What animal could a democracy be? Ape, fox, lion…how about jellyfish?
[This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. It is inspired by the Old Canberra Inn – a pub close to the University of Canberra where many great debates were (and no doubt still are) taking place. First published by The Conversation.]
Citation guide: Gagnon, Jean-Paul. 2016. “What animal could a democracy be? Ape, fox, lion…how about jellyfish?” The Conversation, July 23, https://theconversation.com/what-animal-could-a-democracy-be-ape-fox-lion-how-about-jellyfish-48882. Accessed [date].
Act I – The animals we are
“If a democratic state were an organism, which one would it be?” asks the publican.
Silence. Some among the pub’s patrons – wanting a better view of the evening’s action – turn in their heavy chairs.
“Well,” speaks a man with a moustache so large it could provoke envy among walruses, “although völkerpsychologie, the idea that a state could have a personality, proved bunkum in the 20th century, it could help us answer this riddling question of yours.”
“Thus!” he booms between a gulp of beer, “if a democratic state were an organism it would be a bonobo – for these gentle cousins of ours are the democrats of the ape world!”
“Peaceful and co-operative the bonobos may be,” interrupts a lanky stork of a woman as she rises out of her chair, “but democratic states are often duplicitous. David Pritchard reminds us that the ancient Athenians used their slave-owning democracy as a war-propellant, a conquest machine. Similarly, John Dinges recounts America’s promotion of democracy as a means to cover its imperial ambitions.”
She flicks her hair. “I dare say then that a fox best represents the democratic state for they are cunning, realist survivors.”
There’s a loud noise as a septuagenarian pushes back his chair.
“It may be true,” he says, “as some think and have thunk it, that Machiavelli still walks the halls of parliaments. But, no offence to the fox, the idea of a democratic state as duplicitous, conniving or untrustworthy smears its good name.”
He stands to offer his conclusion.
“No, a democratic state cannot be a fox. A democracy is a proud beast. It is a shining beacon in a world of threatening darkness that not only upholds, but beams the light of civic virtue, peace, economic prosperity and deliberation throughout the lands, seas and airs.
“A democratic state,” he pronounces, “is nought but a mighty lion whose roar is equity and whose bite is justice.”
Without pause he continues: “As it was said of England’s proud democracy in the Belfast prose of 1794:
Most noble and redoubted Lion bold,
Know that the glories which you here behold,
Beneath this temple’s venerable dome,
Are to the proudest boasts of Greece or Rome –
Even as the spacious firmament on high,
Is to the frail crust of a mutton pie:
The wonder of all nations centres here,
Thy mighty image fills the world with fear;
What isle or desert, has not heard the story,
Of England’s Lion and of England’s glory!”
A chorus of applause, charging drinks and cheers follow as the man, wearing a cravat so large and fine it might serve as his mane, sits down.
Act II – The animals we aren’t
As the evening’s opening arguments were being made, two young female students – wearing matching hats that give them that hard-to-achieve “twin penguin” look – had come into the bar and sat down to listen.
“I’d like to raise a point,” speaks the first student-penguin over the din of discussion that only busy pubs seem able to create. “We should talk about what organism a democratic state might be without relying on the dangerous fable of völkerpsychologie.”
Somewhere in the room a moustache twitched.
“For it was this Prussian lie that all Germans were iron tigers, Czechs fat sausages, Poles stuffed cabbages and Russians vodka leftovers that led generations to their doom.”
“Let’s ask instead,” she continues, “as Jacques Derrida perhaps would if he were here, what organism a democratic state would resemble if it saw its reflection in the tain of an enormous mirror.”
The second student-penguin adds: “I agree. What would a democratic state see if it looked at itself in the mirror?
“It would see the reflection of its people,” she answers. “Thousands upon hundreds of thousands upon millions of individual souls. For a democracy, as Thomas and Lidija Fleiner or Michael Zürn remind us, is naught but the product of the people that once lived, that now live and that will live within its territorial boundary.”
“So a democratic state is like a flock of birds, a hive of bees, or a society of ants?” asks a red-haired woman with a mousy face from the back of the room.
“Surely not,” stork-lady rebuts, “for the question is asking us to name an organism. A flock of birds, nest of ants or whatever leads us to talk of many organisms.”
“Isn’t a democratic state irreducibly plural yet whole at the same time?” returns mouse-face; a little louder now. “It’s like Artemy Magun writes in Politics of the One: we can think of a democratic state as a choir collected around a conductor, or the sum of all the things that a unity of peoples – not necessarily just citizens – produce within its borders.”
Moustache-man re-enters the fray: “I will invoke Reuven Hazan and Gideon Rahat to cut this discussion to the bone. A democratic state is like a political party: it is a plurality, but all members act together as one. This is how a plurality can be, conceptually anyway, a single organism.”
“But,” the first student-penguin chimes in, “a political party, a choir, or even the logic of production suggests that there’s a central power overseeing the unity of peoples. It suggests there’s something controlling the democratic state other than the people.
