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Democracy is a system of separations
Democracy: The Rule of Nobody? This reconsideration of democracy, by contrast, points to the urgent need for fresh thinking that could help rescue the conventional understanding of democracy from its self-paralysing effects. At a minimum, the self-paralysis and self-transformation of democracy forces us to see that actually existing democracies experience problems that cannot be resolved within the terms in which they were originally presented.
It further implies that an empirical and normative redefinition of democracy is required in order to free democracy from the negative connotations of ‘ruling' and a fictional sovereign subject called ‘the people'. This work of redefinition would not resemble the nineteenth-century liberal critique of democracy as a headstrong and perilous ideal that ‘by the help of a demagogue and a mystical faith in “the people” or “the masses”, leads to tyranny and the rule of the sword.

The normative redefinition that is required is more radical, philosophically and politically speaking, in that it turns against democracy from within democracy. It amounts to something like an immanent critique of conventional understandings of democracy. Democracy would be rid of its connotations of sectional rule, bullying and force. It would instead come to be seen in historical terms as a unique form of self-government and a way of life that draws its strength from the precept that no body rules.

What would it mean to speak descriptively and normatively of democracy in this new way? Democracy would be understood first of all as an ideal type that highlights the disembodied quality of decision-making structured by democratic procedures and ways of life. The notion of disembodiment needs some explanation. All hitherto existing political systems have either given central symbolic place to the physical body of their rulers and/or have imagined and described themselves through metaphors of the integrated body. Think of the ways in which hard-core monarchies symbolically represented their power over their subjects.

The physical body of kings was conceived both in the figure of God the father and Christ the Son. The body was divine and therefore immortal and unbreakable. It could not be admitted that kings died. Their bodies symbolised perfection. Like God and his Son, kings could do no wrong, which is why attempted violations of their bodies - through un-Godly acts ranging from unsolicited touching by their subjects through to attempted regicide - were harshly punishable.

The body of kings also symbolised the unbreakable quality of the ‘body politic' over which they ruled. Like God, kings were omnipresent and their bodies coterminous with the polity itself. Monarchs were God-given givers of laws. But they also resembled God the Son: sent by God to redeem humankind, kings had a ‘body natural' – the sign of God in the world – as well as a body politic. Just like the persons of the Trinity, the two bodies plus the authority they radiated were one, inseparable and indivisible.

The body politics of monarchy had an unexpected off-spring. Morgan and others have shown how the modern doctrine of popular sovereignty was an inverted form of monarchic thinking: according to the early champions of popular sovereignty, some of whom were prepared publicly to commit the most radical of acts by seizing the body and chopping off the heads of all kings, monarchy rested upon the fiction of the sovereignty of a God-like body. That was a falsehood. It was rather the God-like body of ‘the people' that was the source of all sovereign power and authority. Vox populi, vox Dei.

To make a fetish of leaders larger than the life size of body politic remains the greatest nuisance to the ‘We the people’. The personal motivations, prejudices, and inclination to identify them with the position they are holding will seriously affect the functioning of democracy. In the past this was true of Mussolini. Hitler, Lenin and Mao making a deification of their rule to which the people remained subjugated. During emergency period in 1975 the common cliché doing the rounds throughout India was ‘Indira is India’. That the government is not to dictate, command and order but to carry out and translate the wishes of ‘We the people’ constitutes one of the basic nuances of governance and is yet to characterize the body politic.

Democracies understood as forms of government and ways of life in which no body rules dispense with such fetishes. Leaders are not thought to be identical with the roles they play – the body of George W. Bush is not identical with the office of President of the United States – and fun can and is often poked publicly at their bodies. Democracies can be irreverently harsh on their leaders. That they can do so is in no small measure because democracy has the effect of breaking apart and destroying believable fictions of ‘the body politic'. Under democratic conditions, the polity is understood to be permanently sub-divided.

There are human bodies in all their diversity, to be sure. But there is no ‘body politic' and nobody called ‘the people' who hold it together. Whatever unity the polity enjoys is permanently questionable and constantly up for grabs because the exercise of power over others is limited. It is in this sense – this is the second meaning of the phrase ‘nobody rules' – which democracies dispense with rule.

They set themselves the task of abolishing, or bypassing, the hierarchical command-obedience relationships that lie at the heart of all un-democratic regimes, past or present. Under democratic conditions, nobody rules in the sense that those who exercise power – who govern - are subject to norms and mechanisms of power-sharing. They are prevented from bullying others, threatening them with violence, pushing and pulling them in to different shapes, as if they were mere clay in the hands of potters – or (as Aristotle would have said) as if they were mere chess pieces on a chess board.

Democracy is a system of separations, as Pierre Manent has observed. This is the third sense in which democracy is based on the precept that no single body rules. In democracies, everything seems separated and disconnected : civil society from government, representatives from those whom they represent, executives from legislatures, majorities from minorities, civil power from military and police power, parties from voters, consumption from production, journalists from audiences, workers from capitalists, lawyers from clients, doctors from patients.

Both government and civil society are internally fragmented, and the multiple, criss-crossing separations that result are seen to be necessary conditions of citizens' equal freedom from concentrations of power in few selected hands because of their control over power and wealth. Complex democracies take the sting out of power. They resist obsessions for social unity and political concord. Those who wield power are reminded of their (potential) powerlessness. They are kept permanently on their toes, if only because of the complex push-pull dynamics set in train by differentiation and pluralities.

Thanks to these freedoms that ensure that no body rules, democracies come alive with protests. Every so often, they animate the feelings and excite the wishes and desires of some part of the population, especially among those who feel humiliated by the shameful concentrations of military, financial and media power in actually existing democracies. Simple-minded action in the name of ‘the people' always needs to be questioned, then stopped in its tracks. Freedom, equality and solidarity are neither divisible nor negotiable. They require defence - in the name of democracy, understood in a new way as a mode of governing and a way of life in which no single body is entitled to rule.

The process of citizen participation tends to perpetuate the role of the citizen as subject to the control of government, dependent on the protection of the government, and bound by an identity that is defined by a position in a social hierarchy (Foucault, 1983). The hierarchical relationship represents a model of sovereignty based on a Divine Power or a King. But democracy requires that we “cut off the King’s head” (Foucault) and pay attention to the ways in which we direct conduct through the systems of the body of society, which in essence, requires government participation in citizen activities rather than citizen participation in government activities.

If disclosure of wealth and property of candidates contesting elections to both Assembly and Parliamentary elections is any indication, then indubitably one can state that Indian Parliament and Assemblies represent what is ubiquitously said of American Senate that it is a “millionaires’ club”. Even the limits of expenditure set by the Election Commission of India both for Assembly and Parliament elections for candidates attest to the fact that Indian citizens short of being ‘crorepatis’ are not eligible for contesting elections.

Away from Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition Indian democracy can at best be described as democracy of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. In India elections are reduced merely to competitions and contests to ensure the triumph of the rich over the poor and non-rich.


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Vibhav Kant Upadhyay
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