Democracy. Jean-Marie Gleize / Rimbaud / Kristin Ross


Jean-Marie Gleize


There is, in Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a text called “Democracy.” We know little of this text’s composition, as the manuscript is lost. It was published belatedly in a journal (La Vogue, 1889), but we are scarcely surprised to encounter a text of this title from the quill of that democrat Rimbaud, virulently hostile to Napoléon III’s dictatorship, radically aligned with the insurrectionary movement of the Paris Commune — with, one might say, an insurgent, revolutionary democracy. As Bernard Noël has suggested, Rimbaud is a communard “not only in his opinion, but in his being.” Now the particularity of this poem is in being the only one in the collection entirely within quotation marks. It is democracy who speaks. It concerns prosopopoeia. Upon recognizing this, the Rimbaud specialists are perplexed, their opinions contradictory.

To revisit the formulation of one (Pierre Brunel): “Rimbaud’s intention seems particularly difficult to grasp.” In effect, the text expresses imperialist and capitalist violence, announces the massacre of the “logical revolts” … Does Rimbaud affirm and take up the mantle of a conquering warrior for democracy, a manifestation of the people’s power (according to his native, regular scheme: the necessity for destruction/detonation toward a regeneration or a later reconstruction)? Does he take a malign pleasure in transcribing the caricature of democracy delivered by his bourgeois adversaries, evoking the horror and terror it inspires in them? Here we must return to the quotation marks. If Rimbaud expressed himself in his own name, as he does in all of Illuminations’ other poems, he would do so without divagation. In this poem it must be democracy who speaks, saying that which it is and does, its fearsome civilizing program. The result is finally that the reader is led to transfer the quotation marks to the only word in the text which does not bear them: its title.

“Democracy” is by no means the power of the people but the instrument of the people’s domination and oppression; “democracy” is not democracy. This fact allows us to return to the ambiguity of the writer’s gesture, ambiguity that is at once voluntary (the rhetorical work’s deployment of prosopopoeia as concerted device) and inevitable, already having happened: the Illuminations speak at once the unacceptable character of “the rest of the world,” of the world as it is, its violence and the counterviolence necessarily entrained, the more or less utopic visions that it arouses, etc. If something like democracy exists, it doubtless supposes other struggles, other forms of life of which the labor of poetry can make only confused or oblique reports. Exigency, malaise, anxiety, anger, semantic and rhythmic troubles, critical opacity: such are some of the symptoms of this state of discomfiting resistance where one finds the “horrible workers” to whom Rimbaud is brother.

For those who persist “like” Rimbaud, after the flood, in the hive-chaos of big cities, modern industrial and postindustrial societies, those of the western “democratic” empire, the leading sentiment remains that results from the fact that democracy signifies for the moment capitalism, the regime of liberty and liberalism (work, finance, exploitation, profit) — and this democratic capitalism, the polluted air which we breathe, moreover appears as the ultimate and definitive, and for that matter “natural,” form of social life. There is, there will have been, no alternative. Thus the necessity to qualify, to specify: parliamentary, or rather, today, mediatic-parliamentary, democracy, liberal democracy, but also, because quotation marks are there if we try to retrieve, that is to say reappropriate, the word and the thing, “true democracy,” as Marx said, or “wild democracy,” or “radical democracy,” or “insurgent democracy” (as Miguel Abensour suggested, democracy in a permanent state of emergence and constructive critique), or even “democracy without limits” as proposed by Rosa Luxemburg in opposition to “bourgeois democracy.” She subjected “democracy” under quotation marks to an examination of limits and internal contradictions wherein she observed, as did Rimbaud, two closely linked antidemocratic dimensions: militarism and colonialism, the importance of the military apparatus being linked on the one hand to the containment and repression of popular insurrectionary movements, and on the other hand to imposing on the colonized by force of arms the benefits of western economic exploitation and domination.

