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Democracy and Bad Dreams

10:1 | 2007

Wendy Brown

Two years ago, before a similar audience in a similar room in a similar hotel in a different city, I was reflecting upon changes wreaked in the experience of public space by the phenomenon of the cell phone, and someone in that audience murmured within hearing of a friend of mine: "oh, she's just never gotten over Wolin." When it was recounted to me, the implied scorpion tail of this remark -- with its presumed implication that an avowed culturally radical postmarxist poststructuralist had been revealed as drinking at an old and abandoned trough -- missed its target. Far from stung, I was pleased to my toes, as well as intrigued: what would it mean to "get over Wolin?" What would one be getting over, precisely, and how would such a recovery be an advance for Western political thought, or at least the version of it performed in these sorts of hotel meeting rooms?

From time to time since, I have mused on this question. Just what was it in the apparently retrograde character of my thinking that day that could be blamed on Wolin? A certain technophobia or Luddism? No, not only would that have been a misreading of my own remarks, but Wolin never really went for the agrarian and anti-technological strand of radical democratic or communitarian thinking, and he certainly appears as cathected to his computer as the next octagenarian. Was it excessive investment in an idealized version of the Athenian polis? No, Wolin's romance with the polis as Arendt eulogized it, I would contend, didn't last past the '60s. A radically decentralized and modestly egalitarian distribution of political power remained a political value for him but the precious, elite, immortality-and-disclosure-through-speech-anddeed ideal that Arendt derived from the ancient Athenians was not something he sustained as he focused his attention on the prospects for democratizing the contemporary nation-state and political economy. Was it my seemingly civic republican fetish of public discourse that was at issue? Certainly Habermas would be a better contemporary culprit than Wolin here, and Wolin's concern with political experience and local control is not exactly equivalent to public sphere discursivity.

I think one dimension of my putative Wolin hangover, as it surfaced that particular afternoon, must pertain to the strain of Wolin's thinking concerned with liberalism's low standards for democracy and the contribution of contemporary capitalist economic and cultural productions to the further attenuation of democratic practices. Wolin is quite possibly unique among contemporary Anglo-American thinkers in the way that he pries democracy apart from liberal and even social democratic thought, a gesture that at times manages to place him to the left of Marxist legatees such as Laclau and Mouffe, and not only the Princeton-Harvard liberal theory axis.1

1. Liberalism

What is the specific quality of liberalism that Wolin perceives as hostile to a practice of democracy that has the power and not merely the inclusion or consent of the people at its heart? Again, we might stipulate the issue through comparison with familiar theses on this point: Is the problem, as Arendt would have it, the invasion of the political by the social, by the concerns of what Arendt terms "mere life"? No, Wolin does not share Arendt's contempt for mere life nor for the often rough-hewn political cries of the dispossessed who cannot escape for a moment the maw of survival or bodily needs. Unlike Arendt, Wolin does not regard life as adulterating the political and could even be said to embrace the potentially political character of some of the rawer needs of animal, human, and ecological life. If not Arendtian disdain for a political culture based on the model of universal housekeeping, is Wolin's conviction about the antidemocratic tendencies of liberalism closer to Marx's, in which liberalism is seen to operate as mere gloss for the political economy it harbors, serves, and legitimates? No, capitalism is exceedingly important to Wolin's understanding of contemporary forms of political power and prospects of democratic possibility, more so than to most Arendtians, but the problematics of liberalism and capitalism are not as thoroughly intertwined for Wolin as they were for Marx. To be sure, liberalism tends to entrench capitalist inequality in Wolin's view (although it also has the potential of mitigating it to a degree): contemporary liberalism is also deeply inflected by the consumerism perpetrated by contemporary capitalism, and certainly a liberal discourse of freedom and equality contributes to the disguise of contemporary corporate power. But Wolin's political objection to liberalism cannot be reduced to that entrenchment, inflection, or contribution. Liberalism as a political form gives a distinctive shape and content to political life itself; it is not mere cover for other systemic injustices. And it is precisely Marx's lack of concern with political life as an autonomous form, value, and venue that renders Marx's thought inadequate for either the critique of liberalism or the theory of radical democracy Wolin mounts.

