15 December, 2010

Democracy sucks, long live democracy

Sergio Abranches

Today I saw a Retweet that reminded me of something I thought, and afterwards wrote about, many years ago. The RT by @paulegina (a.k.a Paule Wendelberger), a US citizen born in Haiti, living and working for more than 20 years in Germany (, quoted a Tweet by @wsteffie (a.k.a Stefanie W) conveniently located in “Cyberspace”. Her bio is both a demand and a statement of belief: “human rights for all, and social democracy can work if we all act responsibly.” Her Tweet reads: “@TIME is just teaching us about American Democracy: Ask the people to vote & then screw them!”

The Tweet was about Time Magazine choosing Mark Zuckerberg rather than Julian Assange as Person of the Year. The Twittersphere reports that Assange, Wikileaks mentor and principal person, got 382,000 votes against 18,000 to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of  Facebook. Time magazine’s ranking based on the poll confirms.

But the recollection the RT brought to my mind has nothing to do with TIME’s choices. It was about the view of US democracy on Stefanie W’s Tweet, and the fact it gets an approving quote from another person from the USA living in an European social democracy.

Both Zuckerberg and Assange are controversial characters of their own. Zuckerberg’s nomination is not without merit. Facebook is an important addition to network life. And so is Wikileaks, to network life and journalism. However, Assange’s achievements and predicament this year clearly make him the winner, regarding both relevance and news content. The choice of Person of the Year by a news magazine would seem outright.

I know, the “democracy thing” was to be the lede and I have not spelled it so far. The “democracy thing” is a paradox: there seems to be a permanently high degree of dissatisfaction with how democracy works everywhere at any time; but no society has yet come up with an alternative regime. One that ensures at least as much freedom as a mature democracy does, and works better overall than existing democracies.

I met this paradox almost physically many years ago when I was at Notre Dame University for a brief tenure as senior visiting fellow of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies. I was a young scholar, had gotten my PhD four years before. A group attending a Congress of the International Political Science Association decided to organize this conference on comparative democracy. We should compare democracies, or the “democratic problem”, in Latin America, the US and Europe. I wrote a critique of liberal democracies called “Neither citizens nor free persons: the political dilemma of liberal democracies”. It was a defense of social democracy. The essay was inspired by a paradoxical sequence of feelings I had when I arrived in Chicago, on my way to South Bend. Brazil was slowly moving out of a two-decade long period of military rule. Several friends of mine were still in exile. A few were killed by the ruthless authoritarian government. Being free to speak my mind, to openly discuss issues that were dangerous to bring to public debate in Brazil made me feel exhilarating. After a few hours discussing the shortcomings of US democracy and listening to US liberals’ (in the US sense) complaints about democracy under Ronald Reagan, I though: “well it is far better than a dictatorship, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.”

As I see it today, US Democracy has become far more progressive with Barack Obama than it was with George W. Bush. In the previous administration there were clear and dangerous setbacks for democracy, both domestically and globally. Obama has a tolerant and open-minded political personality. I’ve been to the US several times since 9/11, and the whole environment shows less stress and uneasiness now. I have friends in Germany that are convinced social democracy is not working there. I have heard from British people that democracy is utterly dysfunctional in the UK. The attitude of the Courts on Assange’s case does not bode well to British democracy. The French have always complained about French democracy, and continue to do so. French society is again “enragée” with its democracy and government. Talk to Italians about their democracy, especially after Berlusconi got the vote of confidence, and one’ll probably get a torrent of Italian imprecations as answer. Last year I’ve spent a few months in Toronto, and have been to Montréal. Canadians are not happy with their democracy. I will spare you opinions about Latin American democracies.

Are we dissatisfied with our democracies or with our governments? The right answer is both. But more with the governments, than with democracy in itself. The problems with governments we all know. They’re usually related to economic and territorial management, pressing current domestic issues, foreign affairs. The problems with democracy are more difficult to grasp, they are less tangible. Democracy nonetheless seems in disarray everywhere.

