Julian Huertas | Assemblies, People and Democracy in 2019

By Julian Huertas

The March 27 session of the 13/13 seminar series was another opportunity to deal with the leading question raised in the Critique & Praxis 13/13: What is to be done? Since the topic addressed by the guests and participants relates to the assemblies under the light shed by Judith Butler in her Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, the reflections and discussions were abundant. Although it may appear obvious, it should be highlighted that the clearest point in the session was the never-ending relevance of popular assemblies. In almost every modern western society, people have assembled several times for fighting for different—and sometimes opposite—causes. Those groups have seen the street and the square as the adequate venues for raising their voices (even when they remain quiet) to demand rights, dignity, power.

Given the fact that Notes is not a systematic study on assemblies, and that the way assemblies operate has changed in many aspects since the book was published as well, it is not surprising to find relevant limitations in Butler’s arguments. Some of these shortcomings were discussed in the 13/13 Assemblies seminar, as I will present now. However, the same limitations cleared the way for considering the new challenges faced by today’s—and perhaps future—assemblies. Thus, I will focus this post-seminar text on three short reflections that aim to cover most of the themes addressed during the session, namely: the contemporaneous character (or anachronistic downside) of the Notes; the question about the non-violence principle; and the notion of ‘the people’.


  1. Are the Notes’ arguments no longer valid for the 2019 landscape?

The change in the social environment since 2011 (or even 2015, the year the book was published) is evident—Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, etc. Nevertheless, more interesting than pointing out the apparent increasing strength of authoritarian governments, movements and rhetoric, is to ask about the current usefulness of the narrative offered by Butler. Besides the significant events mentioned before, the most striking element not fully addressed in the Notes is the rise of counter-assemblies. As explained by Nandini Sundar, the questions of assembly cannot be separated from counter-assembly. Of course, when writing the essays, Butler had in mind the fact that non-democratic and racist demonstrations can, and have, occurred.

However, it was impossible to imagine at the time she was writing that, for example, a white supremacist crowd would gather in Charlottesville without strong condemnation by the authorities, including the president. In her book, Butler tends to bear in mind that assemblies usually operated under a democratic logic, but we cannot take this for granted anymore. Sundar herself recalled how assemblies are used by many authoritarian governments because they can be easily manipulated and dis-assembled. Assemblies can be a powerful answer to the question ‘what is to be done’, but we should also remember that this question is contemplated by governments too. Moreover, an assembly is, in itself, a group of people whose interests may not necessarily be oriented by democracy or human rights. As Sundar had previously stated in her post when she referred to her country,


State sponsored vigilantism has become the near permanent condition of Indian politics since 2014 – for every demonstration against the state, there is a counter demonstration supporting the government. For every liberal who says there is no freedom of expression, there is a government acolyte shouting that the liberal is ‘anti-national’ for asking questions.


But even if that is right, it would be a mistake to forget that—like any form of praxis—assemblies are contingent on time and social circumstances. Bernard Harcourt offered a different perspective when he observed that Butler was not naïve in presenting a democratic-oriented analysis of assemblies, but that we must situate praxis in a historical framework. For instance, the Occupy Wall Street assembly could have been an appropriate move for its time, but not today. In those days, President Obama could feel compelled by the assembly, just the contrary from what occurs with the current administration. Likewise, Joshua Clover warned against constructing ‘micro-histories’ since these manifestations are part of a long-term phenomenon. ‘We have to be patient and see what happen’, before deriving conclusions.

In this regard, social movements have a high capacity for adaptation. Just as the Arab Spring shook the political tenets in the Arab world, and Black Lives Matter organized themselves in a non-centralized structure and promoted massive demonstrations, new forms or assemblies will emerge in the mid and long-term. And then, Butler’s philosophical foundations could guide some of those popular groups.


