Friday, October 11, 2013

Thinking about democracy and populism


                On 4 October 2013, the Dutch & Flemish Day of Political Philosophy took place in Utrecht, in a hall of the Evangelical Church sometimes used by the university. Stefan Rummens (Catholic University of Leuven) and Willem Schinkel (Erasmus University, Rotterdam) were the main speakers.

Willem Schinkel spoke about Het crisisbeeld, “The image of crisis. Walter Benjamin and the interpretation of ‘crisis’ in modernity”. For Karl Marx, capitalism develops through crises. Friedrich Nietzsche posits a crisis of God and of man. It is said that modernity itself is a permanent crisis. One difference between then and now is that then, we had a crisis in decision-making, now one of indecision.

The main corpus of his treatment of Walter Benjamin, I am afraid I could not do justice to, and it is not really my field nor, I reckon, that of my readers. But what struck me, was Schinkel’s remark about the Occupy/Indignados movement: “What I have against Occupy is this idea of direct democracy, which is populist. The people is allowed to be there, but if they all participated in politics, it would be a chaos. Democracy is not about people’s participation in everything.”

One doesn’t have to be a deep thinker to utter this kind of opinion. Most politicians and chatterati hold it. What it says, is that (1) direct democracy is bad because (2) the common people are too incompetent in political work and too chaotic in their awareness of the goals of politics, and (3) too much popular sovereignty gets in the way of policy-making anyway. It is amazing that such an easy concept as direct democracy is so systematically misunderstood, unless we assume that a certain class of people has every interest in keeping it misunderstood.

The same position was taken by Stefan Rummens. He lambasted the idea of direct democracy, defined democracy as representative democracy, and said: “How are you going to generate systemic power through direct democracy.? How do you anchor power in the Occupy movement?” The neo-anarchist Occupy movement is hardly the best example of a movement for direct democracy, which has realizations to its credit since at least the 19th century in its modern form, and since millennia in its primitive varieties. It says a lot about the state of our political “science” that a specialist has had to wait for the Occupy movement to prompt him to form an opinion of direct democracy.

Every single argument against direct democracy is a reapplied argument that has historically served against democracy itself. Thus, dictatorship or real monarchy is deemed efficient, while democracy counts as time-consuming and fragmenting your forces. A “republic” is a swearword for a pointlessly quarrelling assembly of divergent minds which only a strongman can pacify and render capable of action. Secondly, people are deemed incompetent while the political class in deemed competent, eventhough politicians know as little as anyone about consequential matters such as nuclear energy. Thirdly, the masses are deemed evil and only aware of their own immediate interests while the political class counts as public-spirited, serving only the general interest and thinking only of the long term. However, the astronomical state debt of Belgium is entirely the handiwork of the political class, with zero input of direct democracy. By contrast, Switzerland with its direct democracy has a better social security, a higher living standard, lower taxes and a tangibly lower rate of tax evasion, viz. because people tend to cheat less on taxes when thezy determine the use of their tax money. So, the facts refute the professor’s theory. (But as Hegel said to the man who pointed out the contrast between the master’s theory and the facts: “A pity for the facts.”)  The story that explains the California budget deficit by the referendum behaviour of its people, voting both for lower taxes and for higher government spending, is a perennial Loch Ness monster and simply untrue. People have their own family budgets to manage and therefore know well enough that the state’s budget is a fragile entity: handle with care!

Rummens’ actual topic was the current rise of “populism”, the pejorative name for democracy. Populist parties reduce complex issues to simple ones – again an argument that has always been used against democracy. Politicians equally reduce complex issues to a push of the “yes” or on the “no” button, often not even venting their heartfelt opinion (as commoners do in the secrecy of the voting-booth) but their party leadership’s commandments.

Rummens also observed that populist parties tend to attract the losers of the globalization process. Well, losers have political rights too, and they are entitled to desire a hearing from the political decision-makers (ideally the people itself). In the past, the socialist parties and the trade-unions took it upon themselves to defend the interests of those who stood to lose from what the upper class considered modernization; but now they have been co-opted by the System.

