September 22, 2023

De(ma)cracy, Part 1 (Philipp Quell)

The following is the first of a three-part series. The article originally appeared in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 22:1, and was originally in German.

When we think about democracy nowadays, we think about many people (most of the time millions) who live together peacefully in a functioning system within a territory defined by borders. For many, this definition may be radically underdetermined and not at all sufficient. Even if we ignore the legitimacy of these borders and the genealogy of a so-called nation-state, or in other words: if we ignore the naissance of the nation and the contingency of its current extension, we are still left with the question of what “living peacefully together” means. More importantly, we must ask who has the right to live within these borders and on what reasons this is based.                                                  

But following a different thread, we would like to ask which role do these millions of people have in the permeance, the current order, and the ongoing naissance of what is called “democratic.” It is no coincidence that democracy is no Plethocracy. Πλήθους stands for a sizable, hardly controllable crowd. Such a crowd came into existence at the end of the 18th century. The symbolic head of the doctrine of divine right was beheaded while the monarch´s throne was extended and became a political stage. The crowd became a political actor and was called δημος. Βut what is the difference between πληθους and δημος? Which criteria enables the distinction between crowds and people? The passport, place of birth, ideology, rationality, or something else? And who are these people who say: “We are the nation,” claiming to be the Lord of this territory called nation-state?                                  

Claude Lefort in his influential essay “The question of democracy”[1] describes the transformation of politics happening with the French Revolution as a phenomenon where the locus of power becomes empty.[2] Central to Lefort`s argument is the disembodiment of power. Before the revolutionary crowd formed, only the monarch could legitimately rule the country. The reason that the monarch was given his power was that he was God´s representative on Earth. Widely known from Hobbes´s picture of the Leviathan, the monarch was the head of the massive body of the nation’s people. According to Lefort, by cutting the Monarch´s head off, not only was the biological body of Ludwig XVI eliminated but so was the transcendent reasoning of the monarchy. Thus, the earthly monarch as God`s representative on earth lost all his power.                                                               

In Lefort’s idea, only the lived imagination of a society or a nation survives, and it exists within a territory defined by borders. Because the original head of state was missing, it became necessary to bring up a new head through a political or discursive process. Consequently, the locus of power was no longer located in one body. The legitimization withdrew from the organic, or as we are going to say later, organism and power diverged but remained insolubly tied to each other. Due to this development, Lefort states: “The democratic society founds itself as a society without body.”[3]                       

Through the constitution of elections aiming at the nomination of a representational government, the substantial head of the nation is replaced with the number, or to be more precise, with the quotient resulting from the election. According to Lefort, it must be emphasized that the elected government does not embody the locus of power because election and nomination have only a temporary function. (They represent interests, at least theoretically.) However, the government must prove itself in the context of ongoing democratic mechanisms (e.g., through protests or indirectly through the permanent danger of a vote of no confidence), and in the regular repetition of elections. Every time the nation is troubled, the legitimacy of the government is challenged.                                                                                            

Every hope for fundamental ground or trial by ordeal is refused. The core problem in democracy then, due to the κρατος of the δημος and consequently to the locus of power de-territorializing, is the impossibility of a final representation, or in Lefort´s terms, of “No-Representation.” The solution of an elected government is a quasi-solution because it suspends the problem and in situations of crisis the core problem of “No-Representation” has the potential to appear only on the surface. “Democratic society is a term of a society, in which the foundations of political and social rules are always withdrawing their self”.[4]                                                                 

The democratic society founds itself as a society without body. The word “founds” should be emphasized. Lefort does not say “the democratic society is without a body,” but its formation arose from the ruins of collapsed buildings (as Kant puts it in his Critique of Pure Reason). In this sense, the democratic society per se transcends the organic dimension to provide itself with an imaginary[5] unity. The social body consists of many. They do not have one head, one name, one specificity by (organic) origin. Substance and name diverge. The substance is substantia and not essentia. Although nowadays substance and essence are used nearly synonymously in everyday language, we must strongly insist on a distinction in this text. Substantia came, according to Heidegger, from υποστασις which originally meant “ground“ or “that what is permanent.” Essentia on the other hand is expressed through a category of speech and is a kind of quintessence. “It is that by which something becomes what it is”.[6] Essentia denotes; it creates something out of anything. This creation is not arbitrary. It is conditioned by different faculties with different laws. The first example which comes to mind is the Kantian distinction between the senses and cognition and how the cognition forms the given matter through the senses, by the affection of the environment.                    

