I said, perhaps, far too little about Hardt and Negri’s Assembly when I finished reading it a few months back. Since then, I have read Todd Gitlin on Occupy, della Porta on Social Movements in Times of Austerity (Polity, 2015), and Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.
One theme is the performative nature of assembly: how it can create the collective that proposes to make a political statement/intervention, and (even more) how it can create the kind of community to which those who assemble aspire. The assembly is “prefigurative.” That is the term that is used. It is the change it wishes to see in the world.
My skeptical objection has been consonant with most responses to anarchism: a) how does the assembly propose to produce/gather the resources that would make it sustainable?; b) is the assembly scalable? If it proposes itself as a model of the desired polis, then how does it grow to accommodate much larger numbers of members/participants?; and c) what kinds of structures, organization, leadership, communications, and other infrastructure must be created in order to maintain the assembly over the long haul? Occupy was completely parasitic on the “larger society” it was trying to secede from—or was it overthrow? Occupy was dependent on goods made in that larger society, monetary donations coming from that society, as well as on the expertise (medical, technical) that larger society, through its educational system, imparted to certain individuals.
An assembly, in other words, is not a society—and to claim that somehow it represents an alternative society seems to me disingenuous, extremely naïve. It is one thing to say that Occupy modeled modes of relationship that we wish could be more prevalent in our lives. It is quite another to claim Occupy modeled an alternative to mainstream society. To use Judith Butler’s terms, Occupy did not provide the grounds for a “livable life.”
But Gitlin and Butler both point us toward what seems to me a much more productive way to think about assembly. They both stress that democracy as a political form is deeply dependent upon assembly—and that the current assault on democracy from the right includes a serious impairment of rights to assembly. Vote suppression has gotten most of the press when it comes to attending to the ways that our plutocrats are trying to hold out against the popular will. But the anti-democratic forces are also determined to limit opportunities for assembly.
Let’s do the theory first. Democracy rests on the notion of popular sovereignty. In the last instance, political decisions in a democracy gain their legitimacy through their being products of the people legislating its own laws for itself (Kant). The fact that such things as a ban on assault rifles and increased taxes on the rich are (if the polls can be believed) supported by a large majority of Americans, but impossible to enact in our current political system, seems a good indicator that we do not live in a democracy—a fact with which most of the Republican party seems not only very comfortable with, but determined to sustain.
Because the final arbiter is supposed to be the popular will, there will always be a tension in democracy between the representative bodies of organized government and the people. That tension leads to repeated critiques of representative government and calls for “direct” or “participatory” democracy (dating all the way back to Rousseau). It also leads to the oft-repeated worry/claim that democracy only works on a small-scale. A large scale democracy (and what is the number here?; probably anything over 100,000 citizens or so) will inevitably depend on representatives to carry out its political business—and thus, in the eyes of direct democracy advocates, inevitably fail to be truly democratic. Elections are too infrequent—and not fine-grained enough (what, exactly, are the voters saying?) to provide sufficient popular input into specific decisions. Add the many ways in which elections are manipulated and you quickly get politicians who are only minimally accountable to the populations they supposedly represent. The electoral system is gamed to insure that position (office) and all its privileges and powers are retained by incumbents—or by the party currently in power.
How to make politicians accountable? One device is plebiscites, which have some kind of appeal. Let the people vote directly on matters of interest to them. The problem with plebiscites is that they are a favored tool of the right—and produce (in many cases at least) what is best called “illiberal democracy” or (to use Stuart Hall’s term) “authoritarian populism.” The blunt way to say this: never put rights to a vote.
Liberal democracy (or constitutional democracy) actually tries to place certain things (usually called “rights”) outside of normal democratic decision making, out of the give and take of ordinary political conflict/wrangling/compromise. Some things are held apart from the fray, are guaranteed as the rules of the game (basic procedures), as the lasting institutions (the court system, the legislature, the executive), and as the basic rights enjoyed by all citizens (civil liberties). The constitution also established the “checks and balances” of a liberal order—such that no particular person, office, or governmental institution possesses absolute power. Power is distributed among various sites of government in an attempt to forestall the ever present danger of its (power’s) abuse. The use of plebiscites is, thus, authoritarian, precisely because it bypasses this constitutional distribution of power through the appeal to the direct voice of the people—thus authorizing the executive to act irrespective of what the courts or legislature has to say.
