Is There a Democratic Evil?
Ramin Jahanbegloo 26 March 2015

For many it was clear that the Cold War era was that of the confrontation between Soviet authoritarianism and democracy. But as the Berlin Wall fell, democracy reached a level of political and moral legitimacy that no existing form of governance could compete with it. All forms of dissent in and against liberal democracy became rebuke and suspicious. However, in a brief note of optimism, the recent revolts in Hong Kong demonstrate that democracy is held dear by the citizens, despite the fact that it is a fluid arena which has to deal with unforeseen challenges from both within and outside the society. Spinoza wrote that without passion no human activity, though supported by reason, can prosper.

But how can one rekindle in citizens, either spoiled by well-being or resentful because of exclusion from it, the passion for democracy? Since 1989 and 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.

The younger generations with no memory of the Cold War 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. In the 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?

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 organizing 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 really 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. 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.

Yet, the more we think about it, the more this definition seems unsatisfactory and incomplete. If democracy were no more than a set of institutional guarantees, how could citizens think about politics today and struggle for the emergence of new perspectives of democratic life?

Before answering this question, I think we can point out to the problem of corruption of democracies as a democratic evil. There is a problem of democratic evil, because there is a specific problem of the legitimacy of violence at the heart of democracies. The recognition of violence as problematic for democracy underscores the status of homo democraticus and the possibility of the degeneration of democracies into violence. Therefore, any attempt to go beyond democratic violence, necessitates the recognition of the paradoxical status of democracy itself. Democracy is the process of taming of violence, but democratic states and societies are producers of violence. The more a democratic community develops instruments of violence, the less resistant it is to the democratic evil. Maybe, this is why the politics of nonviolence is a more valuable safeguard of democracy than the free market. 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 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 which reveals to us the complexity, spontaneity and heterogeneity of democracy. How one is rightly to value and properly esteem democratic citizens is presently being debated against the backdrop of the horror and intolerable acts of cruelty which have continued with the new millennium. Maybe this is the reason why we can never be fully satisfied with democracy as a philosophical value and as a political reality – to be so would be to forget the essence of democracy as a daily effort of civic responsibility, but also as a continuous struggle against the intolerable. That is why any democracy which turns into a consumer value system and creates no sense of responsibility higher than simple political ideals will end up becoming a community of mediocrity.

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 moral thinking and moral judgment. 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, democracy is made by humans and its fate is related to the human condition. As such, the line dividing democratic action and political evil cuts through the moral choice of every democratic citizen.

The Spanish version of this article was published by El Paìs in November, 2014

Ramin Jahanbeglo is an Iranian philosopher and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto



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