A little story has developed in the circles of the political and artistic avant-garde. It is more often spoken and heard than written and read, but it constitutes the background common sense for much thinking about politics today. This assumption suggests that the critique of representation and the critique of parliamentary representation (bourgeois democracy) are equivalent and coeval. In politics (the Occupy movement, for example) this entails the rejection of any representative or spokesperson, in favour of horizontal decision-making, whereas the rejection of bourgeois formal democracy for some contemporary artists and critics suggests the necessity of an exodus from the bourgeois art world of museums, galleries and all their trimmings. Involvement in this system is imagined to be undemocratic, since it entails working in hierarchical institutions, dependence on capital (whether state or private in form) and assuming to represent, or speak for, others. Autonomy in politics is equated with autonomy in art. Followed through, the alternative would be something like direct democracy in art: soviets of artists, workers and soldiers deputies, which would certainly not be a bad thing. However, the story rests on an imaginative process that laminates distinct critiques (practices and ideas). In order to think about this composite we need to begin by examining the constituent layers.

The first critique

The first critique counterposes direct democracy to parliamentary or representative democracy. Consideration of the state form aside, revolutionary socialists presuppose a basic criticism of parliamentary or representative democracy. [1] Liberal capitalism has bought for the citizens of most western states constitutional rights (formal equality of citizens, freedom of contract, equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech) and universal suffrage (one person one vote, secret ballot, payment of representatives, set terms of office and so forth). In this form of democracy, politicians ‘represent’ blocs of voters, and governments are formed from alliances of politicians in parties. The politicians are usually educated middle-class professionals (often lawyers) and businessmen who are closely connected to their class. Domenico Losurdo has argued liberalism, which constitutes the backbone of this system, is, in fact, a Herrenvolk democracy or a democracy of gentlemen. It is predicated on what he calls a ‘community of the free’, a select group — typically property-owning gentlemen — to whom democratic rights are believed to apply exclusively. [2] The democracy of these gentlemen is a democracy of property. The separation of public and private life is at the core of this politics, with property and economic activity reserved for the private sphere. The democratic gentlemen could be, and often were, slave owners, employers of factory children, domestic tyrants. But for liberalism, these are private matters, beyond the reach of the state. The gentlemen could espouse democracy and uphold slavery at the same time, because slaves were not thought to be part of the community. The same might apply to workers and women. Those outside this elite community had no rights or possessed strictly delimited rights. Capitalism can work perfectly well without democratic representation, but liberal democracy comes with exclusion clauses of its own.

What Losurdo does not consider is that this liberal democracy is predicated on a theory of representation. This is the idea of coverage or couverture (as it was outlined in relation to women’s property) in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in the eighteenth century. This philosophy of coverage was central to the exclusion clauses of liberal thought and practice. Workers, women, slaves (and even the middle class) were denied political representation, because their interests were deemed to be covered by propertied gentleman better qualified to make decisions on their behalf. So in liberal thought and practice, workers, women and slaves are deemed to be represented, whether they possess the vote or not, because the presence of superior gentlemen in government already encompasses their welfare and happiness. Struggles for democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth century extended the franchise to the excluded, but bourgeois democracy retained the model of coverage. Elected politicians are stewards for the people they represent, and political sovereignty is vested in these representatives and not in the people. From the outset Marx understood this:

‘it is not possible for all as individuals to take part in the legislature. The political state leads an existence divorced from civil society. For its part, civil society would cease to exist if everyone became a legislator. On the other hand, it is opposed by a political state which can only tolerate a civil society that conforms to its own standards. In other words, the fact that civil society takes part in the political state through its deputies is the expression of the separation and of the merely dualistic unity’. [3]

Representation as coverage — a ‘dualistic unity’ — produces a split subject: an active economic subject and a passive (anti)political subject. Liberal democracy reserves politics for parliament and representatives; the people are simply an externality through which legitimacy for government is secured. The universal claims of liberal democracy are predicated on coverage and, as a consequence, any mass political activity outside the sphere of the executive can be deemed interfering, obstructive or even illegitimate. Liberal democracy is democracy in the metaphoric mode.

