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Globalizing the Intellectual History of Democracy
Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale) and Jean-Paul Gagnon (Canberra) in conversation.
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Andrew Sartori, Decentring the west, Democracy, Democratic, Democratization, Global history, History, History of democracy, Intellectual history, Interviews, Philosophy, Samuel Moyn, Uncategorized on July 21, 2020 0 Comments 18 min read
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Globalizing the Intellectual History of Democracy

Originally published by Democratic Theory, 7(1), Summer 2020. Pp. 99-107.

[The drive for this conversation, with Professor Samuel Moyn, came in most part out of a trend I had been observing in the democratic theory literature. There is a double dynamic at play, particularly over the last 15 or so years: first, democracy’s “standard narrative” (a great term from Benjamin Isakhan) was rapidly falling apart in the face of ever greater evidence counter to its claims; second, theorists were pointing out how unfair so much has been as regards the theory and exportation of democracy in the world. The first point seems to always have been contested as it is the product of Western imperial hegemony. Martin Bernal, John Keane, Yves Schemeil, Alexander Weiss & Sophie Schubert, are each very good to read here. The last point has many champions. I’m an admirer of Milja Kurki (export democracy and its ideological baggage) and Antoni Aguilo (the fight for “demodiversity”). It seemed to me that Professor Moyn would have so much to share here, particularly because of his book with Andrew Sartori: “Global Intellectual History“. It was a lovely collaboration for me and I remain very much in gratitude to Professor Moyn for his time and insights.]

Abstract: Samuel Moyn provides insight into how the history of democracy can continue its globalization. There is a growing belief that the currently acceptable fund of ideas has not served the recent past well which is why an expansion, a planetary one, of democracy’s ideas is necessary – especially now as we move deeper into the shadow of declining American/Western imperialism and ideology. Deciding which of democracy’s intellectual traditions to privilege is driven by a mix of forced necessity and choice: finding salient ground for democracy is likely only possible in poisoned traditions including European ones.


Jean-Paul Gagnon: How do you define democracy?

Samuel Moyn: You are starting with an almost impossible question!
The kind of experiential approach I support to the history of democracy
would have to start with the plurality of understandings of democracy,
not to mention what it has meant to diverse people to live it out. Clearly,
in pluralizing our definition we would have to move beyond a formal understanding, and especially an electoral one. The theorists of democracy
to whom I am most partial, like Claude Lefort (see, for example, 1988 &
2007), contend that even electoral democracy presupposes a demos or
people that is never instantiated except in partly fictional representations,
making democracy something like an endless quest or search for
legitimacy rather than an achievement to celebrate or a fact to register.

Gagnon: This recalls several thinkers in the vein of Sheldon Wolin (2016)
and Fred Dallmayr (2017) who, like Lefort, do not see democracy as a singular concept. It is, rather, a signal word with many synonyms that all
point to a probably endless account of meanings. Any effort to pin democracy down to one meaning is a labour we’re frankly warned against! 18th century French revolutionaries, for instance, sought out pure democracy but were instead rewarded with totalitarianism and violence for their efforts, as Warren Breckman (2013:143) reminds us. We are better off accepting that democracy does, and will, mean many things and that we must think about what those things mean for us, what we want from them or want through them. This orientation does not concern itself with what democracy is in passive descriptive terms but rather what it actively stands
for, what it symbolizes, what it – whatever it is – does.

Moyn: There is no denying your point, which holds true of almost any
concept, especially old ones. At the same time, neither history and theory
can rest content with observing essential contestation and charting
diffusion. At least in certain contexts, there is still hegemonic meaning
for some concepts, and if some concepts are more appealing and diffuse
in more variety than others, then there has to be something about them
that differs before the process of appeal and diffusion begins. Lefort argued
that “democracy” had some inherent and non-negotiable properties,
because it marked a departure from the illusion that anybody else is in
charge. So the indeterminacy of “democracy” is not the indeterminacy of
all concepts or it alone; instead, it flows from the determinate fact that it
promises emancipatory self-rule, in a contestatory and unending process.

