Dec 182014

Samir Haddad, Derrida and the Inheritance of Democracy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013; 178pp. ISBN: 9780253008411.

Reviewed by Clay Lewis, York University

It is not without justification that numerous scholars have noted a “return to the political” in contemporary Continental philosophy. Since Derrida’s death in 2004, there has been a proliferation of scholarship exploring the uncertain global fate of liberal democracy. What then, does Derrida’s deconstruction of democracy contribute to this urgent discussion? This question is especially interesting in light of the interpretation, perhaps undeserved, that the return to the political is simultaneously a rejection of deconstruction. The argument is that deconstruction undermines classical political concepts, thereby rendering indispensable notions such as fraternity, agency, and sovereignty all but inoperative. In fact, one of the most prevalent criticisms directed against Derrida has to do with his notion of a “democracy to come.” The criticism is that Derrida’s notions of openness, expectation, and awaiting the advent of democracy verges on political passivity, apathy, and indifference. Furthermore, does the notion of a “democracy to come” not presuppose the very same future oriented time-consciousness and naïve faith in progress that Derrida himself criticizes as the ideology of “universal history” operative within Hegel’s Phenomenology Of Spirit, as well as Fukuyama’s now infamous The End Of History And The Last Man?

Enter Samir Haddad’s knowledgeable and well-researched book on Derrida And The Inheritance Of Democracy. Haddad’s major contribution is to explore the ways in which democracy, for Derrida, is not only a matter of openness to an indeterminate future, but also involves the inheritance of a contested past. Haddad’s book is comprised of six chapters as well as a substantial introduction and short conclusion. The chapter breakdown is as follows: 1) “The Structure Of Aporia,” 2) “Derridian Inheritance,” 3) “Inheriting Democracy To Come,” 4) “Questioning Normativity,” 5) “Politics of Friendship As Democratic Inheritance,” and 6) “Inheriting Birth.”

The first chapter deals with the unavoidable aporia involved in the inheritance of a democratic tradition. This aporia, Haddad explains, is between “two regimes of law”: the unconditional law of hospitality on the one hand, and the necessary limits to hospitality on the other. Haddad shows that these two regimes of hospitality are constituted by a relationship of mutual dependence. While the law of unconditional hospitality is the origin and inspiration of the conditional laws of the state, this unconditional law would nevertheless remain completely without political affect if not for their conditional inscription. It is interesting to note that for Derrida, the origin of this unconditional command is not the ethical relationship, as it is for Emmanuel Lévinas. Instead, Derrida is more faithful to Kierkegaard’s point of view, which is that unconditional law originates from the religious experience of the absolute. (This is his contention in The Gift of Death and Of Hospitality. In Specters of Marx, however, Derrida attributes the genesis of the unconditional to the discontinuous structure of temporality.) It would have been interesting to hear more about the difference between Lévinas’ and Derrida’s interpretations of hospitality, and any possible implications for democracy. Haddad nevertheless goes on to demonstrate that the structure of aporia culminates with the dilemma of un-decidability, wherein political decision must always be made with insufficient knowledge of the necessary criteria for such a choice.

This leads to a more explicit discussion of the structure of inheritance in Chapter 2, which draws extensively from Derrida’s Specters Of Marx, a text that is framed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Soviet Communism, and the ensuing triumphalism and utopian climate of the 1990s. Haddad takes up a discussion of Derrida’s notions of ghosts, specters, and “hauntology.” Haddad shows that for Derrida, such specters do not refer to a communist threat “haunting” Europe, as it does for Marx. Instead, Derrida suggests that Marx himself is haunted by the openness of communism to alternative interpretations. Unfortunately, Marx attempts to exorcise these specters for the sake of dogmatic certainty. In light of this certainty, Haddad describes Derrida’s distinction between the “spirit” of Marx’s critique of capitalism on the one hand, and the dogmatic orthodoxy of actually existing communism on the other. It is therefore the responsibility of deconstruction to keep communism open to a plurality of alternative interpretations. One may wonder, however, whether the Marxist critique of capital is sufficient in the absence of concrete alternatives. In other words, does Derrida not confuse the problem with the solution—the problem being that Marxism has become merely critique in the absence of political praxis?

