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What is post-democracy, and what does it look like?

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Over at Art21, blogger Mikkel Rosengaard writes about the West’s gradual march toward a post-democratic state, a governmental configuration in which the monied elite rule, and the interests of state citizens are ignored for corporate profit. We’re already there, says Rosengaard, and artists are beginning to mirror the runaway business and unregulated banks afforded by these plutocratic political configurations.

The term post-democracy has recently emerged in political theory and sociology as part of an effort to grasp the contemporary social order. The term is used by theorists such as Colin Crouch, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacque Rancière to describe a society where all the democratic institutions are in place—freedom of speech is respected, free elections are held, government officeholders are reelected or not—but where a small, moneyed elite is skewing the democratic playing field heavily in their favor. In a post-democracy, voters can choose between several political parties, but there is little or no difference between the representatives they elect: whether you go blue or red, you still end up with neoliberal policies.

In the last decade, the United States and Europe have seen a number of developments that suggest that post-democracy isn’t merely a potential trajectory for our societies but rather a social order we are already living in.

At the height of the euro crisis, for example, international creditors pressured the democratically elected government heads of Italy and Greece to resign, to be replaced with European Union–endorsed technocrats. The reason for this sidestepping of democracy: the bond yield spread was getting dangerously high, making government borrowing unsustainable.

When voters in France and Denmark turned their backs on austerity politics and elected left-wing parties in 2011 and 2012, they were promised increases in public spending and higher taxes on banks. Once the parties were in office, however, they rewarded the voters with more public austerity and lower corporate taxes. They explained their reneged campaign promises by claiming the reforms were necessary.

Faced with this reality, many voters lose trust in democracy. Globalization has made it more difficult for national governments to control their economies, and business elites use lobbying, outsourcing, and offshore tax havens as effective tools to sway policies. With no governments challenging the neoliberal status quo, democracies seem increasingly impotent compared to corporations, and political parties appear unable to form alternatives to the diktats of market forces.

In a post-democratic world, where politicians and central bankers keep telling us that no alternatives exist, one of the primary roles of the artist is to test and bend the rules of a seemingly orthodox system. In the past decade, artists such as Goldin+Senneby, Nuria Güell, and Daniel Keller have answered this challenge by using outsourced labor, tax havens, and offshore subsidiaries as central parts of their artistic practices. By appropriating corporate methods, language, and strategies, these artists explore the opacities of the system.

In Goldin+Senneby’s Headless (2007–present), the artists approach the shady realm of offshore finance through an investigation of the real Bahamas-based company, Headless, Ltd. Imitating the corporate structures they critique, the artists have outsourced the production of Headless’s numerous texts, videos, and performances to various professionals. For example, a novelist was sent to the Bahamas to research the legal status of the company, a filmmaker was hired to produce a documentary, and another novelist wrote a docu-thriller about the ongoing investigation. What is real and what is not—and what role the artists play in all this—is not disclosed. Like an offshore company, Headless is evasive and concealed. While corporations use offshore subsidiaries to circumvent taxes and regulations, Goldin+Senneby use Headless to continually displace their artistic position.

In his show Lazy Ocean Drift, the American artist Daniel Keller (formerly of AIDS-3D) has worked with a constellation of ideas about offshore finance and the concept of seasteading, the creation of floating, semipermanent cities in international waters. Presented by libertarians as a way of fuelling innovation and experimenting with new forms of government, seasteads and other offshore havens have received serious attention from business elites. Using sound, installation, and video, Keller addresses these entirely artificial constructions through dreamy, exotic imagery, encapsulating what is essentially a fantastic escape plan for the economic elite.

…Though their starting points and ambitions differ, Goldin+Senneby, Keller, and Güell illustrate how post-democratic power structures can be put to work in art. With their ability to appropriate and twist strategies of withdrawal, evasion, and legal ambiguity, the artists are rummaging through the practices of the corporate elite and transforming them into powerful tools for the politically abandoned.

While I appreciate Rosengaard cogently tracing together these practices under a post-democratic moniker, I wonder what the ethical implications are of mirroring, rather than critiquing these problematic business structures. Are we given a free pass under the guise of art?

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I think this question of responsibility to democracy was a central one in writing about relational aesthetics, and a lot of what was said then still holds up. Here’s Hal Foster making two distinct points in “Chat Rooms” (2004):

(1)

“Sometimes politics are ascribed to such art on the basis of a shaky analogy between an open work and an inclusive society, as if a desultory form might evoke a democratic community, or a non-hierarchical installation predict an egalitarian world. [Quotes Hirschhorn and Tiravanija…] But surely one thing art can still do is take a stand, and to do this in a concrete register that brings together the aesthetic, the cognitive, and the critical. And formlessness in society might be a condition to contest rather than to celebrate in art — a condition do make over into form for the purpose of reflection and resistance (as some modernist painters attempted to do).”

(2)

“Perhaps discursivity and sociability are in the foreground of art today because they are scarce elsewhere. The same goes for the ethical and the everyday, as the briefest glance at our craven politicians and hectic lives might suggest. It is as though the very idea of community has taken on a utopian tinge. Even an art audience cannot be taken for granted but must be conjured up every time, which might be why contemporary exhibitions often feel like remedial work in socialization: come and play, talk, learn with me. If participation appears threatened in other spheres, its privileging in art might be compensatory — a pale, part-time substitute.” [p. 193–194 in Participation, edited by Claire Bishop (Whitechapel & MIT, 2006)]

I love the tone in the second paragraph, because it dresses down the naiveté inherent to some of the most celebrated “political” art practices and discourses. Art participates very tangentially in civil society, so trying to use art as a shaping tool for democratic participation seems at best ineffective and at worst hypocritical, given that the hollowing of Western democracies has been largely beneficial to the art market and philanthropic universe. To quote Peter Mair, this “democracy without a demos” is characterized by weak electoral participation, voter volatility, and a lot of other mass-democratic fissures, but it is also accompanied by the following elite behavior: “the growing distance between citizens and their political leaders has also helped to fuel elite demands for more ‘non-majoritarian’ decision-making, and a greater role for non-partisan and non-political agencies—judges, regulatory bodies, central banks and international organizations.” (Colin Crouch, who Rosengaard mentions, defines “post-democracy” as the condition where institutional arrangements are no longer responsive to democratic processes.)

It may sound like a stretch, but the idea of these sorts of mediating organizations operating as a neutralizing buffer for the exercise of public political will has some applicability to the art context. Major art institutions have and continue to be plugged into this administrative layer (i.e. heads of big nonprofits going to Davos), including those with public art agendas that are full of meaningless “remedial socialization” strategies. Given the nature of art institutions, and what Western democracies look like today, it’s very hard (but maybe not impossible!) to talk about “ethical” implications for art in relation to democratic values, unless the work itself claims to espouse one value or another, in which case it should be addressed on the basis of its internal contradiction(s).

To actually answer re: Rosengaard, I don’t think we get nearly enough of an explanation of why the work he is writing about is critically engaged with “post-democracy” (or what he means by the term), except for this cliché about “no alternatives”: “In a post-democratic world, where politicians and central bankers keep telling us that no alternatives exist, one of the primary roles of the artist is to test and bend the rules of a seemingly orthodox system.” What system is the artist “testing”? Is it an actual or virtual system?

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