A dialogue on democracy and the republic – Part One

Originally posted on Irish Left Review, 29th October 2013. I will be publishing the second part either today or tomorrow.


Renewing the republic, rebuilding the republic, a new republic, a Second Republic, how stands the republic: it all circulates in the verbal debris of Ireland’s political and economic crisis, but what does all this republic stuff mean nowadays? And what is to be done with it? I wanted to pursue the idea of the republic in relation to the wider Eurozone crisis. What follows is the first part of a dialogue with philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop on the idea of the republic.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop taught modern philosophy in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid from 1981 to 1986. He translated Spinoza’s correspondence into Spanish and, as a member of the Association des Amis de Spinoza, has taken part in seminars and congresses in France and Italy. He is currently working as a senior translator in the Council of the European Union and is specialized in foreign policy matters. He is an advisory editor of the review Décalages (on Althusserian studies). He writes in European and Latin-American publications on Spinoza, Althusser, modern philosophy and political philosophy. His latest book is La dominación liberal (Liberal Domination. Essay on liberalism as a power apparatus) (Tierra de Nadie, Madrid, 2010). He is currently linked to the Philosophy Center of the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is preparing a PhD on Spinoza in Althusser. His blog, in Spanish, is Iohannes Maurus.

Irish Left Review: The explosion of the 15-M in the Spanish State in 2011 began with the slogan Real Democracy Now! as its focus. It appealed to the sense among growing sectors of the population that the existing political order, despite claims to the contrary, was not democracy, given that decisive political power rested with powerful political and financial elites. This conflict opened up between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ democracy -between the appearance of the multitude in public squares and the police forces sent in to batter and criminalise and protect the existing regime- in seems to support Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that ‘democracy is not a form of state’.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop: One of the main problems the 15M had to face after its sudden appearance is the lack of a real political culture. There was indeed an important pars destruens in the action and the reflection by the 15M: they recognized, after decades of the so-called “culture of the transition” based on the idea of a “consensus on the need for a consensus”, that no democracy could ever work without a real place for antagonism.


Unfortunately, in post-Franco Spain, a tight consensus was imposed by both Right and Left on two basic tenets: that there is no alternative to market economy and that a very particular brand of representative democracy based on strict partitocracy, with hardly any direct political participation from the citizen, was the only game in town. Beyond these limits lay the Hell of economic “irresponsibility” and, even worse, the Hell of terrorism. All the anti-democratic features of the Spanish regime could be in some way or other concealed behind the “necessary compromises” of the “young democracy”, but after more than three decades, the much admired “young democracy” didn’t grow into an actually democratic form of government. In a country where the Left traded real citizens’ empowerment in for its integration in the system and a broad liberty in moral matters -as symbolized by Madrid’s “movida” and Almodovar’s films- everything remained quiet until the advent of the crisis.

There is no doubt that the 2008 financial and economic crisis revealed the regime as what it really is to large social sectors, mainly younger educated people, most of them the sons and daughters of working class families. For one month the 15M occupied the central square of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol, in some way imitating the north-African movements against tyrannical and semi-colonial dictatorships. People suddenly noticed a certain parallel between despotic oligarchical regimes and what until then had featured as a European democracy. Like in the neo-colonial world, the Spanish government acted in behalf of economic and financial powers entirely alien to the Spanish people, which saw itself obliged to pay back a debt it had never decided to take out. The very difference between what democracy is supposed to be, i.e., empowerment of the citizens and active participation in public decision-making, and the reality of an autocratic pro-finance regime became apparent. And people reacted.

This reaction had, in fact, a very important “epistemological effect”. Beyond the fact that people discovered that “what they call democracy is no such thing” (lo llaman democracia y no lo es), they added that “They” (those in power) “do not represent us”. People in the Spanish squares discovered that not only were the people currently in charge not representative of the social majorities, but moreover, that in no way whatsoever are people “representable’ by the parliament or the government. Democracy was certainly reclaimed, but not the sort prevailing in today’s Spain. People peacefully struggled in the Spanish 15M movement for a democracy which cannot be mere representation, and which needs the resistance of the people to be a real democracy. Machiavelli said in the Discourses on Titus Livius’ first Decade that freedom in the Roman Republic didn’t come from a perfect constitution, from a perfect order, but from conflict (tumultus) and resistance. Spinoza said the same in his Political Treatise. This line of thought, the materialist tradition of freedom, inspired many people with hardly any relation to philosophy. People were fed up of being considered as terrorists when not agreeing with the basic principles of the Spanish constitution of 78, and vitally needed to express their social interest in a political context where this interest has no legal means of expression.

