The Liminal Origins of Democracy
This paper examines the liminal origins of the affective bonds that initiate and substantiate democratic communities. Following Claude Lefort’s political anthropology, the paper works on the premise that power in democracy cannot be appropriated or incorporated, but is rather structured around an empty place. The formal safeguards in contemporary democracy rely upon legal guarantees, institutionalized boundaries, or individual autonomy, not affective interpersonal bonds or a social spirit. Practices of democratic governance, managed democracy, or the dissolution of social solidarities in the act of voting may even undermine a democratic spirit. Using the analogy of Plato’s response to the crisis of Athenian democracy, this paper claims that the social spirit of democratic communities emerges in liminal rites of passage, in transitions, where the self, the individual, opens up to the collective community. The argument is that these substantive bonds cannot derive from particularistic and bounded entities such as the law, self-interest, or autonomy. Rather they emerge in the boundlessness of historical events, which is represented in the ritualization of shared experiences and shared destiny. If democracy fundamentally is the power of nobody, any meaningful claim to popular sovereignty requires ritual initiation and the weaving of affective bonds of solidarity and social spirit.
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