Sunday, June 17, 2012

Republics and democracies

Democracy is the Athenian way, right, where all the members of the population (δῆμος/dêmos) take part in the governance (κρατία/kratía) of the state, each watching out for their own particular interests no doubt; the republic is the Roman way, where the business (res) of the state is public (publica), common to everybody. A democracy is about people and what they do, a republic is about a thing and what it is.
From the documentary 1981: Un été en rose et noir by Virginie Linhart. Found at Telle est la Télé.
Or is this formulation polluted by an idea, bizarre and totally ahistorical, that American party names, Democrat and Republican, have a meaning? I'm thinking of today's parties, with the Democrats concerned with identity politics and conflict resolution, under the assumption that different people are going to want different things that must inevitably clash, and [jump]
the Republicans concerned with a mystical "what the American people want" (as Mitch McConnell always says—Google "McConnell" and "what the American people want" and you get over 11 million hits), totally different from what "the majority of the American people want" as you might determine it by polling or plebiscite;  rather, something like the desires of the Platonically Real American person in whose image True Americans are created (middle-aged white guys, armed and prayerful).

But then abstractly, Rousseau's republicanism, in which the state is the executor of a singular "general will", has a lot in common with that picture—the idea that it's a phenomenon on a different metaphysical plane from vulgar statistical reality. How do you know what the general will is? By looking into your heart, like Mitch McConnell? That is, I suppose, what Robespierre thought (Danton was a democrat), and that rascally Rousseauvian Thomas Jefferson, founder of America's first Republican Party.
Rue St-Blaise, Alençon, May 10 1981, celebrating the election. From Ouest-France.

Personally I dislike all kinds of Platonism, even from the lips of Rousseau and Jefferson. I'm willing to entertain the thought of the corporate entity as a superorganic Creature for science fiction purposes (i.e., as a metaphorical way of talking about human alienation), but not as a really Real thing, of more philosophical interest than the individuals who populate it. But last May, during the French presidential elections, I began thinking that there ought to be some use to the concept of a republic after all, and the news today of the legislative elections—the absolute triumph of the Socialists and their close allies—has made me think of it again.

One of the things widely noticed in May was the way people went out into the streets to celebrate, euphoric, waving their Socialist roses, reminiscent of the reaction to the first Socialist victory of the Fifth Republic, when François Mitterand was elected president in May 1981. Not quite as excited as they were in 1981, but still pretty excited, as if conscious as voters of having accomplished something spectacular.
And Toulouse. From Le Nouvel Observateur.

France is always a République, of course, but it seemed more like a republic in May 2012 and still more in May 1981 than it usually does, with the joyously united Left everywhere and the disgruntled fragmented Right in the background. It was as if the republic had materialized in their midst, like King Arthur or Holger Danske come from their graves to rescue the country.

Could the republic be the common knowledge of what needs to be done, which we continually, most of us, reject, in our selfishness and timidity? When we are "as one" in working toward some difficult kind of progress, as when the French decide once again to try for a humane and egalitarian government, or when we fight World War II, or end Jim Crow laws?

If so, it never lasts. Mitterand turned right after two years, fighting inflation with austerity, and the Left stopped winning elections for a while, and things got less transformational and more transactional, as they say. But you know what? The Right was never able to roll back the good things the Mitterand administration did accomplish, any more than they could get rid of socialized medicine, or universal pensions, or five-week paid vacations, or what have you. People like those things! Then they start complaining about taxes and the cycle begins again.

The end of Jim Crow wasn't the end of racism either. And do you remember your euphoria in November 2008, your champagne glass held high and tears running down your face? Don't blame Obama if that didn't work out quite as expected. He's not the republic, we are.
Place de la Bastille, May 6 2012. Photo by Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images.

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