Democracy, Distrust and the Right to Resist, Today.

Demo­cracy means dis­sent, dis­trust and resistance

Accord­ing to clas­sical the­ory, the roots of demo­cracy are in con­sensus. The truth, how­ever, is quite the oppos­ite. Exper­i­ence has shown us that the key to demo­cracy lays else­where; in the capa­city to accept and even guar­an­tee dis­sent and cri­ti­cism of the estab­lished powers, with res­ist­ance to these powers play­ing an even more import­ant role. Although trust is a vital com­pon­ent of demo­cracy, dis­trust and main­tain­ing a per­man­ently crit­ical atti­tude towards the exe­cu­tion of power are even more essen­tial. The way in which this power is exer­cised must be con­trolled if we hope to pre­serve any essence of the notion of power to the people. A ser­i­ous look at the crit­ical evid­ence leaves us in no doubt that this is the case, as we take into account the con­flict­ing and plur­al­istic nature of any kind of social real­ity. The only chance that demo­cracy has to flour­ish is if the vast range of con­flict­ing interests and needs are acknow­ledged and ways are found to respect these as far as possible.

In order to nego­ti­ate the recog­ni­tion of these interests and needs and respect them accord­ingly, the pub­lic pres­ence of each and every citizen’s voice must be amp­li­fied to the max­imum. In his Polit­ical Treat­ise (Tractatus Polit­i­cus)(chapter V, para­graph 4), Spinoza demon­strated that the key to assess­ing the qual­ity of gov­ernance is a crit­ic­ally engaged, act­ive soci­ety con­scious of its sov­er­eignty: “Besides that com­mon­wealth, whose peace depends on the slug­gish­ness of its sub­jects, that are led about like sheep, to learn but slavery, may more prop­erly be called a desert than a com­mon­wealth.“1 But this dis­trust works both ways. As J. Ran­cière explains, the his­tory of demo­cracy can be explained as a his­tory of hatred towards the very mean­ing of the concept;2the power of the people as a sov­er­eign author­ity, the power of equals, those upon whom iura paria has been bestowed (to use the words of Cicero on the sub­ject of his notion of res pub­lica).

Now, this is where the dif­fi­culty arises. Those who rep­res­ent the centres of power within the so-​called “insti­tu­tion­al­ised demo­cracy”, usu­ally con­sist­ing of a mixtum of “polit­ical” aris­to­cracy and eco­nomic olig­archy, have always been reluct­ant to place their faith in the people as a genu­ine sov­er­eign subject. Balibar provides a clear explan­a­tion for this:

… demo­cracy, under­stood in a rad­ical man­ner, is not the name of a polit­ical régime, but only the name of a pro­cess which we could call tau­to­lo­gic­ally the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of demo­cracy itself (or of what claims to rep­res­ent a demo­cratic régime), there­fore the name of a struggle, a con­ver­gence of struggles for the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of demo­cracy… a per­man­ent struggle for its own demo­crat­iz­a­tion and against its own reversal into olig­archy and mono­poly of power”.3

Let us reph­rase this slightly, turn­ing to Ran­cière once again. That which we know as a rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy gov­erns the gen­eral interest by means of author­ity, and in keep­ing with R. Michels’ Iron Law of olig­archy, in the vast major­ity of cases this gen­eral interest is in turn held host­age by the indi­vidual interests of the olig­archy. To a large extent, this need to strive forthe demo­crat­iz­a­tion of demo­cracy is there­fore borne out of a feel­ing of dis­trust. And per­haps this sen­ti­ment is even more pro­nounced today as we wit­ness a surge in social move­ments con­demning the ever-​increasing detach­ment on the part of the polit­ical elite and the chan­nels of rep­res­ent­a­tion with regards to the needs, interests and expect­a­tions of cit­izens. This cri­ti­cism has thus been adop­ted as the ori­ginal slo­gan for Spain’s indig­na­dos, also known as the 15-​M Move­ment: “they don’t rep­res­ent us”.