Thus there is for those, among whom I am one, who continue to read and write within that which we name poetry (that is to say, who situate themselves marginally within the practice of literature itself grown culturally secondary and minor), essentially the consciousness of not being much in phase with democracy as ambient value, as political ideology and as form of government, the feeling of being in no regard represented by the professional politicians and others who themselves are manipulated and ventriloquized by the holds of real power (that of the globalized economy), and with an insuperable sense of paralysis or choking powerlessness. The words slide around, it is enough just to listen. For example this kid from the Maghreb who participated in the 2005 banlieueriots around Paris: he speaks of his parents and the society which would “incarcerate” them. He means to say “integrate” them. This slip understands that such integration might be felt as a process of confinement and violent maintenance of inferior social status. It’s all too evidently symptomatic when some contrarily affirm (against all visible evidence, in situations of extreme material and mental precarity, in the suffocating context of our quote-unquote “democracy”) the actuality of their emancipation. I want to underscore indelibly this phrase in the contemporary poetry journal Nioquesfrom poet Christophe Tarkos, who died prematurely in 2004: “I am not squeezed, I do not choke myself, I am not shattered, I am not buried, I am not surrounded, I am not crushed, I breathe.” He personally supports this affirmation, based on the denial of crushing in its many forms. And if he can support this position, if he can affirm so strongly the negation of the negation, it is because he writes, and because this practice of poetry he understands and lives as insurgent and emancipatory. This incites us to grasp precisely that what initially renders poetry political for Christophe Tarkos is that it is an act, and that this act of language is (or at least may be) singular affirmation, demand for autonomy, form of life and of survival in hostile surroundings.

We must perhaps return swiftly to some naïve distinctions. There has been in our recent history something like a poetry engagé, that of the Resistance, committed to direct communication (simple forms, combat lyricism) with a people awaiting democracy. Before this, when surrealism had wished to articulate itself seriously in the real movement of history, it declared itself “in the service” of Revolution (without retreat, nonetheless, from the ardent necessity of transgression or formal subversion). After the war we see Paul Eluard publishing a book called Political Poems, with a preface by Aragon. The communist poet does not neglect to underline what “politics” means for Eluard, for himself, for his comrades, and the sense of the slogan “from the horizon of one to the horizon of all” (which could equally be the broad slogan for a “democratic poetry”). He does not omit Isidore Ducasse’s encouraging watchword: “poetry must take for its goal the practical truth,” interpreted as enunciating or announcing the passage of eras (a romantic thought) from utopias to that of “human efficiency.” It is patently obvious that the standard poetic ideology, from historical avant-gardes to the neo-avant-gardes of the sixties and seventies, from lyricism engagé to political poetry or the theorization of the “revolution in poetic language” consonant with the desire for Revolution, is one of “efficiency” (to reclaim Aragon’s word) for poetry, more or less immediate or oblique, more or less direct or restrained.

Yet it is no less clear that around the eighties there was what I shall call a sequence of burgeoning euphoria (combinatorial transgression, subversion, experimentation, invention, action), thanks to varied collapses of that to which it would be anyway pointless to return. The field of contemporary poetry then reconstituted itself (as do families) around two principal poles: that of return (what I call re-poetry) to the fundamentals of a poetry restored to itself, and thus restored to the public, to the common reader, after the disfiguration and aggravation of divorce, and that endeavoring not to break with the heritage of research and adventure, recusing itself from the dogmatic stances and political illusions of the night before and the night before that. We note then the emergence of a generation of poets, published in journals such as Java, or Facial, or Quaderno, or even the Revue de littérature générale of Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi, clearly experimental in orientation but also clearly apolitical, practicing criticism (that of social and/or genre conventions) via modes of ironic distance or parody and derision. Poetry or more broadly forms of critical art in effect posed particularly the question of the cultural hierarchy separating the major from the minor or “popular” modes of expression. An “eccentric essay” (as the author himself defined it) titled “Parodic Art” (published in 1996 under the name Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux) tried to describe and theoretically legitimate some of these practices of a systematic reversal of values (or of confounding registers and genres) that spread in this period of a post-avant-gardism that was a bit skeptical, or at least suspicious regarding the high seriousness of previous generations.

It would likely not be mistaken to say that the poets of preceding generations took somewhat for granted (against divergent strategic choices regarding the logic of their practice, their modes of realization, etc.) an adherence to a principle, explicitly formulated or remaining implicit, something like an ideal of real democracy, while accepting as largely inevitable the fate of renouncing a large audience, and the much-hurled accusation of “elitism.” The poets of the generation whereof I speak, those I have just said have taken their distance (and not ordered their work according to the expectations of some given belief), found themselves to be subjects of a sort for a practical “democracy” in the sense that they actively refused to ignore the current modes of expression and mass culture (media, screens, collections of official statements, assemblage, sampling, various détournements, etc.). The great question is whether the apparent ideological “retreat,” which at first glance characterizes this body of text, indicates a neutral stance, an indifference to concerns of content (even an unspoken adherence to what they do convey), or whether to the contrary these poets subscribe to a perspective comprising a form of active “resistance” to these formats, these contents, these modes of circulation and public display, etc. These “after-writings” — after the dissolution of dogmas, after the last wave of avant-garde theorizing and sectarians, with faces both of the “ironic” and of the “serious” (collage-writing, investigative or documentary writing) — can doubtless be read as critical but no less as preserving for the reader their share of ambiguity and constitutive undecidability.