The tradition of socialism from below is based on an entirely other principle of representation. Direct democracy has a long history, arguably reaching back to ancient Athens, but it was the event of the Paris Commune that fused this political form with socialism. Marx grasped that the political innovations inaugurated by the Commune as a ‘working body’ created the basis for the socialist democracy to come, calling it ‘a new point of departure of world-wide importance’. [4] In a key passage that indicates some relevant principles he wrote:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal [male] suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wages. [5]

Mandated delegates, subject to recall, on a worker’s wage — the event of the Commune has to be seen in the future anterior; it became the prism through which revolutionary democracy, subordinating property rights to life, was perceived and measured. This council form of democracy became the constitutive space of all those who live under the domination of capital.

It was probably the Dutch Social Democrat Anton Pannekoek who revived and propagated this conception, which was taken up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In any case, soviets of soldiers and workers deputies sprang up during the 1905 revolution in Russia and again in 1917. In the revolutionary upheavals that followed, workers councils developed in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, China and Spain. Every serious social upheaval since has thrown up workers councils as the nucleus of another democracy. [6] The politics of socialism from below, in its Leninist descent (continued today by various Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist groups) or the alternative council communist or Tribunist lineage (Pannekoek, Hermann Gorter, Otto Rühle, Slyvia Pankhurst and their anarcho-communist and ultra-left progeny), contrasts this active democracy to the separation and passivity endemic to the democracy of the gentlemen. [7] So far, this is familiar enough history.

The point is that this version of representation differs markedly from liberal democracy, not only in the active involvement of the excluded, but also in the way it constitutes politics and political subjects. Council democracy has often been a fleeting form crushed by the powers of capital, so my account considers this experience in its ideal form. Representation in council form is not predicated on coverage, but on delegation. The delegate from workplace, local area or oppressed group (we can easily imagine LGBT delegates) is mandated to represent the views and interests of those who nominate them. The delegate is a cipher, a speaking embodiment of the working majority. This synecdochic process of delegation gives another meaning for the proletariat’s ‘radical chains’; it generates politics at each of its interconnecting links through to its base, because the process of mandating delegates creates debate, dispute and conflict at each point. The council is a constitutive forum of antagonism, both in opposition to the gentlemen and in the labouring demos itself. But the council form of politics, as a practice of synecdochic representation, is a form of contiguity not partition. This means that the political authority of the demos is in two places at once: it is vested in the supreme council of delegates and in the dispersed and differentiated active constituency. In contrast to liberal democracy, this does not suppose a formal separation of economic from political subjects or any necessary active/passive split. Scandalously from the perspective of the liberal gentleman, public and private life are not sundered.

The General Assemblies of today continue this critique of representative democracy and claim to extend direct democracy beyond the council form to mass participation in which a totality of participants emerges without leadership or tribune. As one report on the G8 protests put it:

Many people in the protest movement reject the notion of representation altogether, arguing instead that the only adequate representative of the population is the population itself. The wish for a kind of non-sovereign power constituted by the collective ‘will of the multitude’ is behind various aspects of the culture of G8 protest, from the scrupulously non-hierarchical, non-majoritarian decision making in the camp to the anger at the presumption of those leftists who presume to act as the voice of those standing behind them in the march. [8]

In so far as this passage makes a universal claim, it is through reference to the ‘population’. However, appeal to the ‘population’, Marx argues, is precisely the wrong place from which to begin; it is a ‘chaotic conception of the whole’. It is against this empty ‘abstraction’ that he made his call for ‘a rich totality of many determinations and relations’ [9]; a formulation that has been the basis for an anti-reductionist conception of totality in Althusser, E.P. Thompson and many other thinkers on the left. [10] Nevertheless, the utopian dimension of this non-representational democracy is its strength; it envisages an active polity of fully engaged subjects. What is more, it attempts to practice this form of anti-representational and anti-hierarchical politics here and now. In its actuality it suggests a vision of another future. By rejecting representation this politics postulates autonomy for the subject; the creation of active life outside or beyond the interpellative processes of capital and the state. This imaginary political subject is not only autopoetic, but autotelic.