When people discover and feel their own power, I think democracy ceases to appear as Rancière rightly says “a form of State”. Democracy is not a set of institutions under a legal constitutional frame, but the very existence of politics. Politics is not the mere management of a given population according to pre-established shares of power allowed to the different parts of society. This exhaustive sharing of the social parts and its conservation is not politics proper, but what Jacques Rancière calls “police”, a conservative action which reproduces the sharing as definitive. For democracy -or what amounts to the same thing, politics- to exist, there must always exist “a share of the shareless” in society, so that simply anyone could take part in decision-making, regardless of qualifications. In practical terms this means that the people who, against the views of their “legitimate representatives” and the “economic experts”, rejected the Spanish public debt or some part of the private debt related to housing as illegitimate, ought to be able to voice their opinion and to influence the public decision-making or, even to make their own decisions on their daily life in their neighbourhoods. 15M has not died: it suffered a mutation, into hundreds of smaller people’s assemblies and powerful social movements called “Mareas” (literally: Tides): the Green Marea for Public Education, the White Marea for Public Health Services, and the Plataforma against the evictions (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, PAH: Platform of people affected by the Mortgages) defending the right to housing.

ILR: As these cracks opened up beyond the Spanish State and emerged in the US with the Occupy movement, and as the ruling powers enacted a repressive response that treated democratic expression with clinical contempt, one of the most interesting responses to this event came in my view from Amador Fernández-Savater. He used the example of Michael Collins. To be precise, he used the character of Michael Collins in the Neil Jordan film of the same name. In Fernández-Savater’s view, the best response was to take a cue from Collins’s actions in the film: to act as if the Irish Republic was a reality. To combat the British Empire by ignoring it. To stop obeying their rules and invent our own. In short, that the best counter-attack was to create a new reality, hence the creation of ‘the Republic of the 99%’.

JDSE: Amador has developed a very compelling vision of the current Spanish movement, moving from his operaist theoretical roots. He makes a very interesting point in distinguishing (at least implicitly) two forms of revolt -both described in the Bible-, insurrection and exodus. Insurrection is the typical -often violent- overthrowing of a given regime by the masses, exodus is the fact of these masses leaving the country where a despot like Pharaoh or the Assyrian king oppresses them. Exodus means seeking another land in which to create the new nation, a promised land as Palestine in the Bible or North America for the Pilgrim Fathers. The kind of exodus Amador defends is an “on the spot” one where people under a given political rule just pretend to ignore it and give themselves new rules. I think this is possible in some limited locations and for some limited time. As long as a State and its State apparatuses exist, these will produce their typical effects of normalization and integration of atypical behaviours in the main social frame. They will, in other words, reproduce the prevailing relations of production. You cannot just ignore the State, not because there is such a thing as a transcendent personification of society as a non-divided subject, a Leviathan or its liberal surrogates. This is a completely imaginary entity produced, just like the smaller, individual subjects, by the ideological state apparatuses. But an imaginary reality is not uneffective, mostly when sustained by very material realities as the school, the police, the army, the market or, of course the family.

As long as all this continues to work in a more or less coordinated way, the “free areas” of internal exodus won’t be able to expand or even to survive long. Sooner or later, one has to neutralize or even reverse the functioning of these apparatuses, not by “taking power”, since power is not a substance but only a relation, but by occupying the space of representation, of government. This is the only way to prevent these apparatuses from destroying the free space of exodus. I think that just ignoring the fact of power, even if imaginary, is not enough: one has to occupy government. However, this occupation should be based on the dynamics of the “free territory” and subservient to it. It is completely absurd to impose a social change from top down as the socialist experiences tried to do. Even neo-liberal capitalism does not try to do so, and has long opted, not for direct command, but for indirect government of social cooperation, through the means of finance and debt. A “people’s” government should be in permanent negotiation with the social movements and its task would be more to neutralize the State apparatuses and the production of the image of the State resulting from the ideological apparatuses, than actually commanding. A good example would be what García Oliver, an anarcho-syndicalist Spanish leader, did first when becoming minister of Justice under the Republic: destroying all the police and legal files related to revolutionaries….

RMcA: From an Irish perspective, there is a bitter historical irony to Fernández-Savater’s suggestion. Michael Collins is the sanctified hero of the ruling party Fine Gael, which is a member of the European People’s Party, alongside the Francoist Partido Popular. The partitioned State that Collins helped establish was an authoritarian backwater that preserved many of the worst aspects of British rule, and built on them, with a panoply of repressive disciplinary institutions -slave labour laundries for women, industrial schools, censorship, and an economic regime that protected banking and major industrial interests whilst crushing and criminalising democratic aspirations. Today in Ireland there is much attention devoted to the idea of ‘renewing’ the Republic, or even creating a ‘Real Republic’. A great deal of this attention, however, merely concerns reforming the institutions of the capitalist State so as to curb its excesses.

