Who, the people? Rethinking constituent power as praxis

Philosophy and Social Criticism 48 (3):361-385 (2022)
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Modern thinking about democracy is largely governed by the concept of constituent power. Some versions of the concept of constituent power, however, remain haunted by the spectre of totalitarianism. In this article, I outline an alternative view of the identity of the people whose constituent power generates democratic authority. Broadly speaking, constituent power signifies the idea that all political authority, including that of the constitution, must find its source in some idea of ‘the people’, whose authority is never exhausted by constituted power. The deficiency I seek to address is that of asking who the people is to whom any claim of authority refers, while avoiding the pitfalls of totalitarianism. I show the most famous totalitarian view of constituent power – advanced by Carl Schmitt – to be not only politically unsavoury but also ontologically unjustified. To outline my alternative view, I draw on Jacques Derrida’s concept of just decisions to argue that the undecidable inaugurates collective responsibility by demanding a response. This suggests a view of ‘the people’ as a doing rather than a being. I conclude by showing how this avoids totalitarian views of popular sovereignty by demonstrating its congruency with Claude Lefort’s democratic theory as opposed to totalitarianism.



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