Democracy as an imagined order

Image: Marcio Costa


Precarious lives that don't matter

Democracy, as it has been established in the popular imagination through the ages, never existed. In fact, taking the etymology of the word “democracy”, coming from the ancient Greek δημοκρατία (demokratia or “government of the people”), it is easy to see that there is never a “government of the people”. According to HARARI (2015), “imagined order” are social norms that are not based on ingrained instincts or personal relationships, but on the belief in shared myths. The objective of this belief would be the construction of a better society, in the sense of its functionality. Thus, for a large number of unknown people to cooperate with each other, it was, and to a certain extent still is, essential to believe in equality in essence. But, how to understand democracy, even more so in current times, where, according to BUTLER (2019), the humanities can be weakened with all its relativism or, dialectically, being sabotaged by those who oppose all this relativism, questioning and criticism?

Here we have it very clear that the equality of this “imagined order” is not supported only by voluntary beliefs. A specific part of it is tied to the violence imposed by some of our fellow men with greater coercive resources. Even in the cradle of Western democracy, problem resolutions were not aimed at the population in general, although we have to contextualize the time, but only the interests of the group that defined itself as citizens and, if we can look a little more carefully, we will see that even within this group there were greater and lesser beneficiaries. In other words, even among their peers, Athenian citizens sought to obtain privileges and facilities that benefited them vis-à-vis others.

Therefore, even if we have other forms here and there, it is a fact that democracy still stands today as a myth to be pursued by most countries. The “imagined order” that is set in modern society in general is that only democracy should prevail. It alone is worth the effort of all citizens in today's globalized world. Disagreements, be they countries or groups of people, are left with the consequences of deliberate barbarism.

In this sense, if, as BUTLER says, “… what binds us morally has to do with how we are addressed by others in ways we cannot avoid or prevent.” (1), the very condition of barbarism stands as a signifier of the human condition, that is, beyond Butler's own thought, perhaps we have never had the ideal condition to be addressed.

This barbarism is currently personified in “fake news” in current parlance, which means that it exports for its own consumption, that is, democracy itself. In other words, an “imagined order” can only ideally export itself, since a myth can never become a thing with substance, with concreteness. The myth is solidified through the individual and/or collective imagination, but never in itself.

Therefore, for democracy to have lasted for more than two thousand years in the “imagined order” of people, societies and countries, it needed three basic characteristics of every belief: the first, being incorporated in the immaterial world; the second, that it would give form to our desires; and the last one, it needs to be intersubjective.

The first basic characteristic cited concerns the way our mind concretizes the immateriality of the “imagined order” at each historical moment. This understanding is fundamental to understand the marginality of democracy in most of that time, since ancient Greece. As this form of government was rarely used over more than two thousand years, it did not have the material conditions to feed back on the cultural phases of the past. In this respect, Lévinas's concept of the imagined face, cited by BUTLER (2), that is, the ethical relationship of the other's right to exist over the primacy of my existence, synthesized in the ethical edict 'thou shalt not kill', represses the desire of putting the life of the other at risk, despite not being an ontological necessity, presents itself as the humanity of man. Only in a form of government that pays attention to this social aspect, such as democracy, can the adequate material conditions for this “humanity of man” be gathered.

The second basic characteristic is that our immaterial desires, therefore imagined, need dominant myths to become real. Although they don't realize it, people are born into a certain society full of pre-established beliefs. This preexisting order will guide their lives in relation to their worldview, desires, affections, etc. Thus, the face of Lévinas that expresses the commandment “thou shalt not kill”, is not an exclusively human face, in fact it is a catachresis, as it reveals a series of meanings and cultural expressions that can be vocalized in different ways, including language ( that can often come from these dominant myths), to give some semantic meaning, even if it is to empty any meaning.

The third basic characteristic, as we said, is that this “imagined order” needs to be intersubjective. But this intersubjectivity only exists in a communications network that can bring together many people. Only if a collectivity/society changes its myths or beliefs can intersubjectivity be altered. Now, if the “imagined orders” of a society, in whatever historical period it may be, are established in such a way that only a few individuals want to change it, the probability of significant changes occurring in that society is almost nil. However, if a majority of individuals wish to change some “imagined order(s)”, the probability of changes occurring increases. Here it becomes clear that, in fact, the myths or beliefs of a society are only replaced by new myths or beliefs.

Therefore, if Lévinas understands that “humanity is a rupture of being” (3), this rupture can only happen in the collective, that is, the change of humanity towards an ethics of the precariousness of life itself will not serve the purpose imagined by this thinker is restricted to the individual. In fact, the precariousness of the human, as a singular human, is closer to the temptation to kill. Only a society/humanity that reaches the belief of collective equality can assert itself within a ethos that produces in itself, and consequently in each individual, the conflict at the heart of ethics between the temptation to kill and the request for peace. Therefore, and Bauman's liquid modernity shows us this more and more every day, the conflict between the anxiety of fetishist consumption in the commodity-producing society and the appeal for the interdiction of the desire to kill, in the name of this anxiety and the subject's self-preservation (in )solvent, results in a pathological deadlock of constant tension.

