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Ritual and Democracy.                                              





Ritual, oft said to be a social category long redundant, or just outstaying its historical welcome, yet reappears in the most unlikely guises, not least as the marriage partner of its putative opposites, the commodity (said to be opposed to gift economies and so to ritual exchange) and instrumental reason (as handmaid of the exchanges that run across the lines of bureaucratic hierarchy). This unlikely triangle, governing much of our social relations, suggests that the ritual impulse in human kind has not only not been spent, but that it continues unabated, reinvigorated by its contact with the forces of the new social form, so producing ever new combinations that utilise its stabilizing and identity-conferring mission. The oldest form of exchange finds common cause with its host society in a number of aspects. Perhaps the most surprising of these are the institutions and processes of democracy.


Conceived from the point of view of rituality the institution and maintenance of democracy offers a number of parallels with the traditional role of ritual .At issue is the question of renewal; ritual offers renewal of the social fabric and a means to repair the damage due to the on-going entropy of the social relation. Much as the human body repairs and cleans itself in cycles of replenishment and evacuation and as the production cycles of the economy repair the wear and tear of things (and as the trade cycle repairs the mismatches between labour, materials, cash and desire). These economic cycles themselves require social cohesion for their continued functioning, for the motivation of their participants. It is this level of human interaction, that of identity and its community-fashioning function that requires ritual for its maintenance and repair. All ritual events refresh worn customs and beliefs; our social psychology, our morals and motivations, our visions of who we are and where we are going…


As the mind repairs itself in sleep and through dreams (the outside, inside…reminding us that dream time is one essence of ritual; a suspension of ordinary, everyday time and an opening-up to the possibility of ‘immortal’ elements…in our time the consecration of ideals as perhaps the memory of those who once carried them). Readied for the advent of a new day.


So for the democratic cycle. Repeat festival of replacement. Out with the old and in with the new. Should a change be required, the servants of the gods can be replaced. A new broom to sweep clean.


The ritual period marks a demarcation in space and time; in space the framing of the place(s) of performance (from the many images employed to the spaces occupied by the requisite institutions). In time: the time occupied by the process, the time spent on this process (including the expenditure of exchange equivalents - themselves so much congealed time) and the larger, open-ended, demarcation which announces a line drawn behind one. The future remaining open (but with the date of expiry of this period of rule already fixed).Accompanying this process, indeed a part of the performance, which makes us all a part of the performance, participants perhaps more than witnesses, the sense of possible refreshment, a sense of heightened excitement, of expectation, a time of ideals, climaxing in an election (or rather, in the proclamation of its result). Ideals (also crucial to the political culture of proclamation) function as the eternal element – only to be the source of disappointment later; but for now they -or their rhetoric- reigns. And after the build up of political rhetoric: the gradual let-down… Then again, at the nadir of political credibility, at the fag end of a government (which could be made up of several terms of government) where all principals and ideals appear to have been lost, and only the naked spur of corruption remains… blatant and often without apology… Then, for the voter, it is again time for the dance of the political, the reassertion of the possibility of alternance. Time for the element of alternation institutionalised in advanced capitalist democracies to play its required role (a function more important than any professed -or residual- elements of political ideology).


Ritual expenditure. At their most important (and every social form has a ‘most important’ annual festival) events saved for, worked for, put aside for (like any good protestant following an ethic of deferral). Only to be expended with a ferocity amounting (in all appearances at least) to an act of wanton destruction… (from the standpoint of instrumental reason such an expenditure that could have been used for constructive investment). With the pay-off; return, function or reward: renewal, change, re-foundation… and so … no change. Order restored.


So election periods: periods of vast expenditure, often amounting to a Keynesian pump-priming of the economy, something to compete with the any society’s periodic festivals, now all (in advanced societies, in our globalised world) also commodity festivals; so like other major rituals, adapted to (or co-opting) the dominant exchange relation of this social form.


Confucius (Kongzi/ 孔子) is perhaps best known for his defense of ritual; lauding its role in social maintenance, nudging the social memory as to its duties… reminding ourselves as to our roles and  responsibilities, debts and obligations. Obligations often echoed in the rhetoric of electoral participation. As to the supernatural element of ritual (in modern societies that element of the ideal, reliance on universals and ‘a-temporal’ axioms); its eternal glue, the rhetoric of eternity, the outside that cements the inside, the put-aside that supports life, ‘this-side’… we might well heed the Sage’s words: ‘give the gods and the ancestors their due and keep them at a (no doubt, respectful) distance’. Their role is important; but their dominance uncalled for. A pragmatism that is the hallmark of all good (and ancient) Chinese philosophy as well as in much good (and recent) American philosophy!)


All societies have rituals to renew worn structures, democracy with all its faults is such a one, and an efficient one, despite its critics (amongst which, all good democrats), suited to the advanced capitalist form of society where other ritual forms of cohesion and repair have atrophied (even if perhaps become too accommodating of its commodity culture). Perhaps when all is said and done,  this ritual function is one of democracy’s structural reasons for existence, as opposed to its professed and ideal rationale; one all too often unworkable -counter-productive, as witness the use of plebiscites or frequent referenda, in practice. Or serving as a guide, or ideal - rather than ideology (as a cover for other matters, a ‘noble lie’, or ‘necessary fiction’). An ideal may not be true, but it need not be false; it is a question of understanding its functions. A mechanism that sorts out conflicts with a minimum of bloodshed, which renews the fabric of the (implied) social contract, reasserting some degree of legitimation, and which guarantees social reproduction whilst permitting participation and protecting individual rights is already a lot. The successful ritualisation of such an institution, albeit at the cost of some foundational or ideological enthusiasm, is normally counted as a plus. The uses to which it is put (the enactment of what policies it permits) and the extent of its remit is where the arguments begin.


Ritual combat.



© Peter Nesteruk, 2009