Gagnon: Your collection Global Intellectual History (2013), co-edited with
Andrew Sartori, offers readers an impressive variety of approaches and
considerations to building global histories: such as Siep Stuurman’s
(2013) approach to exploring the settler/nomad dyad by reading Herodotus,
Sima Qian and Ibn Khaldun or Frederick Cooper’s (2013) helpful point
that commensurability (e.g. on matters of culture, language, and logic)
has been with, at least, Eurasia and Africa (probably Australia, too) for
millennia as people traveled, translated, loved, warred, and traded over
this time and in those spaces. But what’s the driver for this book? Is it the
important task of provincializing the “West” – a call, and calling, made
and found in an increasing number of academic fields? Or is there something more to it?

Moyn: The driver, I suppose, is awareness of the parochialism of much intellectual history as practiced in prestigious universities across the world. When I was a young professor, I became an editor of the journal Modern
Intellectual History, the claim to fame of which was to unite European with
North American spaces. Within a few years, as you note, “global intellectual
history” became something worth envisioning, and my goal with
Andrew Sartori was mainly to examine a suite of alternatives of what
the field could become. Since then it has exploded – and there is even
a new journal entitled Global Intellectual History. As you might expect, the
goal is different depending on the entrant into the field. Some no doubt
do have the sense of simple deprovincialization, but I would guess that
most believe that the restriction of places and sources in what has long
been considered the acceptable fund of ideas has not served the recent
past well, and so an expansion of the scope of intellectual history bears
on what traditions will matter for the future. I have a piece coming out in
the American Historical Review, however, that contends that we need less to deprovincialize Europe as to access its own globalist legacy of emancipation, as controversial as that is.

Gagnon: Why though – could you explain the controversy? Does your
American Historical Review piece, for example, stem from your more recent book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Moyn, 2018) which convincingly finds solutions to our deeply, materially, unjust lives in Europe’s intellectual roots?

Moyn: Not consciously, but they were written at the same time. I am very
suspicious of the current fashion of “decolonial” thinking or deferring to
indigenous or other alternatives to “the West,” as if our critiques of “the
West” did not stem from the very lopsided but still participatory processes
of global domination that we want to overcome. A good example comes
from recent debates about the legacy of the cultural pluralism of Franz
Boas and his students (see, for example, Blackhawk and Wilner 2018),
which emerged from hierarchical encounter (not just of anthropologists
and their subjects, as Isaiah Wilner [see the Introduction and Chapter 1,
in particular, of Blackhawk and Wilner 2018] has shown, but also across a
gender divide within the anthropologists themselves, as Gili Kliger [2019] has written in an excellent review of Charles King’s [2019] recent book).
Probably the central question for those who champion “emancipation”
is not whether it is Western in some complex sense but whether it is
Christian in some unexpungeable way. Either way, you are certainly right
that poisoned traditions are the only cure, and if that is not true of the
Hegelian and Lefortian ones I personally find most promising, then it is
going to be true of neo-Confucianism or other global ethical languages
that may well supplant those canonized in Western traditions.

Gagnon: I’d like to return to a point you made, just before, that most believe
we need to “expand the scope of intellectual history” (fully agreed!)
but that this will require us to judge which traditions matter most for our
future. First, why do we need to choose certain intellectual traditions
over others (as you seem to do via Hegel, Lefort, neo-Confucianism, and
emergent global ethical languages) and, second, which traditions do you
believe are or should be worthiest of our attention (if the same as you
mentioned directly above could you please elaborate)?

