In the work of the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon, Director of the Center for Social Science Studies in Paris and author of more than thirty books, including «The Society of Equals», «The Counter-Democracy, Politics in the Age of Distrust», we can find some keys to the dimension of the crisis that politics and its instruments live and with it the very circumcised democracy of institutions and paradigms whose conditions under which they were created are rapidly disappearing.
A few months ago in a conversation I had the honor of sharing, he pointed out to us that there are two origins of desenchantment, one social and one institutional. The social origin is the increase in inequality, which is very profound because capitalism was transformed, and it also changed the link between financial capitalism and industrial capitalism. The institutional is because democracy is not fulfilling the promise that everyone will find their place in society.
This provokes the advent of the «society of unseeding and mistrust» that surrounds us, which he seeks to characterize in its scientific dimension – placing, above the paradigm of permanent progress of modernity, the paradigm of risk and therefore also of search – in its macroeconomic dimension – the economic world becomes less and less predictable – and in sociological – since it decreases interpersonal confidence in our societies.
This widespread mistrust manifests itself today, first and for all, in the face of politicians and rulers. But, and here the novelty of his work, the erosion of trust can be seen not so much as a nihilistic phenomenon but as a compensation for a distrust that is articulated, through informal and institutional practices, and that shape what Rosanvallon calls a «counter-democracy», the one born of civil society and placed in the face of the democracy of the state with greater demands : those of a demanding democracy.
Counter-democracy defines it as the democracy of distrust of the democracy of electoral legitimacy. But it is not the opposite of democracy in general, but rather a form of democracy that contrasts with the other. Nor is it the liberal version of mistrust; it is a democratic path of mistrust, in the sense that it involves ensuring that power is true to its commitments, that it does not self-nomize society and effectively responds to the general interest.
This counter-democracy, or critical awareness of the «must be» of democracy, is deployed through a series of powers that constitute the indirect exercise of sovereignty; they do not have or can have a constitutional expression, they are rather informal, and they are manifested above all by their effects, because they can, at certain times of social explosion, question the legitimacy and stability of the system.
As the French philosopher Claude Lefort says – who defined democracy as the political regime where power is an empty, unfinished place, always being built, where divergent opinions and interests alternate – democratic society relies on absences, failures, substitutions and fictations; on the other hand, it is a «historical society», crossed by contingency and in which the meaning of its principles and institutions is the result of a debate that is open.
If democracy is based on fictions and substitutions, its history is and will be marked by successive desencantos: the one we face today originates from the deacrization of the pillar that for more than two centuries determines its legitimacy: the electoral-representative structure, which produces, beyond it, the emergence of new actors and institutions.
Therefore, as the political scientist Rocío Annunziata points out, for Rosanvallon, desenchantment is not a crippling or negative factor in social work. More, far from paralyzing democracy, it expands it, and it is by understanding the meaning of this complication, warning what principles come to crystallize emerging actors and institutions, demanding that democracy contemplate all its dimensions and integrate them into an articulated whole, that «we can make it engine rather than brake». Unsenchantment is not the perversion of democracy, but what leads the individual social subjects of malaise, as has led them in the past, to rehearse new ways of organizing society.
This is because Rosanvallon addresses contemporary political transformations from the perspective of the «complication of democracies» given that today, in digital society, citizen activities are expanded and, therefore, new forms of legitimacy emerge beyond the «electoral-representative democracy» that has been the axis of modern democracy.
The forms of legitimacy also respond to the new forms of citizen activity that act by completing the exercise of the sovereignty of the people beyond the electoral act.
Rosanvallon argues that the history of democracy was marked by the tension between a people-principle and a people-society, that is, between the democratic political principle of the sovereignty of the people and the sociological fact of the empirical people. Representativeness was a way of historically resolving this tension, as elections replaced substance, unity – which would be involved in an idea of «general will» – with the number, that is, by the data that leads to the majority principle.
What it raises is that this era is signified by the deacrialization of electoral-representative democracy. Deacrization reveals the frictions on which it relies and thus makes them less active and now insufficient: the electoral legitimacy of the rulers no longer coincides as before with the legitimacy of their actions, it no longer guarantees it. In her treatment of the present and the new, Rosanvallon sees the heart of democracy as a form of society signified by contingency and fragility.
It is this contingency and fragility that calls into question the old legitimacy that democracy held in these centuries, on the one hand because the very concept of «people’s sovereignty» as a paradigm of origin of democracy is weakened by the change of the concept of «people» that is no longer that of industrial society, of defined, organic, perfectly visible and representative classes and groups in its social and ideological dimension , but of heterogeneous, atomized groups, which are rather «a succession of singular stories», typical of a liquid, post-industrial society and which it is more difficult to represent by parties and entities that were born in another era, in the previous civilization.
But at the same time, there is a decline in the performance of democratic elections by high abstentionism – which makes an electoral majority truly a social minority, a simple fraction that governs over another active minority and in the face of the rejection or disinterest of non-voters – and because they, therefore, fail to adequately express what Rosanvallon calls the functions of representation , of legitimization of institutions, of control of representatives and of the production of citizenship, which were the key elements that made elections the democratizing element of society par excellence and beyond reforms to electoral systems, non-re-election of representatives, transparency in electoral spending and even mechanisms for revocation and political judgment , all of which is valuable but fails to address the problem of unrest and disaffection for political and sociological reasons.
