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The Nightmare of Modern Democracy in the Age of Alternate Facts or The Sickness unto Death
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-06-05 11:37:20
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It is common knowledge that democracy was born in ancient Greece some three thousand years ago. What is less well known is that, since then it has had a rocky and unpredictable history. It has always been mistrusted. Globally, it found itself in favor once again in the late 18th century when it was finally understood that democracy is not a privilege granted by the state but something the people earned and protected every day.

Its rise, since the birth of the United States of America was slow and even contradictory. Indeed, how can democracy co-exist with slavery and the concept on unalienable rights? It took a bloody civil war to settle that kind of conundrum.

Its rise after that was not instantaneous but somehow it ended up the default mode of modern politics, first in the whole of Western civilization, particularly its North Atlantic section. By the end of the 20th century, it was spreading rapidly around the world and the prediction of many historians and political scientists was that it would eventually win out over authoritarianism and tyranny.

Alas, that prediction has never come to full fruition. For a few years now, things have not been going so well. The idea of a “transition to democracy” suddenly started to seem like more of a hopeful phrase than an accurate prognosis for countries in the Maghreb and the Middle East. Since the onset of the financial crisis in the west, the debate has been heating up in democratic countries.

The questions arise: is democracy itself in crisis? If so, why? And what can we do to fix the problem? Anxiety accompanies these questions. We refuse to envision a world without liberty and democracy, but to lie on our laurels and do nothing is to ensure that it comes about.

Let us remember that fascist theoretician Giovanni Gentile wrote that fascism was “the most genuine form of democracy”; and while they inveighed against parliamentary democracy, Nazis denied that the Third Reich was a dictatorship and developed their own conception of “Germanic democracy” into the bargain. Those claims remind us of the thorny problem of the definition of democracy which begins with Plato and ends up with Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the classic study of democracy in America.

Part of de Tocqueville’s appeal for us today rests in his own ambivalence about democracy. Some of the US founding fathers, such as Adams, were also touched by the ambiguity. For him, this new political creed was a force whose advent was unstoppable. He is enthusiastic at some points about democracy’s energy and ambition; much less so at what he regarded as its philistinism (the rough cowboy redneck feature) and its drive to a kind of levelling cultural despotism. Writing at a time when it was still possible for a liberal to confess openly to serious doubts about democracy as a system and to conceive of other choices, he is able to surprise modern readers for whom this kind of detachment is no longer even thinkable.

Another striking feature of his acute analysis of Democracy is the emphasis on America. He is the first to remind us that that democracies tend to complacency; and secondly, that in the face of crisis, they manage to muddle through. Except when they don’t, the cynic will argue, thinking perhaps of Weimar Germany, but let’s also remember that Germany, in practice, never had a politically settled democratic culture.

As mentioned, traditional democracies tend to self-correct. They learn from their mistakes and move on, they adapt, even in the face war and economic crisis. Perhaps a key fact about democracies is that it is never as bad as the doom-and-gloomsters would like to portray it. Does that mean that democracies are more successful in adapting to crisis than other polities? After all did not some successful imperial dynasties last for centuries and even millennia? One thinks of the Ottoman and Habsburg dynasties. American democracy is barely two centuries old.  Fascism proved to be pretty adaptable. Mussolini’s regime was not brought down from lack of flexibility but by military defeat. Soviet Communism proved quite malleable in the 1920s and the 1930s with its New Economic Policy and the return to private property, then veering toward collectivization. Adaptability seems to be ingrained in most polities; it seems to be part of human nature.

So, what makes democracies unique? Why did democracy prevail over fascism in World War II? Could it be that democracies have a sense of international responsibility to pump the lifeblood of liberty around the world? Isn’t that what it means to be world power as a democracy in the 20th and 21st century? Did not the panic that ensued in 1940, when it looked as if Germany might conquer England, leaving the US alone, engender a transatlantic commitment still alive today, albeit presently in peril?

After the dust settled in 1945, few things were more important than rebuilding democracy around the world and showing it could be made compatible with capitalism. Whether such a feat of compatibility is even possible is not our concern here. I have previously written extensively on that. What concerns me is the fact that the old misgivings about democracy seem to have returned with a vengeance, especially since the election of Donald Trump who has recently refused to acknowledge article five of the NATO treaty. “We can isolate ourselves and go it alone” seems the most recent political slogan, on both sides of the Atlantic. Which is to say that the appetite for democracy-making and remaining a beacon for a world aspiring to liberty and prosperity is also on the wane.

There is currently a dangerous cliffhanger in Washington. Even in Europe there is talk of “going it alone” and withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance. Will muddling through work this time around? This is equivalent to asking the question: how, in a democracy, can those at the helm govern effectively? Is democratic government a contradiction in terms? Is it one thing to have a vision, and another to have a policy and to make it work? Exactly on what is political authority and public action based upon, if not on the consent and a shared sense of purpose with those who are governed? With these questions we are led back to Plato’s Republic.

To return to the self-correcting, self-perfecting characteristic of democracy, mistakes are there to be embraced rather than denied. Take the financial crisis, for example. Could it be that the crux of the deficit in democracy lies in the postwar social compact punctuated by central bank independence to drive out inflation, financial deregulations and their hangover from the past such as heavy welfare commitment that cannot be funded except through borrowing, and the fiscal implication of an ageing population?

With early 21st-century growth rates weakening, all the conditions are in place for a new repudiation of democracy. The political democratic entity most in danger is the EU, not the US, as most poeple believe. Greece, the very cradle of democracy, is perhaps the best example. There the fiscal crisis has made a mockery of the national democratic process. It’s about to happen in Italy too.

 It is hard, as we speak, to be very sanguine about democracy’s future within the Transatlantic Alliance. It appears that democracies are nowadays learning less well from their mistakes than they used to in the past. For instance, in the past there were ideological rivals doing things as well, if not better, than many democracies, especially in social welfare, which forced democracies to change their social methods and rethink their nexus to capitalism. That seems to be lacking now.

But there is a second crucial concern and it is the collapse of organized labor which has led to a premature boardroom rejoicing while depriving democracies of a collective capacity to think about long-term effects of private-sector decision making. From there to the denial of climate change and science itself is a short step.

Which is to say, it is not that democracy will die any time soon, but it’s that the kind of democracy that now surrounds us with its billionaires (a tiny fraction of the population) controlling most of a nation’s wealth, and its unemployed millions, its surveillance state (dubbed Deep State by those who have conspiratorial tendencies), its unelected technocrats, its incompetent bureaucrats and politicians, its individual gratification, and its ever-narrowing vision of the common good. Previous generations would have been alarmed and regarded this situation as a nightmare. This is the nightmare about which both Plato and Tocqueville warned us about, the kind of nightmare from which democracy may never awake. In more philosophical Kierkegaardian terms: it is “the sickness unto death”: one has it but does not know one has it.


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!

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