Moyn: There are two reasons. One is that the choice is forced upon us. The
other is that no matter how much we collate and gather the vast plurality
of global ethical positions, they conflict and individuals and groups get to
decide which ones to promote. World history has always been a scene of
ethical competition, and while that competition has rarely been resolved
principally because of the inherent appeal of the ethical visions on offer
(usually who is better armed matters more), never is that appeal irrelevant.
I have been particularly interested in some of my writing in what I
call “plural cosmopolitanisms,” since at least the Axial Age our problem
has not been the need to move from parochial moralities (family, tribe,
and nation) to universalistic ones, but rather our problem lies with the
contest among universal moralities (e.g. Moyn 2010). As late as the Cold
War, the war to the death was one of what people call “ideas” more than
weapons, and both sides promised something pretty close in the scheme
of things, within minor difference: a free way of life in the circumstances
of freedom from want and even material abundance, based on industrial
and technological modernity (and, as time passed, consumer modernity).
As for why I favor my crew, I would cite another combination of necessity
and choice. The experience of modern imperialism and global
Cold War competition had the effect of eradicating most competition ideologically – the ecosystem, as it were, got winnowed down substantially,
since the war was over the exact form of modern emancipation. And I
have my doubts whether various rearguard proposals – be they neo-Confucianism in China or various forms of reaction in the West today – are
to be taken seriously given how far emancipation has gone experientially
across the globe. In this circumstance, our only sole remaining choice is
which form of modern emancipation will prevail, especially as the American victor of the Cold War recedes in significance. And for philosophical reasons I see most of the candidates on offer as envisioning some sort of arrested or truncated emancipation. What was exciting about Hegel and Lefort is that they both inquired into what it would mean, and what the characteristic risks are, in striving for an unalloyed modernity. I don’t think that aspiration is going away.

Gagnon: I’d love to know: which ethic, or ethics, motivates your work?

Moyn: It’s a good question, but I don’t operate with a notion that ethics
are our fundamental commitment, with politics following. What unites
Hegel and Lefort is what you might call a politics-first understanding of
social reality. Still, it’s true that ethical proposals for what it is like to be
human and what our possibilities are have been part of the global competition I am portraying. And my repeated use of the term “emancipation” is linked to an ethic that our highest end is creative agency. I’m the first one to recognize and insist on the partisan theological origins of that ethic: in Western intellectual history, God was the first chooser, before in thinkers like Thomas Hobbes people began to conceive of themselves as copying and then displacing some of his power to make new things. One of the great challenges to my position is that it can never really transcend its Christian sources. But I think that, in figures like Ludwig Feuerbach before Hegel, the easy answer is that what people attributed to the divine was always just a confused way of thinking about themselves and their possibilities. And the essence of modernity is the reappropriation – not just in theory but in practice – of the creative power that history for so
long involved renouncing.

Gagnon: There is, I gather, a fork in the road whenever one must decide
about how to approach building the global history of anything. And that’s
the nature of the concept in focus. If the definition of a concept gives it a
singular geographical, temporal, and linguistic point of origination then
we have an autochthonous and a potential export dynamic in play, one
for example that you articulate in the nonglobalization of human rights
immediately post WWII (Moyn 2013). Here the labour would be to track
where and how and by whom the idea was invented, then spread, and, of
course, how it was in turn indigenized and transformed after voluntary/
involuntary importation. By contrast, however, if the definition points to
a universal concept then we can expect to find numerous autochthonous
instances of said concept – invented, again, across time and space and
language – throughout our globe. Here the labour would be, in the first
instance at least, to count, collect, organize, and compare this variety –
like surveying mushrooms or cataloguing flowers.

When it comes to democracy, it is my wager that we’ve both dynamics
in play: behaviours that, today, we would comfortably term “democracy”
(or some type of it) have originated natively, conventionally, sometimes
through invention, in both human and non-human societies which is one
explanation for why democracy has (at least in the English language) a
tremendous variety of meanings today. However, some of these meanings are more popular or known than others – these are occasionally conflated
for meaning “democracy itself”, an unfortunate error in cognition – and
are for reasons of such popularity and familiarity or conflation commonly
exported by hegemons to, say, other countries where these meanings are
not found (but other types of democracy would be found, should they have
been looked for in the first place). This is a site of conflict in democracy’s
ongoing “model wars”. What do you make of all this?

Moyn: It’s not clear to me that the dualistic approach you helpfully outline
applies to every concept in the same way. Some not only owe their
origins but remain more or less definitively locked up in one place. Others
are either presumptively universal or travel quickly to the ends of
the earth from their invention at some point or other on the globe. Approaches to those two ends of the continuum may have to differ completely, not only from each other, but from concepts that verge between
geographical specificity and universality in more complicated ways.
I see democracy as a concept and practice that remained evanescent
and in fact vilified in its absence for most of human history – as the tradition of Western thought shows clearly, to the extent it was contemplated it was normally to be dismissed, a brief Greek experiment aside. In modern times, it became a more universal aspiration, with not just liberal but fascist and communist regimes calling themselves democratic or insisting that they were the authentic democracies.

