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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Democracy, Violence and Emancipatory Movements: Notes for a Theory of Inversionary Discourse



This paper represents an attempt to apply "discourse" theory to violence-prone inversionary and emancipatory movements, most particularly as these relate to democracy. The starting point of the analysis is the generation of certain "contradictions" by the development process. These include polarization between functional élites and the functionally superfluous. The former, by generating new capital-intensive production techniques, contribute to the marginalization of those who, as a consequence, become functionally superfluous. Those so marginalized in economic terms are also likely to be marginalized in other ways and to develop over time attributes defined negatively by the rest of society including criteria of ethnicity, religion, language, race, and other cultural characteristics.

This structural-development process poses political dilemmas of both a moral and political nature. The moral problem is over what principles to apply in order to remove this contradiction. The political problem is that even if one knew what principles ought to be adopted, how in fact they could be rendered as practice, especially in democracies, is unclear. For one of the paradoxes of modern democracy is that those with the greatest need get the least attention. The analysis suggests why it is that political systems are at best "sticky" in their responsiveness and why, from an institutional point of view, it is so difficult to effect policy changes by means of the normal coalitional and bargaining politics essential to what might be called a "choice model". In this sense, and from the point of view of institutional politics, marginality produces political "invisibility".

Political movements seeking to realize alternative policies according to rectifying principles lack the power to effect change in the political system. Hence, they tend not only to use violent methods, but to combine violence with the creation of discourse such that it (i) generates symbolic capital in the absence of economic capital, and (ii) produces discourse communities which come to represent, at least in their own eyes, "chosen people". The basis of such discourse and the process by which it occurs is explored in this analysis in some depth, involving as it does the translation of defining events – which people experience individually – into collectivized and shared attributes which come to constitute a "fund" of power on which people can draw. The process by which this occurs involves retrievals of the past, the generation of political memory, and logical projections. It creates discourse communities out of violence itself. As such, discourse communities generate their own interior moral principles, languages of power, and their own objects. As this occurs, it becomes more and more difficult to deal with them in mediating terms. Hence, when violence does break out, it is difficult to bring to an end. Indeed, as the analysis in this paper seeks to show, in such communities violence creates its own objects.

Most emancipatory and transformational discourses attack democratic institutions not only because of their lack of responsiveness, but in principle, i.e., as a model system of choices based on market principles in both the political and the economic spheres. They seek to replace models of social life based on ideas of "order" as well as democratic ideas of "choice" with an "inversionary discourse" model. In terms of democracy such inversionary discourse, when combined with violence, both threatens the status quo by challenging institutions and ideas and engenders changes in the prevailing scope and meaning of equity. In so far as they are able to generate symbolic capital, such movements use moral principles to realize some degree of gain in economic and political terms, including compensatory access – economic, social and institutional – for marginals. By stimulating concrete political struggle, inversionary discourses and the movements they represent intensify the depth and magnify the power of public discourse. In these terms, political violence has historically been associated with the evolution of democracy itself. By the same token, the incorporation of changes enables democracies to strengthen themselves. In this sense, and despite the dangers involved, as so constituted democracy is both an open-ended process and an institutional "solution" to any particular movement using political violence.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 May 1993
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD