Granting myself the luxury of succinctness, I would like to keep a simplistic dualism in the text that follows. When asked what kind of political ethics leads to democracy, we often tend to list such virtues as tolerance, respect of rights, non-violence, and so on, not knowing that these are nothing but the traits of a certain ontogeny of politics. Put simply, we have a tendency to see the ethics that informs the "democratic conduct" as the latter's conditions. What I suggest here briefly is that democratic or undemocratic conducts do not really stem from certain ethical principles; rather, such conducts and their ethical principles are nothing but expressions of two different ontological strands—each giving rise to one or the other political conduct. Let me call one the "politics of immanence"—that which makes undemocratic conduct possible—and the other the "politics of transcendence"—to whom democratic conduct owes its manifestation.
The politics of immanence is a politics of ultimate principles, in which the entire political edifice is (re-)instituted around a certain referential point—race, history, ethics or religion—that functions, in first glance, not only as the raison d'être of the existing regime, but also, more significantly, as the historical necessity for its emergence. The ultimate principles of such politics thus attain the status of uncontested knowledge to which the public subscribes en masse. But like any other principle claiming ultimacy, it is nothing but a phantasm—a mere assumption, an assertion, a claim—one which reigns supreme simply due to its success in excluding other, competing claims. Hence the monopoly of truth-claims gives this type of politics its "immanence": the principles upon which this politics is founded is never left out in the open where it can be contested. Rather, it is vehemently guarded with paranoia, lest contact with a foreign agent undermine its acclaimed purity. The Institution of an external "other" is first on the agenda of such politics. The resistance against a perceived "other" is the highest justification for the regime's policies. In the politics of immanence the borders are totally fixed, not only to guard the sovereign referent from the other outside, but more significantly, from the other inside.
The political regime thus edified creates the illusion of something "inside" that must not in any case be compromised. Sovereignty is achieved through the maximization of the perceived ultimate principles to most any area of social life. That is why politics of immanence cannot survive without the presence of an outside threat or a foreign agent—call it as you wish, no shortage of terms in this case—that apparently has sworn to undermine this phantasmic principle. How ironic that a regime based on a unique, immanent referent will cease to exist in the absence of a perceived threat from afar. The ultimacy of such principles now functions as the organizing truth by making a series of loose and unwarranted conceptual equations—and their identical social practices—with the supreme referent. Maximalist interpretations of the ultimate principles make these equations possible.
Intellectually, the principles of such political regimes can effortlessly be challenged (although in general not without considerable human cost). One simply needs to refuse the supreme referent and the regime will conceptually collapse. That explains why a regime of immanence has to be delivered with the forceps of a revolutionary fervour and needs to replace education, reflection, information and analysis with propaganda. The maximalized principle that governs this politics necessitates a majoritarian support based on the "legitimacy" of greater numbers. But whether the conceptual collapse of the regime, which can be delivered by any concerned and informed citizen, translates into social and political action—that indeed is a different question, although oftentimes such translation does take place.
The politics of transcendence should now be easy to sketch, since we can already tell what it is not. Such politics receives its principles from the treatment of an arrivant, a foreigner, lost stranger, the immigrant, or an "other." What is to be guarded is the process of receiving the arrivant, of recognizing the "other" as other, without trying to deny otherness. Thus the politics of transcendence is a politics that receives its legitimacy in the eyes of the outsider, here or there. The success of such politics is measured by the treatment of minorities, immigrants, the invisible, impoverished, injured and voiceless.
The politics of transcendence is based on the principle of inalienable rights. These rights require well-defined procedural thoroughfare accessible equally to both governing and governed. Thus the procedural legality of decisions remains highly at stake in such politics, lest a wrong turn undermine or reprimand the principle of transcendence—that is, the recognition of the "other"—upon which the entire political edifice based. Political life under such conditions necessitates the direct involvement of informed citizens, their continuous sobriety, unlearning discrimination and uncalled-for judgements, and finally, the neighborly treatment of each "other" and one another.
By way of concluding this note, alas, two caveats are in order. First, the two contrary principles of "immanence"—closure—and "transcendence"—openness—are not in actual cases mutually exclusive. Democratic or despotic societies retain both principles to varying degrees. That is why there is always the possibility that a despotic state may meet its own demise in the shadow of a rising democratic movement. It is, likewise, possible that a democratic state will degenerate into despotic reaction. Still, there are many cases in which democratic states advocate one or another despotic policy: just recently, a fanatical interpretation of secularism in France led to the enforced removal of religious apparel in arenas of public education (which in fact hides French nationalism—an ideology no less disturbing than any religious public manifestation).
This short reflection had the luxury of keeping them as neat binary terms—which is never the case. Secondly, the two types of politics, do originate in two seemingly opposing places. Contrary as they are, they have their origins in what is one and the same. For our deep concerns about the democratic impulse in Iran, these two caveats bear a message: that democracy cannot be simply achieved and institutionalized once and for all. Rather, it must be protected, cared for, deepened and radicalized. In the end, as often said, every people receive the kind of politics they deserve.
[The author of these lines wishes to apologize for the abstract nature of this article.]
Editor's Note: It is perhaps not quite possible to grasp the meaning of the keywords "immanence" and "transcendence" without taking a few courses in philosphy and theology, but in order to shed a light, however dim, on these concepts you may find useful to take a look at the following links: