The Ends of Democracy

SESC Unidade Pompeia São Paulo, Brazil
November 7–9, 2017


The rise of many populist movements in recent years is a phenomenon that leads us to pose structural questions about the challenges for liberal democracy and its institutional forms. We can ask whether liberal democracy, this practice of government that emerges after World War II, is facing today the imminence of its historical demise, the result of widespread resentment produced by non-realized social demands. Or we can also ask whether populism is just a temporary social regression that should be treated as a kind of political pathology proper to moments of crisis in capitalism. Finally, we can ask whether populism contains a potential relationship to popular sovereignty and its demands, ones that have been overridden or suppressed by contemporary global powers.

Regardless of how we answer these important questions, it is certain that the rise of populisms compels us to face questions about “the ends” of democracy in the double meaning proper to this expression. Ends of democracy because we face a question about its purposes and promises, but also ends of democracy because is possible that we are seeing the imminent collapse of a specific political form of government. In a way, these two meanings are interconnected. If we fail to ask today about the purposes of democracy, about the fate of its promises of social emancipation and about the limits of its liberal form up until now, we risk accelerating the end of popular desire for a political experience of democracy, that millenary signifier.

To ask today about the ends of democracy in this double meaning holds out the promise of recuperating the relevance of a critical approach like the one formulated by the first generation of critical theory. This conference/seminar proposes then to discuss the contemporary validity of this critical model and the need for its re-actualization. In this sense, this meeting will seek to open a space for debate that is not only an academic one, but immediately a necessary collaborative exercise of political imagination.

Keeping our contemporary situation in mind, let us remember how the first generation of critical theory, facing the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe and the authoritarian trends in American politics, asked whether counter-democratic forms of populism were really opposed to liberal democracies and their ways of life or if they were, in fact, expressions of latent trends, of contradictory processes within our own democracies, linked as they with free-market economic and social formations. The acceptance of this second way led first generation Critical Theory to a model capable of dissociating, in some situations, democracy as a normative horizon and its liberal version. We can now ask whether there are democratic forms of populism that highlight the demand to be included in the political field, and to transform its character through that inclusion. To accept that the decomposition of the liberal social body is the result of inner contradictions, leads us to a criticism that recovers the possibility of transcending the normative horizons established by the modes of material reproduction in late capitalism. Should we accept one more time such kind of critical strategy or should we engage a metacriticism of the presuppositions immanent to this criticism?

On the other hand, we should note that this movement of possible decomposition of the liberal social body expresses itself not only in the regressive forms of racism, xenophobia and the multiple forms of discrimination and identitarian politics. In some situations, the rise of populism also brings attempts for rethinking dynamics of popular sovereignty and social recognition. This leads us to analyze the implicit urgency of the forms of skepticism about democracy that have emerged in contemporary life. Some questions emerge: are these forms of skepticism all seeking the same thing or are some of them expressions of corrosive social resentment while other are forms of skepticism that, in a dialectical fashion, only negate democracy in order to preserve it? Following upon this last possibility, could we speak about forms of “democratic populism” or should we accept that all dynamics of popular sovereignty within populism will be regressive and paralyzing?

Having these questions and strategies in view, this conference seeks to confront analytically the contemporary and local reactions to the weakening of the potential field of consensus within liberal democracies. Questions of this nature form the basis of this conference that invites philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and psychoanalysts from Latin America, Europe, and North America to discuss together this major challenge for contemporary critical thought.


Natalia Brizuela
Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Latin American Literature and Culture
UC Berkeley, USA

Judith Butler
Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature
Co-Director, International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs
UC Berkeley, USA

Vladimir Safatle
Professor and Director of Research
Department of Philosophy and Institute of Psychology
Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil