As another cycle of collective protest reverberates across the globe, crowds have taken to the streets and public squares of cities from Santiago to Beirut, from Hong Kong to Baghdad, claiming their elected representatives do not, in fact, represent them. The local grievances that triggered these uprisings vary widely—an increase in the price of public transportation, a tax on a popular messaging service, a revised extradition law—but all of the protests express dismay and disgust at the economic and political inequalities of the existing system of representative government and share a common demand to return political power to the people themselves. “Our government is a government of thugs!” “Chile woke up!” “No rioters, only a tyrannical regime!” The figurative space opened up by a widespread crisis of democratic legitimacy has again filled the streets with multitudes banging pots and pans, occupying public buildings, constructing barricades, and throwing improvised dance parties celebrating the coming fall of the regime.
Such insurgent appeals to the authority of the people themselves in the form of crowds, demonstrations, popular assemblies, gatherings of “the people out of doors,” has been a recurrent and distinguishing feature of modern democratic history since the eighteenth century “Age of Democratic Revolution.” The reiteration of such collective manifestations across a wide array of histories and geographies demonstrates their centrality to the democratic political imaginary, but they have never received the theoretical attention they deserve. This reiteration should provoke further historical and theoretical reflection on the enchantments of democracy, the sustaining fictions that enable it and give it life, as well as what points beyond them.
This is a difficult task, in part because the importance of democratic disenchantment has been so loudly proclaimed by both democracy’s most eloquent critics and its most ardent admirers, from the late eighteenth century up to the present day. Edmund Burke, for example, warned that democracy would rudely tear off “the decent drapery of life,” destroy the “pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal,” and leave nothing to authority but the sheer force of numbers and threat of majoritarian violence. His nemesis Thomas Paine agreed that democracy would finally dispel the “dark coverings” and “superstitious tales” sustaining royal power, but he argued doing so would finally establish a government “of the living, and not the dead.” In the place of obscurantism there would be transparency; in the place of mysticism, rational clarity; in the place of secrecy, public accountability. Democracy would be the political face of enlightenment itself, the collective process through which citizens could free themselves from their “self-incurred tutelage” and achieve their autonomy.
Following this familiar view, democratic theorists have often emphasized the skills, virtues, and capacities citizens must acquire in order to assume the responsibilities of their political empowerment. Alexis de Tocqueville focused so much attention on the Puritan townships and different forms of civic association in Democracy in America because he believed they were schools of democracy that “bring [liberty] within the people’s reach,” and teach them “how to use and how to enjoy it.” Countless others, from John Stuart Mill to Hannah Arendt, have followed Tocqueville in detailing how democracy enlists the practices, habits, and dispositions crucial for its own survival.
While the interrelated questions of democratic disenchantment and political education have been a central preoccupation of democratic theorists since the age of democratic revolution, theorists have less often considered how democracy must also enlist the imagination of its citizens as an ongoing condition of its existence, and certainly as a condition of its radicalization and deepening. Not just enlightenment and education, in other words, but new forms of political enchantment are required by democratic politics. Democracy places new pressures on the collective imagination, new enticements of collective fantasy.
At the heart of modern democracy’s fantasy space lies its enigmatic constituent subject: the people. Unlike the king standing at the center of royalism’s political cosmology, the people that are the living source of democratic authority are never visible; the sovereign voice proclaimed in the revolutionary slogan vox populi, vox dei is never distinctly audible. In order to invest the people with sovereign authority, we have to imagine the contours and composition of their existence—the dilemmas of boundary associated with who the people are—as well as their capacity for transformative collective agency—the related question of how the people act.
As the personal and external rule of the king was supplanted by the impersonal and immanent self-rule of the people, representational dilemmas emerged that not only impacted questions of institutionalization and law, but also of visualization, composition, and form. Imaginary investments of peoplehood mediate the people’s relationship to their own political empowerment—how they understand themselves to be a part of and act as a people. How to envision the people as a collective actor is an aesthetic-political problem that haunts the history and theory of modern democracy.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the so-called “dreamer” of modern democracy, was acutely aware of the imaginary investments required as popular sovereignty’s condition of possibility, but Rousseau also recognized that placing the people as the sovereign foundation of political authority would engender demands beyond these imaginary investments: not only for the people’s existence as an “imagined community,” but for their collective, assembled presence. Rousseau understood that alongside democracy’s imaginary investments there would emerge pressures of physical materialization that would pose dilemmas for political theorists and political actors in the coming era of democratic revolution and beyond.
