Democracy, Distrust and the Right to Resist, Today

by | 21 Jan 2013

Democracy means dissent, distrust and resistance

According to classical theory, the roots of democracy are in consensus. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Experience has shown us that the key to democracy lays elsewhere; in the capacity to accept and even guarantee dissent and criticism of the established powers, with resistance to these powers playing an even more important role. Although trust is a vital component of democracy, distrust and maintaining a permanently critical attitude towards the execution of power are even more essential. The way in which this power is exercised must be controlled if we hope to preserve any essence of the notion of power to the people. A serious look at the critical evidence leaves us in no doubt that this is the case, as we take into account the conflicting and pluralistic nature of any kind of social reality. The only chance that democracy has to flourish is if the vast range of conflicting interests and needs are acknowledged and ways are found to respect these as far as possible.

In order to negotiate the recognition of these interests and needs and respect them accordingly, the public presence of each and every citizen’s voice must be amplified to the maximum. In his Political Treatise (Tractatus Politicus) (chapter V, paragraph 4), Spinoza demonstrated that the key to assessing the quality of governance is a critically engaged, active society conscious of its sovereignty: “Besides that commonwealth, whose peace depends on the sluggishness of its subjects, that are led about like sheep, to learn but slavery, may more properly be called a desert than a commonwealth.”1Ref. The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891) But this distrust works both ways. As J. Rancière explains, the history of democracy can be explained as a history of hatred towards the very meaning of the concept;2Ref. Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, Paris, Fayard 1987 (English translation, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation Buenos Aires, 2007, Libros del Zorzal) and La haine de la démocratie, Paris, La Fabrique, 2005. Also Momentos políticos. Madrid, Clave Intelectual, 2011 the power of the people as a sovereign authority, the power of equals, those upon whom iura paria has been bestowed (to use the words of Cicero on the subject of his notion of res publica).

Now, this is where the difficulty arises. Those who represent the centres of power within the so-called “institutionalised democracy”, usually consisting of a mixtum of “political” aristocracy and economic oligarchy, have always been reluctant to place their faith in the people as a genuine sovereign subject. Balibar provides a clear explanation for this:

… democracy, understood in a radical manner, is not the name of a political regime, but only the name of a process which we could call tautologically the democratization of democracy itself (or of what claims to represent a democratic regime), therefore the name of a struggle, a convergence of struggles for the democratization of democracy… a permanent struggle for its own democratization and against its own reversal into oligarchy and monopoly of power”.3Etienne Balibar, “Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for Citizenship,” Rethinking Marxism 20:4 (2008) 14–15

Let us rephrase this slightly, turning to Rancière once again. That which we know as a representative democracy governs the general interest by means of authority, and in keeping with R. Michels’ Iron Law of oligarchy, in the vast majority of cases this general interest is in turn held hostage by the individual interests of the oligarchy. To a large extent, this need to strive for the democratization of democracy is therefore borne out of a feeling of distrust. And perhaps this sentiment is even more pronounced today as we witness a surge in social movements condemning the ever-increasing detachment on the part of the political elite and the channels of representation with regards to the needs, interests and expectations of citizens. This criticism has thus been adopted as the original slogan for Spain’s indignados, also known as the 15-M Movement: “they don’t represent us”.

One thing is for sure: with the Second World War only a very recent memory, the former army general and suspected revolutionary President Eisenhower condemned the takeover of power by the military industrial complex. Today, barely half a century later, it is safe to say that an even greater change has taken place. The political parties that act as the intermediaries for this mixed oligarchy and govern the nation states have lost their ability to control the markets. What’s more, they find themselves helpless against the powers — another mixtum of international entities which have imposed their global dimensions and capacities — which control these markets. This phase of global capitalism sees market fundamentalism reaching its peak, completely exposing the contradictions between the logic of the market on the one hand and, on the other, the logic of rights (not to mention whether or not it intends to pursue its corollary of universality) and democracy taken seriously. According to Santos Juliá, the truth is that a destructive symbiosis has replaced the military industrial complex:

The military industrial complex denounced by Eisenhower has developed into a perfect symbiosis of politics, finance and property in our society. And now it has gone running to the state — or, more precisely, to the public’s money, which is ultimately money earned by the wage-earning middle classes — to save its skin. Wars were fuelled by the military industrial complex, whereas this symbiosis is wreaking devastation.4S. Juliá, “Escribir de política es llorar”, (Writing about politics is enough to make you cry) El País Sunday 20 May 2012.

