Beyond (this) democracy (III): Why democracy? or The confusion of Why with How

We argue about how democracy should function. But there is no agreement on why we need it. So why not think about this question in the first place? This is the third of five sketches on a new democratic purpose. These thoughts are drawn from a paper I wrote for Das Progressive Zentrum, and they will be part of a book I am currently writing.

Facing uncomfortable questions

As I sketched out in Part I and Part II, the post-War democratic model is faced with systemic crises. Considering the gravity of these challenges, it seems more important than ever to be able to answer one basic question: Why, considering its ambivalent legacy, do we need democracy at all?

In the post-1990 decades of democratic hegemony, we have grown comfortable evading such questions, simply because we could. Today, in a moment when the idea of liberal democracy is fundamentally challenged, we cannot continue to do so. The moment when one could rely on a supposed moral superiority of the Western post-War democratic model is long over, as the illiberal challenge and legitimate questions regarding Western democracy’s global environmental and social footprint show. In this situation, agreeing on the purpose democracy should serve is the fundament for thinking about how democracy should be re-designed in the coming decades, and what kinds of structures and processes this new democratic frame needs.

What is Democracy?

As many culturally liberal players realise these days, arguing for democracy beyond stereotypical patterns from the Cold War is not easy. We speak of democracy as if there is such a thing — but democracy is, first and foremost, an idea, an ideal, a hope. This idea has morphed quite extensively over time, to an extent that makes it hard to speak of “an” idea, as it has been a myriad of ideas put into very different practices over the course of centuries, and around the globe. Since the beginning of human civilization, we have repeatedly and paradigmatically altered our perspective on what it means to be human; how we as civilization see the world; and us in it. In this stream of truths, democracy is merely one of many currents, swimming from place to place, continuously altering its context, meaning, and surface.

Accepting this is important, as it prepares us for the discursive status quo, where people mean very different things when they use the word “democracy”. As the populist and illiberal challenge of the last two decades shows, there is less and less alignment within Western democracies regarding what is “democratic”. Indeed, as millions of illiberal votes show, a growing number of people consider representative governmental and legislative systems to be undemocratic, just as they argue against the legitimacy of the protection of minority rights against the will of the majority. What is important here is that these people are not factually wrong. Democracy can mean the tyranny of a voting majority. It can mean a direct-democratic rule within constitutional boundaries. It can mean the idea of representative democracy. Historically, the meaning of democracy is fluid, and its meaning has always been and will always be contested.

Our expanding understanding of democracy

In its original sense, democracy signifies nothing but the rule of the majority.[1] What once was a famed exception, an endeavour of a tiny Attic elite, has since the Renaissance morphed into a universalist agenda.[2] During the course of recent centuries, the idea of democracy has become increasingly intertwined with modern understandings of what it means to be human, and thus attached to an idea of individual self-determination. Western democracy is based on a humanist world view. It prioritizes individual human well-being over collective systemic needs, as well as the needs of the eco-system’s web of life humanity is part of. This world view once included white men only, but expanded its understanding of equality to more and more people since the 18th century.

What we today refer to as “liberal democracy” is a governmental system that bases its decision-making based on a legislative majority that is limited both in time and power. The constitution (or statutory laws), and the structural checks and balances that result from it, moderate executive power and protect individual and collective freedom rights. The rule of law, with its purpose to uphold individual and societal liberty, is thus at the core of today’s Western democratic systems. Majority-based elections are merely one instrument of systemic intervention, just as the constitutional courts are.

The “democratic normal” is constantly re-negotiated

After decades of historical gains, it pains culturally liberal players to realise that history is not necessarily on their side. Today’s events remind us that what is meant by “democracy” and “democratic” is a matter of interpretation, argumentation, and political power. 50 years ago, it was perfectly democratic for many Swiss citizens to deny women’s suffrage. 150 years ago, it was considered basic principle of US-American democracy to exploit and plunder black people. In today’s Hungary and Poland, a considerable share of voters does not hesitate to vote for parties who proclaim that there is no limit to the will of the voting majority, be it minority rights or the proceedings of constitutional courts.

