The Democracy To Come: Notes on the Thought of Jacques Derrida

Key Concept

Francis Bacon Self-Portrait“The democracy to come” (la démocratie à venir) is perhaps the most enduring principle that emerges from Derrida’s later work. This difficult little syntagm is developed in a number of books, articles and interviews, most notably in Spectres of Marx (1993) and The Politics of Friendship (1994), finally given its fullest elaboration in Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (2004). For a thorough elaboration of the democracy to come careful attention would be needed to a number of Derrida’s other key concepts and concerns, particularly différance, aporia and iterability; connections would need to be traced though Derrida’s dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot on the questions of freedom, fraternity and community; the relationship with Derrida’s “spectral” notion of justice would also need attention. None of this is attempted here. Within a short note like this the best we can hope for is a gesture towards an introduction to Derrida’s thinking. Necessarily partial in nature, I hope, nonetheless, to touch on some of the fundamental issues at stake in Derrida’s approach to democracy, hinting at some implications for thinking of a “deconstructive politics.” With the aim of directing readers to wider issues and concerns, I indicate some further reading below.

In order to elaborate on this deceptively simple phrase I want to assess democracy in relation to “autoimmunity” a key principle in Derrida’s later work. Autoimmunity both stands-in for and re-orientates a number of Derrida’s earlier “quasi-concepts:” aporia, double bind, the supplement, différance, antinomy and so on. In Rogues, Derrida makes a sustained case for thinking of democracy as being governed by an autoimmune logic. Biologically, autoimmunity describes a kind of bodily self-destruction whereby the body’s immune system produces antibodies or lymphocytes that work against substances naturally present in the body. Whilst clearly inspired by the biological inference, Derrida uses the term to describe a gesture of self-defence or self-preservation of some thing that in fact leads to that thing’s destruction. So, to suggest that democracy is autoimmune is to claim that it is threatened internally by its very own logic. This internal compromise or flaw to democracy is crucial to Derrida’s thinking of the democracy to come. I want to highlight two ways in which Derrida accounts for this self-inflicted dehiscence within democracy.

The first issue involves the relation between democracy and sovereignty. Derrida suggests that in order for democracy, understood quite literally as the rule (cratos) of the people (demos), to have any discernable effect in ruling it must rely on some form of sovereignty. Sovereignty and democracy are inseparable but contradictory partners. The efficacy of democracy relies on sovereignty: without sovereignty, the demos would be usurped by some other power and an effective rule of the demos would never be achieved. In striving to protect itself and guarantee its dominance through a co-option of sovereignty, democracy suffers from an autoimmune self-destruction. In an attempt to immunise and protect itself from destruction, democracy destroys itself by closing off, unifying and essentialising the multiplicity that enables the formation of democracy in the first place. The plurality of the demos must be contained and restrained in a sovereign community: “the people” or “a nation”. In this move there are inevitable exclusions and elisions that morph a heterogeneous collectivity into a homogonous unit. These omissions always return to haunt the supposed sovereignty of any political community, destroying the community’s immunity from difference and otherness. Democracy and sovereignty are bound in a destructive clasp that means democracy as such (that is, a democracy without sovereignty) remains an impossibility.

The second issue turns on the canonical problem of the relationship between equality and freedom. Again, equality and freedom are two necessary but contradictory claims that unite in democracy. Equality hopes to guarantee that each actor within a community has equal value, most clearly this is seen in the ascription of one equal vote to each individual in a community. Freedom, on the other hand, is a question of each individual’s singularity, the freedom to exceed a determination of the same that equality tries to establish. But, Derrida suggests, freedom is impossible without a concept of equality — the suggestion being that freedom must always take place in relation to limits imposed by others and we must, in theory at least, all be equally free. Democratic freedom only makes sense, then, if everyone within the demos is equally free. So, equality becomes an integral part of freedom and because such equality is inscribed within freedom, equality is no longer merely a question of number and calculation but itself becomes incalculable. The two concepts are intrinsically bound but in an autoimmune relation. Equality confines every singularity to a measurable unit that is infinitely substitutable. Freedom, on the other hand, exceeds this calculation and enables each singularity to be heterogeneous to others, it is a guarantee of the singularity of each individual, enabling every other to treated as (wholly) other. For democracy, these two competing factors are mutually dependent — liberty must take place in the context of liberty for all — so this represents an internal corruption within the very structure of democracy.

Democracy, on this reading, is always at war with itself, never capable of resolving its inner tensions and contradictions. To put it in terms that echo Derrida’s earliest concerns with metaphysics of presence, we could say that democracy is never present but is always deferred. In its claim to presence (“this is democracy here-and-now”) democracy evokes the sovereignty that calls forth its destruction. Democracy is, then, never fully present in the (sovereign) claim that democracy has arrived or been achieved. It is in this sense that democracy is always “to come”. Significantly, the “to come” here is not the positing of some horizon of possibility for democracy, as if it were just an Idea (in a Platonic or regulative, Kantian, sense) that we must move towards. Rather the “to come” expresses the dislocation that structures the very possibility of democracy from within. The futural inference of the “to come” (à venir) is, however, significant. Derrida distinguishes between “the future” — thought of as a future-present, predictable and programmable — and the à venir which names an unforeseeable coming of the event, a rupture or disturbance that is unpredictable and open, without telos or knowable destination. The “to come” in Derrida’s formulation, then, points to a transformative and disruptive potential at the heart of democracy, it points to a promise of change in the here and now.

