The Infinite Demand of Democracy

In an open forum, you proudly stand and tell everyone that you are against democracy. How do they react? The object of democracy isn’t just an idea to be debated over, and to label it simply as a political system is an injustice: democracy is a far more interesting phenomenon. Western civilisation has endlessly romanticised the idea, the French shed blood for it during their many revolutions, and it has since developed into a floating signifier: a point to which anyone can anchor their grievances and joys upon, yet a point on which no one can agree.

The democracy we are familiar with: the state/sovereign, ruled by the people as a body, of citizenship and our obligations to society; these are big and often vague concepts. These ideas were fought for through history, and at its core, the kernel of democracy is strictly egalitarian. Of course, the democracy I refer to is what Rousseau provided for us in his book “the Social Contract,” which clearly outlines the terms of democracy that were hard fought for, and which we see to be crumbling in the contemporary sphere of politics.

What Rousseau described in the Social Contract is a pact between citizen and state that ensures fair representation and influence over the governance of the state for the citizen, in return for upholding civic responsibility. The text itself has a very strange tone to it: it’s grand, passionate, and oddly religious. Here’s an example from book 1:

“Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

This unique tone can easily be attributed to the goals Rousseau aimed to achieve through this book. The Social Contract was written just before the French revolution, namely to replace a theocratic monarchy with a democratic body politic, and with far greater difficulty, provide the passion needed to ensure civic duties were undertaken with the same zeal as religious duties were. Time has allowed the former to be thoroughly taken care of, the latter not so much. What Rousseau does achieve is immediately showing us the gravity of the object of democracy. Statements such as “since each person gives himself to all, he gives himself to no one”, and “The People is never corrupted” deliberately infer that democracy isn’t just a system of governance, but a vocation.

There you have it, many political systems of government are real often existing only in the realm of theory, but democracy is very material. Most theoretically perfect systems are deeply flawed in their actual material reality, and contemporary democracy is no different, sporting no bigger paradox than the myth of freedom as an inherent part of democracy. A People: the citizens are bound by responsibilities obliged by the state, in a way similar to how devotees of faith accept similar restrictions upon their freedom by ‘giving themselves to God/The People’. In a similar way to how The Commandment of Love that is accredited to Jesus in the New Testament in the Bible, Rousseau ask us to live for the general will of The People we are a part of. He asks us this regardless of our private interests.

Simon Critchley’s theory of the ‘Infinite demand’ springs to mind here. Based on the Christian commandment of love, one that Critchley proposes is impossible to fulfil, the Infinite Demand is one which we choose to attempt to accomplish with emphasis on the commitment to the demand, rather than the achievement of its goals. Refer back to the social contract, and we here find a rather similar demand in democracy. What we aim to achieve in a democracy is impossible to effect in our material reality, equal influence and representation of a People being one of these unattainable desires. True egalitarian democracy is the carrot on the stick that we need to strive for, even if we can never truly reach it, and like the Commandment of love is the kernel of Christianity (in theory), so too is the central egalitarian commandment Rousseau issues us through the social pact.