Monday, November 14, 2011

Kirkland, Frank M. Review of Lawrie Balfour, DEMOCRACY'S RECONSTRUCTION. NDPR (November 2011).

Balfour, Lawrie.  Democracy's Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. Du Bois.  Oxford: OUP, 2011.

Lawrie Balfour's Democracy's Reconstruction points out a kind of negligence in political theory. The laxity stems from political theory's longstanding inattention to race and racial injustice as important in a full-fledged and fundamental way to both the character of democratic life and to the inquiry into the ideals and conditions of freedom, equality, and justice that enable that life. If it does attend to them, it treats them as specialties of the aforementioned inquiry or as incidental to the aforementioned life. But it is not simply that race and racial justice have appeared now and then on the democratic landscape, with political theory focusing either on other things or specifically on them as atypical to that life or those ideals. Rather they have mattered and continue mattering to democratic life without political theory seriously attending to them at all. Balfour is of the mind that political theory as a practice remains shadowed by an "unowned past," pertinent not only to the object of political theory's investigation -- democratic life -- but also to the way political theory conducts its investigation on that life.

The aim of Balfour's book is to challenge these states of affairs by endorsing the importance of the corpus of W. E. B. Du Bois. She regards his work as having both longstanding and current significance in its investigation of the democratic experiment, because it strives to understand "the meaning of freedom, equality, leadership, citizenship, and democracy with the slave trade, slavery, and colonial conquest always in sight" (p. 6, emphasis added). Slavery, the slave trade, and colonial conquest are historically not tangentially concurrent with or not simply the underside of democratic life, a life defined and justified by its embrace of the norms of freedom and equality. They are rather historically integral to and concomitant with that life and these norms. Living freely and equally and analyzing the socio-political structures that enable one and all to live historically and currently in that way must be thought in unison with the "peculiar institution," its history, and the ongoing extent of its ramifications.

Not to do so is to cleave the democratic experiment (the enabling of one and all to live freely and equally in an ongoing way) from any account grappling with the life and afterlife of slavery stamped on the cultural, economic, and political arrangements pertinent to the experiment. Not to do so is to give carte blanche to political theory consigning intellectually that life and afterlife to historical oblivion while conveying an account of that experiment as a rather unproblematic and progressively uninterrupted movement toward freedom and equality. Du Bois is unique as a political theorist, Balfour contends, because he thinks these aspects as always in unison and views all people, especially those of the African-diaspora, as those who should have to live with them jointly for the purpose of constantly re-orienting their comprehension of what democracy requires. Otherwise they continually live with them separated, which has as its consequence acquiescence to undemocratic practices by virtue of an ongoing forgetfulness of deliberate actions and policies of racial injustice. . . .

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