This is a translation of a piece by Pablo Bustinduy, published 15 May 2013 in Público.
‘An inclusive but largely passive citizen body, embracing both elite and multitude, but whose citizenship would be limited in scope’
Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism.
1. In ancient Greece, freedom (eleutheria) meant: to be free from service. A citizen is whoever has no master and owes nothing to anyone, whoever need not sweat for another to rob him of the fruits of his time and his effort. Beneath, of course, was the body of slaves; behind was that of women and foreigners. In the centre of the square, however, the presence of the demos was scandalous: its rule was not based on lineage, wealth, intelligence or aptitude, but in socialised decision making and political reasoning, in the common power of the free people. Hence most political posts were assigned by drawing lots, and the principal discussions were submitted to the shouts of the assembly: because he who does not work for a tyrant does not entrust him with the ability to decide in his place.
2. In modern democracies, the ‘rule of the people’ becomes the rule of its representatives, and the people a fiction for which equality consists of the vote of an oligarch and that of a worker being of exactly the same value. Everything that separates them –their work, their income and relations, the power that they exercise or is exercised over them, disappears by magic from the political scene. In capitalist democracy, the demos is a smooth, homogeneous, cold surface, where social life leaves no trace and everyone has the same right to not do (almost) anything (almost) ever. But the Greeks had already said that every city carries two other cities within it, that not everyone lives in the same conditions nor do they have the same possibilities. Hence the people is at once the name of the lower classes and the entire social body: because that body is cracked within.
3. In parliament, democracy enters a closed off place that seeks to have the monopoly over what is legal and what is legitimate (it is no coincidence that the parliaments of the South of Europe are shielded by armour: this is in the final instance the porousness of the ‘political sphere’). The representative fiction by principle depoliticises everything that remains outside it. Hence escraches are “pure Nazism” and the million signatures for the referendum on health care are a “parody”. On the other side of that frontier, however, there are more and more people who no longer have cause to maintain the social pact. It is a historic block (in the near tectonic sense of plates of rupture, of a continent that seeks to give itself its own shape) that is growing and is more solid than what one might think. The paradox is that the more pressure it applies against the limit, the more it reaches its own border, its own moments of overflow and definition.
4. In a commentary on the lessons of revolution, Trotsky says that in this kind of situation there are usually two activities that come to the fore which force a retreat rather than a leap forward. The first can find nothing around it but faults, difficulties and impossibilities for movement; the second only sees an obstacle when it splits its head against it. One sees mountains everywhere; the other is convinced that the “ocean is only knee deep” Spinoza said that hope and fear are two symmetrical versions of a single paralysis, of the same inability to act. It is likely that finding a mid-point between these two extremes is today a prerequisite for addressing the problem of organisation.
5. The situation has become more and more unpredictable. The unity of the demos, spoken of so much, is never pre-ordained: it is a dialectical, contradictory process, which advances by disabling limits, exerting force against them, rendering them useless. Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic write in Beyond Democracy:
‘In Petrograd, in 1917, and with 90,000 textile workers (men and women) already on strike, one of the detonators of the revolution was a demonstration of women who, on the 23rd of February, became sick of queuing in front of bakeries and decided to stand outside the head offices of the municipal Duma to demand bread (…) On the way they blocked the trams and stopped outside the doors of factories and offices, inciting, mostly successfully, for work to stop. It is an example of how ‘domestic’ and ‘worker’ categories can be mixed together, the workplace and the space outside it, the occupation of the firm and the Street; it is to create a threshold from which everything can be placed under discussion. At a more modest level, as soon as a breach opens up in reality opens up there can be a surge of that ‘fraternal disorder’ (Babeuf) that produces a community of struggle. In Rouen, in 1968 and after having been invited to stop work, the employees of a shopping street start to debate at street level; any passer-by who wishes joins them, without anyone asking them who they are or in whose name they speak. Frontiers only govern as long as routines govern.’
Processes can occur at many levels and with different logics: what is essential is the gathering of forces in the instant that trajectories cross, when frontiers can be overwhelmed and things can be placed under discussion.