One thing is for sure: with the Second World War only a very recent memory, the former army gen­eral and sus­pec­ted revolu­tion­ary Pres­id­ent Eis­en­hower con­demned the takeover of power by the mil­it­ary indus­trial com­plex. Today, barely half a cen­tury later, it is safe to say that an even greater change has taken place. The polit­ical parties that act as the inter­me­di­ar­ies for this mixed olig­archy and gov­ern the nation states have lost their abil­ity to con­trol the mar­kets. What’s more, they find them­selves help­less against the powers — another mixtum of inter­na­tional entit­ies which have imposed their global dimen­sions and capa­cit­ies — which con­trol these mar­kets. This phase of global cap­it­al­ism sees mar­ket fun­da­ment­al­ism reach­ing its peak, com­pletely expos­ing the con­tra­dic­tions between the logic of the mar­ket on the one hand and, on the other, the logic of rights (not to men­tion whether or not it intends to pur­sue its corol­lary of uni­ver­sal­ity) and demo­cracy taken ser­i­ously. Accord­ing to San­tos Juliá, the truth is that a destruct­ive sym­bi­osis has replaced the mil­it­ary indus­trial complex:

The mil­it­ary indus­trial com­plex denounced by Eis­en­hower has developed into a per­fect sym­bi­osis of polit­ics, fin­ance and prop­erty in our soci­ety. And now it has gone run­ning to the state — or, more pre­cisely, to the public’s money, which is ulti­mately money earned by the wage-​earning middle classes — to save its skin. Wars were fuelled by the mil­it­ary indus­trial com­plex, whereas this sym­bi­osis is wreak­ing dev­ast­a­tion.4

The effects of this sym­bi­osis can be sum­mar­ised in terms which leave little doubt as to the exist­ing risk to demo­cracy and the rule of law.

Social crisis, with­drawal of rights, lim­its of democracy

We are effect­ively wit­ness­ing two phe­nom­ena in this first quarter of the 21stcen­tury that enable us to under­stand the extent to which the “insti­tu­tional” concept of demo­cracy — i.e. the rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy which obscures the mixtum of aris­to­cracy and olig­archy referred to above — has entered into crisis. This crisis could poten­tially be pos­it­ive; a crisis of rebirth in which the very sinews of demo­cracy are regen­er­ated. Altern­at­ively, it could also degen­er­ate into the oppos­ite, res­ult­ing in a situ­ation sim­ilar the one which facil­it­ated the rise of the fas­cists in the years pre­ced­ing the Second World War.

This crisis is partly pos­it­ive, in that it pro­motes the re-​democratisation of our soci­et­ies, stuck in the insti­tu­tional routine of a rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy which, accord­ing to Michles’ Iron Law of olig­archy, is mov­ing stead­ily fur­ther away from the interests of its cit­izens in favour of deal­ing primar­ily with the interests of its rep­res­ent­at­ives and organ­isa­tions. This explains the pub­lic cri­ti­cism from the 15-​M and 25-​S move­ments and the Occupy pro­test­ers, who main­tain that the indi­vidu­als elec­ted by the cit­izens to admin­is­ter the power “do not rep­res­ent us”. That is to say, the actions of these “rep­res­ent­at­ives” are not primar­ily in the interests of the com­mon good, and the mem­bers of the pub­lic are not treated as a pri­or­ity. Be that as it may, the crisis also con­sti­tutes a threat by run­ning the risk of de-​politicisation in the worst sense; dis­qual­i­fy­ing the pub­lic realm and treat­ing polit­ics as a dis­hon­our­able, cor­rupt and inef­fic­a­cious activ­ity. And this risk is undoubtedly heightened in peri­ods of crisis where the mes­sage “every man for him­self” is instilled into the sub­con­scious by the indi­vidu­al­ist atom­ism (as cri­ti­cised by Macph­er­son in his acclaimed essay on “pos­sess­ive indi­vidu­al­ism”) and paves the way for the mes­si­anic scen­ario of a leader or an organ­isa­tion that con­tinu­ally imposes the cost of with­draw­ing liber­ties and, in par­tic­u­lar, redu­cing the crit­ical capa­city of the public.

