Political Grammars
The Unconscious Foundations of Modern Democracy
Davide Tarizzo


Foreword by PAUL A. KOTTMAN

Fascism, Tarizzo points out, is “a political disease that infects only modern democracies.” For many proponents of modern democratic culture, it will come as a surprise to learn, or to remember, that fascism is not an “other” of democracy but a fate that is possible only within modern democracies. Tarizzo’s elaboration of the slippery slope connecting democratic promise and the nightmare of fascism is one of the most compelling and relevant illustrations of what he calls political grammar. He is able to show how smoothly modern democracies can be transformed into pseudo-democratic fascist societies.

At the heart of Tarizzo’s argument is a first-order question that has animated political philosophers of all stripes since at least Thomas Hobbes: how does a political “we” get formed out of individuals living together? Or, in other words, how is collective political will formed out of competing individual desires?

Behind this quandary lies the question of the possibility of the political itself: whether there can be—especially in modern democratic societies—a social bond that links individuals, often strangers or people with no ethnic or religious commonality, in a distinctive ethical relationship of citizenship. How, Tarizzo asks, can democratic politics sustain what Hegel called “an I that is We and We that is I”? This worry was raised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1750 in his First Discourse: “We have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters; we no longer have citizens.”1 In contemporary Europe or North America, the tenor of Rousseau’s worry has become deafening. The growing clash between “populists” and “neoliberals” has reopened the debate on the very essence of democratic societies: do we need to be one people in order to keep democracy alive? And, how do we define the concept of a democratic people, anyway?

To explain how citizenship of a modern democratic sort is possible, Tarizzo draws on Jacques Lacan’s view that subjectivity should be seen as a process, a grammatical formation, rather than a substance. In practical-political terms, this means that subject-formation is a process, Tarizzo says, “whereby the invariance of the first-person perspective is secured, but the subject’s identity cannot be found.” Lacan himself did not elaborate a distinct theory of political subject formation; Tarizzo’s contribution is to show the usefulness of Lacan’s distinction between “subject” and “identity” for an understanding of the workings of modern democratic politics.

Democracy, Tarizzo argues, flourishes when the opening between subjectivity and identity is maintained. Indeed, in Tarizzo’s view, democracy turns out to be a process of never-ending recovery from the lack of certain identity, a process that can take different propitious directions depending on the political grammar at work.


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and Arts or First Discourse (1750), in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, trans. and ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §54, 24.