What can be seen, in these writings “after” (and the occasional taking of certain concrete positions on social struggles or alternative movements), is a definite return of the notion of resistance. As all around us gestures of “civil disobedience” develop (from Athens to Tunis and to Cairo, from New York, Occupy Wall Street, from Tarnac to Notre Dame des Landes …) which are like mass protests in the name of democracy without quotes against the decisions or “laws” or official conditions imposed by the police and the court of “democracy,” that Rimbauldian prosopopoeia within which we are always citizens, we notice, in the regime called the poetic, or post-poetic, the fact that the imaginary of resistance continues to resist. It may be necessary here to revisit Francis Ponge’s propositions announced in a number of his “proems” from the thirties — so near us today where we see democratic elections bringing to power religious fanatics, where left governments are anxious to expel foreigners, what is basically a “democratic” progression toward municipal fascism. Ponge, rather than suggesting to his surrealist friends of the time the pseudo-“liberating” whisper (automatic writing) advocated “resistance against words,” that is to say we ought not speak the ideology that speaks us (doxa, stereotypes, clichés conveyed by the mediasphere) but contrarily to work contra-words, on contra-usage, to practice, if needed, “the art of violating [words] and the submission to them.” Such a poetic remains fresh, in the face ofthe “order of things,” which he qualified as “monstrous” and “sordid,” wherein he said that people kill themselves “having been ruined” by these “governments of wheeler-dealers and merchants,” the very “democratic capitalism” that I mentioned earlier.

Resistance against words, therefore, opposes the silence of writing to the noise of words, or even unmaking and remaking the ceaseless superflux of immaterial information to recover if possible the meanings of the words, the meanings of things and situations and events. But resisting just the same images, the ceaseless flow of images, those which “occupy” our space and our eyes, screen-walls that separate us from each other and from reality. Bearing in mind that these images “constitute part” of this reality from which they also separate us. And therefore it is a matter of working with and on and against these images through superimposition, overprinting, decomposition, etc. Finally, the resistance against images means equally — and I revisit here the “position” of dislocation according to diverse variations and stances of commitment — renouncing the narcotizing magic of nationalist visions, those which nurtured and carried our imaginary political utopia. We renounce this so as to confront clearly our lot: the traversal — using for our writing the contingencies of terrain, of context, of circumstance — of the opaque thicket, that of real contradiction, conflictual and violent. This is one meaning of the phrase borrowed from an artist and installation or intermedia poet (Philippe Castellin): “Poetry isn’t a solution.” If we understand the enduring and insistent and even resistant practice of writing poetry (in the context where it has become a socially minor practice) as a critical and restricted contribution, half-blind, to the permanent invention of a democratic space, we know quite well that there is no solution, and that writing has no purpose but to intensify the questions.

This hypothesis makes sense only if we think of democratic space (the possibility of democracy) as outside of political institutions bearing the name, and if we imagine the concrete reality here and now of autonomous, self-managed “communes” where we can experiment freely with new forms of sensory experience, new forms of exchange, expression, communication, collective activity, life. Such islands of life and action, moreover of reflection and struggle, exist already. Experimental politics, at significant distance from political institutions, are or should be in principle like experimental art and poetry, by definition. It is for us to build our own cabins and the paths which connect them (these may be journals, editorial microstructures, alternative circuits of distribution), and if our cabins are destroyed, we rebuild them elsewhere without becoming discouraged.

And since I began this text with Rimbaud, I end within those quotation marks and logical revolts. The question, poetic and political, is that of words’ meanings. Those given them, or those inflicted. And that which we would like to make. It can arise from this long and “ferocious” sequence (that which develops the Rimbauldian prosopopeia) called by the poet the “logical revolts,” those of the colonized, the exploited, the displaced, the oppressed, then, and now, and everywhere.

Logical, that is to say, inescapable.

