• Democracy in Crisis

  • By Konstaninos Tsoukalas | 02 May 12 | Posted under: Democracy
  • Let me begin this article with an initial claim. The current crisis does not pertain solely to the performance of economic indicators and to the functioning of economic institutions. Rather it is also a crisis of meaning, values and consciousness. We are compelled, therefore, to pose once again the fundamental questions; to reflect, from the very beginning, on issues such as what democracy, polity and the general interest are, on what people and popular sovereignty mean. Based on our past knowledge, we are no longer in a position to provide a definite answer as to how and with what procedures it is possible to change the world and to what extent political decisions can intervene in these procedures. That is why I focus in this article on the mutations in perceptions of the political by readdressing these fundamental questions.

    Indeed, what we have seen so far as a political subsystem appears to be deeply mutated. The idea of democracy as a self-evident and definite organisational principle of politics is not working the way it did before the crisis. The people do not seem in a position to decide on their own future and have lost a large part of their sovereignty. Parliamentary elections, even if they still retain their symbolic meaning, appear as nothing more than a ritual predestined to certify a given status quo of popular heteronomy.

    In the so-called age of globalisation, political power has ceased to function as an autonomous centre of political decision-making in its own right. By the same token, public interest is conditioned on foreign determinants. Once it is accepted that no country can exit the world system unilaterally, then the conditions under which each country is integrated into the world are more or less predetermined. From this point of view, globalisation is first and foremost an idea, a dogma, an ideology leaving no room for alternatives. The TINA syndrome is expressed through an axiomatic, one-dimensional way of thinking that expresses itself through an end of ideology/ end of history style of argumentation. In this context, historical dynamics are regulated by a prescribed, universal recipe: People are not entitled anymore to discuss their own future. It is the end of Enlightenment.

    In this sense, the dominant neoliberal model emerges as a totalitarian one. In the name of this novel monotheism, in the name of a one-dimensional, simplistic, functionalist, productionist and competitive rationalism, in the name of a universally accepted recipe of social regulation, truth is deemed to be self-evident. The arrogance  of the technocrat – who has an anti-philosophical stance and sees himself as possessing a priori the sole rational solution  to the accumulated contradictions of the system – substitutes for the critical, open, contentious and ambivalent movement towards the future. This tendency is well illustrated in the inversion taking place in the relation between work and survival. The latter issue which, for over two centuries, was considered the most important economic, political and ethical problem, has now disappeared from the technocrats’ political agenda. We are informed, for instance, that Mr Oly Ren breaks out into hives every time he hears about collective bargaining agreements, while at the same time the vice-president of Germany was standing at the side of the Greek minister of “Citizen Protection” delivering prophecies on how Greeks should “work harder”. The only concern of the current discourse on work and survival is the improvement of competitiveness and productivity so long as they increase profitability. For the first time the value dimension of human life is completely disappearing from the scene.

     These remarks indicate a deep ideological and political rupture. A fact is conspicuously ignored: that during the last two centuries European civilisation considered the social question to be the major political issue at stake. It is also ignored that the raison d’être of the political, always accountable to its value claims, is the pursuit of the common good. And last but not least, that this common good can be produced only through democratic procedures is now ignored; it has been forgotten, in other words, that democracy has always been a precondition for the successful quest of a common well-being and development. In essence, we are facing a universal cultural revolution.

    Under these circumstances, Democracy in the classic sense, as we have all known it in the past, is nowadays nothing more than an inverted reflection of itself. The democratic body, the demos, the people, is not called upon to exercise its sovereignty and deliberate on its future. Instead, others are deciding on its behalf. Logic prevails over free will; transcendental order prevails over the pure reason of the concrete world’s disorder and the knowledge of history. In this context, politics is no longer either the art of collective progress or the art of the feasible. Rather, it is the art of optimal application, and adjustment to the tenets of the non-political. The art of directing the loss and discrediting of sovereignty; the art of transforming heteronomy into a misshaped autonomy; the art of interpellating an absent and powerless people;  the art of concealing that the dramatis personae of the political drama are not the actors but the prompters, who are either lurking behind the scenes or are rushing to the forefront.

    All the above points to the conclusion that politics is just an illusion and exactly for this reason it speaks all the more frequently in the name of a metaphysical salvation which can be brought about only by the Truth. Those suitable to seek this salvation are the ex-cathedra technocrats. Real democracy, however, has no need of saviours and, moreover, does not even tolerate them. The sovereign people does not salvage itself, rather it institutes, creates, transforms and subverts itself. It is exactly for this reason that the people can never be deceived. On the other hand, nowadays the people is deemed dangerous exactly because it can be “deceived” and this is why politics has recourse to a discourse of salvation holding that in the last analysis political action is to be undertaken a priori and independently of any form of democratic legitimacy. In order to avoid the flaws of an unpredictable people, politics turn to flawless and predictable Reason.

