A sea of incomprehension
Carlo Galli 9 January 2008

This article was published by the magazine Reset in its September-October 2007 issue (no.103).

It was a difficult dialogue, bordering on incomprehension, between Arato and Hanafi. Focusing initially on ‘democracy’, as the debate unfolded it became apparent that the real issue in question was in fact liberal democracy – understood as the fullest expression of Western politics from both a historic and legislative perspective. Or, in other words, the West and its impact on the rest of the world. From an academic and, as far as possible, purely theoretical discussion, the dialogue soon escalated into a heated political debate; and the Truth that the participants were hoping to find revealed itself to be relative, conditioned and dependent upon situation. For Arato, the West’s historical development and the development of the principles of individual freedom, social equality, civil citizenship and popular sovereignty, as well as the establishment of liberal-democratic state institutions, have already resolved the question of democracy from a theoretical and political perspective.

The practical difficulties of democracy, which he quite naturally notes and forcefully criticises, are rooted in the obscure powers that are opposed to the logic of democracy, that is, the powerful groups of interests which form within our society and which encourage citizens towards passivity and conformism. The biggest of these is capitalism, in the aggressive and imperialistic form which is has assumed in the global age – most notably in the just war against terrorism and tyrannical governments and for the world-wide establishment of democracy. It is an impossible task which, when pushed to its furthest point, can lead to the inauguration of polycracies which are felt to be illegitimate by the populations concerned (Iraq). Globalisation is therefore, today, the extension on a world scale of the real problems of Western democracy, and the United States, despite its status as a democracy, frequently make important decisions in a non-democratic manner (Arato is even harsher in his judgement of Israel, which he sees as practising a racial democracy of inequality). But the validity of democracy – as a sum of ideals and political institutions – is testified to by the fact that between the 1960s and 1980s many dictatorships and odiously authoritarian or injust regimes (from Greece to South Africa) collapsed and were replaced by democracies which were not exported but rather born within the countries themselves, from these countries’ own experiences, and that these democracies have effected a revitalisation of the State.

Arato’s main points are therefore the distinction between the theory and reality of democracy, the affirmation of its legislative value as a fundamental basis, the criticism of its practical contradictions, and the link between democracy and an efficient statism (even if he admits that one of the most serious problems of the global age is the lack of clarity concerning what ‘statisms’ should be; in other words, how to resolve the many questions linked to secession and demands for independence). Hanafi, on the other hand, stresses forcefully that if democracy is universally positive, the same can not be said of liberal democracy. He rejects the distinction proposed by Arato between the theory and practice of liberal democracy and affirms that this is, as a whole, characterised by contradictions which are not purely empirical but rather linked to the very nature and substance of being “Western”. Indeed, it is based on notions of political theory such as that of the single individual, and on assumptions of formal equality such as ‘one man one vote’, which belong to modern European culture and which rule out any debate on ‘correct’ government. Liberal democracy therefore limits itself to providing a quantitative rule (the principle of majority) in order to establish ‘who’ ought to govern.

Alongside this essential, inherent problem, Hanafi goes on to list contradictions in the practice of Western democracy, and first and foremost the fact that it cannot prevent the onset of passivity and conformism (multi-party systems can only ever be fictional) and that it feeds or at least permits persistent injustices, exclusions and abuses of power. Unlike Arato, Hanafi does not claim that these problems are unwanted adages to the idea of democracy, but rather defines them as inherent to it. Above all, finally, liberal democracy is ‘Western’ because within it is expressed the mental language and political syntax of the rulers of the world, of the colonisers, of the ‘liberators’, who have always tried to find in democracy (and in the values it expresses) a legitimisation of Western world domination, and who, in the name of democracy, have practiced serious and systematic violence of which they have always absolved themselves (and yet refuse to tolerate when it is a question of non-Western tyrants who have ceased to be docile). From this perspective, globalisation is the latest incarnation of Western efforts to strip the rest of the world of its right to self-determination; indeed, globalisation attacks post-colonial states, depriving them of their sovereignty, and therefore is an anti-democratic force.

