Rewilding Democracy: On Anne Norton’s “Wild Democracy”
By Samuel McIlhaggaDecember 30, 2023
Wild Democracy: Anarchy, Courage, and Ruling the Law by Anne Norton
When the neoliberal consensus started to break under the pressure of the financial crisis, a debate about the meaning and fate of democracy reignited in the United States, the European Union, the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world. Yet, few across the political spectrum have sought to abandon democracy. Instead, in the space provided by the breakdown of neoliberalism, nearly everyone has transformed the meaning of democracy to their own, often contradictory, ends.
In 2010, in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria, the Arab Spring brought millions onto the streets for “democracy.” But conceptions of the “demos” (or people) ranged from liberal understandings of civil rights for minorities and civic institution-building to mass democratic attempts to abolish the constraints of secularism and elect Muslim Brotherhood candidates. In the United States, Occupy Wall Street emphasized the “democratic” power of the “99 percent” against financial oligarchy, while the Tea Party movement claimed the “democratic” rights of the individual against the fiscal state. The energies of these movements poured into the presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, breaking the stranglehold of former party elites and erupting, on the other side in the 2020s, via Black Lives Matter, Stop Cop City, and the January 6 Capitol riot.
In Europe, between 2015 and 2016, two nations organized referenda to defy the European Union. The first, led by the radical Greek socialist party Syriza, sought a “no” vote on European Central Bank austerity and, in the popular imagination, potentially Eurozone and EU membership. In 2015, despite the Greek people voting 61 percent to 39 percent to reject EU austerity measures, Syriza’s radical democratic socialist government chose to ignore the referendum. A year later, in the United Kingdom, a hard-right coalition of libertarians and populists in the Conservative Party sought to bend inchoate anger at decades of Tory austerity to a similar end: the democratic rejection of the European Union. In 2014, the Scottish people almost decided to exit the UK, and effectively the EU, through an independence referendum in pursuit of a somewhat progressive agenda of national democratic politics. That same year, however, the right-populist Viktor Orbán, who has kept Hungary in the EU, announced his intention to pursue a form of “illiberal democracy” within the broader confines of the Union, subsidizing his conservative nationalism with European funds.
What seems obvious is that the reemergence of disputed democratic means and ends has been contradictory, chaotic, inchoate, unruly, energetic, and, most importantly, wild. Currently, no ultimate arbiter is capable of enforcing what is legitimately democratic and what is not. Instead, democracy is invoked with a myriad of often mutually exclusive meanings. Indeed, the prophecies and expectations of both progressives and conservatives about politics have been confounded by chaotic outcomes that are retrospectively labeled threats to democracy. Amid what has become a veritable cottage industry of doom-laden books about democracy, from various sides of the culture wars (usually issued with titles including “dies,” “twilight,” “overthrew,” “erodes,” “discontent,” “threatens,” “ends,” “tainted,” “destroy,” “trauma,” and “corrupted”), comes a refreshing, albeit problematic, intervention from University of Pennsylvania political scientist Anne Norton.
Norton’s new book Wild Democracy: Anarchy, Courage, and Ruling the Law sets out a capacious, anarchic, populist, energetic conception of democracy, above and beyond the narrow confines of political systems, lawmaking, and contemporary rivalries. Her text promotes a democratic “ethic [of] courage” that embraces the anarchic potential of empowered people who “rule themselves” instead of a technocratic bureaucracy that manages polarization through a politics of fear that “teach[es] people that they are prey.” Norton thus seeks to reverse the foundational Hobbesian compact of Western political thought, which established politics and the state on the basis of the danger humanity presented to itself. If Hobbes’s social contract was defensive, Norton’s is one of mutual self-confidence.
Wild Democracy contrasts starkly with the defensive stances of contemporary liberal and conservative authors who conceptualize “the democratic” as a set of values or institutions that require protection from an external enemy. During the 20th and early 21st centuries, these enemies were serially outsourced, by American liberals and conservatives alike, to the USSR, China, Iraq, and ISIS, respectively. Today, the enemies of democracy, who give the term its meaning for many orthodox thinkers, are domestic political rivals, now perceived as existential threats.
Noticeably, venerable organizations like The Washington Post, with their tagline “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” seem unable to grasp Norton’s view of democracy as a capacious and messy set of mutable ethics rather than a collection of threatened institutions, norms, and values in need of special defense. Increasingly, technocratic and legacy organizations and actors are coming to represent what political theorist Judith N. Shklar termed “the liberalism of fear,” trapped in a defensive crouch against the energetic forces of unrestrained democracy. As Norton argues, democracy is more like a guiding star for myriad peoples with varying priorities than it is a stable set of institutions: “Democracy is a commitment, a conviction, a principle, a star to steer by in the unmapped sea. It is not what we have or what we are. Perhaps it is, at its best, what we long to be.”
Norton seeks to build a conception of democracy that escapes narrow partisan concerns and geopolitical positioning. Wild Democracy aims for a conception of the democratic that is transcendent (but also immanent), universal, perennial, mystical, ethical, practical, idealistic, and based on a philosophy of natural rights. Many of these attributes clash; indeed, the reader is left questioning whether, for instance, attempts at describing the democratic as both immanent and transcendent are evidence of the contradictory and chaotic nature of the subject Norton is describing or proof of unexamined assumptions. Even more tellingly, “democracy” is never strictly defined in the book, either in terms of competing academic definitions or looming contemporary threats. Instead, Norton treats democracy as both a transcendent ideal and a practical everyday habit.
Moreover, the style of Norton’s book is aphoristic, literary, discursive, and propositional rather than systematic, abstract, or totalizing. Her focus seems to be the construction of a modern ethic of democracy for personal use, rather than a grander historical narrative about democracy’s evolution. Notably, Wild Democracy finishes with a set of self-help-style imperatives—“Have courage.” “Walk proudly among your enemies.” “Assemble. In the flesh.”—that echo the instruction of classic Stoic thinkers like Zeno and Marcus Aurelius, or the vigorous self-creation of Nietzsche.
Norton was trained in political theory at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s, when the influence of German American political philosopher Leo Strauss dominated the department. She was taught by two prominent Straussians, philosophers Joseph Cropsey and Ralph Lerner. At Chicago, Strauss had pioneered an influential approach to interpreting classical Roman, Greek, and Arabic political texts through the answering of perennial questions. Strauss also wrote widely on the existence of transhistorical natural rights and lectured on Nietzsche’s anti-historicist and anti-teleological approaches to morality and politics. In response to the academic environment at Chicago, Norton wrote a highly critical study of Strauss, entitled Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire (2004), that explored his impact on a later generation of neoconservatives who dominated the foreign policy and military establishments during the War on Terror.
Norton’s move to Brown University after her PhD led to her “discovery” of French post-structuralism and the definitive rejection of any former identification with Straussianism. Still, the making of meaning through self-governance that Strauss identified in Nietzsche has found its way into Norton’s thought. In Wild Democracy, this manifests as a distinctive left-wing interpretation of Nietzsche and Strauss in terms of individualism and idealism. There is a constant and awkward balancing between the importance of self-generated meaning and inescapable transhistorical absolutes in Norton’s work. Consequently, Wild Democracy puts forward a democratic catechism that will save people from fear and create “courageous” and “anarchic” solutions for recurring “eternal” human problems. These include the organization of communities, the challenge of peaceful coexistence with enemies, and the question of how much power to cede to the state to ensure security.
Above all, Norton is focused on what democracy might ultimately mean, rather than the concept’s enshrinement in specific institutions and constitutions. Wild Democracy aims to release the concept of democracy from its corrupting Cold War constraints, which leads Norton to critique much contemporary writing on democracy. For instance, she rejects the roles that liberalism and the rule of law have in the functioning of democratic politics and social life:
There are also laws that are mistaken, antiquated, or simply silly. Should they be obeyed? Not necessarily. People who rule themselves must learn not to submit to the rule of law, but to judge the law. The state, even the liberal state[,] can be as exacting a master as any king, and law the state’s most effective tool.
Throughout Wild Democracy, Norton uses the terms “outside” and “above” to describe the relationship between the people’s democratic will and the formal state. For Norton, this “outside” is a “space for anarchy” that is vital to democratic flourishing. People, both individually and collectively, are called to “rule the law” rather than simply obey it. Consequently, the law’s legitimacy comes not from its putative meting-out of equal justice but from its willingness to cede power to the external judgment of the people.
