Von Boris Buden
09.12.2016 / HKW Journal
Is democracy dead? For the launch of the program series Staat 1-4 (2016-2018) from Rimini Protokoll on the decline in state influence in the political sphere and the gaps in the system, the philosopher Boris Buden illuminates the historical “truth” of modern democracy.
As is well known, the fall of communism in 1989 left a single player on the political scene of modern history: Western-style liberal democracy. For some, this became so self-evident that they even declared the end of history itself. People, for sure, will continue to fight both politically and militarily, bringing about significant changes in the world, but no political system or regime they create will ever claim ideological superiority over liberal democracy. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who came up with this thesis at the same time saw in liberal democracy the final form of human government.
Largely unnoticed, however, one side effect of the euphoric proclamation of the end of history has remained within the very idea of democracy. Leaving behind all of the dirt of historical praxis, democracy has undergone the process of radical sublimation. Not only has the idea of democracy been retroactively purified from the historical contingency in which it was originally born, but it has also been thoroughly whitewashed. Democracy emerged from a now-vanishing history without a single drop of blood on its hands, as though it never had anything to do with the violence, lies, and injustices of which, as generally understood, history is full. Democracy has taken a sort of angelic turn, becoming a transhistorical instance of absolute innocence. As for those once authorized by democracy to act in its name, they have been granted automatic impunity. They may have destroyed whole societies, thrown millions into poverty, or brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster and climate catastrophe, yet democracy will always exculpate them. It never does anything wrong.
In its ahistoricity, democracy has become a sort of divine value ‒ although not everyone is blessed equally by its grace. The more angelic it becomes, the more it turns culturally particular. The only true democracy is Western democracy, universal when imposed on the weak and poor, but particular when it defends the privileges of the rich and the powerful. This, however, does not make it any less sublime. On the contrary, the notion of democracy evoked today in the West has reached a level of such angelic sublimity that legitimately we might ask whether there is anything human in it. Is it mortal as humans are? If it was ever “born,” does it mean that it might also one day “die”? Does anyone know when this day might come? Does anyone know whether this day has already come, without anyone noticing it yet?
Sublimation, as we learned from Freud, is a result of repression. And, when there has been repression, there will be, sooner or later, on this or that occasion, in whatever form, also a return of the repressed ‒ unexpected, powerful, embarrassing, treacherous, painful, unavoidable, but human ‒ probably all too human.
When this happens, suddenly, we are confronted with the lowest in us, the uncontrollable outbursts of our basic instincts, with the dirt and the stench of our guts. Speaking of sexuality, Freud reminded us of its deep roots in our animal past by quoting Saint Augustine: “Inter faeces et urinam nascimur,” or in English, “We are born between shit and piss.”
Why should we believe that democracy was born of a more noble origin? Why have we forgotten so effortlessly all the blood of the battlefields, where people were slaughtering each other in the name of democracy and against it, all the dirt of the prisons that incarcerated its heroes and enemies, the stench of the decapitated corpses around its scaffolds, the rage of animal instincts that both attacked and defended it?
In fact, we never forgot, we just repressed it for a while. For remember that, however strong, every repression is doomed to fail, eventually.
Nowadays what Western democracies are experiencing is but a powerful return of the repressed. This repression, which is now coming to light in such an irrational and uncontrollable way, is the historical truth of the modern concept of democracy; or, more precisely, the never-reconciled contradictions of its dialectical development, in Hegel’s parlance, its Werdegang. This is seen primarily in the perverse abuse by today’s predatory capitalism of the most important democratic institutions and principles. The now undeniable consequences are seen in total class disintegration of once democratically united national societies, an ever-expanding afterlife of colonial exploitation, growing remilitarization that today is seen in open warmongering, and, finally, the most dangerous: the realistic prospect of fascism as a generally welcome solution to the ensuing capitalist crises.
In short: today history is returning from its ideological repression. It has ripped off the well-protected and well-tended white skin of Western democracy to expose the dirty and stinky workings of its guts. However, there is nothing inhuman about the return of the repressed. On the contrary, to be historical is but to be human, to be of a mortal and transient nature. As far as it is historical and, therefore, also human, democracy to be sure was not born far away from the piss and shit of humankind’s birth. However, like humans, it still has the choice to die not in the same spot. History, we should never forget, is the only dimension in which the most sublime ideals of human freedom might become real.
If we now reflect on the last quarter of a century, during which democracy enjoyed the angelic heights of its historical existence ‒ a short epoch that is now ending before our very eyes ‒ we see that history itself was democracy’s most well-hidden or, to say the same in another way, its most suppressed truth. Now disclosed, it might retroactively explain why liberal democratic developmentalism ‒ the belief that after the fall of communism, democracy can only develop progressively in terms of becoming ever more inclusive, righteous, and transparent ‒ must have failed. The case of Edward Snowden is a perfect symptom of this failure. It clearly shows that a noble, almost angelic fidelity to the most sublime values of democracy might imply a filthy practical betrayal of its actual reality. This is precisely what history is all about ‒ the move beyond innocence. Only a stone is innocent, Hegel once wrote; thus no human is innocent, as long as we are historical beings.