The third chapter moves from the aporia of inheritance to Haddad’s primary focus, the inheritance of democracy. That which is inherited is not a pre-determined set of practices and institutions, but rather the promise of a “democracy to come.” Haddad engages in a masterful discussion of the paradoxical temporality of such a promise, whereby one inherits from the past the promise of a future to come. This promised future is, nevertheless, conditional upon the decisions of the present moment. It turns out that the inheritance of democracy does not involve obedience to an established history, tradition, or authority, but rather an openness to the possible transformations of a democracy to come. According to Derrida, democracy does not refer to any particular mode of government, but rather to the freedom to decide for oneself the best form of government. It is Derrida’s hope that the constant transformation of democracy may, to a greater extent, actualize the unconditional law of democratic hospitality. This hopeful expectation leads to a more sobering discussion of that which Derrida calls the auto-immunity of democracy. “Auto-immunity” refers to the paradoxical tendency of an organism, or a body politic in this case, to defend itself from attack by undermining its own defenses. Haddad looks at Derrida’s analysis of the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as an example of such auto-immunity. Derrida suggests that through its own democratic openness the future, the United States inadvertently opens itself to the possibility of its own self-destruction. The auto-immune response to such an attack upon democracy is to attack the very defense systems of democracy itself, such as constitutional law. The violation of civil liberties by the U.S. Patriot Act is just one example of such an auto-immune response. As we have seen, however, this paradoxical democratic imperative of unconditional openness and conditional closure can neither be reconciled nor overcome for Derrida, but must instead be preserved and even intensified. While Derrida’s analysis of democratic auto-immunity is quite brilliant, his discussion of such immunity in the context of 9/11 is nevertheless unfortunate. This is because Derrida risks replicating the narrative that Al Qaeda targeted the United States out of a hatred of democratic freedom, rather than, for instance, the perceived imperialism of American foreign policy.

In Chapter 4, Haddad engages in debate with other Derrida scholars, including Martin Hägglund and Leonard Lawlor. The nature of this debate has to do with an important implication of Derrida’s notion of the inheritance of democracy—that democracy is nothing but the structure of inheritance itself. Derrida’s notion of democracy is therefore without content. This raises the question of what the normative content of democracy should nevertheless be? In response to this question, Haddad discusses Derrida’s writings on the death penalty, as well as various other normative political themes. In Chapters 5 and 6, Haddad goes on to offer an interesting discussion of Derrida’s critique of the political bond of fraternity. This discussion is especially interesting in light of Derrida’s persistent criticism of this concept. As Haddad points out, Derrida refrains from calling for a “fraternity to come” as he does for democracy. Derrida’s hostility to this concept seems to indicate that there is something about the notion of fraternity that resists the interpretive transformations of democratic inheritance. This resistance is a result of the fact that the term presupposes the exclusion of women from the polis. Furthermore, the biological connotations of the term could be used to limit national citizenship to the right of birth, thereby bringing closure to democratic hospitality.

Nevertheless, it is Derrida’s treatment of democratic fraternity that, in my opinion, reveals his insufficiencies as a political thinker. In addition to resisting the notion of fraternity in Politics of Friendship, in Specters of Marx Derrida also rejects any notion of party, class, or nation. If fraternity, nation, class, and party are all inadequate bases for social solidarity, political community, or popular sovereignty, then what is? Unfortunately, Derrida does not seriously pursue this question. Instead, Derrida seems to propose a democracy without a demos, or without a people. In abandoning the notion of a demos, Derrida may also risk abandoning any relevancy as a political thinker. Perhaps this risk is indicated by the themes of the final chapter of the book, which is a discussion of maternity and birth. By Haddad’s own admission, such themes at least appear to have very little relation to the initial focus of the book—democracy.

These points should not, however, be interpreted as criticisms of Haddad’s well-researched and well-written book. Haddad’s stated intention is to provide a sustained analysis of Derrida’s notion of democracy as inheritance, a task that he accomplishes with considerable skill. I wonder, however, whether Derrida’s contributions to democratic theory could be further clarified by placing his thought within a broader constellation of political thinkers who engage more extensively with political themes, such as Hannah Arendt and Jacques Rancière, or perhaps even Marx and Rousseau. Nonetheless, the readers of this book will gain significant insight into the Derrida’s paradoxical notion of the inheritance of a democracy to come. Haddad’s book should therefore be considered an authoritative text on Derrida and democratic theory.