#10- 34 In defense of representation


Steve Edwards // Two critiques of representation (against lamination)

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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.

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