When we imagine the mythic origins of democracy, we often picture a gathering of diverse people, with diverse interests, collectively deciding how to live together. Ultimately, as the word’s etymology implies, the people rule. Questions may arise about how much authority to provisionally delegate to leaders or bureaucrats, and through what mechanisms. Other questions may arise about who counts as “the people,” both in terms of external borders and in terms of qualifications for membership along lines of age, mental health, and criminality. But at democracy’s foundation, a group gathers, deliberates, and decides.
But this is not the only way we imagine democracy’s mythic origins. We also imagine democracy by imagining its opposite, tyranny, or more broadly, domination. Democracy means the end of domination. In this myth, one individual—paradigmatically, a king or a master—arbitrarily exercises his will over others. Subjects or slaves experience domination bodily: they bow their heads, incapable of looking their superior in the eyes. Even if the king or master appears kind, and rarely exercises his will over the subordinate, a relationship of domination persists. At the moment those dominated collectively overthrow the king or the master we have democracy at its purest.
In commemorating democratic revolutions, the two stories are often told together, yet their implications are sharply different. If democracy is the end of domination, the question of membership is straightforward: the members of the democratic polity are all those who were dominated. So too for the question of authority, which is vested based on the practical necessities of attacking domination. For marginalized communities, the myth of inclusion in decision-making holds little appeal, given the structural inequalities and cultural habits that always taint deliberation, whereas the myth of tyrannicide captivates.
In ordinary democratic life, there are few plenary gatherings to deliberate and decide, nor is there a king or master against whom to direct our energies. Rather, both myths motivate and orient. We might say, with Sheldon Wolin, that democracy has a “fugitive” quality, appearing only fleetingly, and perhaps largely in our imagination. It is always quashed by the apparatus of administration and the inertia of the ordinary. But occasionally it flashes bright: for example, in the streets, at a protest against a tyrannical governor, as the crowd chants, “This is what democracy looks like!”
There are plenty of arguments made by various intellectuals and think tanks about how mass incarceration, particularly in the United States, is incompatible with democracy. The case often relies on the first democratic myth: the current prison regime skews membership in the polity along racial and economic lines through felon disenfranchisement, contaminates deliberation with police and prison industry lobbying, and leads to foreordained political decisions because of a culture where criminals are demonized and victims sanctified, while community harm goes unrepaired. These issues pose challenges to the particular regime of incarceration that has developed in the United States and, to a lesser extent, other countries in recent decades, motivating reform. They do not challenge the prison as such.
In contrast, if democracy is at its most essential the overthrow of domination, then the existence of the prison itself must be called into question. The core of the prison is the guard asserting his arbitrary will over the inmate, just like the master over the slave, or the king over his subjects. This basic relationship is concealed as popular culture presents the prison as grotesque and titillating, and ultimately rather glamorous—but that is also how popular culture often presents royalty and slavery. In such representations, the bottom-line moral consensus is that slavery is unequivocally wrong, but royalty and prisons need only have their excesses curbed. Yet underneath the media’s aestheticizing, in each case we have a scene of domination: democracy’s opposite.
Vivid scenes of domination, with the will of one being brutally asserted over another, are rare. To do their handiwork, kings have their servants and masters their overseers. Even more significantly, layers of conventions and norms build upon and obscure that founding relationship of domination, even as the force of domination remains just as strong. Taxes and tariffs may be extracted for the king’s benefit, and elaborate protocols developed for his court. The slave society develops rules of conduct for the enslaved that may, in some cases, resemble milder forms of servitude, yet the threat of the master’s arbitrary will, brutally enforced, lurks everywhere in such a society. And the prison may appear orderly, governed by rules, enforced by rational officials, but this is convention layered on top of domination, and the domination always pokes through. Rules are arbitrarily enforced, guards are capricious and self-interested, and the warden rules his prison as if he were a king.