He also thought that their internal structure is not very democratic as they don’t want discussions to create the impression that the people is less homogeneous than the populists would like to believe. Maybe, but there is also the strategic situation: internal dictatorship is the usual political form in an army or a country at war, and many so-called populist parties find themselves besieged. To be sure, I don’t think a political party should have an undemocratic political structure, but we should keep things in perspective rather than impose stereotypes such the preferred “homogeneity” of the “people”. The Belgian Socialist and Christian-Democratic Parties also have a mock vote to “corroborate” the party president nominated by a small coterie at the top. Populist parties are not more undemocratic than most political parties as such.

The professor further asserted that populist parties need to single out (or create) an enemy. This is a conspiracy theory: first someone creates a populist party, then he sets out to find an enemy. In reality, the common people have been fretting over an existing problem, e.g. those created by their Muslim neighbours, and then found or join a populist party. The professor regularly lambasted the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the largest Flemish political party. The financial transfers from Flanders to Wallonia have been going on as long as the state of Belgium has existed, since 1830. They are not a conjunctural phenomenon, explainable by Wallonia’s present-day economic slump, but a structural phenomenon valid even when Flanders was the poorer half. As soon as the transfers stop or are reversed, Belgium will be blown up. Now, the transfers and many other injustices have been with us for many years before a professor tabulated them exactly, and a few more before the N-VA made them into a political issue. It is objectively untrue that the party has “created” this problem, it was there first and then it found political expression – as is normal in a democracy.

Political “scientists” systematically overlook the contents of the populist parties’ programme. The transfer of sovereignty from the national parliaments to the European Union is one of the most pressing issues of the day. In the Netherlands, it is mainly the concern of the right-populist party PVV (Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders) and the left-populist Socialistische Partij (ex-Maoist). It was the only subject recently put to a referendum, and the result was telling: a large majority of the people voted against the project of EU constitution, while a majority of the members of parliament were all for it. This proves that the professional of “representative democracy” do not represent the people.  

                Rummens’ killer argument was this. The N-VA argues that Belgium consists of two separate democracies (they still use the conventional classification of Belgium’s parliamentary system as a”democracy”), two civil societies with their own public debates, their own cultural heroes, and indeed their own political parties. To repeat an example given by the pro-Flemish opinion-maker Peter De Roover: the philosopher Etienne Vermeersch is a world-famous authority in Flanders, a household address whenever a journalist wants an enlightening opinion on any issue under the sun – until you reach the linguistic frontier. Walloons don’t know him, and the Flemish don’t know Prof. Vermeersch’s Walloon counterparts. So, we have two separate societies, and they should be entitled to separate political institutions, normally taking the form of separate states. Fair enough, but now Prof. Rummens has discovered a contradiction is this self-evident observation. Europe, he says, consists of many democracies. We don’t watch Slovak television nor know the popular Spanish actors or Finnish singers, and we certainly don’t vote for Greek parties or Irish cabinet ministers, yet the N-VA, like most political parties, says it is all for European integration. Aha, gotcha!

                Note first of all that the professor has no problem with the separate Slovak or Finnish societies having a state of their own. So he does not logically object to the central N-VA demand: a separate Flemish state. Secondly, it is quite possible that the party has contradictory opinions about Belgium and the EU. Let’s assume this for now. But that does not make the N-VA’s position of Belgium any less correct or well-founded. If there is a contradiction, the party should rethink its position on the EU, not that on Belgium. The day when Europe will be properly debated (a situation postponed for many years by the EU’s overruling the negative referendum votes on its constitution project), perhaps the party position will be adjusted, but this makes no difference for its position on Belgium, which has been sufficiently debated by many quarters in our country.

                To sum up, our political philosophers do not think out of the box and are more than ever removed from the fine slogan “l’imagination au pouvoir!” (“imagination for president!”). They merely provide some nice sound-bites to the ruling class, justifying the present system’s status-quo.

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