Logical as well because that names a return, a reversal, an overcoming, in language, in words, in writing, in traces.

Translated from the French by Joshua Clover

The text of “Democracy” was delivered as a talk at Oxford University’s La Maison française, as part of the colloquium “Littérature, espace(s) public(s) et démocratie” — Literature, Public Space(s) and Democracy — held November 1–2, 2013. For me, it concerns raising a voice of resistance to the illusions of capitalist “democracy,” which is the air we breathe. And evoking an experimental poetic practice that contributes to the permanent invention of a truly democratic space. — Jean-Marie Gleize

Arthur Rimbaud


“The flag goes to the filthy landscape, and our dialect
stifles the drum.
“On to city centers where we’ll nourish the most cyn-
ical prostitution. We’ll massacre logical rebellions.
“On to peppery and waterlogged countries!—at the
service of the most monstrous industrial or military
“Farewell here, anywhere. Well-meaning draftees,
we’ll adopt a ferocious philosophy; ignorant of science,
sly for comfort; let the shambling world drop dead. This
is the real march. Heads up, forward!”

from Illuminations
Translated by John Ashbery

Kristin Ross

Democracy for Sale

The modern, received understanding of democracy is rule by voting, the authority to decide matters by majority rule, the rule of “the greatest number”. But another understanding of the term, familiar to readers of Jacques Rancière’s Le Maître ignorant, conveys a sense of power that is neither quantitative nor concerned with control. It is rather one of potentiality or enablement: the capacity of ordinary people to discover modes of action for realizing common concerns. Rancière’s encounter with Joseph Jacotot, and his continuing reworking of that encounter, have helped make available what was in fact the original, more expansive and suggestive, meaning of the word democracy: namely, the capacity to do things. Democracy is not a form of government. And it is not concerned with number—neither with a tyrannical majority nor a minority of agitators. In ancient Greece, as Josiah Ober points out, of the three major terms designating political power—monarchia, oligarchia, and demokratia—only demokratia is unconcerned with number. The monos of monarchia indicates solitary rule; the hoi oligoi of oligarchy indicates the power of a few. Only demokratia does not provide an answer to the question “how many?” The power of the demos is neither the power of the population nor its majority but rather the power of anybody. Anybody is as entitled to govern as he or she is to be governed.
Yet if democracy as “the capacity to do things“ is free from the law of number, it does presuppose an existing division of the world into two, a division between those who are defined as having the capacity to participate in collective decision making (the “best people“) and those said to be without that capacity. Democracy refuses this division as the basis of organizing political life; it is a call for equality on the part of the people defined as not bein among the best people. “The best“ have been defined in different ways throughout history: as those who possess noble birth, the right race, those who exhibit military power, as the wealthy, or those who possess complex knowledge or managerial skills. And as Immanuel Wallerstein reminds us, the modes of defining who count among “the best“ have always been accompanied by assumptions about the ethos or lifestyle of “the best people“—assumptions, for example, that a “civilized“ nature is their particular endowment.
When Blanqui in 1852 complained about the rubbery nature of the name democrat, he was already registering the profound modification the term was beginning to undergo—a modification that would last throughout the Second Empire and beyond. Up until then the word had largely retained its revolutionary 1789 heritage; democrat was the label, for example, of many far-left organizations in the 1830s and 1840s. But during the Second Empire the Imperial Regime had effectively appropriated the term for itself, for the most part successfully, by opposing what it called real “democray” to the bourgeois “party of order“. The emperor, in other words, claimed to have given sovereignty back to the people by the “plebiscite“ or the appel au peuple. Monarchists in the 1850s and 1860s embraced the word, equating it favorably with Empire; the minister of the interior, an impassioned Bonarpartist, was able to call himself “the defender of democracy.“ By 1869, a partial enumeration of the kinds of “democrats“ flourishing in French political life included démocrates socialistes, démocrates révolutionnaires, démocrates bourgeois, démocrates imperialistes, démocrates progressistes, and démocrates autoritaires. The list reflects both the point Blanqui was making—that the term was entirely up for grabs—as well as the effort made by some socialists to affirm the revolutionary heritage of the word by lending precision to their position with an appropriate qualifier. But the word on its own—then as today—conveyed virtually no information. Blanqui was not the only Republican or socialist to hesitate to use a word his adversaries used to describe themselves. As he writes to Maillard:

You say to me: “I am neither bourgeois, nor proletarian. I am a democrat. Beware of words without definition, they are the preferred instrument of schemers … It is they who invented the beautiful aphorism: neither proletarian nor bourgeois, but democrat! … What opinion couldn’t manage to find a home under that roof? Everyone claims to be a democrat, even aristocrats.