Arguably, these differing mental models of what democracy means are grouped around different ideas of democracy’s purpose. Those who favour a direct-democratic rule of the voting majority bear a different democratic purpose in mind than those who argue for a carefully balanced representative model. Instead of focusing on these fundamental differences in our perspective on why we need democracy, though, public debate is focused on the reform of policy and democratic processes. We discuss detailed proposals as if there was general alignment regarding the fundament of values we stand on — an autosuggestion that makes us forget that what is at stake today is the fundamental baseline of how we see ourselves as democratic society.

The confusion of structure, process and purpose

In this discourse, most centrist proponents of the post-War democratic model seem to confuse the structures and instruments of the democratic system with its purpose. They feel profound unease to question the current constitutive rules of the economy, of how we organise representation, or of how we structure and organise elections. This unease stems from a lack of inner differentiation — what is the core of democracy we should protect and thus not transform, and what are instruments that are meant to serve the well-being of a democratic society, and thus are time-bound and subject to constant questioning and improvement? Arguably, parts of this state of confusion go back to the intentional blurring of lines between democratic purpose and democratic instruments, as the neoliberal framing of a supposed interdependence between “unregulated” market and “free” democratic citizens shows (see Sketch III).

Whoever cares about the future of democracy thus needs to focus on how we can define, embed, and deepen its core purpose. In times when a culturally liberal democracy is under attack from both the inside and the outside, this reflection is of existential importance. It is a precondition for enabling the emergence of systems that contain both the ideals and potentials of post-War democracy and overcome the mental models, systems and structures that drive us towards systemic collapse today.

A 22nd century purpose for democracy

Considering the existential challenges we face today, we need to re-think democracy’s purpose not so much from a historic point of view, but from the future. From a 22nd century perspective, it must be part of today’s democracy’s purpose to catalyse the overcoming of the current mode of systemic self-destruction, and re-channel the creative energies of society towards reintegrating ourselves into the eco-system. Democracy can do so by providing a space that enables individuals and collectives to unfold and develop their human potential, embedded into a set of new constitutive rules that channels the individual pursuit of happiness into sustainable parameters of societal self-organisation. Democracy’s purpose, in other words, is to hold a space for building a society that can last, instead of facilitating the self-destruction of its societies, as it does today.

In this line of thinking, democracy is just an instrument — used to create a space that enables the self-organised co-creation of a sustainable society. The structures and processes we choose for democracy to realise and recreate that purpose must be constantly re-evaluated and improved, according to the needs and requirements of each historic moment. To put it differently, elections, the structure of the executive and legislative, and other parameters for democratic self-organisation are time-bound and must not be confused with the purpose of democracy. The same goes for how our democratic systems interact with the self-organised market — ultimately, the market is nothing but an instrument for societal development and must be subjugated to that function.

Check out The End of Centrist Politics, the first part of this five-part-series, and Part II, Making Sense of Illiberalism. Part IV looks at our misconception of liberty. Part V explores on the future potentials of self-organisation and our individual lever to drive systemic progress.

[1] Some prefer to use the broader frame, “government by the people”, as opposed to the “government by the elite”, which, in representative systems, is not a very useful frame.

[2] I thank my friend Maximilian Benz for our conversation on this point. Peter Graf von Kielmansegg points out the religious fervour modern democracy is based on, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence: “Was schon in den amerikanischen Anfängen ganz deutlich wird — die neuzeitliche Demokratie, unmittelbar aus den Menschenrechten abgeleitet, tritt mit einem Wahrheitsanspruch in die Geschichte ein, der in einer Art säkulärer Heilsgeschichte seine Wurzeln hat — bestätigt sich in der Französischen Revolution, die eine gutes Jahrzehnt später ausbricht, auf das Eindringlichste.” See Kielsmanegg, Peter: Die Grammatik der Freiheit. Acht Versuche über den demokratischen Verfassungsstaat, Bonn 2013, S. 13.