JDSE: I think the historical figure of Collins was somewhat deformed and magnified in the film. He was presented as a heroic possibilist opposed to so many fanatics. I’m not so sure it’s the truth. Accepting Home Rule was accepting some form of continuity of the British colonial regime in Ireland, just as so many Arab or African leaders did after formal independence. The British State apparatuses as existing in Ireland were in no way neutralized, but they were used -by Irishmen!- for the same tasks they were originally designed for. When you go to Morocco -where I was born- you can perfectly recognize the installations of the colonial French or Spanish troops now occupied by Moroccans doing exactly the same and for the same social forces. Destroying a social or a colonial rule cannot be carried out from above. Liberation needs to take root in social movements and free spaces, and government should be subordinated to these. Otherwise a formal liberation or independence -or exodus- can always be reversed. Take for instance Venezuela: the main weakness in this radical transformation process is precisely that too much has been entrusted to State and leadership, and too little to grassroots organization. The result of this could be that if the opposition forces win the next election, the process could be reversed, all the State-managed commons could easily be privatized, which would not be the case it managed by communities and social movements. I think we should urgently explore the possibility of creating an entire non-State “public sector”. If you saw the last film by Ken Loach, The Spirit of 45, you can easily understand the rationale for this need.

ILR: In one of your blog posts, you stress that the greatest damage done to Spanish republicanism is the ‘confusion of the Republic with a form of State’. I think this applies to Irish republicanism as well. However, most European capitalist states declare themselves republics. Do you think the idea of the republic allows for the creation of a new reality beyond capitalism? And if so, in what circumstances?

JDSE: I think this confusion can be very damaging to the reasoning behind republicanism. A Republic is sometimes identified with the absence of a Monarch, which it does require, but this is far from sufficient. Spinoza says in his Political Treatise that the Dutch overthrew the Count of Holland but never established a Republic proper. In order to exist, a republic must be founded on something positive, and this is perfectly understood once you translate the Latin term ‘res publica‘ (the thing public) as the British classics of the XVIIth century did, as “Commonwealth” or better “Common-wealth”. There are two traditions of the Common-wealth, one which insists on the hyphen and on the “commons” and another one -without the hyphen- which insists on a form of government without a king. For short, let’s say that the hyphenated common-wealth is based on the commons and the non-hyphenated on property. The most common form of republic we have known in modern and contemporary Europe until today is the republic of the property owner. One should realize that the two kinds of republic are completely different. A proprietary commonwealth or republic has as its main task the regulation of conflict among private owners. Property creates competition and conflict, the “civil war” prevailing -according to Hobbes and the subsequent mainstream political tradition- in the “state of nature”. A power is needed to control conflict and avoid mutual destruction, and this is why individuals, acting as rational actors, establish a covenant creating thereby a sovereign, that is, a force which cannot be matched by any other particular force. The only basis for the political community is thus human hostility and the only common reality is the common source of fear and obedience created by the covenant. Very abruptly summarized this is -as Antonio Negri calls it- the “blessed line” (La linea benedetta) of European political thought.

But where there is benediction, there is also malediction, and, there is an underground line of political thought, the one represented by Machiavelli, Spinoza, the first Rousseau (the author of the Discourse On the Origin of Inequality, as opposed to the author of The Social Contract) and Karl Marx. This line founds the political commonwealth -not to be confused with the State- in material cooperation, not property. Once you start from cooperation, the question of the origin of the common-wealth becomes superfluous. Human life is based on cooperation, not in the exchange of property. This community always already exists, and this should not be deduced from an imaginary “state of nature”, rightly criticized by Rousseau as a mere legitimating projection onto the past of the current state of things.

Such a common-wealth is based on the commons, in some natural commons used by the community of producers, but also on the common knowledge and skills originating in productive cooperation. From this point of view, the State as a separate entity can be seen as an imagined transcendent entity produced by certain corrupt social relations of cooperation. The commons, in other words, communism as Marx conceived it, lies under every human society as its material ground. In some way all societies are communist, and every republic, even the republic based on property, is ultimately dependent on the productive commons, on the common-wealth in its original meaning. Therefore, I think this kind of republic of the commons, this original common-wealth, is not “a new reality beyond capitalism”, but a very originary reality, underlying even capitalism itself. In a certain way, neo-liberal, post-Fordist capitalism is perfectly aware of this -much more than mainstream leftists- since it bases its current model of exploitation not in the single worker organized by capital inside the factory, but on a self-organized network of social productive cooperation, self-organized by the workers. Of course, the neoliberal parlance would never say it this way, but would rather speak of “entrepreneurship” or “self-entrepreneurship”, but what Gary Becker and human capital theory describe is merely spontaneous human cooperation, captured in the networks of capital, mostly of financial capital and debt. Our future depends on our ability to transform productive self-organization in political freedom under a “hyphenated” Common-wealth.


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