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What the critics miss is that dancing and singing might be good things. If there is a more pronounced tendency toward things like dancing and singing and leisure, why must we consider that to be negative? Why must we be ashamed of it?
reason: You write, “On nearly every block in every eighteenth-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling.” Could you describe how the Founders reacted to this kind of activity?
Russell: They were so horrified that several of them at times during the war wished for a British victory. They believed that a British victory would force Americans to discipline themselves.
reason: You also make the argument that they believed democracy would force Americans to discipline themselves.
Russell: That’s the bigger argument. That’s the major argument. The Founders argued that democracy requires what they called virtue, which is really a system of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, social order.
There must be discipline in order to run a place, and when you give sovereignty to the people, that means the people must be disciplined. Every one of the Founders made this argument, and I think they’re absolutely correct. Prison is for people who don’t undertake what Martin Luther King called the “process of self-purification,” the people who are unwilling or unable to be virtuous. In a democracy, external coercion takes place when people are unwilling to participate in the project.
reason: But it’s not just a matter of police and prisons. There’s a debate within democracies as to what virtues need to be imposed at the end of a gun, what virtues arise through the requirements of a market economy, and what virtues should be generated through other segments of civil society. I don’t want to make a grand claim that the United States is in all respects looser today than it was in the founding era, but it’s clear that a lot of things that would have been considered extremely nonvirtuous then are now accepted without having an effect on the fact that we are on some level a democratic society.
Russell: Yes. That’s for the better.
reason: I agree it’s for the better, but how far do you take your critique of democracy in light of that?
Russell: There’s a constant tension. That’s how I view history, by looking at that tension between virtue and nonvirtue in a democracy. Those who spend their time fornicating and doing drugs and drinking and slacking off are not being democratic citizens. That’s where we are less democratic, but that’s a good thing.
The socialists have always said that socialism is the purest expression of democracy, and I think they’re correct. But that also is totalitarian, in my view. And it’s also just a lot of work. You work in the factory for eight hours, and then you have to manage the factory for the next eight hours, and then you have to manage your city block and your city and the country and the fucking world? When exactly do we rest in pure democracy?
reason: So what is your alternative? Is that an argument for a constitutionally limited democracy? Do you have an anarchist streak? Or do you just react to the situation you’re in without proposing a grander political system?
Russell: The last one. I embrace the tension, and I take the side of the renegades—until they’re on the verge of taking over.
reason: You had that bit at the beginning where you say you don’t “advocate a renegade revolution” because “it would be a living hell. No one would be safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected.”
Russell: Foucault contrasts what he calls “the regime of blood,” which is monarchy, slavery, external control, and what he calls “the regime of sex,” which is modern republican democracy in which everyone is brought together and power flows through them and everyone participates willingly. There’s a great moment where he suggests that those people who live in “the shade”—meaning in the shade from power—have more freedom. And he very strongly suggests that those who live in a regime of blood, like peasants and slaves, live almost entirely in the shade, because they’re not participating.