Telos Difficulty of Democracy Conference Abstract

The following paper will be presented at the 8th Annual Telos Conference in February, 2014.

“Digital Democracies: The Virtual, The Real, and the Foreclosure of Dissent”

In this paper I explicate the division between “virtual” and “real” democracy and interpret this division as one of foreclosure, rather than one of expanded political potential. The division between “real” and “virtual” democracy for the purposes of this paper is self-evident. “Real” democracy refers to actually existing democratic institutions, typically functioning on the basis of representation. “Virtual” democracy refers to networked relations and digital landscapes out of which democratic bodies are thought to form. At a distance from recent scholarship that theorizes the formation of digital publics in deliberative democratic models, however, I give a historical account of the Internet’s privatization and the negative effect privatization has on fomenting democratic politics in virtual spaces.

Prior to the Internet’s privatization, communist, anarchist, and libertarian organizations emerged to proclaim its inherent anti-capitalism, anti-statism, and guarantee of individual freedom into the future. In the present, we hear of Twitter and Facebook revolutions that emerge out of conditions where the Internet is not only privatized but surveilled under opaque government policies. It is precisely here that “real” and “virtual” democracy interface. The primary argument of this paper rests on characterizing virtual space, and thus virtual democracy, as an extension of the real, rather than a utopian alternative. As such, “virtual democracy” is inextricable from certain apparatuses of capture that limit democratic potential; namely, unrestrained corporate interest and the surveillance state. In situating the virtual as an extension of the real, however, I am not arguing in favor of political negativity or pessimism. Rather, in situating “virtual” and “real” democracy in this manner, one can account for modes of dissent that have emerged post 9/11: the anti-platformism of Occupy Wall Street, the rise of hacking collectives like Anonymous and Lulzsec, and a general refusal of party politics. Here, then, it is through the foreclosure of virtual space, and the foreclosure of popular modes of dissent, that novel modes of resistance emerge. What the democratic potential of these modes of dissent is, however, is largely yet to be seen.


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