Democracy as dissent: lessons from outside the West

There are good reasons to consider resistance a central element in any definition of democracy. Nojang Khatami invites us to look outside familiar Western experiences for resources of dissent

The arduous pursuit of democracy

In a striking political statement in his 2015 film Taxi, Iranian director Jafar Panahi dramatises a conversation with prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh about the prospects of democracy and freedom of expression in Iran:

When you go against the authorities in this country, they are quick to imprison you; and even when you escape that physical confinement, you find that the society youve stepped out into is itself a larger prison

nasrin sotoudeh, in jafar panahi's 2015 film taxi

But Sotoudeh is far from despairing. Out of the bouquet of flowers she carries for her incarcerated client, she leaves one rose for Panahis young niece and another for devotees of cinema.

Sotoudeh knows what Panahi is trying to do with his films. And she, too, continues the struggle to defend the voices of the political prisoners she represents. Theirs is a message of democracy as dissent.

Democracy is a laborious pursuit. In the face of domineering authorities, it is a costly battle. Panahi and Sotoudeh have paid for their nonconformity with numerous prison sentences. The outbreak of protests sparked by Mahsa Jina Amini's murder last September may have reached a crescendo two months later. But the struggle is far from over.

When we think of the myriad meanings of democracy, as Jean-Paul Gagnon prompts us to do, it can be helpful to underline the common feature of resistance as crucial to its cultivation and survival. We can thus define democracy as a set of discourses and practices against domination. I believe we should examine democracy through a lens that sees beyond its common elaboration as a regime type given shape by the Western tradition of political thought. Viewing it this way may help us to appreciate more widely the shapes democracy can take.

The centrality of resistance

What might resistance look like, and why is it vital for democracy? To tackle these questions in tandem, we can take a cue from Jacques Ranci癡res elaboration of dissent. This involves processes that disrupt the juridical order by introducing new forms of appearing, thinking, and acting against it. Ranci癡re conceptualises dissension as a way of expressing difference and otherness to intervene in the 'distribution of the sensible,' or what a totalising regime tries to circumscribe as acceptable thought and behaviour.

In this sense, dissent is synonymous not only with democracy but with the meaning of politics itself. Accepting static forms of governance handed down from above would be antipolitical. Against these, resistance takes on numerous aesthetic forms. These include artistic interventions through poetry, literature, music, visual art and cinema, as well as corporeal interventions through protests, strikes, and other modes of appearance and publicity.

There are at least two good reasons to remember the centrality of resistance for democracy. One would be, as Simone Chambers urges us, to fight to save democracy in the face of crisis and backsliding. This involves drawing on the thriving field of democratic theory and using its many insights to help solve real-world problems. At the same time, as Michael Hanchard reminds us, various forms of exclusion and inequality are inherent in nominal democracies. Any attempt to idealise democracy should not lose sight of these contradictions.

We should uphold democracy, but it is also essential to question what its pursuit entails

Hence the double imperative of upholding democracy but also always questioning what its pursuit entails. It is here that resistance proves vital: as a means of challenging both authoritarian governance and debilitated democratic regimes that remain plagued by internal problems of domination. And it is also here that attention to contexts outside the Western experience, beyond the focal point of theorists like Ranci癡re, can be instructive and inspiring.

Artful dissent

One exemplary facet of the kind of resistance we're seeing in Iran is the use of aesthetic expression as democratic interruption.

A longstanding function of art in any society is to disrupt the ways its members see, hear, and conceive politics. The democratic impulse of art can help sustain practices against domination through concerted efforts between artists and ordinary citizens. These practices co-constitutive and mutually reinforcing keep the possibility of democracy alive. Panahi, for instance, knows about the legacy of resistance in modern Iran and, together with Sotoudeh, calls for further action. Viewers recognise this call among other catalysts to praxis, and continue to organise themselves against the regime.

As the anonymous author of a remarkable piece based on her involvement in Irans latest protests wrote:

these protests are not crowd-centered but situation-centered, not slogan-centered but figure-centered. Anybody, and I really mean anybody, can create an unbelievable, radical situation of resistance by themselves, such that it astonishes the viewer. Belief in this I can, this ability, has spread very far. Everybody knows that they are creating an unforgettable situation with their figures of resistance, 5 october 2022

Participants in these acts bravely bring their bodies into spaces of appearance to protest and reclaim the public realm. Together, they artfully disrupt and resist the authoritarian scheme.

Such collective pursuits constitute democracy in action. They intimate a definition of democracy that does not rely merely on conceptualisations in Western political theory. Rather, it manifests itself in the disruption enacted through organic collective empowerment.

Democratic outgrowths

It is tempting to universalise definitions. Yet we must remember that struggles for democracy take a variety of forms, and draw on discourses and practices sprouting from particular contexts. Emergent conceptions of democracy dont have to conform to existing teleological or liberal systems; we should appreciate their specificity.

We may learn something valuable from practices against domination in contexts outside the Western experience. These acts of enduring resistance are crucial for the people shaping nascent democracies into new forms, and they can serve as inspiration for revitalising ailing democracies in the West.

No.83 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for theto read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Nojang Khatami
Nojang Khatami
Postdoctoral Fellow, Justitia Center for Advanced Studies, Goethe University Frankfurt

Nojang's work in political theory engages with democracy and aesthetics in and beyond Western contexts.

He has published some of this research in the journals Constellations and Asian Cinema, as well as political commentary in the Boston Review.

Nojang is currently piecing together two book projects: one on exile and democracy, and a second on the politics of aesthetics beyond its iterations in the Western canon.

The underlying inquiry of these explorations is how traditions far from being formed in isolation continually challenge, inform, and augment one another.

He tweets @nojangkhatami

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