So we find ourselves at the threshold of one of Wolin's many original contributions to political theory, namely the direct antagonism of liberalism to the very spirit of democracy, indeed, its tacit hostility to democracy rightly understood. Two particularly important characteristics of liberalism contribute to this thwarting of democratic political life. The first is liberalism's legalistic and policy orientation -- its production of citizen virtue as rule-abiding, and its production of political culture as constitution-bound. From the chapter on Locke's rule-oriented citizen in Politics and Vision to the dramatic opposition posited between constitutions and democracy in "Fugitive Democracy," we learn that the strict constructionist may be one of democracy's greatest enemies. It is a particularly intriguing claim because it is waged not in the name of anarchy, nor of a libertarian formulation of freedom, but in the interest of cultivating a certain citizen experience with power and political dilemmas, an experience that is diminished by constitutions and by the rule-governed ideal of citizenship. Shadowing Tocqueville's appreciation of American township politics as a counterweight to the centralizing state, Wolin defines democracy as both dispersed power and citizen experience with power. But, as for Tocqueville, dispersal really is less the end than the means to the more important value: the experience with power that itself constitutes citizenship. Thus, Wolin writes, "democracy is not about where the political is located but about how it is experienced."2 Nor is citizen experience of power simply equivalent to what Wolin's predecessors in the American tradition of political thought have termed "political participation." The latter is too passive and dependent a term to express what Wolin is after; participation depends upon a preexisting political venue or activity that endures whether or not citizens participate in it. By contrast, direct experience with power literally brings the democratic political into being and when this experience subsides, as it inevitably will, democracy vanishes. This is why constitutions and other settled legal practices

signal democracy's containment; they interfere with the direct experience of power, the handling of power, and the difficult task of sharing power. (Here, of course, hovers not only Tocqueville but Marx, who also defined true democracy as an unmediated wielding of collectively generated power.) Democracy properly construed, Wolin argues, "needs to be reconceived as something other than a form of government."3 Indeed, given Wolin's claim that democracy literally brings the political into being, governmental form must then mostly index the absence of democracy, a formulation that converges lightly not only with Marx's understanding of the state as an inherent sign of unemancipated social life but with Spinoza's tacit recognition that democracy could not be theorized as a form of rule, that it was an antiprinciple, an anti-form vis-a-vis government.4

This account of democracy, of course, is utterly alien to liberal understandings of the term. In his tendentious claim that only revolutions harbor democracy on a large scale, only revolutions "activate the demos and destroy boundaries that bar access to political experience," Wolin displaces formal equality, individual liberty, and the protection of a large zone of individual privacy as the rightful aims of democracy, and displaces voting, rights, and parliamentary bodies as its sign.5 He also rejects the liberal conceit that the power problem is something to be resolved through representative and juridical institutions, and spurns fairness as the measure of such a resolution. Far from venues for citizen power, and more than mere regularizations of democratic practice, all of these liberal democratic practices turn out to be sources for concentrating and channeling power in opposition to an active citizenry; however necessary, they are anti-democratic insofar as they neuter the potential power, and experience of power, of the demos. Here again a return to Marx: democracy is nothing less than the direct making of our world with others; it is the people's hands on the nerve fiber of history, power. The nonMarxist moment, of course, is in the insistence that this world-making is an explicit and complex political task not reducible to shared ownership and production, and the postMarxist moment is in the accommodation to a historical predicament in which this making is mostly not going to happen.

The second characteristic of liberalism that works against democratic political life is its deep stupidity or deceptiveness -- Wolin equivocates here -- about power, its insistence that power is where it isn't, and that it isn't where it is. In Wolin's view, liberalism feigns an openhandedness about power as well as a softness about power. Presenting itself as concerned primarily with limiting power and rendering it accountable, Wolin reveals liberalism as engaged in the opposite. He draws our attention, in this regard, to Locke's enormous concentration of power in the federative and prerogative dimensions of the state, and finds Locke's most important link to Hobbes here. But if Locke's representative state and property-based social contract with its tricks of tacit consent is easily outed as a strategy for legitimating domination, Rawls is more subtle. In Wolin's view, it is Rawls' commitment to reasonableness on the one hand and severe individual autonomy on the other that constitute key strategies for neutering the politicalness of the demos. The commitment to reasonableness delegitimates "strong feelings" and "zealous aspirations," sentiments most likely to issue from those historically excluded or frustrated, and which portend a grasp for power that itself heralds a potential episode of democracy. The individualism defeats the prospect of power sharing from the outset, cultivating, as it does, subjects oriented to individual satisfaction rather than joint deliberation or action.

