The events of this period have forced to the forefront of Australian public debate far-reaching issues about our national identity in the changing international world. They have sharpened existing political divisions within the nation, and generated new alignments altogether. Perhaps most fundamentally—and most importantly in the longer term—'our times' have raised questions to Australia (and to each of her allies) as a democratic nation, concerning what democracy can involve in the age of globalisation and the much-proclaimed 'war on terror'.

2. In this political climate, it is hard to imagine a more timely book than Daniel Ross' Violent Democracy . Ross' book's six chapters address, nearly by number, each of the issues listed above. Chapters 1 and 2 consider the issues raised by America's current 'neoconservative' -inspired foreign policy of 'exporting' democracy to the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, with the 'coalition of the willing' in tow. Chapters 3 through 5 raise debates concerning white Australia's history and relationship with the aboriginals (Chapter 3), the Republic debate (Chapter 4), immigration and 'border protection' (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 and the 'Afterword: The Politics of Torture' then deal with the politics of changed US legislation passed in its 'war on terror', and its consequences.

3. Ross's book stands out from the ever-growing list of titles that continue to appear on each of these causes celebres. Violent Democracy is not one more Seymour Hersh-style expose of the troubling facts of our recent political history. Neither does Ross wholly abide by the commonly-accepted parameters of news commentary: evaluating important decisions and actions largely or only in terms of their strategic contexts and effects. Like Ross's recent film The Ister, Violent Democracy engages with its subject matter in the light of Ross' background in political science and political philosophy. Violent Democracy brings to these contemporary Australian political debates resources from traditions in continental European thinking that are usually disregarded—when they are not dismissed—in the Australian public sphere. By doing so, Ross' book invites a wider, non-philosophical audience to raise far-reaching and deeper questions about the nature of politics. In particular, as Violent Democracy 's title suggests, Ross's concern is with how and why our political life always seemingly involves violence, whether this is inevitable, and what can and ought to be done about it.

4. The argument of Violent Democracy challenges from the start any benign ideas we might have inherited that modern democracy is "the solution to the violence of tyranny and chaos". [p.1] Ross does not accept the story that liberal democracy is that political system which, historically as today, secures the peace by separating state and public life from people's private passions and religious convictions.   For him, all democracies —as political systems that wrest sovereignty from the few and reassign it to 'the people' [p.5] —have a "violent heart". [p.7] The recent military campaigns led by democratic nations in Afghanistan and Iraq (Chapter 1), the more clandestine violence of US operatives towards 'enemy combatants' in Iraq and Guantanamo (Chapter 6, "Afterword"), and the treatment of asylum seekers on the high seas and 'detention centres' (Chapter 5) are hence all read by Ross as not simply unpalatable exceptions to the rule of peaceable democratic life. If they are exceptions at all, they are exceptions that prove the deeper rule that "democracy has from the beginning contained its own potential for violence". [p.1] It is this rule that the book wants to call to our attention, "while there is still time", as journalist Phillip Knightley remarks on the book's back cover.

5. Violent Democracy runs two arguments about democracy's "violent heart". The first argument is that "the origin and heart of democracy is essentially violent". The book's second contention is that "the violence of democracy has changed, or is unfolding in a certain direction, across the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries".

6. The force of Ross' first, stronger, and more strictly philosophical claim draws on the later work of Jacques Derrida on politics and law. Ross' position hence turns on a deconstruction of what is involved in the historical origin of democratic regimes.   Democracies can never simply and smoothly evolve into being without upsetting or excluding anyone, Ross argues. If anyone still believes Hegel's mythos that Western history is the story of unhalting progress from political tyrannies (wherein one person ruled), via oligarchies (wherein minorities ruled), to democracies (wherein 'the people' are sovereign), Ross adds that s/he should also recall that this final historical shift always involved violence, no less than earlier political struggles. As Machiavelli would also have been able to tell us, there is no democracy without the beheading of the King, or the 'taming' of the frontiers.  

7. The deepest register of Ross' first or deconstructive contention lies in the claim that the very act of founding a democracy, whenever and wherever it may take place, involves another kind of—semantic if not physical—violence. Following Derrida [cf. p.49], Ross argues that a democracy is always founded in and by some historical proclamation which announces that "we the people are sovereign". This declarative or 'symbolic' act (eg: the USs 'Declaration of Independence') is not merely an 'added extra' to the originary democratic event: it is necessary or constitutive of this 'real' event as such. As Ross contends, if the "we" of "the people" were already indeed united and sovereign, there should be no need to proclaim this fact: democracy would already be there. It follows that "if a declaration announces a new law, it cannot rely on any previously established sovereignty on which to base an idea of the people". As Derrida instead argues, the "we" invoked by any founding democratic declaration can only come into being as politically sovereign " by way of the declaration itself ". [p. 7 (my italics)] Ross' draws his key illustrative example from the experience of the failed revolution in German in 1919, where on the same day that Philipp Scheidermann proclaimed what was to become the democratic Weimar Republic, a new Socialist Republic was proclaimed—and put down—by Karl Leibnecht.  His Derridean point is that each aspiring claim to found a democracy is a claim made about something which is minimally futural or 'to come', as it were a 'pro-ject'.

