The term democracy, then, does not strictly designate either a form of society or a form of government. ‘Democratic society’ is never anything but an imaginary portrayal designed to support this or that principle of good government. Societies, today as yesterday, are organized by the play of oligarchies. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as democratic government. Government is always exercised by the minority over the majority. The ‘power of the people’ is therefore necessarily also heterotopic to inegalitarian society and to oligarchic government. It is what divides government from itself by dividing society from itself. It is therefore also what separates the exercise of government from the representation of society.
What is meant when it is said that we live in democracies? Strictly speaking, democracy is not a form of State. It is always beneath and beyond these forms. Beneath, insofar as it is the necessarily egalitarian, and necessarily forgotten, foundation of the oligarchic state. Beyond, insofar as it is the public activity that counteracts the tendency of every State to monopolize and depoliticize the public sphere. Every State is oligarchic. One of the theoreticians of the opposition between democracy and totalitarianism quite happily acknowledges it: ‘It is impossible to conceive of a regime which in one sense is not oligarchic.’ But oligarchy can give democracy more or less room; it is encroached upon by democratic activity to a greater or lesser extent. In this precise sense, the constitutional forms and practices of oligarchic governments can be said to be more or less democratic. Usually the mere existence of a representative system is regarded as the crucial criterion for defining democracy. But this system itself is an unstable compromise, the result of opposing forces. It tends toward democracy only to the extent that it moves nearer to the power of anyone and everyone. With this in mind, we can specify the rules that lay down the minimal conditions under which a representative system can be declared democratic: short and non-renewable electoral mandates that cannot be held concurrently; a monopoly of people’s representatives over the formulation of laws; a ban on State functionaries becoming the representatives of the people; a bare minimum of campaigns and campaign costs; and the monitoring of possible interference by economic powers in the electoral process. Such rules have nothing extravagant about them and in the past many thinkers and legislators, hardly moved by a rash love of the people, have carefully considered them as potential means to maintain a balance of powers, to dissociate the representation of the general will from that of particular interests, and to avoid what they considered as the worst of governments: the governments of those who love power and are skilled at seizing it. All one has to do today to provoke hilarity is list them. With good reason – for what we call democracy is a statist and governmental functioning that is exactly the contrary: eternally elected members holding concurrent or alternating municipal, regional, legislative and/or ministerial functions and whose essential link to the people is that of the representation of regional interests; governments which make laws themselves; representatives of the people that largely come from one administrative school; ministers or their collaborators who are also given posts in public or semi-public companies; fraudulent financing of parties through public works contracts; businesspeople who invest colossal sums in trying to win electoral mandates; owners of private media empires that use their public functions to monopolize the empire of the public media. In a word: the monopolizing of la chose publique by a solid alliance of State oligarchy and economic oligarchy. We see why those who despise ‘democratic individualism’ do not reproach this system of predation of the public interest and public goods for anything. In fact, these forms of over-consumption of public functions do not come within the province of democracy. The evils of which our ‘democracies’ suffer are primarily evils related to the insatiable appetite of oligarchs.
There was a time when the division of the people was active enough and science modest enough for the opposing principles to maintain a coexistence. Today an oligarchic alliance of wealth and science stakes a claim to all the power and proscribes the possibility that the people divide and multiply. But the division between principles that is driven away returns from all directions. It returns with the rise of parties of the extreme right, and with identitarian and religious fundamentalist movements which, against the oligarchic consensus, appeal to the old principles of birth and kinship, to a community rooted in the soil, blood and the religion of their ancestors. It returns too in the multiplicity of struggles that reject the global economic necessity that the consensual order turns to good account in order to undermine health systems, retirement schemes and the right to work. It returns lastly within the very functioning of the electoral system when the sole solutions that are imposed on governors and the governed alike are left to the unpredictable decision of the latter. The recent European referendum produced the proof. Those who submitted the question to a referendum were of the mind that this was a vote in the original Western meaning of ‘election’: a means of getting the people assembled to consent to those who are qualified to guide them. All the more so as the elite experts unanimously asserted that the question was not a question, that the matter was basically about pursuing a logic of accords that is already in existence and in conformity with everybody’s interests. The principal surprise of the referendum was this: a majority of voters, conversely, judged that the question was a real question, not a matter for calling for the simple adherence of the population but one for the sovereignty of the people, and so a matter to which this latter could respond no as well as yes. We know the rest. We also know that the oligarchs, their experts and ideologues managed to find the explanation for this misfortune, in fact the same one they find for every disruption to the consensus: if science did not impress its legitimacy upon the people, it is because the people is ignorant. If progress does not progress, it is because of the backward. One word that all the clerics incessantly chanted captures this explanation: ‘populism’. The hope is that under this name they will be able to lump together every form of dissent in relation to the prevailing consensus, whether it involves democratic affirmation or religious and racial fanaticism. And it is hoped that a single principle will come to be ascribed to this thus-constituted ensemble: the ignorance of the backward, the attachment to the past, be it the past of social advantages, of revolutionary ideals, or of the religion of ancestors. Populism is the convenient name under which is dissimulated the exacerbated contradiction between popular legitimacy and expert legitimacy, that is, the difficulty the government of science has in adapting itself to manifestations of democracy and even to the mixed form of representative system. This name at once masks and reveals the intense wish of the oligarch: to govern without people, in other words, without any dividing of the people; to govern without politics. And it enables the expert government to rid itself of the old aporia: how can science govern those who do not understand it? This eternal question encounters a more contemporary one: how exactly to determine this measure, whose secret expert government claims to know, between the good that is procured by the limitlessness of wealth and that which procures its limitation? That is to say, how exactly is the combination of the two desires to liquidate politics effected in royal science – the one that inheres in the exigencies of capitalist limitlessness; and the one that inheres in the oligarchic management of nation-States?