2. Power

The ruses of liberalism are only part of the story of the powers confounding contemporary democratic possibility. For Wolin, power is always presumed to carry a secret and to be carried

by a secret: power hides, relocates, works covertly and duplicitously. Modern political and economic power, in particular, enlarges itself and its scope through the dissimulating tactics of undemocratic dispersal and covert boundary violations, running without visibility or accountability from state to corporation to welfare agency or neighborhood association. Wolin's treatment of power is, as all incisive treatments of power must be, something of a paranoid's view: power appears as the cleverest of us all -- it has wills, aims, disguises, escape hatches and potentials for morphing that no individual human, no party, no politburo, no Japanese cartoon superhero can rival.6

Wolin's occupation with the question of power emerges early -- you can see it in Politics and Vision, in the monograph on Hobbes, in the "Vocation" essay, but it comes front and center only in the '80 s and '90s in the essays comprising The Presence of the Past, the editorials for democracy, and the more recent essays on constitutionalism and democracy. The growing concern with the problematic of modern (or postmodern) power in recent years partially turned Wolin away from his signature work as an erudite and original re-reader of the history of political theory. Not only does he discern something singular about the shape and dynamics of contemporary political and especially state power, and thus necessarily absent from the concerns of his forerunners in political theory, it would appear that he finds the canon itself somewhat impoverished on the subject of power precisely because it mostly comprises thinkers with a lower bar for democracy and political life than the one he sets, and thus who do not require the kind of detailed knowledge of anti-democratic powers necessitated by his project.

The only major theorists in the canon who could begin to satisfy Wolin's concern with power as the problematic of the democratic political are Machiavelli, Hobbes, Tocqueville in some moods, and above all, Weber.7Interestingly, not only are none of them liberals, none of them are thoroughgoing democrats, but this would seem to be directly related to their capacity to apprehend the problematic of power, leaving to Wolin alone the task of reconciling realism about contemporary forms of power with radically democratic aspirations. For Wolin, the language for modern power is German:Wohlfahrtsstaatsrason is the word he uses to express the unparalleled power of the late modern state and its unparalleled saturation of the lives of wouldbe citizens. The power that Wolin aims to theorize as that with which modern democrats must reckon is heavy, molten, state-centered. To be sure it is also tentacular and dispersed, but the tentacles are those of the state and capital which together displace not mere individual freedom -- which is the traditional critical concern with state power -- but democratic citizenship, the vulnerable jewel Wolin aims to cultivate.

Wolin, of course, was hardly the only theorist concerned with power in the last quarter of the last century. The French were all over the problem, especially Michel Foucault. And Wolin initially responded to Foucault rather diffidently, almost purposely misunderstanding him, it would seem, although this changed as it became clear that Foucault could be useful to Wolin's project of mapping the anti-democratic powers of our time without in any way scooping it. Foucault, of course, notoriously insists upon the non-state-centered venue and operations of modern power -- he insists on the microphysical, disciplinary, normative, regulatory and local characteristics of modern power and treats neither the state nor capital as its origin or headquarters. For Wolin, the idea of moving the state or capital out of the picture of modern power is absurd; whatever other forms of power contour and constrain the modern subject, it is corporate capital and the state that vitiate the prospects of democratic citizenship -- they monopolize the powers that shape our collective life form, they depoliticize what democracy must politicize, they manage, administer and buy what we need to collectively fashion for ourselves. And it is this difference in the object of their study -- Wolin's focus on the

