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Does “Democracy” Still Mean Anything? (And in Case It Does, What Is It?)

It is a possibility – nay, a likelihood – that the link between public agenda and private worries, the very hub of the democratic process, has been broken.

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The question is anything but new. In “Arrow in the Blue,” a 1952 book that summarizes the bitter lessons of 20 years of frustrated hopes and lost chances recorded by historiographers under the moniker “inter-war period,” Arthur Koestler reminisces:

We fought our battle of words and did not see that the familiar words had lost their bearing and pointed in the wrong directions. We said “democracy” solemnly as in a prayer, and soon afterwards the greatest nation of Europe voted, by perfectly democratic methods, its assassins into power. We worshipped the will of The Masses, and their will turned out to be death and self-destruction… The social progress for which we fought became a progress towards the slave labour camp; our liberalism made us accomplices of tyrants and oppressors; our love for peace invited aggression and led to war.

Let’s try to understand what sets in motion that bizarre process – uncannily reminiscent of the alleged habit of chicken to go on running for several minutes after their heads have been chopped off. Signifiers may abandon, cut off and change their “signifieds” (the “referents” to which they are meant to “refer”) without losing their constituency, even when it comes to such defining concepts of our “Western civilization” as “democracy,” “freedom,” “progress,” “tolerance” and “peace.”

Propelled and given momentum by the enthusiastic support of their electorate for the causes and promises they originally stood for, the signifiers may be switched and tied to targets that are remote from – or even opposite to – the original ones, without losing much public support. Once these signifiers have been honed, cultivated and set in place, loyalty, conformity and herd-style discipline attach themselves to the words embroidered on the banners. Followers spring into action at the mere sound of those words being spoken.

From names of causes, those words turn into the names of camps, and obedience can be (and is) demanded by invoking them and recalling the ultimate confrontation between “us” and “them” – without the cause and the purpose of the ongoing war being mentioned, let alone subjected to a test.

In a Truthout piece entitled “Living in the Age of Imposed Amnesia: The Eclipse of Democratic Formative Culture“, Henry A. Giroux wonders how one can possibly explain “the electoral sweep that just put the most egregious Republican Party candidates back in power?” After all, the victors

are the people who gave us Katrina, made torture a state policy, promoted racial McCarthyism, celebrated immigrant bashing, pushed the country into two disastrous wars, built more prisons than schools (758 persons in every 100,000 are currently in prison, which constitutes by far the highest number in the world, while if people on probation and on parole are added, 6 million Americans are under surveillance of the state organs of coercion – ZB), bankrupted the public treasury, celebrated ignorance over scientific evidence (“half of new Congressmen do not believe in global warming”) and promoted the merging of corporate and political power.

Indeed, how can one explain such a verdict of the electorate? Giroux suggests two possible explanations. One is the successful creation of “punitive justice and a theatre of cruelty” as the political formula accepted (or at least acceptable) by the majority of Americans. The other is the accelerated pace of “social amnesia”: The most outrageous misdemeanour of the rulers, not so long ago a cause of public outcry, is pushed aside or forgotten altogether in time for the midterm elections.

But there is another possibility as well, one that is perhaps too gruesome for the future of democracy to be seriously broached. It is the possibility – nay, the likelihood – that the link between public agenda and private worries, the very hub of the democratic process, has been broken, with each of the two spheres rotating by now in mutually isolated spaces, set in motion by mutually unconnected and un-communicating (though certainly not independent!) factors and mechanisms. To put it simply, it is a situation in which people who have been hit don’t know what has hit them – and have little chance of ever finding out.

What is on offer for those who dream of reconnection? Nothing but “short circuits,” known for emitting, for a brief moment, a dazzling light, which makes the darkness that follows it yet deeper, more impenetrable and more frightening. For these dreamers, whatever remains of their desire to restore the public-private connection is dissolved, dissipated and disappearing in the apparently unending succession of frustrated hopes. The overall effect of being immersed in this kind of situation has been succinctly summed up by Danilo Zolo: “We are,” he suggests, “in the presence of a regime that I believe can be called ‘tele-post-democratic oligarchy’: a post-democracy in which the vast majority of citizens does not ‘choose’ and does not ‘elect,’ but ignores, silent and obedient.”

There is one other factor that accelerates that descent into the “post-democratic” era of “je m’en fous,” the “ignoring, silent and obedient” electorate. It is, to follow the expression coined by Paul Krugman in his December 31 New York Times op-ed, “the new voodoo“:

Hypocrisy never goes out of style, but, even so, 2010 was something special. For it was the year of budget doubletalk – the year of arsonists posing as firemen, of people railing against deficits while doing everything they could to make those deficits bigger.

The overall message exuded by the “information” dripping from the upper regions of politics is one of incongruence, if not downright inanity. One of the fundamental syllogisms of elementary logic warns that “if p and non-p, then q,” meaning, in a simplified yet honest translation, that if a proposition and its negation are simultaneously accepted, than everything may follow – and therefore, nothing has more ground than anything else, and so nothing can be relied upon. In other words, everything may be asserted, but (or rather, as) nothing stands to reason. Now, headlines like “McConnell Blasts Deficit Spending, Urges Extension of Tax Cuts” have become common fare served by the American press to its readers. Confronted with these sorts of conflicting assertions, readers have little choice but to admit that the forces that decide their life prospects are beyond their comprehension, and bound to stay there. And where there is ignorance, impotence is sure to follow. It has been averred since the beginning of the modern science of politics that, given that state authorities must deal with affairs much too involved to be comprehended by ordinary folk, democracy cannot but be the rule of highly educated experts, with ordinary folk’s role reduced to the periodical approval or disapproval of the expert’s actions. This practice of separating actual policymaking from the “masses” has, however, strayed far beyond political scientists’ expectations. The experts on high no longer need to reiterate that things are too complicated to be properly judged by the layperson and so should be left to those in the know. They demonstrate day in day out, beyond reasonable doubt (if “reasonability” is still a recognizable quality, that is), their belief that laypeople, while applying their inborn inclination and their inherited or learned tools of separating right from wrong (the only tools at their disposal), are incapable of arriving at (as different from repeating or just echoing) a judgment. On its journey upwards to the murky regions where political judgments are reached and political decisions are made, the logic that guides our (the ordinary folks’) life pursuits, stops – or rather, is stopped, brutally – well below the level it struggles to reach.

One shudders at such a surmise – but is not illogicality fast becoming the latest Wunderwaffe of the state authorities, torn as they are between the acute deficit of power and the harsh demands that their powerless political practice is much too weak to meet? It is a miracle weapon as cheap as it is easy to deploy. To borrow another Krugman observation, “All it takes is disgruntled voters who don’t know what’s at stake – and we have plenty of those.” The leaders’ baffling and reason-defying incongruity prompts the baffled, disheartened and dispirited “ordinary folks” to turn their backs on and avert their eyes from Politics with a capital “P,” and to thereby allow its practitioners to get away with their game of false pretences and promises to square the circles and to reconcile the irreconcilabilities. The most effective prescription for grinding communication to a halt and for preventing its resumption is, after all, to rob it of the presumption and expectation of meaningfulness and sense.

No longer can one placate one’s fears and premonitions by blaming the rising anxieties about the future of democracy either on the art of hypocrisy in which the political elite have become grandmasters, or on their ineptitude coupled with personal dishonesty and corruption. That Wunderwaffe may be, as V2 was for Hitler, the last weapon left to the operators of a politics that has outlived its age; their last hope for the stay of execution.

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