SO: if one is committed to a liberal polity as well as to a democratic one, the notion of “direct democracy” is not very appealing. The “tyranny of the majority” is a serious concern—as my home state of North Carolina has repeatedly demonstrated throughout its history of Jim Crow and in its recent 61% vote in favor of an amendment to the state constitution against extending the legal protections of marriage to same-sex couples. In a liberal society, the popular will is to be checked, to be balanced by other sites of power, just as any other form of power is.
Of course, in any system, there comes to be a place where the buck stops. As critics of the Constitution—the anti-Federalists of the 1790 debates over ratification—pointed out from the start, the structure of the US government lodges that final power in the Supreme Court. That is why we are such a litigious society; the final arbiter is the Court—a fact that is deeply problematic, and which has led, in our current deeply polarized moment, to the Republicans resting their best hope for defeating the popular will on controlling, through the appointment of right-wing judges, the Court.
Some theorists of sovereignty insist that it can never be distributed, that it can only be exercised when it emanates from one site. Despite the outsized power of the Supreme Court in our system, I think it vastly overstates the case to say the Court is the sole site of power in our polity. Justifying that claim would lead me in another direction, one I won’t take up here. Suffice it to say that I favor a constitutional amendment that would limit Supreme Court judges (and probably all federal judges) to one 25 year term. That way we would be spared having our fates in the hands of 80 year olds (a true absurdity) as well as randomizing when a position on the Court came vacant in relation to which party controlled the Senate at that moment. The amendment would also state that the Senate must make its decision about the President’s nominee within six months—or forfeit its “advise and consent” powers if it fails to act in a timely fashion.
But: back to assembly. Butler, I think very usefully, suggests that assembly in a democracy is an incredibly important supplement to the legislature. Here’s the basic idea: the people’s representatives can, because of their relative freedom from direct accountability, do things that various segments of the population disagree with. The first amendment ties “assembly” to a right to petition the government. The text reads: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thus, assembly is tied to the notion of “the people” having another means, apart from the actions of its representatives, of expressing its opinions, desires, will—and that alternative means is expressly imagined as a way of expressing displeasure with the actions of the government. It is in the context of “grievances” that we can expect the people to assemble. In this way, the right to assemble can be seen as a partial remedy to the recognized ills of representation. The people, by assembling, embody (the terms here are Butler’s) democratic sovereignty and make it “appear” (utilizing Arendt’s notion of politics as the “space of appearances). After all, the will of the people (the ultimate ground of democracy) is invisible unless it takes the corporate form of assembly since even, as Benjamin Anderson’s notion of “imagined community” makes clear, an election is a virtual, not visible and actual, manifestation of the popular will.
Assembly, then, is democracy in action (note the Arendtian stress on action)—and would thus seem to be as essential (perhaps even more essential) to democracy than voting. It is when and where the demos comes into existence. It is democracy visible—and hence its deep appeal to contemporary writers from Hardt/Negri through to Butler, writers who are all appalled by democracy’s retreat in the face of technocratic, plutocratic neoliberalism.
Gitlin documents in the last chapter of his book all the various ways—starting with union busting and moving through the use of “permits” for demonstrations to keep demonstrators far away from the people they are demonstrating against to the criminalizing of assembly itself (as not “permitted” in the double sense of that word) to a closing down of public spaces to certain political uses—that the right to assembly is currently under assault, an assault that parallels the various efforts to curtail voting rights. Our overlords fear the assembled people—and are doing their best to erect obstacles to such assembly.
Thinking of the Chartists, I am also sorry that the nineteenth century connection of assembly to the presentation of petitions (a connection the first amendment also makes) seems to have been lost. All those virtual petitions each of us is asked to sign on line every day are pretty demonstrably useless. But what about 100,000 (or more) people marching to the Capitol and calling on the Senate Majority Leader to come out and take from the hands of the people a petition? Great political theater if nothing else—and a vivid demonstration of the collapse of democracy if that politician refuses (as I suspect would happen) to engage with the people he claims to serve. Face-to-face is much harder to ignore than what comes to you across the computer screen.
Still, and obviously, I don’t think assembly is the be-all and end-all of politics, for all the reasons I keep on banging on about. But Gitlin and Butler have made me much more attuned to the possibilities and resources that assembly can—and does—possess for a left wing politics.