The social costs of the “fin­an­cial casino” crisis in which we have been liv­ing since at least 2008 are good evid­ence of the above. To begin, an uncon­trol­lable drift seems to be occur­ring, res­ult­ing in the fail­ure to guar­an­tee or even recog­nise basic human rights. The first to suf­fer are of course social, eco­nomic and cul­tural rights, which are being releg­ated from their status as rights and trans­formed into com­mod­it­ies; expect­a­tions which will only be ful­filled if pur­chas­ing power and the rules of the mar­ket so allow. We must stress: present­ing these rights as an expense which is neither essen­tial nor a pri­or­ity and can there­fore be cut means that the same rights which were still deemed uni­ver­sal as recently as 1966 are stripped of their value. Instead, they are now regarded as super­flu­ous bene­fits, almost lux­ur­ies that ought to be dis­carded in favour of vital “aus­ter­ity meas­ures”. The way we see it, the notion that this “sever­ing of rights” is neces­sary must be rooted in two suppositions:

a) Firstly, in the belief that eco­nomic, social and cul­tural rights are not actu­ally rights, or at the very least, they are not fun­da­mental or uni­ver­sal rights. Accord­ing to the pre­dom­in­ant neo­lib­eral approach, which is based on an atom­ist concept, the paradigm of rights is the same as that of prop­erty and there are only as many rights as there are rights that are viewed as neg­at­ive liber­ties. This ideo­logy was accur­ately exposed by Marx in his ana­lysis “On the Jew­ish ques­tion”, where he demon­strated that the approach does not regard rights to be uni­ver­sal, view­ing them instead as powers which are only within the reach of those who are able to live as mon­ads, in glor­i­ous isol­a­tion from the rest of the world.

b) Secondly, turn­ing to Susan George and oth­ers, in the argu­ment we might refer to as the “TINA dogma” (there is no altern­at­ive) expounded by the insti­tu­tions respons­ible for devel­op­ing the model (the IMF and the World Bank). Whilst Reagan and Thatcher were the “John the Baptist” fig­ures of these insti­tu­tions, the modern-​day apostles include Chan­cel­lor Merkel, the Cent­ral European Bank and the employ­ees of Gold­man Sachs (Draghi, Monti, Guin­dos and tut­ti­quanti), all of whom are now at the fore­front of the polit­ical centres from which this policy of “aus­ter­ity” should be put into prac­tice. And the meas­ures are to be imple­men­ted by the “inter­ven­ing governments” — an expres­sion which is appar­ently used without acknow­ledging its shame­less­ness — under the guise of the alleged demo­cracy. One only has to look to the reac­tion of the centres of power to the Greek Prime Min­is­ter Papandreu’s determ­in­a­tion to con­sult the cit­izens of Greece on the ref­er­en­dum to see that con­sult­ing the people, the mem­bers of the pub­lic who form a part of the very notion of demo­cracy, con­sti­tutes a form of “heresy”. As if to say, what exactly qual­i­fies the people, the cit­izens of the coun­try, to grasp and solve its pro­found eco­nomic prob­lems? Surely the answers can only be provided by spe­cial­ists with advanced qual­i­fic­a­tions (for example, the centres of power them­selves of course)?