    The universal goal pursued by this shift in politics should be clear by now. I will take up here only three aspects that underpin this goal.

    First, the distribution of wealth and power in favour of the ruling classes constitutes a permanent principle of social organisation. Second, the above tendency is presented as absolutely rational and therefore as a historical necessity. Third, any social resistances that develop in conflict with this tendency are presented as irrational.

    It is exactly through these tenets that the political manipulation of contemporary societies is taking place and democratic institutions are enfeebled along with all the traditional structures of the democratic representation of social interests. The citizens’ belief in collective action and democratic organisation is systematically undermined, and they are instead encouraged to pursue their own individual interests. At this point a new ideological alibi emerges as a form of rationalisation: civil society. According to the latter, free individuals ought, and to a certain extent are expected, to act together under the proviso that their action will take place beyond the existing collective representation systems. In other words, their action is to take place against the state; against all questioning of the given status quo; against all activities running against the market ratio of profit maximisation; against all collective bodies of representation through which citizens have traditionally promoted their ideas and social interests in an organised way.

    As was once the case with philosophy, which according to Marquis de Sade entered the boudoir, politics ought to be practiced outside of institutions and organisations. It is expected to be carried out in the lobbies, in coffee shops, in the salons, in private, since it is now considered a private affair.  Quasi-citizens have to think that they can express themselves as long as they do not disturb others, that they can discuss as long as they do not threaten the established status quo, and they are by all means entitled to disseminate their views as long as they do not aspire to have an impact on everyday political life. They ought to think but not to decide – democracy is thus transformed, into a quasi-democracy.

    A direct impact of this transformation is the modification of the rule of law’s modus operandi. Indeed, at this point a new situation arises. For the first time, political power is faced with a legitimation void since the people is not sovereign, the state does not appear neutral to all citizens and the political whole ceases to operate as an organisational principle regulating social relations. The enfeeblement of democratic institutions tends to take on unprecedented dimensions, leading the meta-political and meta-social state to be more autarchic, more arbitrary and eventually more repressive. Having entirely lost its credibility, the current neoliberal rule of law secures its survival through promoting an effective repression founded on scientific and technical methods.

    The symptoms of this transformation are omnipresent. Autarchic democracy increasingly exploits nuanced techniques of social control, surveillance and oppression infiltrating private spaces which until now remained impermeable. Power’s panoptic arsenal expands the knowledge of the state to include even personal details of an individual’s life, not to mention his or her actions. All citizens are being watched and surveyed in the name of Reason and Order, while the fetishism of discipline is not contained solely in the labour process but spills over to the other social spheres as well.  Discipline is actually expanded to include life in its totality. However, this is not enough, since oppression, no matter how systematic it is, has inherent limits and dangers. In this respect, late capitalist democracy should still be able to manipulate even in a non-convincing manner. All the more so as new techniques of manipulation threaten the very foundations of democracy.

    There is no need to stress here once more the pivotal role of the media as opinion makers, nor the fact that because of their pivotal role they are inextricably intertwined with the economic and political powers, in a way that violates constitutional provisions. This formation of a concrete economic-media-political complex is a universal tendency that one can trace in almost all countries. In the US, two decisions of the Supreme Court constitute an explicit example of how this power complex is formed. The first decision lifted the barriers on party funding on the part of big capital. The second decision stipulates that political advertising can be not only negative, but also fake – in direct conflict with the rules regulating commercial advertising. The repercussions of these two court decisions were swift. Negative political advertising, funded by big capital multiplied and this in turn led to a steep rise in the media’s profits. What is more, the connections between politics and big business became tighter, accompanied by a systematic limitless brainwashing of the citizens. Obama’s defeat in the last elections is largely attributed to these developments. We are possibly witnessing the rise of a new form of “manipulative democracy”, a form one can encounter outside the US as well.

    In view of all this, what is left of democracy?  We are heading perhaps towards a new “milkman’s democracy”. During the 19th century if someone knocked on your door at 9 a.m., he was certainly the milkman. Nowadays, however, there are no milkmen. Hence the person knocking on your door the first thing in the morning will probably be, if not a policeman , a representative of the bank to confiscate your house or a private company which, like the private tax collectors of the past, substitutes for state authority. In sum, we are speaking of a quasi-democracy of quasi-citizens who are without will and enfeebled.

    The aforementioned analysis fully corroborates the claim with which I begun this article. The current crisis is both a crisis of the idea of democracy and of democratic functioning; a crisis of worldviews, of ideologies in an era in which ideologies are proclaimed dead. The only solution to this predicament is resistance against the demons surrounding us. We have to confront the demons of self-evident conformism, the demons of reason, the demons of the one-dimensional TINA, the demons of despair and inertia. And this confrontation necessarily requires the return of the political, the reconstitution of the peoples’ sovereignty and the return of collective action. It is my firm belief that the only way out of the current crisis is through the deepening and broadening of democracy. 

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