Thus, the transformations of the concept of democracy throughout history are in accordance with the changes that have taken place in the “imagined order” of societies that have occurred since it was invented in the classical antiquity of Athens, in ancient Greece. In this sense, the capitalist revolution was no less traumatic for the population in general than the other historical phases of humanity. The truth is that capitalism can be seen as an episode “sine qua non” in the transition to our contemporary phase of rescuing the democratic legend. Indeed, it is not by chance that the current democratic government regime, since its inception with the establishment of universal suffrage in the XNUMXth century (universal male and white, as women and blacks only in the XNUMXth century), has reached the present status as an inviolable partner of capitalism.

It is quite likely that, without the economic and social dynamics of past times, capitalism would not be established today as a myth, deified by the vast majority of the world's population, much less in its current neoliberal stage. In fact, if the living being goes through different phases throughout its life, in all senses, but it is still the same living being, the same happens with capitalism, that is, it has always been capitalism, it doesn't matter if it started located and with the steam engine. Neoliberalism would not have happened without its older phase of classical liberalism.

Meanwhile, it is obvious that the world is very different. Both the population grew enormously, and the technological advance assumed proportions never reached before. The new capitalist economic order transformed the utopian democracy of gathering to discuss and deliberate, into a democratic dystopia of voting without prior discussion and deliberation by order. Those who conceive the crisis of democracy in the temporality of neoliberalism are wrong. Today, the “imagined order” of democracy, linked as it is to the commodity producing system, should be understood in its death throes. The crisis of democracy, paradoxically, began at the very moment it was rescued from the ashes of history, precisely because it had not overcome its internal contradictions.

In terms of Lévinas's subject, allegorically personified in his concept of face, even if disfigured by the supremacy of the economic order in his daily life, he can be analyzed from two angles that mischaracterize him more than re-signify him today: the neurotic individual by the impasse already reported above, well captured by Lévinas (4) in his allusion to the internal channel for aggression itself in the form of superego cruelty, a negative version of narcissism; as well as the political subject, transcended to the domain of a representation that permeates the struggle between humanization and dehumanization without ceasing.

In this vein, it is interesting to note that the fact that democracy has already appeared in the history of human beings as a form of government did not prevent its return. On the contrary, it needed to be rescued by the new economic order that was imposed there at the end of the XNUMXth century, beginning of the XNUMXth century. In practice, Adam Smith's romantic ideal of traditional liberalism and his invisible hand favoring markets had already proved fruitless. After all, it takes a lot of imagination to agree with the liberal idea that man, by seeking his personal enrichment at any cost, would be favoring the collective. The predominance of the individual never strengthened the collective.

Despite technological progress having leveraged the machine of capitalist abstract production, more abstract with each new technical advance, the political order was in turmoil. The XNUMXth century was prodigal not only in the increase of the decarnalization of the produced merchandise, and its consequent speculation as eroticized consumption, but also of its critics, who saw in this consumerist eroticization, in this fetish exacerbated by the consumption of oneself, an act of announced death. For the act of consuming something is the act of spending, of using it to the end. If consumption becomes an end in itself in a person's life, the final effect will be nothing more than his own self-consumption.

Necropolitics is precisely in this tenebrous tenebrous line between living in the eternal death drive promoted by the liberal democracy of the “god” market, with the total subsumption of the State captured by the entrepreneurs of the public good, and the exponential increase of those excluded from their daily bread , therefore of the minimally possible life. It is, without mincing words, the purposeful extermination of already precarious lives promoted by an economic system that, by swallowing the political routine of people's routine, condemns them to merely live the light show of always wanting more, even if this feeling is meaningless. Because the “always wanting more” is, ipsis litteris, the face of Lévinas (5) dehumanized in its violent personification/self-representation of the triumphant wills/ideologies of the dominant power.

Thus, democracy was once again enmeshed by the hegemonic economic system, as opposed to that of the first Greek attempt, which sought in social strengthening the ideal way out of its organic weaknesses. This time, the ideal way out was the dismantling of social forces, through the enlargement of the community social fabric, as an essential prerogative of profit maximization. In other words, capitalism sought in the “imagined order” of democracy its ideal partner for the transformation of human beings into a mass of electoral maneuvers, in order to achieve its marketing objectives.

In this way, the democratic myth that once again breathed in the hands of popular hordes, indignant with the direction their lives had taken through centuries of submission by the portentous owners of power at the time, was captured, fraudulently, without much fanfare, by a system economy that always preached the impossible: equality between the unequal, that is, between work and capital. In this sense, the main objective of capital, in allowing democracy to gain a universal body as the most suitable political system for humanity, was not to translate into benefits for these human beings the meager advantages that the exploitation of abstract labor offers to capitalists, but milking a thirsty crowd for the false perception that they would be in charge of their wills, the generalized ego for new opportunities and pleasures.