The effects of this symbiosis can be summarised in terms which leave little doubt as to the existing risk to democracy and the rule of law.

Social crisis, withdrawal of rights, limits of democracy

We are effectively witnessing two phenomena in this first quarter of the 21st century that enable us to understand the extent to which the “institutional” concept of democracy — i.e. the representative democracy which obscures the mixtum of aristocracy and oligarchy referred to above — has entered into crisis. This crisis could potentially be positive; a crisis of rebirth in which the very sinews of democracy are regenerated. Alternatively, it could also degenerate into the opposite, resulting in a situation similar the one which facilitated the rise of the fascists in the years preceding the Second World War.

This crisis is partly positive, in that it promotes the re-democratisation of our societies, stuck in the institutional routine of a representative democracy which, according to Michles’ Iron Law of oligarchy, is moving steadily further away from the interests of its citizens in favour of dealing primarily with the interests of its representatives and organisations. This explains the public criticism from the 15-M and 25-S movements and the Occupy protesters, who maintain that the individuals elected by the citizens to administer the power “do not represent us”. That is to say, the actions of these “representatives” are not primarily in the interests of the common good, and the members of the public are not treated as a priority. Be that as it may, the crisis also constitutes a threat by running the risk of de-politicisation in the worst sense; disqualifying the public realm and treating politics as a dishonourable, corrupt and inefficacious activity. And this risk is undoubtedly heightened in periods of crisis where the message “every man for himself” is instilled into the subconscious by the individualist atomism (as criticised by Macpherson in his acclaimed essay on “possessive individualism”) and paves the way for the messianic scenario of a leader or an organisation that continually imposes the cost of withdrawing liberties and, in particular, reducing the critical capacity of the public.

The social costs of the “financial casino” crisis in which we have been living since at least 2008 are good evidence of the above. To begin, an uncontrollable drift seems to be occurring, resulting in the failure to guarantee or even recognise basic human rights. The first to suffer are of course social, economic and cultural rights, which are being relegated from their status as rights and transformed into commodities; expectations which will only be fulfilled if purchasing power and the rules of the market so allow. We must stress: presenting these rights as an expense which is neither essential nor a priority and can therefore be cut means that the same rights which were still deemed universal as recently as 1966 are stripped of their value. Instead, they are now regarded as superfluous benefits, almost luxuries that ought to be discarded in favour of vital “austerity measures”. The way we see it, the notion that this “severing of rights” is necessary must be rooted in two suppositions:

a) Firstly, in the belief that economic, social and cultural rights are not actually rights, or at the very least, they are not fundamental or universal rights. According to the predominant neoliberal approach, which is based on an atomist concept, the paradigm of rights is the same as that of property and there are only as many rights as there are rights that are viewed as negative liberties. This ideology was accurately exposed by Marx in his analysis “On the Jewish question”, where he demonstrated that the approach does not regard rights to be universal, viewing them instead as powers which are only within the reach of those who are able to live as monads, in glorious isolation from the rest of the world.

b) Secondly, turning to Susan George and others, in the argument we might refer to as the “TINA dogma” (there is no alternative) expounded by the institutions responsible for developing the model (the IMF and the World Bank). Whilst Reagan and Thatcher were the “John the Baptist” figures of these institutions, the modern-day apostles include Chancellor Merkel, the European Central Bank and the employees of Goldman Sachs (Draghi, Monti, Guindos and tuttiquanti), all of whom are now at the forefront of the political centres from which this policy of “austerity” should be put into practice. And the measures are to be implemented by the “intervening governments” — an expression which is apparently used without acknowledging its shamelessness — under the guise of the alleged democracy. One only has to look to the reaction of the centres of power to the Greek Prime Minister Papandreu’s determination to consult the citizens of Greece on the referendum to see that consulting the people, the members of the public who form a part of the very notion of democracy, constitutes a form of “heresy”. As if to say, what exactly qualifies the people, the citizens of the country, to grasp and solve its profound economic problems? Surely the answers can only be provided by specialists with advanced qualifications (for example, the centres of power themselves of course)?