All of this expresses the col­on­isa­tion of the pub­lic sphere and all that is genu­inely polit­ical by an instru­mental, sup­posedly sci­entific ration­al­ity (a ration­al­ity which is surely at best tech­nical in the vast major­ity of cases). This “eco­nomic ration­al­ity” is in turn iden­ti­fied with one of its ideo­lo­gical ver­sions, i.e. the philo­soph­ical and meth­od­o­lo­gical approach of lib­eral atom­ism. What’s more, this ration­al­ity is deeply anti-​democratic as it evades the mere pos­sib­il­ity of choice and con­trol for the people, who are cast into a purely pass­ive role. The prob­lem is that the con­text of crisis serves as an excuse for tak­ing things one step fur­ther, start­ing with cut­ting social, eco­nomic and cul­tural rights before mov­ing on to polit­ical and civil rights and refor­mu­lat­ing the basic prin­ciples of the rule of law and par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy as we clearly drift towards authoritarianism.

Spain provides us with a con­vin­cing example in the form of the gov­ern­ment policies car­ried out under Rajoy. Take, for example, gov­ern­ment prac­tice with regards royal decree, which has been used to make to all of the reforms sup­posedly required by the troika. The most import­ant aspect of this reg­u­lat­ory resource is the way in which it enables the Exec­ut­ive to legis­late while avoid­ing a par­lia­ment­ary debate and evad­ing the capa­city to con­trol (even more neces­sary in the case of abso­lute par­lia­ment­ary major­it­ies). The meas­ures aimed at dis­suad­ing the cit­izens from exer­cising pub­lic cri­tique and mak­ing dis­plays of res­ist­ance are also worthy of invest­ig­a­tion. Take, for example, the draft reform of the penal code pushed through by Ruiz Gal­lardón and the clumsy pro­pos­als from the del­eg­ate of the Gov­ern­ment of Mad­rid with regards the need to “mod­u­late” the right to demon­strate, which con­tra­dict the status of these prin­ciples as basic rights for democracy.

Now, against this back­drop we may ask ourselves — or rather, we must ask ourselves — whether the old Wieder­stand­srecht, the right to res­ist, is per­haps in the pro­cess of being restored to its former glory, allow­ing some mem­bers of soci­ety to main­tain that the time has come to exer­cise the right by means of a rebel­lion, civil dis­obedi­ence or by tak­ing the steps towards cre­at­ing a con­sti­tu­tional demo­cracy. For this reason, we believe that today more than ever this crisis of demo­cracy provides us with the impetus to exer­cise our right to res­ist. Indeed, civil dis­obedi­ence is not the only form of legit­im­ate res­ist­ance for instances in which the premises of demo­cratic regimes involve an abuse of power or cor­rup­tion. Eisan­gelia, the right to pro­sec­ute any indi­vidual found to have dam­aged the com­mon interests of thepolis as a res­ult of crim­inal, incor­rupt con­duct or the expres­sion of incom­pet­ence was con­sidered a vital com­pon­ent of the demo­cratic régime itself in clas­sical Athenian demo­cracy, along with isonomy, isegory and iso­cracy.

To a cer­tain extent, the real test of demo­cratic res­ist­ance — if we may allow ourselves the play on words — is in the abil­ity of the courts to determ­ine account­ab­il­ity for the abuse of power. It also lies in the courts’ capa­city to estab­lish the polit­ical respons­ib­il­ity for decisions that are in expli­cit con­tra­dic­tion to com­mon good, as is the case in Ice­land. We could, per­haps, explain the above in the form of a debate about the inter­pret­a­tion of another of Spinoza’s fam­ous quotes: “Con­tracts or laws, whereby the mul­ti­tude trans­fers its right to one coun­cil or man, should without doubt be broken, when it is expedi­ent for the gen­eral wel­fare to do so.” (Polit­ical Treat­ise, Chapter 4, para­graph 6).

Javier de Lucas is Pro­fessor of Philo­sophy of Law and Polit­ical Philo­sophy at the Human Rights Insti­tute, Uni­ver­sity of Valencia.

María José Añón is Sec­ret­ary Gen­eral of the Uni­ver­sity of Valen­cia and a former Dir­ector of the Human Rights Institute.

Thanks to Isa­bel Adey for this translation.

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