Which government is the greatest enemy in the world?

Democracy is itself the greatest enemy

Democratic systems face headwinds in many places today. The criticism comes from very different corners - both reactionaries and revolutionaries view democracy with skepticism. But the people can also become the enemy of this form of government.

Democratic systems are usually threatened from two sides: there are always external enemies, for whom pluralism is a thorn in the side, and internal opponents, who want to overthrow the ruling government in order to push through their own social visions. Sometimes the two opponents also meet. We are currently experiencing how some countries in the EU are destabilized internally on the one hand and are being pressured or influenced by great powers such as China or Russia on the other. But our fear of an increase in “illiberal” regimes makes us forget how much and how persistently we in Europe hated democracy until recently.

If there was any consensus in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the suspicion that the most contradicting radical minds and families of thought had towards this form of government - they preferred formulas that were much bloodier, but also infinitely more seductive. And it cannot be ruled out that this very persistent aversion may come to the surface again today in an environment of fear and loss.

Because democracy actually appears to be hateful to different minds. She suffers from two basic problems. For the reactionary, it is insistence on equality: In his eyes, democracy increases the lower and downgrades the higher. It sets an equality sign between all people and gives the opinion of an enlightened citizen just as much weight as that of an unhappy, uneducated person.

For the revolutionary, on the other hand, democracy is deceptive because it robs people of the hope of eliminating all injustice once and for all. Although it promises a lot, it encourages people to respect the laws and the verdicts of the ballot box - and thus constantly postpones the fulfillment of the promises. Therefore, on the far left, the myth of the revolution persists, the idea of ​​a great turning point that would instantly bring justice to earth and put an end to all exploitation. But this revolution is nothing but a well-worn idea, it no longer has a model to refer to.

Rebellious and regulating

The democratic message is therefore characterized by a deep ambivalence: It preaches moderation and revolt at the same time. The revolt is directed against abuse, against the unworthy, but democracy wants to solve these problems step by step, through long dialogues, not through quick acts of strength - in this respect it stands for moderation. So it is too inflammatory for some and too calm for others, and it feeds both the conservative's skepticism and the progressive's impatience.

The democratic message is shaped by a mixture of absolute pessimism - people are bad and must be kept in check with laws - and relative trust in the human ability to improve. It stimulates the hope for better living conditions and slows them down again, it arouses the desire for change and fuels the need for stability, it is rebellious and regulating at the same time.

Democracy is thus faced with two opposing reactions, both of which arise from itself. The extreme right fears its power to undermine national cohesion - this fear is especially fueled by uncontrolled immigration - and thinks that democracy will lead to national identity dissolving into a new global monotony. The extreme left and environmentalists, on the other hand, despair of democratic slowness. You accuse democracy of unacceptable restraint in view of the time pressure that exists for political measures for “social justice” and against climate change.

In the eyes of the former, democracy splits society into vulnerable and uprooted individuals - for them this is a result of the multiple divisions that arise from the competition of the parties, but also from the freedom of the press and opinions. In the optics of the latter, on the other hand, democracy consolidates the position of the ruling classes by duping the exploited with empty fictions and feeding them with concepts ("law", "representation"). Seen in this way, in a democracy the people would only choose their own masters in a relatively subtle way, by whom they would then, as always, be cheated and exploited.

Some scourge the sovereignty of the people as the triumph of the herd or "barbarism of numbers", which turns a nation into a collection of atoms. The others accuse the same sovereignty of remaining a purely formal matter, of reducing every vote to a "potato in a sack of potatoes" (Marx) and of postponing the emancipation of the human race further and further.

Forever unfinished

It should be noted here that the yellow vests in France (or Italy's incumbent government) combine these two sides of criticism. In their political lack of culture, they are part of both the radical right and the insurgent left; they form a kind of confused synthesis of the two great totalitarianisms of the past century.

For some as well as others, the parliamentary regime is both mediocre and dangerous. It calls for liberation and obedience in the same breath and runs the risk of missing both; to split citizens into isolated beings while maintaining inequalities. For all those who are outraged by the established order, democracy is too prosaic to be able to arouse passions. The angry people prefer direct control of the citizens - or the enlightened despotism of a boss or a party that is supposed to represent "the people".

Today, “democracy” is no longer just universal suffrage. Rather, the word stands for a patiently developed compromise between a policy of freedom and equal opportunities. In principle, redistribution narrows the gap between the classes, social laws curb the free movement of capital and entrepreneurs, the protection of individuals and minorities moderately opposes the potential tyranny of the majority. But above all, democracy gathers the totality of all the longings that were previously bundled in the various ideologies. It has absorbed both liberalism and socialism, as it were, and thus left them both behind.

In this respect, democracy is a word like a suitcase: rich in a wide variety of contents, which sometimes fit together well and sometimes bite each other. In this way, democracy could become the gospel of the successful and the disadvantaged - it is one of those terms that seduce and move us precisely because of its vague character.

The unfinished is a trait of democracy. Her rule is always a coming one, and she would be betrayed if she were equated with a well-defined regime. If, as in France, it sets itself three contradicting and unrealizable goals and proclaims freedom, equality and fraternity, then it has a source of conflict ready for eternity. And that is exactly why this system is so vulnerable.

Three ways of death

You can destroy democracies with a coup or with a military dictatorship. It can be replaced by a “democrature” that maintains the principle of universal suffrage, but gradually abolishes the separation of powers and undermines the freedom of the press and the media, as is the case in Poland, Hungary, Russia or Turkey. And there is a third means of liquidating the type of democratic regime: one can also destroy it through violent hyper-democracy.

The French yellow vests are a good example of this. They present themselves as "the people" and in this way denounce the representative regime that betrays the interests of the voters. Instead, they propose a direct system that - unlike in Switzerland - would have to maintain a permanent state of subversion, so to speak. In this way, the democracy of permanent turmoil would replace the rule of law. In this scenario, it is precisely the “people” called upon by the democracies that threatens democracy - this always happens when the term is confiscated by a violent minority and used against a demonized elite. But whoever says of himself "I am the people" really wants to oppress others and ultimately establish a new form of totalitarianism.

Seen in this way, democracy is itself its greatest enemy: it is being decomposed by the very people to which it appeals. We are not in the 1930s today. But in Europe the horizon is darkening, and beneath the dark shadows the future of the "free world" is beginning to appear increasingly uncertain.

The writer and philosopher Pascal Bruckner lives in Paris. His most recent publication was: “Un an et un jour” (Grasset, 2018). - Translated from French by cmd.