All of this expresses the colonisation of the public sphere and all that is genuinely political by an instrumental, supposedly scientific rationality (a rationality which is surely at best technical in the vast majority of cases). This “economic rationality” is in turn identified with one of its ideological versions, i.e. the philosophical and methodological approach of liberal atomism. What’s more, this rationality is deeply anti-democratic as it evades the mere possibility of choice and control for the people, who are cast into a purely passive role. The problem is that the context of crisis serves as an excuse for taking things one step further, starting with cutting social, economic and cultural rights before moving on to political and civil rights and reformulating the basic principles of the rule of law and parliamentary democracy as we clearly drift towards authoritarianism.

Spain provides us with a convincing example in the form of the government policies carried out under Rajoy. Take, for example, government practice with regards royal decree, which has been used to make to all of the reforms supposedly required by the troika. The most important aspect of this regulatory resource is the way in which it enables the Executive to legislate while avoiding a parliamentary debate and evading the capacity to control (even more necessary in the case of absolute parliamentary majorities). The measures aimed at dissuading the citizens from exercising public critique and making displays of resistance are also worthy of investigation. Take, for example, the draft reform of the penal code pushed through by Ruiz Gallardón and the clumsy proposals from the delegate of the Government of Madrid with regards the need to “modulate” the right to demonstrate, which contradict the status of these principles as basic rights for democracy.

Now, against this backdrop we may ask ourselves — or rather, we must ask ourselves — whether the old Wiederstandsrecht, the right to resist, is perhaps in the process of being restored to its former glory, allowing some members of society to maintain that the time has come to exercise the right by means of a rebellion, civil disobedience or by taking the steps towards creating a constitutional democracy. For this reason, we believe that today more than ever this crisis of democracy provides us with the impetus to exercise our right to resist. Indeed, civil disobedience is not the only form of legitimate resistance for instances in which the premises of democratic regimes involve an abuse of power or corruption. Eisangelia, the right to prosecute any individual found to have damaged the common interests of the polis as a result of criminal, incorrupt conduct or the expression of incompetence was considered a vital component of the democratic regime itself in classical Athenian democracy, along with isonomy, isegory and isocracy.

To a certain extent, the real test of democratic resistance — if we may allow ourselves the play on words — is in the ability of the courts to determine accountability for the abuse of power. It also lies in the courts’ capacity to establish the political responsibility for decisions that are in explicit contradiction to common good, as is the case in Iceland. We could, perhaps, explain the above in the form of a debate about the interpretation of another of Spinoza’s famous quotes: “Contracts or laws, whereby the multitude transfers its right to one council or man, should without doubt be broken, when it is expedient for the general welfare to do so.” (Political Treatise, Chapter 4, paragraph 6).

Javier de Lucas is Pro­fessor of Philo­sophy of Law and Polit­ical Philo­sophy at the Human Rights Insti­tute, Uni­ver­sity of Valen­cia.

María José Añón is Secretary General of the University of Valencia and a former Director of the Human Rights Institute.

Thanks to Isa­bel Adey for this translation.

  • 1
    Ref. The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, translated from the Latin, with an Introduction by R.H.M. Elwes, vol. 1 Introduction, Tractatus-Theologico-Politicus, Tractatus Politicus. Revised edition (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891)
  • 2
    Ref. Le Maître ignorant: Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, Paris, Fayard 1987 (English translation, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation Buenos Aires, 2007, Libros del Zorzal) and La haine de la démocratie, Paris, La Fabrique, 2005. Also Momentos políticos. Madrid, Clave Intelectual, 2011
  • 3
    Etienne Balibar, “Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for Citizenship,” Rethinking Marxism 20:4 (2008) 14–15
  • 4
    S. Juliá, “Escribir de política es llorar”, (Writing about politics is enough to make you cry) El País Sunday 20 May 2012.


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