Democrat no longer named the division to be overcome between those judged capable of governing and those judged incapable: it was too rubbery, it did no labor, it created consensus rather than division.
Even the Communards of 1871, engaged in their short-lived experiment in taking control of the administrative and institutional functions normally reserved for traditional elites, did not call themselves democrats. The declaration of the communal form of government in Paris in the wake of the French capitulation to the Prussians signified nothing if not the most renewed commitment to democratic politics in modern times. In their brief existence the Communards replaced long-entrenched hierarchic and bureaucratic structures with democratic forms and processes at every level. Yet these agents of democracy preferred other words—républicains, peuple—to describe themselves. But I think it is significant that they did not entirely abandon the word démocratie. Even though it had been derailed from its true meaning and had fallen into the hands of the enemy, it still retained the heritage of 1789.
When Arthur Rimbaud entitled one of his last prose poems “Démocratie,“ a poem written soon after the demise of the Commune, the title is nothing more than a banner under which a mobile and imperialistic bourgeois class expands out from the metropolis to the “languid, scented lands,“ feeding, as the poem says, “the most cynical whoring,“ “destroying all logical revolt.“


“Toward that intolerable country
The flag floats along
And the beating drums are stifled
By our rough backcountry shouting …”
“In the metropolis we will feed the most cynical whoring.
We will destroy all logical revolt.“
“On the languid scented lands! In the service of the most
monstrous industrial or military exploitations.“
“Goodbye to all this, and never mind where.“
Conscripts of good intention,
We will have savage philosophy;
Knowing nothing of science, depraved in our pleasures,
To hell with the world around us …
“This is the real advance! Forward … March!”

What if it were Rimbaud, and not Baudelaire, whom we read as the poet that best compiled the central tropes and figures of the nineteenth century? With images courtesy of Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne, with prophecies drawn from political pamphlets, with figures taken from children’s novels and popular science texts, Rimbaud assembles the emblems and possible futures of his moment. And the colonial soldier is very much one of those figures, producing as many, if not more, of the principal postures, orientations, stereotypes, and directions, as does the ragpicker or flaneur for the future of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. “Démocratie“ the poem, and the Illuminations taken as a group, stand on the brink, so to speak, of a mutating world system: their moment is the inauguration of a world drawn together by colonialism, the moment when a genuinely bourgeois regime begins to install itself definitively. Just as significant, though, is what occurs immediately before the writing of these poems: the class massacre that occurred in the heart of “civilized Europe“: the mass shootings of tens thousands of Communards in May 1871. This attempt on the part of the bourgeois-republican government to physically exterminate one by one and en bloc its class enemy, to kill all those who had engaged in the brief attempt to change the political and social order, is quite extraordinary:

The executions were not just happening in the Luxembourg. They were shooting people down on the street corners, in the passageways between houses, against doors. Wherever they could find a wall to push victims up against.
The banks of the Seine were witness to ferocious massacres. Underneath the Pont Neuf they were executing people for eight days straight. In the afternoon, gentlemen and their ladies would come out to watch the prisoners being killed. Elegant couples attended the butchery as they would a play.
In a corner of the Left Bank that surrounds the neighborhood of the Pantheon, a half dozen courts-martial were functioning. The mass killings took place at the Luxembourg. But they were shooting people at the Monnaie, at l’Observatoire, at the law school, at the Ecole polytechnique, at the Pantheon. They were executing people at the Collège de France, based on condemnations pronounced by a provost seated in the room on the left of the main entrance. There were continuous executions in Maubert market.
Six courts-martial for this one neighborhood. For each of them, more and more deaths. The Luxembourg alone counted more than a thousand. As they advanced, the Versaillais installed sinister military magistrates, one by one in each square, whose only task was to organize the killing. Judgment didn’t matter.
Around the large slaughterhouses—the Luxembourg, the Ecole Militaire, the parc Monceau, La Roquette, the Père Lachaise, the Buttes Chaumont, and still others—countless massacres were conducted in a more muffled fashion, with less ostentatious display and less glory.