If it is true that democracy has always been linked to progress, be it ideas or technological development, it was no coincidence that, when antiquity ebbed within feudal walls, democratic belief succumbed together. If what came to be worth was survival, there were no intellectual conditions for political thinking. The most that occurred, and even then slowly, was technical development for warfare.

It is true that democracy would still take many centuries to be resurrected as an “imagined order”. However, the fundamental question is: is feudal servitude not being re-edited in a very peculiar and dangerous way in the current society of virtuality 4.0? Are we not being slaves to a system that sees and demands everything, just like in the domains of feudal lords? Is it not easy to draw a parallel between the belonging of the servant's life to his master and the current ways in which people place their lives in the hands of the deus “machina”?

Let's think a little more: in the age of feudalism, men mortgaged themselves and their families to the powerful in exchange for protection. All worked for the local overlord, paid high tax rates and had no voice. Especially to question something. Nowadays, men and women mortgage themselves and their families to the labor market; they are exploited not only physically, but also for the excess of futile, abstract and worthless demand; they continue to pay excruciating tax rates; and they continue without a voice, except for the excuse of voting. So, apart from the “redeeming” novelty of voting, aren't the two situations similar? Aren't we still puppets of who or what is in power?

But hasn't voting, this most dignified myth, been the target of intense battles over the last few centuries, and continues to be so in so many countries where it doesn't exist, so that it could be definitively proclaimed as the "master of ceremonies" of democracy? In fact, even in self-proclaimed democratic countries, isn't the quality of this vote still being questioned? But then it's not enough to vote? No. You have to know how to vote. But how do you learn to vote, if the Athenian “agoras” for discussion and deliberation on the city's problems no longer exist? If the public space was subsumed into the virtual space of conversations and electronic "chats", how to know, on-site visit, what are the real problems that society needs to face? Could leaving it in the hands of professional politicians be a more adequate solution to get rid of uncomfortable and controversial issues and focus on the spectacle of the cyber world? Well, but then it ceased to be the original democracy of the ancient Greeks. It becomes a “democratic representation”, in the Roman mold; a democracy in quotes.

In truth, we are so overwhelmed with a contemporary life filled with fantasies, puppets, lack of time for everything, even for oneself, that it is much better to delegate political discussions to those who are willing to make a living out of it. The “nano-society” prefers to live the delights of the virtual masks of superimposed realities, than to face the “monotonous questions” related to how we should act to improve our planet and its conditions of habitability.

The long-awaited democracy is trailing behind the accelerated economy, or rather, the common life with no time for anything. If we hardly see our children and relatives on a daily basis, how can we stop to think about politics and their representatives? How to know what they are talking about and, even more important, what they are actually proposing between the lines of speeches? There is no longer any way to hide a general malaise with the course of a legend that was supposed to be in the order of the gods, but is nothing more than a demiurge. Democracy's "imagined order" has deceived many, many people, for a long time.

In this respect, it is coherent to turn again to Lévinas when he says that: “For representation to convey the human, then, it must not only fail, but show its failure.” (6). Now, isn't that exactly what the United States has always done? And before them the superpowers of each era? The face captured by evil, the one that Butler (7) says is not seen as human, and therefore subject to any dehumanization, is precisely the image of reality portrayed by whoever manipulates it to disidentify that face. The reversal of roles as a guarantee of the “status quo”: the symbolic as real x the real as symbolic. The result is the erasure of violence by erasing representation. The permitted framing of reality enables the means/mechanisms by which the choice between who lives and who dies no longer matters. Everyone knows where it comes from, but no one knows when, nor the real reason for this choice.

The most serious of all this is that today we don't have time anymore. The planet's resources are running out and the cognitive capacities of the collective are being petrified by the illusion of light technology. With the increment and refinement of only a small number of individual cognitions, the voting machine itself can be a long shot. If, on the one hand, it materializes the legend by the availability of the subject to vote, “individually”, in the electronic ballot box, on the other hand, it makes possible the interference in democracy in an anonymous way. In this sense, thinking about the places that still use resources considered obsolete such as the ballot, so as not to go back even further in the oral vote of antiquity, can be a good example of the ambiguity provided by enthroned technology as the final solution. The difficulty of retelling, in case something seems suspicious, in addition to the feeling of insecurity in the system, can make any concrete attempt to defeat democratic neoliberal capitalism unfeasible.

* André Márcio Neves Soares is a doctoral candidate in Social Policies and Citizenship at UCSAL.



HARARI, Yuval Noah. Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. Porto Alegre – RS. LP&M. 2015;

BUTLER, Judith. Precarious Life. The powers of mourning and violence. Belo Horizonte. Authentic Publisher. 2019;



  • Same, pg. 159;
  • Ibid., p.160;
  • Ibid., p.163;
  • Ibid., p.168;
  • Ibid., p.171;
  • Ibid., p.175;
  • Ibid., p.176.






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