deprivation of the materials of citizenship, Foucault's on the subjectivization and regulation of the subject at more interior levels -- that governs many of the differences in their theorizations of power. Yet Wolin hardly makes the move Foucault most notoriously criticizes: he does not cast the state primarily in terms of sovereignty, nor in terms of legal or juridical power. No, Wolin's state is a neo-Weberian state, heavy with rationalities and bureaucratic domination; it is a Marxist-structuralist state, neither identical with nor a simple instrument of capitalism but complexly entwined with it. It is an administrative and penetrative state -- those tentacles are everywhere and on everyone, especially the most disempowered; they do not honor public/private distinctions, political/economic distinctions, or even legal/extra-legal distinctions. Wolin does not need to eschew the state to "cut off the king's head in political theory" because -- despite his attribution of enormous arbitrary power to the presidency -formal sovereignty is not the aspect of the state that most impedes democratic life. Rather, the contemporary state is a complex amalgam of political, economic, administrative and discursive powers, at once concentrated and decentralized, that saturates the social body with its strategies and ends, and orders subjects according to them. Except for its naming of this formation as the state and reason of state, the account more than a little parallels Foucault's formulation of governmentality,Polizeiwissenschaft, and biopower, and especially the disciplinary dimension of the latter; modern political power is extraordinary in its range and reach precisely because it is so relentlessly intermixed with daily life, so intimate with us where we are most needy and vulnerable, so without scruple in producing and incorporating these needs as part of its own expansion.

Thus, the modern (or postmodern) state Wolin theorizes diagnostically is hardly Hobbesian, let alone Lockean. In contrast with the industrious, privatistic, self-regulating motion of individual subjects rendered by classical liberalism, Wolin depicts weak and dependent subject-citizens produced and administered by the state. The chains binding us to the state are not mere legal ones, as for Hobbes, but deeply penetrative administrative and bureaucratic ones -- and it is their irregular rather than regular jerking that constitutes state power and citizen powerlessness in a regularized fashion. These dangling dependents are largely without cognizance of their chains and without significant vestiges of freedom or equality, even as they are awash in rights and procedures. This, according to Wolin, is the story of contemporary societies traveling under the sign of liberal democracy and it is also what liberal theory cannot see, what liberalism as politics destroys in the would-be space of the political. It is not surprising, then, that much of Wolin's critique of Rawls'Political Liberalism is a critique not just of Rawls but of liberal political orders themselves. In Wolin's view, Rawls is focused on all the wrong institutions and practices; he treats as given precisely what needs to be analytically upended and politically addressed. Here is a passage by Wolin about Rawls' Liberalism, which could just as easily be about small l, liberalism: Political matters omitted from Liberalism [the book] include class structures, bureaucracy, military power in a liberal order that is constitutionalist and capitalist, economic institutions and their powers, the great question of how to limit drastically the control over public discourse exercised by corporate and governmental bodies, and the compatibility of the ethics and culture of capitalism with the ethics and culture of Rawlsian citizenship, let alone with democracy. (106)8

In short, liberalism plays while power deals; it is concerned mostly with legitimating itself while its norms and forms of power corrupt even its own mildest promises of fairness, privacy, political equality, participation. And each deeper extension of capital into the everyday lives of citizens, into the provision of public welfare (prisons, schools, health), into political campaigns and the organization of public space, compounds this corruption.

3. Democracy

Wolin has no cure for what he diagnoses as the profoundly anti-democratic forces of the modern state and political economy, forces which Wolin holds out no hope of dismantling or replacing. Rather, as is well known, Wolin advocates the development of democratic practices at spatially local and temporally episodic levels. Whatever their intrinsic worth, such practices and spaces are obviously no match for -- not even a significant challenge to -- powers that are deployed centrally and continuously, powers that have historically unparalleled wealth, capacities of destruction, and technologies of administration at their disposal. So Wolin presents us with a scene of hegemonic, dispersed state and capitalist domination, and proposes counterpractices that offer, at best, episodic and partial experiences with powers whose production and circulation citizens will never control. The state and economic institutions that organize modern life are the enduring reality principle of politics, but have a thanatic relation to democracy. Democracy, by contrast, is eros, the life force of the polity, but its occasional eruptions, limited sway, and inability to be a governing form -- not to mention the darker potentials of its id-like character -- limit it to what Wolin calls a restorative function in liberal constitutional capitalist orders. Staying with the Freudian idiom a moment longer, Wolin has given us something like a theory of Constitutional Democracy and Its Discontents, complete with reconciliation to the impossibility of ultimate redemption by the political or sustained satisfaction of a democratic impulse, a formulation analogous to Freud's (conservative) counsel that psychic happiness is the necessary sacrificial bone of civilization. But unlike Freud, Wolin is no conservative. So what are we to make of a theory that advocates democratic localism while giving up on the possibility of decentralizing an anti-democratic state or transforming the political economy into a more democratic order? What kind of left theory is this? In his cultivation of democratic experience in a world unsuited to it as well as finally unmoved by it, does Wolin share something of Arendt's aestheticization of the political after all?