But this should not be the focus. We just want to emphasize a hiatus between essence and substance. If organic matter is the substance, it has in itself some kind of sense. Matter transcends itself in its permanently being matter. It folds itself upon its organic folding. One way of being matter is to give oneself a name. In this denotation anything becomes something. Organic matter writes a name in its center. An example of such an expressive exposition of matter could be what we call “democracy,” (Ereignis) which always comes along with a certain experience or better experiences.  Under this horizon, democracy is always de(ma)cracy. That what makes δημος matter, is matter (ma) in its polymorphic ways, which always touches by its expressing and therefore deterritorializing characteristics, the specific borders of being together, i.e., of society itself. If democracy is always de(ma)cracy, then the κρατος is an expression of this idiomatic tension between δημοσ and πληθυς: between nation and crowd or between essence and substance. In the following section we will explore a deduction of this term “de(ma)cracy.” The deduction is no logical exercise, like the syllogistic conclusion is, but a deduction in the Kantian manner. In Critique of Pure Reason he calls deduction a “judgment [in front of a] court” where the reasoned legitimation for the use of a term is articulated.[7]


We have claimed that matter is the necessary condition for a democracy. Accordingly, the urgent question is this one: “What is matter?” How do we determine its quintessence?  We will try a homonymous differentiation here. We suppose that a text is not a clearly defined entity but that its corpus is matter through a chiasm of traces, detours, backsteps, and contradictions. This implies that the “what” we are asking about, with its general form of “What is…,” is initially a vague grasp. What we grasp is not a clear glimpse of something but an unexpected unclarity. The unclarity clearly opens in the questioning, “What is…,” a pathos that also bears the name “philosophy” and gives grounds to transcend the unclarity. In this context, Derrida invites us to see in the expression “to give grounds” the threat for the a-subjective logic, where the grounds are no product of the action of an autonomous subject that is passed to the receiver. Rather, the grounds are a logic of an anonymous opening. And what opens is the possibility of differentiation per se.[8]                                             

With this elaboration it is necessary to introduce a new distinction. Instead of content and form, signifier and signified, intension and extension, we will say content form and expression form. According to Deleuze and Guatarri, every something is a stratum constituted in an assemblage of strata. “The epistrata and parastrata subdividing a stratum can be considered strata themselves (so that the list is never exhaustive).”[9] A stratumis always intertwined in subdivision(s) and a “stratum, considered from the standpoint of its unity of composition, therefore exists only in its substantial epistrata, which shatter its continuity, fragment its ring and break it down into gradations.”[10]                       

The stratum has a specific form of order and organization out of which there emerges something like a content or, in other words, that which makes it what it is. The quintessence is unthinkable in abstraction of the specific assemblage of strata where the stratum is located. Content and form are genuinely intertwined, so abstracting them would be the abstraction of the stratum itself.                                                  

The stratum being part of an assemblage builds its necessary condition of existence. It consolidates. Consequently, the border of a stratum is not just a line but a threshold. It is an inter-stratum. Every touching of strata matters an interstratum which becomes a locus of expression matter that also has a specific form. Tο have it in political terms: the interstratum is the place where the borders are negotiated. We must understand all of this from a perspective of dynamics rather than of statics. There is an ongoing process of affinity for connection, with a tendency of every stratum for and against specific connections. The strata are in a permanent flux. This flux becomes visible by the interstrata where a permanent intermezzo of expression (deterritorialization) and intension (reterritorialization) happens.[11]

It would be a mistake to believe that it is possible to isolate this unitary, central layer of the stratum, or to grasp it in itself, by regression. In the first place, a stratum necessarily goes from layer to layer, and from the very beginning it already has several layers. It goes from a center to a periphery, at the same time as the periphery reacts back upon the center to form a new center in relation to a new periphery. Flows constantly radiate towards the outward, then turn back.[12]

In this sense, what is matter? Stratum, assemblage, intermezzo? Or just expression matter? We must differentiate. There are at least two distinct meanings. On the one hand, matter could be bio-physical matter, which is a substratum or carrier of weight (or, as Newton puts it, the force is the product of a matter´s mass and the differential of movement). On the other hand, matter could result in crowds and therefore emerge as social phenomena. In this connotation matter evolves as a πληθος.[13] According to our aim of deducing “de(ma)cracy”, we intend to show that the bio-physical matter is the Existential[14] of the social phenomena of crowds. Only through the necessary condition that every life needs a body, something like the crowd could emerge.                   