Liberal democracy must therefore recognise itself as being eurocentric, that is, only one of the possible forms or conceptions (and therefore only one of the possible realisations) of democracy; and it must therefore begin to learn to be humble, and to recognise that the world is not wholly reducible to Western categories and institutions, and that these are not the only which exist (neither as good nor as bad examples). It is a question, ultimately, of relativising and ‘provincialising’ Europe, of showing that this is just one of the many world cultures. And, for Hanafi, the first means of maintaining equality between the various forms of democracy is the affirmation that democracy is a means of realising not so much the formal independence of the individual, or of individual parties, within the collective, but rather the concrete national concensus, that is, to ensure that citizens can live in harmony alongside one another. And this implies a clear opposition between a negative – tyranny – and a positive – freedom of forms of life and expression – which Hanafi maintains as fixed values. Peaceful co-existence can be achieved, he argues, in non-individualistic cultures, via compromise and debate, and in the presence of strong leadership – and not necessarily via voting or the much sought-after polyarchy. In the specific case which personally concerns him the most, he maintains that Islamic politics can very easily exist as neither theocratic, hierocratic nor fundamentalist, and that it has the space within it to unite individual freedom, public law, the sovereignty of the people, and the well-being and dignity of all.

Clearly it is not a question here of awarding marks or deciding who is right and who is wrong, neither of filing Hanafi’s criticisms in the old box of anti-democratic reasoning (on the contrary, he is a supporter of democracy), or accusing Arato of eurocentrism (on the contrary, he is extremely hostile to the armed exportation of democracy). Rather it is a question of understanding that, even though it may be via controversial forcing, fundamental questions have been asked which are at the centre of current debates on democracy. And, above all, it is important to highlight as examples of possible dialogue areas of convergence between the two authors on the positive value of the democratic ideal per se: on the negative role of capitalism and imperialism, on the central role of an efficient State as the promoter and vehicle of democracy, on the role of the élites who interact with both the institutions (via criticism, a favourite theme of Arato, who thus rejects the vicious circle whereby the prerequisite for democracy must be the prevalence of an already existent democratic culture) and with the masses (via educating towards freedom to work towards the eradication of the spirit of dictatorship – a favourite theme of Hanafi, who thus rejects ambiguous ‘third ways’ between authoritarianism and freedom.)

To the very significant theoretical distances already noted – inherent to the individualistic structure of the founding categories of Western democracy – should also be added the mistrust and practical distances which emerge between the two intellectuals, above all determined by two burning and unresolved historical issues: the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, and that between the US and Iraq (and the Islamic world more generally). Today, after the trauma of historical colonisation, it is the Israelis’ war of national defence and the US war on global terrorism – ‘the carnage and the devastation’ (Dante, Inferno, Canto X – Ed.) – that prevent a non-distorted political and intellectual communication (although Arato, too, is severely critical of these conflicts – and it is precisely here that the problem lies.)

Faced with these perennial concrete emergencies, and these ferocious lacerations of trust, the intellectuals can do something (albeit a small thing) – namely recognising that these conflicts exist, but without allowing themselves to become bogged down in them and in doing so lose whatever strength there may be in the logos. The rejection of the logic of friend/enemy and of the dangerous incommunicability that derives from this, is therefore the first, indispensable step. The second is recognising that today, in the global age, democracy as a universal ideal can only be understood as the conscious capacity of men and women to control their lives within society via communicative reason and public institutions; and that this objective, which coincides with the respect for and valuing of the cultural plurality which enriches humanity, can be reached by a number of ways (but not by every way; democracy is legislated; it is able to exclude alternatives, to criticise injustices and oppression, but not only from an individualistic-liberal point of view). Today, the only Enlightenment possible lies in the recognition that the unity of an ideal cannot correspond to unity of thought or of institutions.

Carlo Galli teaches the History of Political Doctrines at the University of Bologna. His work include: Genealogia della politica. Carl Schmitt e la crisi del pensiero politico moderno (Il Mulino 1996); Spazi politici (Il Mulino 2001); La guerra globale (Laterza 2002); Enciclopedia del pensiero politico, with Roberto Esposito (Laterza 2005), and he is he editor of Manuale di storia del pensiero politico (Il Mulino 2006).

Translation by Liz Longden



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