A Tale of Two Demoi: Boundaries, Democracy, and the Modern State
Research seminary of the Collège d'études mondiales
with Brian Milstein, post-doc int the chair Rethinking Social Justice, Nancy Fraser.
In recent years there has been a burgeoning debate over how to normatively affix the demos in democratic theory. The central idea of democracy is that the exercise of coercive political power is to remain subject to legitimation by “the people.” But who exactly does “the people” comprise? Who is entitled to participate in the “demos” that is constitutive of democracy?
For most of the modern period, the boundaries of the demos were always taken to correspond to those of the bounded territorial nation-state. It is sometimes claimed that the question of who does and who does not properly belong to the demos is itself “beyond” the reach of democratic theory—that because democracy already presupposes a demos, democracy cannot choose the demos. Thus, even though the boundaries of nation-states are not themselves democratically legitimate, they are “facts of history” about which democratic theory has nothing to say. In a globalizing age, however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the matter of the demos and its boundaries cannot escape scrutiny: whether or not someone gets to be included or excluded is simply too fundamental a question to be left to the contingencies of past history. If the question of the demos were once considered beyond the scope of democratic theory, today it is an inescapable part of it.
Yet there lies a problem in the way the demos tends to be conceptualized in democratic theory. My argument is that the demos we associate with democracy is caught between two different perspectives, a third-person, single-point perspective and a second-person, participant’s perspective. What I am calling third-person, single-point is the perspective from which the demos appears as a whole entity, a thing, a concrete and discrete totality. In John Ruggie’s words, it is the perspective from which “political space [comes] to be defined as it appear[s] from a single fixed viewpoint.” It is from this point of view that the demos becomes something that can be represented (and controlled) by a state. But a demos is also an association of ongoing relationships among thinking, speaking, and acting participants striving to organize a common life together. From this second-person point of view, the demos is not intrinsically tied to the perspective of the state; rather, it is constituted through the numerous person-to-person relationships that participants in social action negotiate among each other.
My argument is that much of democratic theory still remains captive to presuppositions of a single-point perspective that inherently biases not only the form of the sovereign state but the currently existing boundaries of nation-states. These presuppositions consist in taking a demos to be discretely self-contained in space and relatively static in time, providing a background against which proposals to democratically contest or alter demotic boundaries are liable to appear radical, destabilizing, or utopian. If we begin instead from a second-person perspective, we get a very different picture of political space and time, a picture where demotic boundaries emerge out of spaces that are already thoroughly interconnected and where change rather than stasis is the “normal” condition of a demos. I argue that this way of thinking makes it easier to think about how demotic boundaries may be subjected to standards of democratic legitimation.