I have quoted at length from this eyewitness account of the semaine sanglante because I think we should linger on the sheer magnitude of the hatred exhibited by the bourgeois-republican government, on what Luciano Canfora calls “the furious hostility of the majority.“ For it was this class massacre, he reminds us, that was the defeat of democracy that gave birth to the Third Republic. In November of that year, Rimbaud and his friend Delahaye walked the streets of Paris, examining the traces of bullet holes left in the walls of houses and of the Pantheon; the months and, in fact, years after the massacre left a political atmosphere infused, as Rimbaud remarked to his friend, with “annihilation, chaos … all the possible and even probable reactions.“ The Illuminations open onto the movement of late-nineteenth-century expansionism and the wholesale creation of a consciousness conducive to reproducing a colonialist expeditionary class this entailed. In certain of his more futuristic poems, Rimbaud foresees that movement culminating in a bland and homogeneous universe: “a little world, pale and flat“ as he puts it in one poem, or in “the same bourgeois magic wherever your baggage sets you down.” In others—I’m thinking here of “Métropolitain,“ “Barbare,“ and “Soir historique,“—he shows us some of the ways the bourgeois imagination intoxicates itself with apocalyptic images of its own death. In this second cluster of poems, Rimbaud presents the canceled future of a now vanished imperial destiny: a panoramic vision where crystalline and fantastic cityscapes rejoin ancient prefigurations of the end of the world in geological cataclysms of exploding ice and snow; intertwining bridges and highways lie flanked by barbarian tribes, a recurring planetary conflagration, at once polar and fiery, chaotic yet eerily still.
How can the future be imagined after the demise of the Commune? Having lived the eruption, evolution, and liquidation of that unusual experiment in democracy, faced now with the “swamp,“ as he called it, of the French middle classes consolidating the colonial impetus that would propel them through the next several decades, Rimbaud chooses to prefigure both the triumph and the death of that class in a series of futuristic and fantastic prose poems—the triumph of that class in a progressive homogenization of the planet, its death in an exploded earth.
Rimbaud’s “Démocratie,“then, marks the precise moment when the term democracy is no longer being used to express the demands of the peuple in a national class struggle, but is rather being used to justify the colonial policies of the “civilized lands“ in a struggle on an internationale scale between the West and the rest, the civilized and the noncivilized. Rimbaud recounts that saga in the “Mauvais Sang“ section of Une Saison en enfer and provides an additional class portrait of the civilizing missionaries in a poem called “Movement“:

These are the conquerors of the world,
Seeking their personal chemical fortune:
Sport and comfort accompany them;
They bring education for races, for classes, for animals
Within this vessel, rest and vertigo
In diluvian light,
In terrible evenings of study.