8. The political consequence of this semantic paradox about democratic origination, according to Ross, is that the continuing historical life of democracies must always involve violence, no less—if not more [p.3]—than other types of political system.

9. First, there is the fact that the 'we' claimed by a democratic proclamation is always pro-claimed, as Ross puts it, "on credit". [pp.49 ff.]   If this is so, it is also true that any democratic institution(s) can always be subsequently contested or revised, like Leibnecht's abortive founding act. The "we" of a democratic state's constituency, and the way this 'we' shall operate its sovereignty, must constantly be affirmed and defended—and this means that, a priori , the possibility of violent action against reformists cannot be excluded.

10. Secondly, since to be one particular 'people' is to be different from all other 'peoples', the semantic and physical boundaries of any democratic 'people' must also be policed, 'against all others'.  

11. Violent Democracy 's first five chapters represent applications and elaborations of Ross' deconstructive understanding of democracy. (See especially chapter 2) Chapters 1 and 3 deal with instances of how contemporary democracies are haunted by 'ghosts' of past violences.  

12. In chapter 1,"The High Horse and the Low Road", Ross analyses the peculiar combination of democratic idealism and defensive patriotism informing the current US policy of exporting democracy to the middle East.   He argues that this peculiar combination is explicable only in the light of the abiding trauma that the Nazi Holocaust represents for leading US neo-conservatives (especially Paul Wolfowitz), and their teacher, Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss.   Chapter 3, "Sorry We Killed You", in its turn places contemporary Australian debates on aboriginal reconciliation, the stolen generation, and the question of an official apology, in terms of Ross' wider argument about the violence that inevitably attends the foundation of any democratic nation.   Chapter 4, "Border Protection and Alien Friends", addresses the history of Australia's recent treatment of refugees in the light of Ross' conception of the necessary violence involved in maintaining the geographical sovereignty of a democratic state.    Ross' discussion in Chapter 5 of the "Great Debate" about Australia's becoming a Republic, and the role of a Head of State, is informed by Ross' contention that a democratic system must always reaffirm itself, given its deeply contestable nature, as a political system 'to come'.   Each time a democratic decision is made, Ross argues, "another declaration, another stamp of assurance" is required.   This necessity is posed by Ross as also explaining the prima facie puzzling fact that the democratic Head of State is at once the executive pivot of the entire democracy, and yet (at least in Australia) is itself not a democratically elected office.   Chapter 6 ("Enemy Combatants") and Ross' "Afterword" detail, in fact, how one of the fundamental political issues in contemporary USA is exactly what this exceptional status of the Head of State should concretely permit, and whether it should allow the President to do violence to the ordinary rule of Law, in the name of 'homeland security'.

13. Violent Democracy 's second major contention, about the 'war on terror' and contemporary democracy, is arguably much stronger.   In Chapter 6 and the "Afterword: The Politics of Torture", Ross addresses in some detail the recent legislative changes Western democratic governments have taken in response to the threat of terrorism, now so irrevocably soldered to the images and event of 11 September 2001.   His discussion showcases some of the best features of the book, including close readings of recent American and Australian legal decisions whose full significance may indeed be 'to come'. (See also Chapter 4's discussion of the judicial debates surrounding Tampa) In line with Violent Democracy 's wider program, Ross reads these contemporary changes as responding not only to the immediate necessity of the times.   More than this, Ross argues:  

Since 11 September 2001...something else has emerged in the United States, England, Australia, and elsewhere.  It is not so much war that has changed, but the way in which democracy imagines itself. 'Democracy' seems to be rethinking itself, no longer on the ground of transcendent law based in the sovereignty of a people. Law is reconfigured on the basis that there is an enemy, internal and external, against which it is necessary to act rather than react. [p.12]

14. It is hard to disagree when Ross remarks:

The notion that one could be lifted from the nation of which one is a citizen by the military of another, taken to a third country and imprisoned, without sentence, without trial, without charge, and without law , yet indefinitely, and with the very real possibility of execution at some indeterminate point in the future, all in the name of freedom, is a significant challenge to all existing legal and political thought. [p.142]

15. Once again, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ross's second argument in Violent Democracy, though, comes from how his discussion of these widely-discussed political changes is informed by reference to philosophical topoi far outside the standard frame of mainstream political debates. Ross reads the changes being undertaken by Western democracies in response to the 'war on terror' as highlighting a key tension in the constitution of any democratic polity, between the necessary institutions of "military rule", grounded in the executive authority of the Head of State (see ch. 4), and "the Law", enforced by the police, and in liberal democracies (since Locke at least) conceived as a means of protecting the people itself "even against" the executive fiat of its leaders. [p.9]  

16. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Ross argues that the 'war on terror' is putting in place a "hybrid of martial logic and medical/managerial technology" that threatens to do violence to democracy itself, in an instance of what Derrida has provocatively dubbed 'autoimmunity'. [p.13] Modern democracies seek to institutionalise individuals' capacity to make decisions as autonomous subjects, Ross notes.   Yet he follows Foucault, Arendt and others in noting how the rise of these political regimes is historically contemporaneous with the development of disciplines and technologies that enable governments to manage individuals not as free subjects, but as predictable objects—and ultimately as 'bare life', with certain quantifiable potentialities and limitations.   In the face of the new threat posed by terrorism, Ross contends (provocatively and accurately, I think) that there is an increasing "convergence of 'health' and 'defence'" in public policy. This new dispotif, Ross notes, is exemplified by the near-simultaneity of the alarm about terrorism and SARS in 2001-2002; or the military-directed response of American hospitals to the anthrax attacks in the weeks after 11 September 2001.

17. Perhaps most troubling of all, however, as Ross points out, is how this sharp biopolitical turn in contemporary politics coincides in the US particularly with rejuvenated debate about the "martial" powers of the democratic executive. As Judith Butler's recent work indicates, history would seem to be on the side of Agamben against Foucault: contemporary biopolitics is not superseding or undermining the power of the sovereign. Rather, it is increasingly the corollary of conscious attempts by elements within the American administration (witness legal debates about habeas corpus for Guantanamo prisoners) to re-institute sovereign executive power, in the face of changing contemporary circumstances.   In Ross' dour assessment, the only historical precedent for the USAs extra-juridical 'war' on terrorism—a by definition nearly-invisible foe when it is not 'an adjective' (Michael Moore) —is the Nazis' "war" against the Jews. [141-2]   "The dangers of these developments are obvious", Ross assesses: "... dangers to the rights of individuals, to the concept of life, and to democracy itself". [13]  

18. This is not the forum to offer any extended criticisms of Violent Democracy. Amongst its numerous merits is Ross' refusal to give in to a wholly un-nuanced and/or alarmist response to the troubling 'signs of the times' the book addresses. Ross's stance on the value of a Prime Ministerial apology to the aboriginals (he denies its need), together with his reading of the rise of One Nation (he finds the ALP importantly culpable), show—amongst other things—that the philosophical sources which Ross sources are not necessarily aligned with the new Left, as both advocates and critics inaccurately assume. Differently, the fact that Violent Democracy brings theoretical resources usually simply ignored in Australia is surely an overwhelmingly positive thing, especially in today's climate where more and more the 'new conservatives' and their spokespersons position the humanities academy as hopelessly 'out of touch' and 'elitist'.

19. If I was asked to make any criticism, it would be first of all a structural one, concerning the relation between Violent Democracy 's two contentions. How exactly does the current "re-imagining" of democracy in the 'war on terror' stand in relation to Ross' first argument that democracies are always violent? Are the new "medico-technical" regimes being put in place in Australia, the UK, and the US wholly continuous with democracy as such, given that the latter is always violent? Ross at times seems to suggest that they are.   Following Foucault's analyses, he notes how contemporary biopolitical reforms do depend on political and other technologies largely developed in modern democracies.   Differently, Ross could have cited a precedent for the current Bush administration's claim for executive exceptionalism (namely, the position that the Head of State is above the Law when it comes defending the nation) in the frequent "executive declarations" made by Presidents since Lincoln, whose history has been documented by Vidal and others. However, at other times in Violent Democracy , Ross implies that the contemporary biopolitical changes we are witnessing and undergoing today are less democratic than deeply anti-democratic. As he puts it at one point, they seem to point towards the possibility of "a new and unprecedented fascism". [p.13]

20. Perhaps, as I would contend, we could finally trace the source of this ambiguity back to the philosophical sources Ross' argument draws upon. The most enduring problem with Ross's first Derridean thesis about democracy, is that its charge of democracy's intrinsic violence can equally be raised about any political system. If Derrida (or Zizek or a host of others since Machiavelli) is right, then any political regime—whether tyrannical or democratic or oligarchic, etc.—depends upon a violent founding act, wherein the new rulers oust the old ones and lay claim to being the people's champion and spokesperson. Similarly, we do not need recourse to deconstruction or psychoanalysis to recall that any particular political regime has to distinguish itself and its citizens from others and outsiders. Given Ross' conceptual horizon, then, the only way that democracy can be positively singled out against other political systems is because it is the system that can be most open to its own violence, insofar as it has periodic elections and tries to keep in place a neutral media. Ross points towards such a positive evaluation at various points within Violent Democracy . [p.73] Yet, with this said—and in a way that is understandable given the main purpose and topics of Violent Democracy—it can be added that this 'positive' aspect of democracy is comparatively under-theorised in the book.


Matthew Sharpe teaches political philosophy at Deakin University, and is deputy head of the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies. He is the author of Slavoj Zizek: A
Little Piece of the Real
, and numerous articles. His current reseach is on the changing forms of today's "conservativism" in the US and Australia, and the political philosophies of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss. Email:


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