  1. The non-violence… what is violence?

One of the most debated aspects of the Notes was the issue of violence and the non-violence principle. Due to the fact that Butler proposed non-violence as a principle for assemblies, Robin Celikates was skeptical and called not to idealize non-violence movements. This concern was also shared by Clover, who observed that the most puzzling aspect in Butler’s argument was to understood assemblies—like strikes—as non-violence acts, while in reality strikes can be and are violent. Instead, both Harcourt and Celikates proposed to read this thesis as ‘self-restraint’ rather than non-violence in a strict sense.

I do not have a clear idea about the meaning Butler intended to give to non-violence. It is undeniable that many assemblies, and not only strikes, turn violent in a certain sense and at certain moments. As an example, the ‘opposition’ in Venezuela (who, indeed, is the majority of the country) has engaged sometimes in minor acts of violence against the police, and I do not think the author of the Notes would condemn this kind of violence. On the other hand, Butler might be thinking on different forms of terrorism or extreme armed aggression when she claimed that assemblies can only succeed under the non-violence principle.

As a person who comes from a country that has suffered a severe and tragic armed conflict, I tend to agree with Butler. Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries shaped many fields in the Colombian society for decades. Communist groups that allegedly fought against injustice eventually affected many mid-class and poor people in rural and urban areas as well. They felt justified by the idea that the problem of an unequal society should be tackled by combining ‘all forms of struggle.’ Therefore, Butler is right in defending the non-violence principle. Yet her argument cannot be reduced to absurdity. Under a sort of natural law logic, it makes sense to resort to violence when the circumstances are truly intolerable. Undoubtedly, this solution leaves open questions of who decides the intolerability, what means to be employed and what degree of intensity should be allowed, among others. In any case, it is unfortunate that Butler did not elaborate in this principle, and it is perhaps true that the best interpretation should be to understand non-violence as a kind of self-restraint.


  1. We, the people

Is it still useful and truthful to invoke ‘the people’ as the ground for democracy, or in any case, for any desired form of government? This is perhaps a structural point across the Notes. Celikates expressed his concern about the language employed by Butler when explaining how ‘the people’ fight for their rights. The fear, I think, is the risk of abandoning a counter-hegemonic cause only to embrace a new different hegemonic approach. As he commented, the idea is not to replace one hegemonic “we” for another because it would create the same problems. In fact, Celikates showed how this could end in a contradictory project: try to reconcile populist-hegemonic with emancipatory politics.

Butler could argue that her text does not lead us to such interpretation since the cohesive factor of the assemblies she presents is not ‘identity’ or something similar, but precarity—common to every person—and the subsequent plurality. Celikates expands this argument when he proposed the case of indigenous and immigrants’ assemblies in western societies. These are other forms of struggles that do not fall into the hegemonic logic of the “true people.” And although not mentioned by Celikates, other movements such as Black Lives Matter could fit this depiction.

Another element discussed in the panel refers to the arts and the democratic character of the assembling. On this subject, Marianne Hirsch questioned the horizon of assemblies: is it always and inevitably ‘democracy’? It seems that Butler takes for granted democracy as a founding category for assemblies. Should assemblies work under the democratic principles? However, assemblies do not necessarily follow a plan as is if it was designed for an army. Or maybe is not democracy but a certain kind of communalism what best explains the groups of people gathered in the streets. Assemblies can be, and in fact are, irrational. We have to take that irrationality into account, and not try to normalize it. Any attempt of controlling or modelling that assembly could betray its own origin and ‘identity’.

At this point, the issue of authorship (not to mention ownership) comes into play. For that purpose, Hirsch explained how artist Maria José Contreras prepared an urban intervention in Chile with the spontaneous help of several citizens who came to the streets to protest in a peaceful and creative manner. Can the arts be part of the answer for offering a way to coalition rather than competition and conflict, as she wrote in her post? Or are we extending too much the relationship between the people, democracy and free participation?

Nobody has the answer to these questions. Possibly, ‘the people’ is no longer a useful category for explaining modern concepts like nation and popular sovereignty. Perhaps, as Harcourt suggested, we just should get rid of this notion and venture to look for new alternatives.