The resonance of democracy registered by Rimbaud was definitively changed, not merely diluted but filled with an alien content, as the very groups who feared it at the beginning of the century begin to embrace it at the century’s end. As in Rimbaud’s poem, democracy becomes a banner, a slogan, a proof of being civilized as well as the vital spiritual supplement, the ideal fig leaf, to the civilized and civilizing West. The State, in the name of representative democracy, inaugurates a history of class massacre, within Europe in the form of the Commune and beyond, in the colonial domains, a violence whose echoes can be heard in the language of threat and contempt directed at the Irish at the time of the 2008 vote. The West, as democratic, can become the world’s moral leader, since its hegemony is the basis of progress throughout the world, From these “conqueros of the world“ to Woodrow Wilson’s “making the world safe for democracy” and onto Harry Truman’s recoding of democracy into the language and project of development economics requires no leap at all.
But before we leave Rimbaud’s prefiguration of world history, we must consider, in the context of “Democracy,“ and “Movement,“ a poem that may have much to say to our own historical moment, the poem structured as one long advertising spiel entitled “Sale.“ In an atmosphere made up of equally modern and magical installations, the poem presents the revolutionary cry and the advertising slogan as indistinguishable from each other in a generalized onslaugt of consumer goods and services: “For sale—Priceless bodies, beyond race or world or sex or lineage!” Both “Sale“ and “Democracy“ relate changes in consciousness to the relative penetration of market relationships into everyday life—whether these be in the outremer colonies or in the heart of the European metropolis. (A sonnet written around this time, entitled “Paris,“ consists entirely of advertising pitches lifted off of Parisian storefronts.) What might be called the prophetic or extraordinarily contemporary feel of these poems—read together, they amount to the title of this chapter, “Democracy for Sale”—has something to do with the way the twentieth century solidified the equation between democracy (in its inverted form) and consumption begun in Rimbaud’s time: democracy as the right to buy. Today’s Western liberal democracies are all the more assured in their well-being in that they are more perfectly depoliticized, lived as a kind of falsely timeless ambience, a millieu or style of existence. And this is the atmosphere envisioned by Rimbaud in “Sale“: the free exchange of merchandise, bodies, candidates, lifestyles, and possible futures. “For sale—Homesteads and migrations, sports, enchantments and perfect comfort, and the noise, the movement and the future they entail!”
Today, democracy is the slogan of almost all of the leaders on the planet (and the rest, sooner or later, will be brought forcibly into the fold). What separates our own time from the extraordinary moment of Rimbaud is something called the cold war and its ending. In terms of the development of “democracy,“ it is difficult to overestimate the enormous gain Western governments managed to consolidate when they successfully advanced democracy as the opposing counterweight to communism. They had actually gained control of the entire word for themselves, leaving nary a trace of its former emancipatory resonance. Indeed, democracy had become a class ideology justifying systems that allowed a very small number of people to govern—and to govern without the people, so to speak; systems that seem to exclude any other possibility than the infinite reproduction of their own functioning. To be able to call an unchecked and deregulated free market economy, a ruthless, no-holds-barred opposition to communism, a right to intervene, militarily and otherwise, in countless sovereign nations and their internal affairs—to succeed in calling all this democracy was an incredible feat. To manage to make the market be considered as an evident condition of democracy and to have democracy viewed as inexorably calling forth the market, is an astounding accomplishment. It was considerably helped along, in France, at least, in the reaction against the ‘68 years, as the French Revolution, under the profoundly antidemocratic tutelage of Francois Furet, was submitted to a patient labor of inconsideration, denigrated in comparison to the acceptable revolution of 1776 and ultimately affiliated to Stalinism and the crimes of Pol Pot. And, with the end of “actually existing socialism,“ we at last, it seemed, finished definitively with moments of rupture or conflict, and society could be from now on the place for uninterrupted “democratic“ deliberation, dialogue, debate, and a perpetual regulation of social relations. Rimbaud’s moment, as we have seen in “Democracy,“ initiated the age of “democratic empire“:  a natural, inevitable project designed to bring about a predestined future of the peoples or entities being developed. But “democracy“ is just as much at work, as we saw in “Sale,“ on the homefront: where the main system of rule in a society is the economy, a vast historic force beyond human power, and where a silent consensus informs us that the equilibrium produced by the economy defines the best of all possible worlds.
Is this a permanent contamination of the language of politics? Can I call myself a democrat?
It’s certainly not enough to criticize, in an incrementalist way, the “failed“ or “insufficient“ democracy of this or that law, party, or state.
To do so is to remain enclosed in a system that is perfectly happy to critique, say, the blatant seizure of electoral procedures by a Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, but remains powerless before the same process when it is accomplished by economic phenomena that respect democratic rituals—like the exactions of the IMF, for example. In fact, the understanding of democracy as having to do with elections or with the will of the majority is a very recent historical understanding. What is called representational democracy—in our own time said to consist of free elections, free political parties, a free press, and, of course, the free market—is in fact an oligarchic form: representation by a minority granted the title of stewards or trustees of common affairs. All today’s “advanced industrial democracies“ are in fact oligarchic democracies: they represent the victory of a dynamic oligarchy, a world government centered on great wealth and the worship of wealth, but capable of building consensus and legitimacy through elections that, by limiting the range of options, effectively protect the ascendancy of the middle and upper classes.
I think we must both recognize this to be the case, that is, recognize the nonexistence of democracy or its inversion in reality, at the same time that we acknowledge how vitally necessary it is to retain the original, expansive sense of the term. If we remain enclosed in an understanding of democracy as a form of government, then we have no choice but to abandon the word to the enemy who has appropriated it. But precisely because it is not a form of government, because it is not a type of constitution or institution, democracy, as the power of anybody to concern himself or herself with common affairs, becomes another name for the specificity of politics itself. It may exist or not exist at all, and it may reassert itself in the most varied of manifestations. It is a moment, at best a project rather than a form. As the name of the struggle against the perpetual privatization of public life, democracy, like love in one of Rimbaud’s many slogans, must be reinvented.


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