“Lions, foxes and bonobos,” she rattles off, “fall into this trap too: they have brains, central nervous systems and biological command centres. Surely no democratic state has any structure or process similar to this?”
“Are you saying that democracies are brainless?” pipes cravated-man. “Such an idea would be absurd, for a unity of peoples makes decisions all the time. Democracies have parliaments and institutions and elected leaders who serve as the brain and vital organs of the state!”
She volleys back: “It seems the Pernod you’re drinking has dulled your mind. The things you mention are not the sum of all peoples in a state, nor do they represent or serve all people equally. If a democratic state were your vision of an organism it would, due to its insipid institutions and governmental malfunctions, have long ago gone extinct – eaten perhaps by dinosaurs such as yourself!”
This stab stirs the crowd and the debate becomes heated.
Act III – It came from the publican’s barrel
At this moment, the publican walks briskly into a small side room and rolls out a barrel toward his head table, then pulls it upright. Fetching a small tool from the bar, he uses it to pop open the barrel lid.
He plunges his arm into the briny liquid and pulls out a massive wet blob of a creature. Holding it up high, he yells over the commotion: “This is what a democratic state is!”
The publican then slams the blob – a jellyfish – down on his table, splattering those nearby.
Silence. Grins. Hands wipe off brine. Incredulity. All eyes on the publican.
“As you were debating,” he says, “I couldn’t help but think of something the good president Barack Obama wrote back in 2008.
“He wrote that a democracy is ‘more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one’. And so, I thought, how can that be, given a democratic state has no equivalent of a nervous system, a brain, or a personality?”
He looks around the room.
“Then it struck me! If a democratic state were an organism, it would be a jellyfish.” He gestures to the blob on the table. “I then remembered I have one of the damn things in my storeroom!”
Paled by the thought that he may have already eaten jellyfish (it appears nowhere in the menu, which, to his mind, suggests the publican must blend it into other dishes – using it as a spice perhaps, or a thickener for puddings … who knows?), cravated-man interjects: “I’m not convinced that a democratic state hasn’t the equivalent of an organism’s central intelligence and nervous system. They have governments and bureaucracies, rules and procedures. How can you discount that?”
“Well, let’s examine how a jellyfish works,” the publican responds. “It’s a living organism with a defined boundary: a jellyfish has shape, texture and contours like any other living being. It lives, yet it doesn’t have a brain or a nervous system like other animals. It thrives in the oceans and seas but has no eyes or ears. It reproduces. Has different life stages. It eats and it swims.”
The publican warms to his explanation: “A jellyfish is the product of millions of individual cells. They are constantly and simultaneously communicating with one another, not only about the external environment that they’re in, but also the condition of their internal environment.”
He pauses, collecting his thoughts.
“The cells,” he resumes, “group together to form all of the parts the jellyfish needs to grow and survive. Cells, to keep the organism strong, are renewed as they age or reverse their ageing as need be. At least one species of jellyfish is even “immortal”. Cells sacrifice themselves by fighting off parasites and attacks and so on, all for the good of the whole. But a cell can also go rogue by turning cancerous which, of course, threatens the whole.
“I think, then, that if a democratic state were an organism it would be a jellyfish, because the people in a democracy are like the cells in a jellyfish. The people conceive of, build, run and repair governments but also the other institutions in their state. If they avoid the cancers, and avoid being eaten by predators or squashed by nature’s random violence, they might even be immortal. It is the people of a democratic state who define and defend their territorial boundary. And they, the ones that lived, the ones that live and the ones that will live, do this together.”
The publican turns to cravated-man. “If you take the people away, and leave only the government and the state’s bureaucracies like the military or what-have-you, the democratic state would not exist. It would be like a dead jellyfish, still able to sting, but ultimately lifeless.”
Nodding and cracking a smile, cravated-man says: “Fair enough. But I’ll barter my surrender for a truth. How the hell do you know this much about jellyfish?”
“Ha!” the publican laughs. “It was off this label of the strangest scotch I’ve yet procured. The drink’s got a jellyfish preserved right there in the bottle. High-end stuff!”
Sensing his opportunity to close the night’s discussion (and to rid himself of this strange brew), he adds: “Shots of it are on the house!”
Expecting cheers of approval and a charge to the bar, he gets silence instead. You could hear a mouse fart.
“No offence, publican,” cravated-man breaks the silence, “but you’ve got a jellyfish on the table, a jellyfish in the bottle, and I’ve a fair suspicion that you’ve been sneaking jellyfish into the menu…”
“The menu?” the publican interrupts, surprised. “I’ve heard that jellies are nice if prepared right, but goodness no. No, no…” he trails off, trying to remember what the briny blob is for.
“Ah! Of course,” he recalls. “It adds body to the beer!”
And, somewhere in the room, a moustache fell over.
Reference guide: 2016. JP Gagnon. “What animal could a democracy be? Ape, fox, lion…how about jellyfish?” The Conversation, July 23, https://theconversation.com/what-animal-could-a-democracy-be-ape-fox-lion-how-about-jellyfish-48882. Accessed [date].
Further reading: Check out this conversation on how honeybees and baboons use democracy.