Rousseau’s affirmation of the people’s collective embodiment in the sovereign assembly has often been denounced as a dangerous perversion of democracy and even the modern source of “democratic totalitarianism” by those theorists who have focused attention on the distinctive dilemmas that democracy poses to questions of political representation. An influential tradition of theoretical reflection indebted to Claude Lefort’s theory of democracy’s “empty space” of power has been profoundly attuned to democracy’s imaginary investments and symbolic forms, while also being deeply skeptical of what it construes as dangerous Rousseauian myths of collective embodiment, which are usually conceptualized in the political theological language of “incarnation.” All claims of democratic embodiment or materialization are conceived by this tradition as dangerous disfigurations, infantile longings, totalitarian impulses generated from within the symbolism of democracy itself to be indulged at our peril. The familiar association of democracy with the disincorporation of power does not provide us with the theoretical resources for thinking through the particularity of popular assembly as a form of democratic representation. It too quickly reduces it to “populist” tendencies to reincorporate the space of political power.
We need not embrace Rousseau’s particular vision of the people’s collective presence in democratic politics, however, in order to engage more closely with how his work makes legible the generation and dynamics of this demand beyond democracy’s imaginary investments. Rousseau’s systemic theoretical reflections on these issues allow us to see more clearly how and why emergent democracy would come to generate not only imaginary investments but, beyond them, demands for the people’s direct public appearance and manifestation.
If democratic theorists, following Jürgen Habermas’s lead, have focused a great deal of attention on how a ratio-critical public emerged out of growing networks of print capitalism, coffee houses, reading publics, and so on, they have focused much less attention on how the proliferation of popular assemblies mediated and gave tangibility to the people manifesting as a collective actor capable of enacting dramatic political reforms and change.“In political contexts animated by the emerging principle of popular sovereignty,” as the historian Colin Lucas writes, “the physical display of the people as an embodiment of popular voice took on powerful new meaning.” It is this “new” meaning and the “power” it obtains in emerging democratic contexts—and its reiteration across the entirety of modern democratic history—that must be more carefully examined.
The existing scholarship on the politics of crowds has too often focused on questions still dictated by the deeply reactionary and anti-democratic “crowd theory” and “crowd psychology” of the nineteenth and early twentieth century—Hippolyte Taine, Gustave Le Bon, Scipio Sighele. It has done so even when responding critically to that literature. The important historical studies of the “moral economy” of the crowd, for example, remain largely focused on the motivations of crowds, emphasizing the normative and rational basis of their collective acts. Studies of the changing historical repertoires of crowd politics undertaken by scholars of social movements have illuminated the shifting patterns and dissemination of distinctive forms of contentious politics, but have rarely examined the underlying potency of popular assembly itself as a distinctive—and distinctively powerful—form of democratic representation.
The resonant claim—sometimes implicit, at other times explicit—made by popular assemblies across an entire history of democratic enactments, from the storming of the Bastille to today’s popular insurgencies, is: “you do not represent us!” Popular assemblies take shape in the aporetic space of democratic representation—the space that figures the people as both the authorizing source and the effect of representation. As they do so, they set into motion the condition for the emergence of new collectivities and political subjects. Far from being reduced to mere force, violence, or what Habermas described as the “pressure from the street,” many contemporaries saw revolutionary crowds and popular assemblies as signs of a formerly passive people emerging and taking form as a collective actor, a political collectivity giving tangible evidence of the people’s existence and political capacity. “The people must see themselves assembled,” as Maximilien Robespierre proclaimed, “in order to feel their power.”
Popular assemblies have always been a privileged locus of democratic representation because they at once claim to represent the people while also signaling the material plenitude beyond any representational claim. The distinctive power of popular assemblies as a form of democratic representation is engendered in part from their internal reference to the materialization of that which lies beyond it. Assemblies make manifest that which escapes representational capture; they rend a tear in the established representational space of appearance and draw their power from tarrying with the ineffability and materiality of the popular will. Democratic representation enlists both an abstraction—the people—andan insistence on particularity and collective concreteness beyond the existing regime of representation. This double demand generates a dynamic tension and lends popular assembly its distinctiveness and power in the complex ecology of democratic representation.