This is simply to name a fact about domination (and, we might say, about evil in general). It is contagious. The underlings of a tyrant set themselves up as little tyrants: dukes and barons set themselves up as little kings, older brothers set themselves up as little fathers, and police officers disproportionately beat their spouses. Those incarcerated were more likely than not already victims of abuse before their incarceration. Everyone who comes in proximity to a relationship of domination, or in proximity to someone who was in proximity to a relationship of domination, begins to relate to others and to the world in ways that are affected by that demonic dynamic. If democracy means challenging domination, part of the task of the democratic citizen is identifying the loci of domination in a culture where domination spreads broadly and infects the culture generally. The prison is one such locus. Incarceration does not suspend membership in a democratic polity; it infects a polity with democracy’s opposite.
While Michel Foucault’s work on incarceration compellingly demonstrates that the prison is not necessary—pointing to a time before the prison that allows us to imagine a time after the prison—in Foucault’s narrative the visceral nature of domination fades with the growth of the prison. With the advent of modernity, punishment goes from hot to cold, from pain inflicted on the body of the regicide, to surveillance and regulation in the expertly-designed prison. Moreover, for Foucault, the logic of the prison is an intensified version of the logic of modernity. Surveillance, regulation, and expertise not only mold lives, they constitute life. Put another way, where once domination could be isolated, for example in a particular relationship with a noble that involved arbitrary power, now domination pervades modern society as a whole, down to our very souls. Eventually, Foucault concludes that the only possible response is not democratic revolt but askesis, working on ourselves to loosen our desires from the worldly regimes that both constitute and dominate us.
Must we follow Foucault and conclude that the democratic founding myth in which domination is overthrown is a vestige of a bygone era, before modernity, before the prison? If there was once a time before the prison, there will also be a time after the prison. It may be the case, as Foucault’s work suggests, that the prison and all that flows from it is deeply linked with other systems of domination: racism, patriarchy, homophobia, nationalism, environmental exploitation, and last but certainly not least, capitalism. These each name networks of practices and values that sit on top of primordial scenes of domination: the arbitrary will of one exerted over the life and body of another. Domination begets domination, and domination in one site reinforces domination in another. But this is life in the world—in a theological idiom, life in the fallen world, where the fall names humans exerting their arbitrary will over against God and nature, initially in the Garden of Eden. Only on an eschatological horizon can we imagine a world without domination.
Domination is everywhere, and it is not going away. If democracy just meant gathering a people to deliberate and decide, democracy would be hopeless, always already distorted by domination. But if democracy means struggling together against domination, so long as domination can be disaggregated, so long as stories can be told about domination’s founding scenes, democracy is our only hope. The fundamental political work of democracy is not managing or mitigating domination (that is the aspiration of the political philosophy of civic republicanism), but abolishing domination altogether. Angela Davis writes compellingly of “abolition democracy,” a political tradition that she tracks from the movement to abolish slavery to today’s movement to abolish prisons. On this view, the experts at democracy are neither scholars nor political elites; rather, they are those most directly engaged in struggles against domination, meaning in the current context those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated challenging the prison system.
When democracy is understood as manifesting in the struggle against domination—clearest today in the struggle to abolish prisons—democracy takes on a certain religious hue. The struggle against domination means the struggle against earthly authorities who would set themselves up as divine, who would turn themselves into idols. For the negative theologian, it is only God who legitimately exercises an apparently arbitrary (because inscrutable) will over the world, and there is nothing humans can properly say about God other than what God is not. Living faithfully means continually turning one’s affections away from false gods, and continually scrutinizing the world for instances of domination. This is the meaning of democratic citizenship at its best. Religions recognize that such faithful living can only happen in community, where that community is not characterized by equal participation or voting, but by a shared commitment: the wisdom of the world must not have the last word. For democratic life to flourish, there is a need for analogous communities. Happily, they already exist. They are grassroots collectives working to abolish prisons.