Wild Democracy, unlike many recent publications dealing with the subject, also advocates for a broadening of self-rule and collective self-governance. For Norton, this participatory populism, modeled after “the People’s Party of the nineteenth-century United States,” would include workplace democracy. I would add that, at some point, the organizing units of civil society such as churches, political parties, and trade unions will be needed to broaden democracy from narrow electoral participation to the meaningful everyday cooperation Norton seeks.
For her, this ability to perform self-rule is constrained, not by the corrosive economics of neoliberalism but by democracy’s allegiance to a supplementary value: political liberalism. Norton sees the perennial desire for democracy, as individual and collective self-rule, being corrupted by a historically specific form of reactive liberalism:
Fear of the people […] is at the heart of liberalism. Liberals fear the masses. They are—we are—the “great unwashed,” full of appetite and ignorance, lacking knowledge, lacking civility, lacking breeding. Liberals fear the anger of the people. […] This fear generates laws and political institutions that hold the masses—that is to say, the people—in check. Holding the people in check leashes us all.
But Norton’s choice to define liberalism as a particular set of practices based around fear and, by contrast, to idealize democracy as a universal expression of “courage” creates its own problems. Indeed, Norton locates the wildness of democracy in an unidentifiable and timeless present that the reader struggles to pin down.
For Norton, democracy is wild because our rights come from the body. Consequently, they are constantly escaping the restrictive silos of state power. “Rights are written in the flesh,” she argues. “They follow from the human condition. They are grounded in embodiment.” This formulation, however, obscures the material basis of differing forms of democracy existing in different times and places. Dominant forms of democracy today seem stagnant not because they have strayed from some Nietzschean ideal; democracy and human rights are not free-floating concepts or universal biological imperatives but rather the historically contingent—and ever-changing—result of collective political and economic struggle.
Instead of understanding democracy as innately wild, we should be looking to “rewild” democracy. This would require recognizing the material constraints that condition how democracy operates in specific times and places. To extend this metaphor, every rewilded garden, farm, or park moves away from forms of artificial cultivation towards a “wildness” that is, necessarily, filtered through equally contemporary and human understandings. Different rewildings may end up in similar places, but the process is still a human and historical, not a natural and universal, phenomenon. In this sense, the natural wildness innate to the process of democratic rewilding is illusory. Still, the result might well be a stewarded and generative anarchy that allows rights to historically develop and flourish.
Norton embraces a universal conception of natural law built on the fact that “[r]ights are born in the body” and can thus be called upon for forms of “self-rule” that transcend economics, history, place, or politics. This view may provide a conceptual space of wildness separate from the power of the state, but we have seen the results of a belief in perennial and universally occurring democratic rights—the top-down imperialistic wars of the US and USSR in Afghanistan, for example. Rights and democracy are valuable political ends, but their “wildness” can only be secured through the recognition of the variety of embodied and contingent sociopolitical struggles across history and geography. To quote Billy Bragg, an iconic musician of popular democracy:
I went out drinking with Thomas Paine
He said that all revolutions are not the same
They are as different as the cultures
That give them birth
For no one idea
Can solve every problem on Earth […]
For people are different
And so are nations
You can borrow ideas
But you can’t borrow situations
In trying to impose a set of ideas that create an ethic of “wild democracy,” Norton misses the point of her subject. Wild Democracy’s lessons—e.g., “[d]emocrats take risks” and “[d]emocracy is shabby”—miss the multipolar and fragmenting tendencies within all democracies. Surely the democrat is entitled to ask, of Wild Democracy’s ethical imperatives, “Says who?” One cannot, categorically, train a wild dog to be wild, and a garden cannot be rewilded without “artificial” human stewardship. In this sense, a catechism for the cultivation of “wild democracy” is oxymoronic.
Democracy is “of the people” as much as it is “for the people.” Consequently, the collective endeavors that come out of renewed attempts at mass politics after decades of neoliberalism and technocracy will be as uncontrollable and surprising as people are. But, like people, they will have constraining historic and economic roots. Democracy is not innately wild, but democratic participants are certainly pushing it in radical new directions.
Samuel McIlhagga is a British reporter and book reviewer covering foreign affairs, culture, and political theory.
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