Two things are crucial. Varela´s and Maturana´s notion of the autopoeitic should help us to describe the characteristics of what we called bio-physical matter. Canetti’s understanding of crowds in Crowds and Power will be the foundation of the second one (crowds). It helps us to see the crowd in the light of a higher dimension of unformed matter. We have decided for Canetti here because his text manifests an archeological force. This potent revealing is needed due to the western analysis of crowds.                                                     

We get a hint at that problem from Canetti himself: “The plural meaning of every social phenomenon is that plural you can interpret how you like. None the less, the most insufficient approach is the fixation and exhaustion of social phenomena as functions.”[15] With reference to this idea, Lüdemann tries to show that French conceptualizations from the 19th century trying to grasp crowds psychologically as well as German approaches trying to decrypt crowds social-cybernetically are deemed to failure because “The term ‘crowd’ […] stands is on the edge between psychology and sociology and questions the idea of an autonomous individual as well as of the functionally differentiated society.”[16]                                            

If we characterize Crowds and Power as having archeological force, we believe that in the following some threads in this text we will be able to reveal crucial dynamics of the phenomena of crowds. So, we rely on Lüdemann´s and Canetti´s intuition for every analysis of crowds that only sees a bare bursting out of animal-like irrationality or declares it an expression of a deficient system (until now) which is strikingly underdetermined.


Let us begin with bio-physical matter. First, we need take a short detour. If we look at the prominent concepts of the state of nature in political theory we see a variety of ideas such as the war of all against all, or the idea of an original paradise that got denatured by the emergence of social structures, just to name two of the well-known ideas of Hobbes and Rousseau. But all these ideas rely on the autonomous individual being the atom of their conceptual molecule. We always find the idea of independently functioning atoms forging social bonds in situations of naturally conditioned resource shortage (Hobbes) or in shortages due to natural disasters[17].                                                                      

But this idea of an individual being as a self-enclosed and functioning atom for social molecules, which is more or less analogous to the idea of the modern (rational) subject, should now be questioned with Varela´s and Maturana´s idea of the “autopoiesis.” In their book Tree of Knowledge, they structure the development of the living into three stages. First is the molecular manifold, second is the rise of cells, and third is the development of meta-cellularity.[18] Because “the potential diversification and plasticity was made possible, the formation of networks of reactions [which] set the boundaries of the space within which they are formed”.[19] Their diversification and plasticity built and build the foundation for the second stage. Plastic structures are characterized by their dynamic harmony. Harmony here is achieved through permanent structural change. In this milieu there emerged the first living beings. Varela and Maturana define them as consistent multitudes. As an organic network of a molecular manifoldness, they are separated from the environment by a border that is a threshold, an interstratum.

The […] membrane not only limits the extension of the transformation network that produced its own components but its participants in this network. If it was not for this [sic!] spatial arrangement, the cell metabolism would disintegrate into a molecular mess […] on the one hand, we see a network of dynamic transformations that produces its own components and that is essential for the boundary; on the other hand, we see a boundary that is essential for the operation of the network of transformations which produce it as a unity. […] The most striking feature of an autopoietic system is that it pulls itself up by its own bootstraps and becomes distinct from its own environment through its own dynamics.[20]

Two things are crucial in this passage. First, the whole idea starts out from an already existing multitude (the manifoldness of molecules which are in litigious interaction). Second, milieu and organism are connected to each other in a way which is irreducible and constitutes the other (like the stratum, the interstratum, the parastrate and the epistrata being in permanent flux while at the same time expressing a specific unity). The construction (ποιησις) of a self (αυτό), meaning a functioning unity, is a stratum of different molecules by its transformative interaction and forms a dynamic unity. According to Varela and Maturana this dynamic-adhesive character or the principle of staying-alive-through-adaption builds the foundation of an organism´s conatus.[21]                                                                                          

In this sense, they distinguish between organization (consistent necessary of relational interdependencies) and structure (concrete relations and elements). The organization itself never comes to light. It is expressed by its structure (content form). Maturana and Varela call this “autonomous unities”[22] but neither the νομος nor the self (αυτος) of this unity were preexistent. There was just a molecular manifoldness which, due to their content forms, showed affinities towards certain connections and an aversion towards others.

Evolution is a natural drift, a product of the conservation of autopoiesis and adaption. […] [There] is no guiding force needed to explain the directionality of the variations in a lineage […] Evolution is somewhat like a sculptor with wanderlust: he goes through the world collecting a thread here, a hank of tin there, a piece of wood here, and he combines them in a way made possible by their structure and circumstance [sic!], with no other reason than that he is able to combine them.[23] Out of this evolution of the organism there emerges, through “cellular aggregation[24]” the third stage: the meta-cellular beings. Maturana and Varela call them a “second-order autopoietic system”.[25] Due to the development of a nervous system, forms of sensibility could emerge. The nervous system is “a tremendously versatile und plastic structure”[26] which multiplies the room of possible structural differentiations. Only because of this level of complexity the organism can construct pictures of the environment.                                             