What, though, of democracy’s supposed “autoimmunity”? Are not all democratic efforts bound to a kind of self-destruction? Well, in a sense, yes. But unlike in the biological or medical context where autoimmunity induces destructive and potentially deadly consequences, Derrida sees a different shade to the logic of autoimmunity. Importantly for Derrida, autoimmunity reveals that absolute immunity is impossible: in an attempt to achieve absolutely protection, destruction ensues. If democracy were absolutely immune from compromise, it would be absolutely sovereign, unchanging, inert, lifeless. Autoimmunity, paradoxically, gives democracy life and play, it nurtures an openness to what is “to come,” to the possibility of infinite recasting, reworking and reiteration.

We can see, then, that Derrida’s approach to democracy has two interrelated aims. His first gesture inquires into the conditions of possibility for democracy, revealing an aporia or contradiction at its heart. In this sense a critical distance must be observed when it comes to democracy as it is currently understood, practiced and reproduced. Lazy proclamations of democracy having been achieved or perfected in current regimes and practices must be radically questioned and displaced. A second gesture in his thinking of the democracy to come — with the emphasis now on the to come — urges for intervention, disruption, transformation and resistance. It calls for an engagé manner, a precipitous intervention in the here and now that opens democracy to a radically different horizon.

Derrida, then, uses the notion of the democracy to come not simply to describe the way in which modern democratic politics falls short of its proclaimed ideals (though it is clear that Derrida wants to retain this inference) but democracy is “to come” in a much more radical sense. The autoimmuniary flaw to democracy is the very thing that opens the possibility of a democratic future. This opening to the future, it must be stressed, is not blindly optimistic, as if there are only better, more democratic days ahead. Derrida’s syntagm names the necessary coming of the future, both the best and the very worst. And whilst offering no normative guidance or assurances, Derrida does point to a necessary restlessness at the heart of democracy, the urgency of the need for ongoing work and engagement. Democracy in this sense would always be “coming,” always a site of promise and open potential. We might name this understanding of democracy, following a definition of socialism favoured by the recently passed Hugo Chavez, as democracy without end.

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING

There is a huge amount written on Derrida’s approach to democracy as well as deconstruction and politics, more generally. I note here the most significant and/or accessible texts only.

Works by Derrida

  • Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (London: Routledge, 2010). The first two chapters are particularly useful for exploring the relationship between justice, presence and democracy. On the democracy to come in particular see chapter 2, especially pp. 73–83.
  • The Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 2005). This difficult text engages readings of Aristotle, Schmitt, Nietzsche, Blanchot, and Nancy on the question of friendship, fraternity, community and democracy. See particularly, chapters 1–4 and chapter 6, 9 and 10.
  • Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005). This is perhaps the most thorough and accessible elaboration of Derrida’s thinking on democracy. Chapters 3 and 8 specifically deal with the notion of “the democracy to come”. On the question of equality and freedom — including an important engagement with Nancy’s reading of “fraternity” and “liberty” — see chapters 4 and 5.
  • “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” in Acts of Religion ed. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 228-298. For a discussion of democracy in relation to Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” and Derrida’s conception of law and justice, see pp. 278–293 in particular.

Works by other authors

  • Alex Thomson Deconstruction and Democracy (London: Continuum, 2005). For a thorough assessment of Derrida’s thinking with particular reference to The Politics of Friendship see part 1 and 2. Helpfully, Thomson compares Derrida’s conception of democracy with liberal and radical approaches to democracy.
  • Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Particularly useful for comparing Derrida’s thinking with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s work, see chapter 5.
  • Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010). Though very much Nancy’s own intervention this touches on a number of Derrida’s concerns regarding democracy.
  • Michael Naas, Derrida From Now On (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008). Particularly, chapters 6, 7, 8 and 10.
  • Geoffrey Bennington, Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction (London: Verso, 1994).
  • Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac eds., Derrida and the Time of the Political (London: Duke University, 2009).
  • Martin McQuillan ed., The Politics of Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy (London: Pluto Press, 2007).
  • Matthias Fritsch, “Derrida’s Democracy to Come” Constellations Vol 9, 4 pp. 574–597

Daniel Matthews is a PhD candidate at the Birkbeck Law School, University of London where he teaches Contract Law. 

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  5 comments for “The Democracy To Come: Notes on the Thought of Jacques Derrida

  1. Sarah
    14 September 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks! This just helped me with my dissertation. Cited you…

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  3. Henk Nijsingh
    25 July 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Good summery. Thanks, made some things more clear to me.

  4. Henk Nijsingh
    25 July 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks, good summary. Made some things more clear to me.

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