It’s now a fairly well-trodden argument that democracy is dead – or at least that it ought to be. So many atrocities have been committed in the name of democracy that it is now pretty irresponsible to blindly celebrate the values associated with it. On top of this, most of us realize that the majority of states which claim to be democratic do not truly operate as such. As a result, much of the Left – from Counterpunch to the New York Post – is claiming that we should do away with the idea of democracy entirely. On the other hand, there are many who take a different approach to this problem, among them members of the Left, the Right and the miscellaneous liberals. They argue that such cases simply describe the ‘misuse’ or ‘abuse’ of democratic values, values which remain more important than ever. In what follows, I argue that these two opposed positions have something unlikely in common and that we need a third way of conceiving the future of democracy.
Democracy is an Ancient Greek word and in its long history since then it has acquired more meanings and implications than almost any other. As philosopher Frank Ruda has said about the word ‘freedom,’ the signifier ‘democracy’ can bring together a very mixed crowd of people, from nearly all political camps, all on one side. At the same time, it can be a site for huge confusion and disagreement. For some, it designates the core values of ‘our’ society and is the necessary foundation for any ethical organization of the state. For others, it represents the excuse used by a largely (but not exclusively) American ideology to justify everything from an aggressive foreign policy to mass surveillance and invasive data collection.
What both camps may fail to realize is that the meaning of democracy is itself the result of political and cultural struggle. Like all words, ‘democracy’ has no inherent meaning, no base or core implications to throw out or to defend. As such, once abolished, it will not be clear what exactly has been abolished, or once held on to, it will be far from transparent what has been retained. Perhaps it is the terms of the argument that are wrong.
Those who proclaim that democracy ought to be abolished are proponents of the idea that our political structure is – at a very core level – faulty. They believe, in various ways, that we ought to rid ourselves of the fundamental idea which underlines the political hegemonies of today, an idea at (or that at least claims to be at) the foundation of modernity itself. For such people, modernity is a failure and we need to make a complete break from it. One can appreciate this stance, to a point.
Those who argue that democracy must be defended similarly conceive of democracy as a cornerstone of contemporary society. However, instead of seeing it as a symbol of what is wrong, they see in it the ethically sound theoretical basis for a fair society which has been continually abused and taken advantage of by both corporate and state powers for their own personal and collective gain. Thus, they freely admit that democracy has failed, but not that democracy itself is a failure.
So, we seem to have two choices, neither of which is good enough. We must either deny the gains that modernity has made and attempt to ‘start afresh,’ as it were. Or we must insist on our values, in a sense refusing to admit that they are themselves corrupt and simply shifting all blame onto those who have ‘misused’ them.
At a glance, the first choice seems the better and the more leftwing of the two, but let’s put this into the terms of the US Presidential elections. Trump’s ideology echoes those who express visceral hatred of modernity, seeking to ‘make America great again’ by ridding it of the fundamental ideas which underline the political hegemonies of today (embodied perfectly by Clinton). Though he’d officially be ‘democratically elected,’ the idea of Trump’s reign hardly looks democratic. On the grounds that the Clinton administration and its successors in power have consistently abused democracy, the window opens to throw the whole thing out and reject democratic modernity in a nostalgic wave of disastrous patriotism. And, conversely, holding on to what we’ve got is almost as disastrous, which is why we need to be truly Hegelian and demand a third option.
The same pattern can be seen in the European context. One movement aiming to rehabilitate democracy in a more innovative way is DiEM25, established this year by a wide-ranging and pan-European group of democrats as an internationalist response to European crises. DiEM campaigns and offers political advice, demanding ‘democracy in Europe’ by 2025 and warns that Europe will collapse without it. The project’s manifesto correctly identifies the two options on offer to most Europeans today. They are given a choice between (a) retreating into the cocoon of their nation-states, or (b) surrender to the Brussels democracy-free zone which (of course) speaks of itself as democratic. Again, the US analogy is useful. Clinton is on the side of Brussels, whilst Trump campaigns for retreating into the national cocoon, just like the far Right in most Central and Eastern European countries. Once again, it is clear that we need a third option.
Better than anyone else, Marx teaches us how to approach this impasse. Marx was never the proponent of a return to anything and should be described as the true anti-nostalgist. His reading of the disaster of modern capitalism showed that capitalism had reduced human beings to nothing but a mere cash relation, but he was quick to remind us about those values that capitalism had successfully torn us away from, values that we should never return to: feudalism, patriarchy, natural deference to our superiors and a heteronormative family organization, among others. Europe seems caught in this trap today, wanting to abolish modern capitalism but only able to conceive of doing so by returning to these equally abhorrent alternatives. To be truly Marxist one is tasked with moving on without moving back, preserving the gains of capitalism whilst also working to destroy its injustices.
To renounce ‘democracy’ would be, at best, little more than a crass kind of symbolic headline grabbing. At worst, it could open up a terrifying rightwing future in which a whole history of European politics would be renounced for its failures as we charge heedlessly into the power structures that will follow. At the same time, to cling to the old democracy would be endorsing a continuation of the same. What we need is not big symbolic gestures such as proclaiming that ‘democracy is dead’, which inadvertently give an opportunity to the Right, but concrete demands for the actual improvement of things.
The first of such demands should be transparency, which has long been the aim of WikiLeaks. One of Hillary Clinton’s emails hacked and leaked by WikiLeaks just recently contained a little gem in which she poetically referred to ‘the craziness of our wacky wiki(leaking) world’ (Document ID: 1040). Whilst some on the (apparent) Left have bizarrely accused Julian Assange and WikiLeaks of trying to fuel Trump’s campaign by badmouthing Clinton, it is clear that what WikiLeaks, like DiEM25, is after is the construction of a third option not currently on the table.
Before we make wild and even dangerous demands that democracy ought to be thrown away and wait gormlessly to see what disaster comes in its place, we should embrace the wacky wikileaking world that Clinton really shouldn’t be joking about (more of Clinton’s WikiLeaks jokes can be found in Document ID: 926). It is these moments that help us to understand how ‘democracy’ has actually been functioning until now and what it has come to mean in our present context. With such knowledge, perhaps we can formulate how we might move forward without retreating or proclaiming the end of everything. Clinton’s e-mails reveal that she really knows full well that WikiLeaks is nothing to joke about, and it even shows her semi-consciousness awareness that the ideological dynasty she stands for is entropically leaking. The Left just has to make sure that the extreme representatives of the Right are not the only ones to take advantage of this leakage. And the call for transparency can be the first step in making this happen.