Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ibn Khaldun and Democracy by Anne Norton

 (Zuckerberg is reading a mistranslationof the Muqaddimah. Ibn Khaldun, of course, has long been favored by rightwingers in capitalist countries because he wrote that lower taxation increases incentives for productivity and prosperity. Even Ronald Reagan cited Ibn Khaldun.)

 But for Ibn Khaldun, individualism and the commons are not opposed.Those who live on the frontier are more self-reliant (because they must be) and more committed to the common good (because they must be). Individuals are more individual: more self-reliant,more independent,more able to provide for themselves.They are likely to be stronger and braver. The harsh circumstances in which they live have obliged them to learn courage, steadfastness and fortitude.But their individual strength does not keep them apart. It draws them together.  The same harsh circumstances that teach them strength and courage also teach them trust.The idea that a common experience of danger and hardship draws them together is a common one. Soldiers who serve together come to see themselves as a band of brothers. Settlers on a windswept,barren plain learn to work together to protect their farms.

Derrida saw friendship as a luxury good.Ibn Khalun recognized it as a necessity.Derrida's late account of democracy figured as a place where enemies meet: the turn of a wheel that raises some and others down,perhaps beneath it. Wendy Brown observed how foreign this is to democracy. This is precisely what democracy would not be: not outside,not unilateral,not over,not a matter of "winning out over." Democracy is, on the contrary, ruling together, ruling and being ruled in turn. Democracies are manifold, many-sided. There are many sides to any question and many sides contesting. Democracy has many dimensions, and on each dimension one may win or lose, and one will rule and be ruled in turn.Opposition is not enmity.Or perhaps it is.

Perhaps democracies have made enmity their own. Perhaps democracies have the power to tame enmity. Tyrants, as philosophers from Xenophon to Arendt have recognized, live in constant fear of opposition. They see enemies everywhere. They live in fear. They live by fear. Their safety depends on making their enemies fear them, and everyone is their enemy. Fear spreads, and such regimes end eating their own. 

In democracies, enmity is made ordinary. Democrats live with the enemy. We argue with our enemies in our homes and at work, we hear them on the radio and watch them on television. We see their bogs. We campaign against them, write against them. We hate them and we know they may win: in this debate, this bill, this law. We set our hearts and lives against them. When they win, we submit.

Whether we win or lose, we do not fear them. Or,more precisely, we have learned to govern out fears. Enmity is not easily domesticated. When domesticated, it may still show its claws. We can hear the gunfire in the parking lot of an Arizona grocery. We can see the aborted fetus. We can see the bullets hit the suspect. We live -all of us with our enemies as with our friends.We live with danger.

Democracy is a hard discipline. Democrats are required to live surrounded by enemies and opponents.They are require to walk among their enemies without fear. Democracy is rooted in courage: in wild recess courage and in steadfast endurance. The marchers who faced fire hoses and dogs on the bridged at Selma,who stood steadfast on bridges over the Nile as the water cannons mowed them down, called us to witness their title to democracy. They had the courage to act when there was no hope. When Egyptians took to the streets in late January of 2011, they acted against the prevailing wisdom and their wholly rational fears. Marchers filled the streets, moving like a river through the city, cling forth democracy, calling forth a free people, "shaab hurri".

The people of these revolutions reminded us of the virtue of democracy. Democracy depends on daring, on that wild reckless courage that defies insurmountable odds (the odds are always against democracy) and prompts people to sail forth into an unknown, unknowable future. democracy depends on fortitude, on steadfastness, on the ability to endure hardship. Democracy relies not only on  the courage one sees during a daring act, but on the courage that enables people to endure war cannot be endured, to face what cannot be faced, to stand up and begin again.

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