The proximity to Arendt would be one way of pursuing this question but a more productive one involves returning to the relation between Foucault and Wolin and returning at the same time to the question of the relation between my putative Wolinian hangover and my avowed Foucaultianism. Perhaps there is a concordance here that pertains not only to their shared attunement to the infinite complexity of power but also to their shared retreat from a vision of mass transformative political and social movements, and a certain aestheticization of the object of this retreat. If Wolin splits off the problem of theorizing modern state and corporate power from that of practicing democracy, Foucault also diagnoses a modality of modern domination for which, as even his sympathetic critics often lament, he has no remedy. Both are severe in their critique of our condition, neither have any faith in conventional redemption strategies for a severely indicted present: dialectics, progress, revolution, even mass oppositional movements. Both repair to something far more modest: Foucault to a politics of resistance and of practicing arts of the self against those powers that would claim the subject; Wolin to local, small-scale practices of democracy in a relentlessly undemocratic world. Moreover, while both theorize the powers they criticize as ever on the move, there is no sense of movement for the opposition, no dynamic of change, there is no language, even, of social or political change... Only resistance and self-making in the one case, and the experience of democracy on the other.

Yet, unrevolutionary as this vision is, it would be a mistake to see it as issuing from mere impotence or despair in the face of seemingly immovable powers and exhausted hope for alternatives. In Wolin's argument that democracy is a matter of experience, in Foucault's that freedom is always a practice, each breaks with the modernist convention that would test a

political value according to its capacity to be institutionalized and pervasive; each breaks with a totalizing political vision, and indeed, with totalizing political theory, political theory that features power only in one place or one form. So it is not just that the big powers cannot be fought, but rather that those powers, big and bad as they are, do not completely fill the space of political possibility. This is the nugget of promise nestled in the bleak landscape of the late modern scene; the enemy is powerful and penetrating, pervasive and invasive, ever on the move, but not quite omniscient and omnipresent. So, there is always some room to work, to "practice freedom" as Foucault puts the matter, to have the "experience of power" in Wolin's locution. Put differently, both Foucault and Wolin understand modern forms of domination as operating through dispersion and infiltration, what Wolin terms centrifugalism, what Foucault refers to as capillary organization. But this means that we do not have to assault it at its headquarters (if there is one, and Foucault demurs here) in order to engage and resist it; we can wrestle with it where we live because, alas, that is where it does its most devastating work on us. If modern anti-democratic power is dispersed, and democracy requires dispersed power of a different kind, then opportunity is born out of this odd paradox....

Still, there is unquestionably a measure of defeat in Wolin's counsel of localism, just as there is in Foucault's arts of the self. Both moves recall the politics of withdrawal -- the turn to the aesthetic and the ethical -- of the postSocratic schools following the collapse of the Athenian city-state and the attendant collapse of political idealism. Indeed, Wolin's rarification of democracy as an experience that can only be had locally and episodically (and cannot transform the large-scale forces producing the conditions of our lives), itself seems something of an aesthetic turn. For Tocqueville, the value of involvement in municipal political practices lay in the kind of national citizen this involvement would cultivate; it promised in this way to contribute to sustaining the democratic character of state institutions. But if citizenship is defined by the direct experience of power, then it is not clear that Wolin believes national citizenship in this deep sense is any longer possible -- he identifies its main function on the national level as "widening debate" -- nor does he think that state institutions can (ever) be made democratic.9 So, what, finally, is the point of the democratic moment other than the production of the moment itself? What is the value of the materialization of the democratic political under conditions in which this materialization is rare, ephemeral, constantly imperiled, and walled around by its perduring opposite?