As a reminder, we started with a manifoldness and ended with an organism being able to depict its environment. The manifoldness and the mechanism of reproduction are the reasons for the impossibility of a self to have its own genealogy, but the same self is a product of both, phylogenesis and ontogenesis, that evolve parallel.[27] There is always more than one self. Now, in quite an Aristotelian sense of alter ego (ετερος αυτος) social phenomena or “third order unities”[28] develop through the communication of the depictions of the environment and the resulting structural transformation of the selves (αυτοι). Maturana and Varela emphasize that these transformative communications and consequently the building of social assemblages (third order unities) are creations of worlds “brought forth in coexistence […] through the mechanisms we have described [as autopoiesis and its plastification through cellular or in short through] aggregation”.[29]                                                                                  

Only due to the possibility of communication, which is an interaction between a formed and adhering multi-cellular unity[30], does there emerge the dimension of self-interpretation (Entwurf). From this standpoint, meta-cellular beings are thrown into an already constituted and created world which tunes them and lets them create their selves. This new dimension transforms the organism´s conatus. Additionally, it transforms the biological interaction of milieu and organism. Through this we discover a second dimension of activity and behavior in the world. We will call this dimension imaginary, meaning the capacity to produce a depiction of the environment which in turn changes the being of the world. Language is one mode of this imaginary. Consequently, the so-called human experience (and we believe not only there) is a chiasm of biological and imaginary faculties. Articulated words evoke structural changes in the organism, e.g., the release of adrenalin or endorphin, and this in turn changes the perceptibility of the organism. Subsequent affects are perceived and respond in different ways than before. Even perceived words occupy both dimensions, as sound body (φωνη) and as meaning (σεμαντικον).

Philipp Quell is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Vienna.

[1] Originally this text was in German. So, because this source and some other was not available in English, the German one will be used. In the following we will refer to this footnote, if another source of this kind will be used.

[2]   Claude Lefort, “Die Frage der Demokratie“, in Autonome Gesellschaft und libertäre Demokratie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990), 293.

[3] Ibid., 295.

[4] Ibid., 296.

[5] As we will outline later, “imaginary” is not understood in the sense of “illusive” but elaborating a new level, namely a level of power and self-interpretation that is in no way less real than the organic level.

[6]  Saint Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, 2nd revised edition, Mediaeval Sources in Translation  (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1968), 7.

[7]   Immaneul Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (Waiheke Island : Floating Press 2009), 777.

[8] Cf. Footnote 1. Jacques, Derrida, “Chora” in ¨Uber den Namen (Wien: Passagen Verlag, 2000).

[9]  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Athlone Press, 1988),

[10] Ibid., 50f.

[11] Ibid., 53.

[12] Ibid., 50.

[13] This deduction mainly derived from the German meaning of “mass (Masse)”, which may refer to both, an unformed matter that has physical weight, and a crowd. Any translation into to English faces some difficulties here. However, as we will see during this text, the crowd could be seen as some kind of “higher” dimension of unformed matter. Nonetheless, it could lead to a misunderstanding if one understands “unformed matter” in a strong sense, as though matter was a kind of υλη that gets a μορφη from outside. Contrary to this, idea we want to elaborate a concept according to which matter consolidates itself by some concrete so-being (οθσια) through its own potencies that actualizes through interaction with an environment.

[14] Here we refer to the Heideggerian notion and distinction between Existence (Existenz) and Existential (Existenzial). (cf. Heidegger 1996, 47).

[15] Elias Canetti, Die Provinzen des Menschen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1986), 286. Cf. footnote 1.

[16] Susanne Lüdemann, „Zusammenhanglose Bevölkerungshaufen, aller inneren Gliederung bar. Die Masse als das Andere der Ordnung im Diskurs der Soziologie“. Behemoth A Journal of Civilization 1:115. Cf. footnote 1.

[17] At this point it would be possible to ask, if Hobbes’s conception could be identified with the psychological analysis of masses and Rosseau`s ide with the sociological.

[18]   H.R., Maturana, F.J. Varela, und J.Z. Young. Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Boulder CO: Shambhala, 1992), 74 f.)

[19] Ibid., 39f.

[20] Ibid., 46.

[21] Ibid., 117.

[22] Ibid., 49f.

[23] Ibid., 129.

[24] Ibid., 83.

[25] Ibid., 87.

[26] Ibid., 138.

[27] Ibid., 161ff.

[28] Ibid., 195.

[29] Ibid., 239.

[30] We could also say “intraction”, as Barad puts it, and describe the entanglement of cellular entities as a permanent process of becoming matter, from which there emerges something like an organism (Barad 2007). We would be very close to Deleuze´s and Guattaris’ idea of the stratum. But this should be a reinforcing hint. A reinforcement that makes the cosmos looser, but this is no lost.

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