In Democracy in the Political Present: A Queer-Feminist Theory, Isabell Lorey argues that emancipatory politics today rests on forging democracy in the present tense. Initiating a valuable exchange between political activism and political theory, the book offers a concrete vision of action guided and instructed by queer-feminist protest movements, writes Julius Schwarzwälder.
Democracy in the Political Present: A Queer-Feminist Theory. Isabell Lorey. Verso. 2022.
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From the neoliberal seizing of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) issues through corporate ‘woke-washing’ to populist pretensions to represent ‘the true people’, questions of political representation are as troublesome as they are omnipresent. Isabell Lorey’s Democracy in the Political Present: A Queer-Feminist Theory suggests that we find ourselves increasingly at a dead end, since the way we frame problems of representation is itself deeply problematic. Lorey constructs a resolute argument that the duty of an emancipatory politics today lies in finding a political agenda that goes beyond representation and the formation of collective identities as its method and goal.
‘Presentist democracy’ is, according to Lorey, the name of the political project that is best suited to take up this task. Her latest book, the culmination of more than a decade of work, gradually fills out this concept. She brings the practical experiences of political activists into continuous dialogue with the analytical reflections of a strand of political theory flying under the banner of ‘radical democracy’.
Theories of radical democracy presume that every conception of democracy is itself already a matter of political negotiation and debate. There can be no stable, transhistorical account of the right form and values of democracy since these questions are forever to be answered anew. This position has often been criticised as a refusal of theorists to engage with concrete affairs, indicative of political impotence and conceptual vagueness. A great quality of Lorey’s proposal of a presentist democracy is that she offers a concrete vision of action guided and instructed by queer-feminist protest movements.
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The book is divided into six chapters with some brief introductory remarks. The first five chapters each correspond to one theorist from whom Lorey takes a central concept. She discusses Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musings on assembly, Jacques Derrida’s formula of the ‘democracy to come’, Walter Benjamin’s figure of the ‘Now-Time’, Michel Foucault’s notion of the ‘infinitive present’ as well as Antonio Negri’s ideas on constitutive power and the multitude. The final chapter recounts relations between autonomy, care and debt under neoliberalism from a historically informed queer theoretical perspective, concluding with six steps of the ‘irregular contours’ (144) of presentist democracy.
Lorey’s concept of the present takes off from an activist aspiration: ‘democracy to come does not allow any deferral in time’ (57) and it ‘does not have to be postponed to the future’ (144). She proposes to reconfigure what forms of organisation are deemed properly political – a tale as old as feminism. Lorey steers against the liberal logic that movements only succeed if they translate their energies into a form legible for parliamentary politics. Instead, through a complicated set of philosophical manoeuvres in the chapter on Foucault, she urges us to put a premium on forms of organisation that manage to operate without ‘the subordination of many under the One’. Instead, they ‘enable the broad and enduring involvement of the many through radical inclusion’ in a non-unified ‘swarm of events’ (92).
The stakes of this pitch are made most apparent in the chapter on Rousseau, which is not by accident the longest one. In it, Lorey first takes great care to uncover his masculinist biases and their exclusionary implications. But, in a theoretical U-turn, Lorey holds that Rousseau ‘paradoxically supplied the first aspects for a queer-feminist understanding of democracy that makes do without a people’ (22). Far from the authoritarian collectivist that Rousseau is occasionally treated as, especially in references to his theory of the general will (volonté general), Lorey discovers in his 1758 letter to French philosopher d’Alembert a suitable mentor for a critique of political representation.
In this letter, Rousseau pleads against the plans to have a theatre built in his hometown, Geneva, since he fears that it will lead to moral decay. He contrasts the stern, solemn and passivising experience that the theatre offers with the vibrancy, comingling and gaiety of the festival, in which ‘spokespeople and mediators are not necessary’ (40). Lorey uses this opposition as the starting point for her reconstruction of the grounds of democracy. Usually, democracies are understood as the rule of a self-governing demos. In the shadow of the demos, however, remains the multitudo: the ‘countless many’ who are ‘dispersed and difficult to govern’ and ‘have always been seen as a threat’ (16). In Rousseau’s dynamic and playful festival, Lorey finds a model for a democracy that evades the pitfalls of representation by favouring spontaneity and relative invisibility.
Lorey sees this form of democracy, present in the assembly of the multitude, as embodied in a number of protest movements. Among others, she mentions the Paris Commune, the Movimiento 15-M in Spain as well as Occupy. These all, for her, fundamentally break with the idea of a democratic movement needing to wed itself to a united demos to be effective. One should note, however, that her position on these issues is not without its critics. In the German-speaking context, Juliane Rebentisch and Marina Martinez Mateo have offered forceful defences of a representative democracy open to plurality and transformation. It is instructive to trace how they too engage in a critical discussion of Rousseau’s argument for the festival, only to arrive at vastly different results than Lorey. Both see representation as unavoidable for any foundation of political sovereignty, and thus something to be attentively cared for instead of neglected.
Finally, there is a last question that Lorey must face. Since hers is a work that attempts to take seriously a present that does not content itself with being postponed, should it not assure us that it is open to all methods available to tackle this very present’s demands? How, for instance, are we to approach the striking climate catastrophe if not by an imperfect body of global governance? Do we need to abandon these systems completely, or should we, begrudgingly, at least partially play with the cards we are dealt with? Are the people in Ukraine best helped by being advised to ‘de-subjectivise’, as Lorey contended in April 2022? Or might it not be the case that Russia’s imperialist claim to hegemony leaves no alternative than for the people of Ukraine to assert themselves as Ukrainians in an emphatic sense?
There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, which makes them all the more worth engaging with. It is to Lorey’s credit that she has initiated an exchange between political activism and political theory, placing them on an equal footing, although it is unclear whether this suffices for an all-inclusive account of the possibilities open to emancipatory politics today. If it does not, then the book at the least offers an elaborate sketch of a form of political organisation that has hitherto been neglected as well as a scathing critique of the representationalist paradigm that needs to be taken into account whenever inclusion is spoken of too frivolously.
- This review first appeared at LSE Review of Books.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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