Wolin is our most astute and relentless critic of the entwined anti-democratic forces of liberalism, bureaucratic welfarism, and capitalism in the life of modern/postmodern nation states. In contrast to almost every other left and left-liberal theorist today, he will not look away from the fire: he has not been tempted by the cultural turn, the democracy as ethos turn, the postfordist globalized internet citizen turn, or any of the other recently discovered ways of appeasing left despair about the contemporary nonviability of a radical democratic perspective. He will not accommodate or capitulate to constrained historical circumstances either by compromising his critique or by lowering the bar for democracy. This is not to say Wolin is impervious to historical circumstances, far from it; he is a superbly close reader of them and searches adeptly for both critical meaning and political possibility in them. But he will not give into them. Maybe the final strain of my Wolin hangover is here, in this obdurate refusal to be distracted or bought off from the largeness of the task of formulating democracy in theory and practice, this refusal to cede to the difficulty of the times, this refusal to be cheered.

It is no news that Wolin is, finally, a dark thinker. Even when he is arguing on behalf of democracy, the darkness seeps in. "Democracy requires," he argues against Rawls, "that the experiences of justice and injustice serve as moments for the demos to think, to reflect, per

chance, to construct themselves as actors."10 The cadence and the idiom, of course, are from Hamlet, and the original, you will recall: "To die, to sleep, per chance, to dream: ay, there's the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come..." What to make of this intriguing transposition of Hamlet's despair into Wolin's brief for democracy? One could argue that the experience of democracy, as Wolin renders it, promises to replace the inevitable nightmares of the Prince of Denmark with a more felicitous sleep, that democracy makes the world good again as monarchy never could, but I am dubious about this reading. Rather, I think Wolin's conscious or unconscious invocation of Hamlet's soliloquy to depict the promise of democracy reminds us that the cultivation of democratic experience in darkly undemocratic times will not vanquish the darkness. And it is this very reckoning with the generic difficulty of democracy, and with the particular darkness of our times, counterposed to the cheeriness and sanguinity of liberalism, that I have not "gotten over" and that perversely, may be Wolin's most important legacy for democratic theory. Radical democratic theory for Wolin is a heavy sigh barely repressed. There is no solace in Wolin's work, and little for democrats either.

Wendy Brown is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is also on the Critical Theory faculty. Her most recent books are Edgework: Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton, 2005), and Regulating Aversion: A Critique of Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire(Princeton, 2006). She is currently working on the theoretical problematic of sovereignty in the context of economic globalization, theological politics, and the phenomenon of walling in late modernity.


Liberalism, for Wolin, is a protean and perhaps even floating term -- depending upon whether he is discussing modern political theoretical doctrine or the history of the American state -- a problem I will not examine in this paper.

"Fugitive Democracy," 38. Ibid. 43.



See my discussion of Spinoza on this point in Politics Out of History (Princeton University Press, 2001), Chapter 5.

"Fugitive Democracy," 38.


Thus did Shakespeare become a rich source of Wolin's epigrams in the last decade. Shakespeare, the consummate literary artist of power, who insists on its ubiquitous and corrupting currency, its inescapability, its covert and its haunting effects. Shakespeare, whose characters most obsessed with power rarely see power accurately, and whose characters tangled in webs of power almost never know what is tripping them. Shakespeare, who offers us tragic and comic perspectives on power, but no hope whatever for its even distribution or for its subordination to other values. Shakespeare, who knew hundreds of years before Foucault that "saying yes to sex does not mean saying no to power," indeed who knew that power is the medium not just of politics but of all human things.

There are a number of minor theorists whom Wolin takes up for this end.


"The Liberal/Democratic Divide: On Rawls' Political Liberalism," Political Theory, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), p. 106.

"Democracy without the Citizen," The Presence of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 191.

"The Liberal/Democratic Divide," op. cit., p. 99.

Copyright 2007, Wendy Brown and The Johns Hopkins University Press