The second critique

The second critique is the artistic or philosophical critique of representation. From Plato on, suspicion of representation as a form of artifice and seduction has played a significant role in western thought. Questioning the logic of representation has been central to much post-Kantian philosophy and, in an important sense, modern art in its totality entailed a break with mimetic picturing. In the interests of clarity I simply want to outline three forms of this critique prominent today.

As the first thread we can take the political modernist critique of representation (across its three moments: the inter-war years; the 1970s; and the early twenty-first century). Political modernism challenges naturalised forms of representation with the aim of calling into being an actively engaged and critical audience. This encompasses such classic avant-garde ideas as the shift from composition to construction or from portrait to series; revealing the apparatus and laying bare the device; disjunction of image/text; breaking up diegesis; pictorial fragmentation and montage; direct address to the beholder; breaking empathy or identification; and dispersing point of view. These are the techniques of alienation, estrangement and the Verfremundungs-effekt associated with the names Brecht and Godard among many others. In the place of soporific naturalised representation, political modernism attempts to create a politics of disturbance that might build a new critical realism.

In opposition to the scientific pretensions of structuralism, a wave of poststructuralist thinkers questioned the possibility of representation. Whether it be the analysis of rhetorical effects and the focus on the false coherence of images and texts, the critique of transcendental signifiers, the focus on disintegrating chains of signification or the claims for an endless parade of simulacra without origin or prior ground, a profound suspicion of representation underpins poststructuralist thought. From the inaccessibility of the Real in Lacanian psychoanalysis to Lyotard’s version of the sublime as a scene of ‘disaster’, in which the history of the twentieth century turns around the calculated annihilation of the European Jews, poststructuralism (in all its variety) finds the same story everywhere, constantly reiterating an account about the fundamental inadequacy of representation.

The third thread, which may draw on the Brechtian political variant or the poststructuralist one, or both, is the ethical challenge to representation, which came to prominence across a range of disciplines during the 1970s, including art practice. The central question here is: who claims the right to speak in the name of the subaltern other? At its most simplistic the ethical critique turns on the idea of ‘misrepresentation’. In some more sophisticated instances, such as history from below or subaltern studies, it draws political impetus from Gramsci to interrogate the coded presence of the subaltern in the archives of power and state; in others, it shades towards a Nietzschean suspicion of representation as a ruse of the will to power. In its different versions this perspective suggests that representation substitutes one voice for another more authentic or oppressed one. Representation appears as ventriloquism, a mystagogic throwing of the voice.

Against lamination

We thus have two political critiques of liberal democracy and three philosophical or artistic critiques of representation. Potentially, they can be conjoined in any permutation and there is nothing necessarily immanent in these combinations. For instance, political modernism has always drawn force and energy from the actuality of the council form. We need to pay attention to the possible configurations to see if they will bond, and what problems and contradictions result from particular laminations. No doubt, part of the issue here is the translation or conflation of Darstellung (to show, portray or depict), Vorstellung (presentation or ‘placing before’) and Repräsentanz (a ‘representative’ or ‘delegate’). In the case of the current anti-representational politics, I envisage several problems with the current lamination.

First, the current anti-representational politics runs together distinct kinds of project and claim: proceeding by analogy or metaphor, it laminates the communist critique of representative democracy with the ethical critique (the edict against speaking for others) or epistemological, and cultural critiques of representation. But what exactly is meant to be commensurable in, let us say, Lyotard’s claim that the Holocaust is unrepresentable, a realist photographic practice and an electoral process? And while political modernism denaturalises representation and calls for active engagement, in its best articulations it remains realist. It is worth noting that the ethical critique is not a moratorium on speaking for others, but a point of interrogation into who exactly claims the right to speak in the name of the subaltern subject and the form of politics this legitimates. Jacques Rancière has rightly noted that if we abandon the categories of people or class, ‘forms of naked, unsymbolizable hatred of the other’ occupy the vacated space; these alternative visions of ‘the people’ are usually ‘racist, xenophobic resurgences, based on the claim to identity’. [11] When socialists abandon hegemonic claims (representation) there are often very serious consequences.

