ABSTRACT

A provocative question can be asked at this stage: have we got the democracy we deserve? To make constant reference to democratic culture assumes a normative stance somewhat in accord with Hegel’s notion of an ethical life, or as I have clearly preferred, a republican ideal nurtured by virtue ethics, which advocates forms of political coexistence that depend on the presence of commonly-shared values. The communitarian strand within this thought suggests we need more than a system of legally-guaranteed liberties and a maximum of equally-distributed rights to make democracy work. A case can be made for the need to understand democracy as an ongoing interwoven set of social practices based on those commonly-shared norms about respect, compassion and a commitment to ethical life. But how precarious is such a case concerning the limitations of deliberative justice? Just how these norms and values are commonly established is critical, yet unresolved. Liberalism, in its current phase, exhibits an increasing trend toward individualization and presupposes an atomistic concept of the subject, however. An extreme form of this atomism has been referred to by some social and political theorists as a condition of narcissism which it is claimed represents the decentered individual living in modern times. This condition is perhaps best represented in literature, such as the following extract from Ray Bradbury’s (2013) dystopian masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 concerning a conversation between the two central characters Beatty and Montag:

Bradbury suggests perhaps that the idea of the autonomous subject is largely a myth and that the human subject can never be transparent to itself: a condition made famous by Freud, but equally by important precursors in German romanticism

and in particular, Nietzsche. Wittgenstein also provided a language-philosophical critique of the subject which invalidated any sense of individual autonomy (Honneth, 1995). Obviously, greater or lesser autonomy can be expressed in both negative and positive terms, as many postmodern writers affirm the political and social freedoms associated with decentring while others lament this condition and see it largely as a pathological condition without an ethical political form(see Bauman, 1996, 2004). To look to narcissism as a justificatory reason for the breakdown of democratic civil society is perhaps to let the real narcissists off the hook. To this end, narcissism may have less to do with civil virtues and their lack and more to do with political and social elites obsessively pursuing a narrowly defined conception of the common good. I will address these themes in this chapter.

Who are the Narcissists?