This is further affected by the growing desideologization of the political that is typical of our time and which produces a reduction in ethical standards and generates an uneedited relationship of our societies with transparency, a more individualized approach to political issues goes hand in hand with greater exposure of rulers to observing their behaviors when , through social media and alternative electronic media, a new figure that Rosanvallon calls «the controlling people» that denounces and calls into question established truths, versions of governments and parliaments and the personal life of leaders.
However, the process of de-de-de-logization, the sociological changes of the social structure, the power of networks and the new space of the subjects in them ends up weakening the role of political parties, therefore also declining that of the political opposition, replaced by the discontents – or outraged – that stead of aspireing to take power, they also decline in counter-democratic powers that are expressed above all through street demonstrations , most of the time self-convened and without visible leadership, which pushes back governments or forces them to make changes to decisions or even to completely change their roadmap and the program with which they won the electoral contest.
Along with this, an excessive weight of executive power is naturally installed in all political regimes, a «presidentialization» of power and democracies, which weakens representation, which was sociologically based on bodies, classes, which, in choosing their representatives, conferred the degree of pluralithat the legitimacy of the system is sustained. As Rosanvallon points out, we have entered a new era of identity, linked to the development of an individualism of singularity, related to the complexization and heterogenization of the social world, as well as to the profound mutations of capitalism, all of which is difficult to represent by the instruments of a simple society.
This implies that the individual-history, necessarily unique, has thus overlapned with the individual-condition, rather identified in a stable manner with a group, constituted around a central characteristic. Therefore, today representing social situations then becomes necessary, wherefore before it was only a question of representing social conditions.
For Rosanvallon, the temporality of political life has been transformed. Let us look at the concept of a programme, which has lost its ideal consistency in a world dominated by uncertainty, in which local crises and international events need to be dealt with on a daily basis. The programmes established a link between the timing of the election and the time of government action. But the new relationship with the time/urgency in which the life of the digital and global society, linked to greater personalization of confrontations, has changed this capacity to «democratic projection» of the election.
For citizens, the lack of democracy means not being heard, to see that decisions are made without consultation, which goes far beyond the citizen/electoral data constituted at the single moment of the election of rulers and representatives. It must address what Lumhann calls the «invisible institution» that is trust and where the democratic ideal progresses by supplementing institutions and procedures since the «people» is no longer just a population that acquires a majority of age to exercise citizenship, but is also a historical dimension that must be permanently considered in the exercise of power.
What appears as more democratically legitimate is that power listens to unique experiences, which takes into account the specificities of each situation. Citizens increasingly care to hear that the decision that is ultimately made regarding their case takes them into account; they don’t want their singular situation ignored by the abstraction of the rules.
From there, Rosanvallon argues that compassion and empathy have taken a central role in political life: today a whole new gesture of power is deployed to show the empathy that rulers are able to have with the governed, to show how they can understand the uniqueness of the experience of concrete citizens.
Rosanvallon argues that we are facing new ways of being considered democratic legitimate, which have nothing to do with consecration at the ballot box and political parties. But these forms are based on qualities, which are not acquired once and for all, but must be permanently tested in the conduct and action of institutions. These are forms of legitimacy that point to durability, but at the same time are precarious, requiring society to perceive the institutions or behaviors that embody them as impartial, reflective or upcoming.
These three new figures of democratic legitimacy make up a process of «descent of democracies», that is, of loss of centrality of their electoral-representative dimension, and their institutions form «indirect democracy» as a part of the political regime, which goes so far as to compensate for the limits and desencants of electoral-representative democracy to go beyond subjective and partisan conflict and majority forms of decision-
However, we must not lose sight of the separation created by the counter-powers between civil society and the sphere of government, since they distance thee from the institutions, reject them. They the governments to which they direct their demands and the communicationly degrade politicians. In this kind of transformation of democratic legitimacy, then, the rejection of all politics appears as «politicking». Power, politics, presents itself as the space for futile clashes and inter-party negotiations, greatly reducing the prestige of politics, politicians and their own legitimacy.
But Rosanvallon’s work goes beyond the currents that have criticized the vision of democracy focused exclusively on electoral aggregative procedures, such as so-called «participatory democracy theories» and «theories of deliberative democracy.» I agree with Rocío Annunziata when he points out that his concepcion is a theory of participatory democracy, because it makes citizen activity an inescapable dimension of democracy in the face of any idea of the «government of politicians», but it goes further because it draws attention to the range of ways in which citizens engage and act in the contemporary world, even on which they have impolytical effects; and because it allows us to recognize in some forms of specific participation, such as participatory devices, the democratic needs of a type of behavior of rulers, increasingly called to create channels of attention of the uniqueness of the experience of citizens.
Rosanvallon defines democracy as conflict and consensus at the same time. But at the same time, it defines it as a project never fully fulfilled and therefore sees democracy not as a model or several models but as a set of unfinished and multiplied experiences. Democracy is a political regime, a way of governing, citizen activity and a form of society and is also plural and complex in each of its dimensions.
The challenges are multiple. Rosanvallon’s democracy is demanding, desenchantment is a positive complication. As an ideal, it is subversive, and as a theoretical practice, it must be that which creates the hegemonic, cultural conditions, of permanent change in a complex, differentiated, global society, which is no longer analyzed only through linear thinking, good and evil, order and crisis, as conflicting concepts, since a new order can also arise from the crisis.
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