Secondly, drawing on the participation/representation opposition in post-relational aesthetics, some artists and theorists advocate a move beyond the representation — said to be passive — into unmediated action. Here, depiction in any form (representation in painting, photographs or video) is equated with bourgeois democracy. In this case, the claim in art for participation in opposition to representation involves the repetition of a certain modernist fantasy of an escape from language into a realm of immediate experience. This is not without its charms. [12] It is, though, deeply paradoxical given that the theoretical resources mobilised to support such a proposition are themselves suspicious of any appeal to a realm of experience outside of representation. It is also contains a performative contradiction. Participation in art or even in the current General Assemblies is a metaphoric activity: it is a synecdoche for an alternative active democracy. (It is not the least power of the workers councils that they are representative in this other sense — symbolisations of another power.). This elision need not in itself become a problem: the claims of the radical avant-garde have often been based on such conflations. It is important to understand, however, that the current critique of political/artistic representation is a metaphoric process of ‘seeing as’. Representative democracy is seen as if it were a language form or an image; cultural practice is seen as if it were mass democratic politics. Representation will always re-emerge in any art or politics that seeks to leave it behind.

Thirdly, there is what we might call the logistical problem. Modern societies with large populations necessarily require complex economic and logistical planning. Even under the cloak of laissez faire, this means managing flows of resources, goods and people; dealing with health and welfare provision; scheduling and controlling roads, railways, shipping and air traffic; responsibility for national defence; monitoring food standards, environmental impact, health and safety at work, governing anti-social activity and a thousand-and-one other things. In his 1843 critique of Hegel’s doctrine of state, Marx wrote: ‘a cobbler is my representative in so far as he satisfies a social need’. [13] This certainly applies to air traffic-controllers and container-terminal operators. Here we face the problem discussed by Engels in his important essay ‘On Authority’. Engels insists, against those he calls ‘autonomists’, that ‘a certain authority’ and with it ‘a certain subordination’ are necessitated by ‘the material conditions under which we produce and make products circulate’. He suggests ‘authority and autonomy are relative things’, and ‘the autonomists’, rather than reject authority, really ought to restrict ‘themselves to saying that the social organisation of the future would restrict authority solely to the limits within which the conditions of production render it inevitable.’ [14] Equality and non-hierarchical social forms call for delegated authority. [15] The General Assemblies of the Occupy movement are, in one dimension, a powerful invocation of a possible democracy, but to imagine them as a general model for a future society is to toy with a breakdown of social reproduction and subsistence crisis. This is a model for people with time on their hands. Implicit in this conception is a primitivism that (openly or not) envisages a return to the village commune with its immediacy and simplicity of social relations. The dialogue at the heart of this democratic procedure is based on proximity, on face-to-face discussion. New technology and social media might be invoked here, but we are then cast back on the terrain of representation. (It is odd that phone technology is not seen as a representational form in this politics). A communist society can be much more democratic than anything we have previously seen, but it is also likely to be more not less complex and involve delegation and the utilisation of specialist skills. It is just silly to imagine that these logistical matters can be decided on the model of the assembly: the food would perish in the time it takes to make the decision. Those who genuinely wish to build a new society face difficult decisions, often entailing responsibility for the lives of many others.

