Democracies

The recent eviction of the Youth House has envigorated the Danish debate of what democracy actually is and on which premises democracy works – a debate that long-time readers of this blog will know I find very interesting. Especially since people tend to use democracy as a value in it self, to be exported to other parts of the world as an unquestionable good.

Actually, as the Hungarian philosopher, Agnes Heller points out, democracy is easier to export that it is to build from the ground up. Because you are exporting a complete system, a complete set of unquestionable set of values to be accepted and incorporated in the receiving society. But building and maintaining a democracy isn’t an easy, given thing. Democracy needs constant renegotiation – not only of who’s in power and whether or not they’re doing a good job, but also of the institutions and processes through which we maintain a democracy. As Heller argues:

Levinas has explained why democracy is difficult. Democracy is unnatural compared to the easy and natural monarchy where the son inherits the power from the father. It is a constituted form that demands constant reconstitution and renewal. Because if our freedoms are constituted, then they can be taken from us again – for instance when people become more concerned about their personal well-being than their constitutional rights… Democracy is fragile both from the inside and the outside.

This structural fragility was exposed and criticized this week when Pernille Rosenkrantz Theil, a young, Danish, left-wing politician, quit politics, protesting how shallow and two-faced she had experienced Danish politics. She tells of her experiences with talking to politicians from various political parties behind the scenes, and how they express completely different views than the ones they expound on TV. They prefer to hide their motives and play a media-friendly role hoping to please and appease their voters based on what the latest polls say.

She denounces polls as rarely reflecting how voters feel, but only how well the political spin has blurred their judgement. As she says:

The hierarchical structure [within the political party] forces people to fight for positions og candidatures … it is a party culture that is rotten to the core and which schools people in a power game which isn’t worthy of a democracy.

Rosenkrantz-Theil wants to stop the democratic system from spawning career politicians who learn to play the system and the power games which they promote. Instead, she hopes to resolve this tendency through a rotation system and less hierarchical party structures (such as that of her own) which will incorporate much more flow and movement in the inherent unstable democratic power structures. Since democracy seems to consist of flowing opinions, people rarely reflectively maintaining opinions as both they and their society change, maybe not only the political structures and processes but also the political parties and communities should have that flow of people, opinions, ideas and initiatives as their uniting factor.

This sounds remarkably similar to Athenian democracy usually considered the inspiration of all modern democracies. The Athenians used a rotation principle for all public positions, and had an intricate version of direct democracy where all of the (male, war-capable, land-owning) citizens had a vote. As classical philologist and expert in ancient Greek political culture Mogens Herman Hansen notes in an interview in Danish newspaper Politiken:

The old Greek ideal was that political participation was not just a means to reach other goals. It was a central value to be participating in an assembly of fellow citizens, to determine and distribute society’s wealth with arguments and discussion. It was the social core of their being. That is why Greeks were citizens rather than individuals.

In ancient Athens, the democracy required a complete conviction of shared responsibility and influence among its citizens, since if they gave up on their rights and responsibilities, there was a very real risk of the city-state being attacked or usurped by a tyrant in a similar fashion to many other Greek city-states. A part of maintaining such a democracy soon proved to be being able to agree on the most difficult part of any democracy: the use of force. As Hansen remarks:

Kant argued that the citizens in a democracy would never vote for a war in which they themselves might perish on the battlefield [… But] ancient Greece shows plenty of examples of democracies fighting democracies. The public assemblies authorized warfare again and again based on popular majority. And back then battles were bloody affairs with lots of casualities.

Hansen underlines this by quoting from Euripides’ “the Suppliants“:

For whenso the city has to vote on the question of war, no man ever takes his own death into account, but shifts this misfortune on to his neighbour

And he grimly concludes that democracy does not breed peace. Rather, it is peace that breeds democracy. Maybe that is the curious strength of the direct democracy of the Youth House, grown in the most peaceful and welfaring society in the world. It is a system of decision-making that sounds quite similar to that of ancient Athens but takes it even further by being consensus-based and thus requiring even more discussion in a way that probably would be unfeasible in bigger assemblies such as the Athenian democracy.

Yet even the direct democracy of the Youth House consents to and condones violence. As Eva, one of the Youth House activists, says of their resorting to violent methods after their appeal case for the sale of the house was irrevocably turned down:

We spent seven years trying to get the politicians to open negotiations with us. We have arranged soup kitchens, peaceful protests, long lists of all the musicians who have played gigs in the house for our cause. But nobody paid any attention. […] After [the riots on] the 16th of December everybody said that they wouldn’t negotiate with us anymore. But people forget that they hadn’t wanted to negotiate with us before either. A few days later they suddenly did want to negotiate. I don’t really like that violence is a card to be played, but unfortunately history has shown again and again that it works.

In democracies like the Danish, the state has a clear monopoly on violence – a monopoly which very few question as it entrusted to the state institutions by the majority of the Danish voters in the agreement that violence is a trump reserved to be used against those unwilling to play according to the commonly agreed rules. So even when protesters throw bricks, cobblestones and Molotov cocktails, the police respond with batons and tear gas, even though they have much more powerful weapons in their arsenal, as if they are not feeling truly threatened. They have the support of the many.

As Agnes Heller argues convincingly, demographics is often an underestimated factor in functional democracies. Democracy works best among people who share the same values and thus respect each other. That is why multi-ethnic and multi-religious nations can only be held together by dictators such as Tito, Stalin or Saddam Hussein. As she concludes:

Iraq should be divided into three countries if it was to be democratic. People want to live among people who are like themselves, and that may be wrong – but that is reality; no matter how much all the clever intellectuals criticize it.

A democracy prerequisites a shared identity and homogeneity among its citizens. Such a shared identity may be expressed through shared values such as patriotism, religion, ethnicity or political ideology, or in opposition to something else. As the Youth House activists do when they endorse violent protests through an inclusive line of argument that

It is decisive for the Youth House that no one is excluded from participating in this struggle. Don’t look askance at your comrades in this struggle. There has to be room for both ski masks and finger paints. Passive resistance and aggression. Respect each other and remember that we have the same goal. Act as part of the protests you participate in.

thus defining themselves as a group based on what they are opposing rather than what they have in common. And they are opposing exactly what the many of the Danish public agree upon: The media-constructed, consumerist homogeneity of Danish society. And for fear of becoming part of the system they oppose, they see no alternative to violence. As Youth House activist Birgit put it:

It is sad thing to realize that we are living in a democracy where you only have influence if you have 100 million kroner like Maersk or if you’re willing to risk your life in front of an oncoming police truck.

Thus Birgit posits capital as the only powerful alternative of action to violence. Much like Mogens Herman Hansen who also points to opaque corporations as the main threat – not only to democracy but also to the nation state as a whole. He connects this waxing of corporate power with the globalization of national markets, turning the world into one interdependent economic eco-system changing many of the values recognized from the traditional nation state:

Globalization is displacing the foundations for our way of life. All of our modern concepts are under attack. So we bring out these well-known ideals: Human rights and the representative democracy.

We cling to these ideals as if they are the only values that won’t deflate as global economic, cultural, and technological trends converge against us. And when we struggle to maintain these values in the face of polls, media spin and opportunistic politicians, we seek to confirm them by exporting them as a complete, tried and tested package for others to adopt – even if we have to start a war to do so.

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  1. Pingback: lorenzk.com » Mer opprør, takk!

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