Part of the problem comes, very likely, from a permanent mismatch between desire, or, more properly, expectations and the performance of democracy. In other words, frustration with what democracy has managed to deliver is rampant. Democracy is a process and, as such, it can improve or decay. Usually it does have ups and downs. It seems fair to say that it is on a phase of decay. There is no final stage for the process of “democratic development”. It is a moving target. And it depends on the engagement of civil society to make any progress towards this target. Democracy decays when civil society is not engaged, is not aiming higher.

Democracy has not adapted yet to the new technological revolution – of which Facebook and Wikileaks are an offspring – to globalization, climate change, new waves of migration and a basketful of new issues and processes that will be the building blocks of this century’s history.

Adam Przeworski, born in Poland, a US Citizen, and very successful scholar, now teaching political science at NYU, was at the conference in Notre Dame. During the discussions, to my amazement, he reacted to my paper saying he couldn’t understand why I didn’t stress the role of the party as one of the major elements of the dilemma of liberal democracies. I did not understand, at the time, how someone could envisage democracy without political parties. At the time I believed that political parties were an essential element of democracies.

My first impression was that Adam invested against the party because it clearly was an instrument of oppression and privilege in communist regimes. This discussion took place seven years before their demise. It was also an instrument of oppression and privilege in authoritarian regimes. Like in Mexico, when the PRI was the only party. The party machinery and the state apparatus were intertwined. That much I was prepared to admit: party bureaucracies having promiscuous and non-competitive linkages to the state structure were a clear and present danger to democracy. I was also prepared to accept Peter Bachrach’s concept of “democratic elitism”, or E. E. Schattschneider’s idea of a semi-sovereign people. I have read their books in graduate school, and dealt with them in my essay. But I was not prepared to toss parties in the garbage can of political history.

It took me some time to understand that there was a deeper truth to Adam’s argument. The political party is an outdated technology of representative democracy. A necessary contraption, perhaps, before the advent of the network society. Today they do belong into the garbage can of political history. But, again, what will replace the parties? Will parliaments still make sense without parties? Is deliberation better than representation, even when we know how unequal is the distribution of knowledge, information, and education? Is legitimate and democratic deliberation possible in the absence of civic education, or in a situation it is declining? A civic culture, or social capital, or whatever one likes to call this “spirit of citizenship” is a sine qua non for truly democratic and participatory deliberations. This sentiment of belonging and togetherness, of collective responsibility is indispensable to what Machiavelli has called the “virtuous republic”. Today we would call it full-citizenship, or responsible citizenship, aware of both its rights and obligations, capable of a high degree of self-government.

Yes, back to Utopia to fight dystopias. We ought to fight democratic decay. That much is clear. We’ve got to bring to political life the new technologies and practices we use in our private and collective everyday life to our own benefit, our new forms of socializing, debating, exchanging ideas, seeking knowledge information and references.

So it has to do with Zuckerberg, Assange, Facebook and Wikileaks after all. We have, in several ways, a more democratic social exchange in the network society than in political society. We’ve got to bridge this gap moving towards more political democracy. But let’s not fool ourselves: we all live in a private and collective world of micro-tyrannies, prejudice, and exclusion. These social micro behaviors are also present in the Websphere. We won’t have more political democracy without democratizing private and collective life. We’ve got to take the network society to higher levels of openness and equal exchange. Nobody will do that for us. Certainly not the power-holders in both government and opposition. Political parties will not be a part of this (re)volution, they don’t belong into this future.

This process of permanently improving democracy, preventing its decay, and transforming it from the inside out, from top to bottom, to design a legitimate and functional regime for this century is a task for us all. It is a global endeavor. A collective challenge. A network mission. We have the technology and the dissatisfaction to begin with. But can we do it?


I know tons of theories have been written about this “democracy thing”, the network society, and everything else. But I am afraid we have been theorizing too much among ourselves, like a tribe of pundits, and have lost the praxis, as a collective body.

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