Wednesday, 2 February 2011


In the recent general election in my country, the parties competed on their different plans for addressing the economic calamities of the credit crunch. And the British population voted, despite the fact that almost all of us know almost nothing about economics. Or to take a slightly more contentious argument: by what criterion of expertise is it the democratic will of the United States to go to war in Iraq when a large proportion of the American electorate can’t even identify where Iraq might be found on a map of the world? To ask this question is not to insist the war was wrong, or right; and nor am I trying to score cheap shots at the expense of Americans (we might ask, for instance, why should an office worker in Ohio or Nebraska need to know the intricate political situation that obtains in Iraq? She has plenty of other things to occupy her life; indeed, she has remarkable expertise about a dozen areas of knowledge.) My point here is to suggest that an inevitable part of the way democracy works is that popular will is predicated not upon knowledge but intuition, not upon ‘truth’ but—that fantastically useful theoretical category—‘truthiness’. Not that decisions are made on the basis on ignorance, but certainly that ignorance need not be dissolved away by the acid of actually finding shit out before decisions are made. One (minor) manifestation of democracy in my country is radio phone-in shows: a host poses a hot topic of the day—immigration, sexual morality, the economy, religion whatever—and then ‘ordinary members of the public’ phone in with their opinions. The parameters are lightly drawn in these forums: if callers are actually incite hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation they will be rebuked or censored. But otherwise their views, no matter how oddball or ignorant, are given equal platform space. The implicit premise behind these shows is that merely by voicing an opinion, one is performing democracy. There is no requirement that opinion be modified by actual knowledge. To quote Mitchell and Webb expert parody of the form. ‘What about global warming? How should the situation in the middle east be resolved? Almost certainly you know nothing about these issues, but I’m sure you reckon something. Give us a call!’

Contemporary democracy, in other words, is a performative rather than a connotative statement. To talk about nuclear physics in a lecture hall with a view to teaching students, one needs at least a basic understanding of nuclear physics. But to utter the classic examples of performative utterances—to say ‘I do’ during a marriage ceremony, to say ‘you’re fired’—your discourse needs no actual expertise.* Or to put it another way, the knowledge is in the performance only. The statement ‘carbon 12 is an isotope of carbon 14’ includes knowledge, in the sense that it is possible to get it wrong. The statement ‘I do’, uttered during a marriage service, is perfectly ignorant in terms of marriage. I perform democracy by (let’s say) voting, going on demos, writing angry letters to the newspaper and so on. All these things, being performative, cannot be wrong—I may vote Labour or Conservative, but my vote cannot be wrong.**
Two footnotes.

* To be clear: I suppose it is possible to get the ‘I do’ wrong in the sense that one thereby marries the wrong person (years of fights and bitterness leading to a rancorous divorce). But this is a different kind of getting things wrong, I think. It’s not possible for the performative ‘I do’ to be wrong about what it performs—the act of becoming marriage, whether to your ideal life partner or some horrible individual. On the other hand a referential statement can easily be wrong on its own, referential terms: as I would be, if I began a lecture on geography with ‘Holland is a mountainous country.’

** This, actually, unpacks into large and important questions. One common criticism of the West’s project to ‘democratise’ the rest of the world is precisely that it violates this core principle—that the voters of ‘Palestine’ or Egypt or (potentially) Iraq and Afghanistan vote for the wrong people when they vote for radical Islamist politicians. I don’t have time to go into this here, I suppose, although it seems to me that such a position (Palestinian democracy means the perfect freedom of the Palestinians to elect whomsoever they choose provided it’s not Hamas’) has everything to do with international relations and nothing to do with democracy.

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