Finally, the rejection of representation and fetishisation of consensus makes it difficult to envisage a collective force capable of challenging capital; unanimity tends to replace unity in action and real conflicts of interests are masked. It is not obvious how anti-representational politics can found such a politics, because naming collective life entails recourse to both figuration and exemplification. In opposition to horizontal decision-making, Bruno Bosteels has argued that we need once more to be able to speak the collective, to be able to say ‘we’. Drawing his example from the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Bosteels argues that the public expression of ‘we’, instead of displacing the people, creates a constitutive space in which the people (or other collectives) can emerge. To employ the collective pronoun is to represent. It necessarily entails claiming to speak for more than the self. For Bosteels, the slogan ‘We are the 99%’ creates such a space for collective struggle in a way that anti-representational politics cannot. [16] In contradistinction to Bosteels, I continue to believe that the ‘proletariat’ names the antagonism at the heart of capitalism and the slogan ‘We are the 99%’ postulates a false unity, but his insistence on the collective pronoun is right and necessary. Radical thought in art, and beyond it, now needs to be able to consider the legacies of the distinct critiques of representation in their specificity. Creating the space for collective action against capitalism will involve a process of delamination. That is just to say we need to think politically about representation.


* Special thanks to Alberto Toscano for all his comments and suggestions.

1. For an excellent account of socialism from below as the politics of working-class self-emancipation in opposition to statist and parliamentary socialism, see Hal Draper, ‘Two Souls of Socialism’ (1966), published as a pamphlet by Bookmarks, 1997, or available on the Marxist Internet Archive at https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm.

2. Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter History, London: Verso, 2011.

3. Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’, Early Writings, Penguin, 1975, p. 189.

4. Karl Marx, Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann, April 17, 1871, in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 248.

5. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, in Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Writings on the Paris Commune, Hal Draper, ed., Monthly Review Press, 1971, p. 73.

6. For an overview of the history of workers councils since 1968, see Colin Barker, Revolutionary Rehearsals, Chicago: Haymarket, 2008.

7. Incidentally, it is worth noting for the ultra-left critics of representation that ‘tribunes’ are representatives, too.

8. Hari Kunzru, ELAM and Mute, ‘Make Representation History (G8 Report)’, 21 July 2005, accessed at https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/make-representation-history-g8-report.

9. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), (1857–58), Penguin, 1973, p. 100.

10. I am not convinced that politics can entail a ‘non-sovereign power’ and it is not at all clear that a non-representative practice can be equated with ‘the collective will of the multitude’. A multitude is by definition a collective and if it possesses a will it must be externalised, that is, represented. 11. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Political Form of Democracy’, Documenta X: The Book, Cantz Verlag, 1997, p. 804.

12. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (1953), New York: Hill & Wang, 1968; T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999; and Steve Edwards, Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate representational systems, Afterall, 2012. See also Stewart Martin’s related criticism of the illusions of presence underpinning relational aesthetics: Stewart Martin, ‘Critique of Relational Aesthetics’, Third Text, vol. 21, no. 4, 2007, pp. 369–86.

13. Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’ (1843), Early Writings, Penguin, 1975, p. 189.

14. Frederick Engels, ‘On Authority’, 1872, accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/10/authority.htm.

15. See, for example, Cinzia Arruzza’s critique of the fetishisation of deliberative democratic procedure in the Occupy movement: ‘A Road Trip from the West Coast to the East Coast… and Back’, Occupy, No. 3, 2011, pp. 28–30.

16. Bruno Bosteels, ‘The Leftist Hypothesis: Communism in the Age of Terror’, in On the Idea of Communism, Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek, eds., London: Verso, 2010; J.E. Hamilton, ‘“Criticizing the Critique of Representation”: Bruno Bosteels at Occupy Boston’, The Boston Occupier, 6 December, 2011, accessed at https://bostonoccupier.com/2011/12/06/criticizing-the-critique-of-representation-bruno-bosteels-at-occupy-boston/. Bosteels also made this argument on the panel ‘In the Name of the People’ at the 8th Historical Materialism Conference: ‘Spaces of Capital, Moments of Struggle’ in London, November 2011.
Steve Edwards teaches art history at the Open University (UK). He is a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism. His most recent book is Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012).