I can only appreciate your sense and showing that democracy has
been massively pluralized in different places, absent in some forms while
present in others nearly everywhere. It would be my impulse, though, to
insist that if we don’t privilege particular understandings of democracy, we will be unable to do its history.

Gagnon: If you were asked to build the world’s most comprehensive,
global, history of democracy to date, how would you go about doing it?

Moyn: Chris Meckstroth (Cambridge) and I are putting together one volume
of a new Cambridge History of Democracy, and your question is a challenging one because it raises the quandary of how to cover the topic.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom is to abandon a “comprehensive”
history (however global) since not every arguable instance of any phenomenon is even arguably as important as the others. I myself am partial, indeed, to thinking of democracy as the general experience of people that live in self-made societies, and their slow acceptance of this along with political forms that respect this fact about themselves. I do think that, this definition privileges the West – but only briefly, and in the same
sense that experiences that go worldwide may well have originated in
one place or one tradition as opposed to others but are no less authentically
enjoyed and embraced in other places.

To be more specific, therefore, a global history of democracy would
have to pivot around the rise of theories and practices of the self-making
of societies. It would have diffusionist aspects, as well as stories about
how differentially these theories and practices were articulated and experienced in different locales.

Gagnon: But how can we know what’s important and what’s not without
first taking stock of the many options before us? Would you, for example,
include work by Lane Fargher and company (e.g. 2010, 2011) on the
ancient republic of Tlaxcallan – a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, polity ruled
by a non-hereditary council trained by priests to put their people before
themselves? Space is probably limited in the volume and tough decisions
will need to be made. . . Who, with this example in mind, is to decide which self-making societies are to be included/excluded in the Cambridge History of Democracy and how can these decisions be justified?

Moyn: It is a great question, but fortunately Chris and I are saved somewhat
by the fact that our remit in the four volumes is solely the last,
on the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. And what that means
is that we can presuppose that imperial conquest of the globe is pretty
far advanced, and by the end has interacted in complex ways with
forms of thought and practices whose bearers have been conquered.
Your question does raise big difficulties when it comes to remaining
precontact tribes in the Amazon or much of interior Africa which may
well on some plausible readings have harbored unique arrangements
and visions for democracy, unless one adopts a Lefortian approach that
forbids those unconscious of the self-making of society from the designation
of “democratic.”

But frankly, Chris and I have treated as the thornier question what
democracy means once it was diffused through imperialism as a plausible
ideal, and how it was first marked in various ways through encounter and
then spun off on so many different postcolonial trajectories. That strikes
me as an already huge and more theoretically plausible task, and fortunately one made central by our time constraints.

Gagnon: Where do you think the effort of globalizing the intellectual
history of democracy could land us?

Moyn: I hope to have better answers in a few years; but if I had to guess
I think it would land us in a better if more honest position to assess our
common human situation in a post-imperial world of figuring out together
and globally how to redeem the promise of the ethical systems that were
imposed by force for a long time. It would be sad to conclude – though it
is certainly possible – that global ethical history is one of mistake, from
which there is no recovery. And I certainly don’t mean to vindicate the
crimes and follies of history in hoping that there is something redeemable
in a result that so much avarice and violence brought about, leaving many
ethical options off the table, because they were extinguished or reinvented
under pressure. But no one wants false hope in the recessive features of
even imperialist traditions to be the only kind of hope there is.

Samuel Moyn is Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, Professor of History at Yale University and fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Recent publications include “The Court is Not Your Friend” in Dissent (2020) and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World published by Harvard University Press (2018). Areas of research interest include 20th century European moral and political theory but also international law, human rights, the law of war, and legal thought in both historical and current perspectives.

Decentring the West democracy democratic theory democratization Global history History History of democracy Intellectual history philosophy of democracy


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