Can the People Govern? Popular Sovereignty and the Sovereignty of Ordinary People

Monday, 24 February, 2014 - 15:00

Presented by : 

This is an opportune moment to raise a more general question. The peculiar character of democratic sovereignty is that it derives from the ‘people’ – this is one of the basic problematiques of the democratic imaginary (Wagner: 2013). Hence all political communities that want to be democratic must answer the ‘question of the people’. Who belongs and who does not belong to the demos? This is not, however, a question of social justice in the Rawlsian mode. The question of democracy has to be posed in the contexts of colonialism, class polarisation, racial domination, ethnic fragmentation and patriarchal violence. These are contexts for which concepts like ‘civic nationalism’ or ‘constitutional patriotism’ are, following Charles Mills, largely irrelevant (Mills: forthcoming). If we start, as does Rawls, by conceiving of society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” that is also “a closed system isolated from other societies” then it becomes impossible to consider the ‘people’ in colonial world. (Mills: forthcoming). Why? Because “three fourths of humanity” (Patterjee, p.3) do not live in monadic societies established as cooperative ventures for mutual advantage. They live in societies that have been configured by histories of colonial domination, race oppression, class exploitation and patriarchal violence. What is at stake, in other words, is generating the people in societies not simply marked by difference and variety but by power and by history. This paper will explore different ways of identifying the people. It will develop a critique of the notion of popular sovereignty, suggesting that it imposes a terrible and often impossible burden on the State. I will discuss this challenge in relation to the states that emerged after the Second World War as European Empires broke-up. The experience of States in Africa of coup d’etats and civil war in the post-colonial period makes by them paradigmatic on world terms, rather than exceptional. Instead of thinking of the people as a pre-existing group that then organises itself (or not) on the basis of democratic procedures, I will argue that the people of democracy is never a substantial people. It refers, rather, to a term in an unjust social relation (of racism or exploitation or patriarchy) so that the people as such only emerges when ‘ordinary people’ rise up (to borrow from the words of a well known song). We will see that this conception of democracy has several advantages over the other, not the least being that it revives the historical terms associated with the democratic imaginary (equality-freedom in social terms, not just political ones) and that it allows us to rethink the political border in a way that is inclusive (not national). Yet it has its own challenges. It has difficulty getting the people to stick, to outlast the moment (revolt, insurgency) through which it emerges. In other words, it is difficult to see how the people can govern. This paper will conclude by proposing a solution to this paradox by shifting the terrain of the answer, away from philosophy to public administration.


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