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The world at a crossroads: what is left of our democratic passions?

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

The rise of the ultra-right in future elections in Europe and the drastic appearance of populist figures like Donald Trump in US politics represent a turning point in the history of liberal democracies around the world.

On the surface, everything still seems fine, but democratic passion and civic trust in the institutions of democracy are visibly declining.

The politics of passion

Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch Jewish philosopher, wrote that without passion no human activity, though supported by reason, can prosper. The argument is a sound one, especially when applied to our contemporary liberal democracies. It is a fact; democratic citizens around the world have given up on democratic passion by replacing it with the blind obedience of laws.

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It is true, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy has triumphed against all standard systems of governance, but liberal democracy's political ascendency around the world has not always been accompanied with the ascendency of democratic passion. Democratic man is no more an animal of political passion. There seems to be no place anymore in today's democratic regimes for the politics of arguing about politics.

Democratic passion and civic trust in the institutions of democracy are visibly declining

Alexis de Tocqueville analysed this democratic crowd psychology brilliantly in his Democracy in America in 1835.

According to him, "It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity."

Liberal thought and freedom

Tocqueville's argument implies a wider problem - that of freedom - which highlights another blind spot of contemporary liberal politics. Different strands of liberal thought, exemplified by a process of forging a range of value-choices and individual options, suffer extremely from the absence of a sense of autonomy and self-creation.

Hence, contemporary liberal theories reformulate the concept of freedom in terms of negative liberty without focusing necessarily on a fuller account of freedom as self-questioning, self-invention and self-determination.

As a result, citizens are safeguarded from illiberal forms of interference by a system of rights, but they do not feel the urge of participating in an unregulated public space where they can find a confrontation of ideas.

A growing apathy

Elections around the world show us clearly that younger generations with no memory of Nazism, Stalinism and the two World Wars are becoming more and more apathetic to democracy.

On the other hand, the dictum of John Dewey that politics is the shadow cast by big business over society continues to haunt and erode our liberal democracies.

Citizens do not feel the urge to participate in a space where they can find a confrontation of ideas

In light of these problems and the mounting evidence that all is not necessarily well with democracy, we are left asking the question: what is left of democracy as a discourse and as an institution?

One word, different meanings

However, experience shows us that it is very difficult to pin down democracy to one meaning, since it means different things to different people in different contexts. That is why there is a failure in "stretching", not to say "exporting" democracy from one culture or society to another.

The reason is simple: promoting democracy cannot be effective in the absence of a democratic culture and organising elections is only the starting point of the democratic life of a nation. In fact, the real test of democracy lies not merely in empowering a victorious majority, giving the greatest liberty to the greatest number, but it consists in a new attitude and approach towards the problem of power and violence.

If that is the case, then democratic governance is not power over the society, but power within it.

Democracy alone will never be enough. What is needed is self-examination and dialogical exchange

In other words, if democracy equals self-rule and self-control of society, empowerment of civil society and collective ability to rule democratically are essential constituents of democratic governance. Where democracy is practised, the rules of the political game are defined by the absence of violence and a set of institutional guarantees against the domineering logic of the state. But more important, the only way to achieve a "democratic" democracy is to have free exercise of democratic passions.

No matter how much we accumulate to provide the necessities of life and to live comfortably in a democratic society, we all know that we need it more than material possessions to give meaning to our common life.

If we ask the question 'Why do we all live as if democracy matters and is worth our efforts?', the response could be that life is no more than simply the satisfaction of desires. There is an ethical horizon of responsibility without which democracy has no meaning.

Vaclav Havel reminds us that, "democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of responsibility, which it ought to awaken and cultivate". This sense of common responsibility is the key to our identity as democratic beings because it comes as a reaction to the intolerable in the name of shared human dignity and vulnerability. It is a moral effort that reveals to us the complexity, spontaneity and heterogeneity of democracy.

Dialogue and the Socratic experience

Democracy alone will never be enough; it cannot be established through elections and a constitution. Something more is necessary - an emphasis on democracy as a practice of civic passion and political questioning. In other words, we can never build or sustain democratic institutions if they do not have the goal of offering us the Socratic experience of politics as self-examination and dialogical exchange.

After all, passionate citizens make democracy and its fate is related to the Socratic passion distinguishing between democratic action and populist demagogy.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 6 October 2016, 2:32 IST