Saturday, June 7, 2014

Eurozine Editorial - The ends of democracy

Today, more than half of the world's population lives in a democracy. Paradoxically, at a time when the global pull of democracy has never been stronger, the crisis of democracy has become acute. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has pointed not only to the crisis of the euro as a threat to the European integration project, but also to a European crisis of democracy, characterized by the rise of populism and a surge in "anti-politics".

The transnationalization of politics does indeed pose a complex challenge to democratic institutions that were designed to cater to the needs of nation-states, and the critique of the "democratic deficit" of the European Union grows stronger by the day. However, the crisis of democracy is not confined to the EU. Regimes claiming to be democratic come in for vigorous criticism almost everywhere and pundits and analysts claim that we already live in a "post-democratic age": while modern democracies are keeping up the facade of formal democratic principles, politics and government are increasingly slipping back into the control of privileged elites in a manner characteristic of pre-democratic times. This development has provided a breeding ground for populist movements whose antipathy towards political elites quickly turns into the rejection of the parliamentary system per se. Mistrust of the state and its institutions ranges from "political apathy" to violence.

Under the double-edged heading "The ends of democracy", we have collected articles that make the problems of democracy so tangible that one actually starts to wonder if it has a future at all, but also those that return to the very basis of the principle of democracy and make clear its purpose – its ends.

Thus, Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle remains optimistic about the "circulation of social imaginaries" that Turkish protests surrounding Gezi Park in Istanbul triggered, and the new forms of citizenship rehearsed there. Her article, entitled "Public space democracy", sets the tone for discussions of experimental approaches to new forms of participation as formal modes of representation and participation come under increasing strain.

For all the creativity of recent alternative approaches, mistrust of the democratic state and its institutions might never have been higher than in the wake of the NSA scandal, the latest in a series of episodes in which the technological culture of constant feedback (see Ivaylo Ditchev's "Democracy live") once confined to politics has expanded to include the public at large.

This is a theme that Ivan Krastev picks up on in an article written prior to the NSA scandal, entitled "The transparency delusion". The citizen armed with a smartphone, writes Krastev, has the power to disseminate evidence of abuses of power, captured on the phone's camera, in the name of transparency. However: "Contrary to its stated ambition to restore trust in democratic institutions, the transparency movement may accelerate the process of transforming democratic politics into the management of mistrust. The politics of transparency is not an alternative to a democracy without choices; it is its justification and blurs the distinction between democracy and the new generation of market-friendly authoritarian regimes."

Nowhere is the question of democracy more pressing than in connection with climate change. Can democracy enact a radical change towards a sustainable order, or has it meanwhile assumed a form that above all serves to stabilize an unsustainable status quo? If so, what is then the future of democracy? Claus Leggewie and Harald Welzer argue for more participation, a position to which Ingolfur Blühdorn provides a sceptical response.

In the end, it seems as if the future of democracy hinges on the transnationalization of politics. That means a cultural, ideological, strategic and ultimately institutional redefinition of the very meaning of democracy. The result of such renegotiation of the basic principles of modern societies is hard to predict. However, it is not a wild guess that the change will be radical. Perhaps a new democratic order will even entail some form of Transnational citizenship?