[Democratic] models, despite their heterogeneity… have been inspired by the idea of a government whose power always comes… from the governed.
—Jorge Benítez Nazario
Under the principles of democracy, the job of establishing and administrating the rules of society is done through a permanent dialogue between the citizenry and state institutions. These values, based on shared values, are not static. They mature and change over time, so the political dialogue is continuous and inexorable. The ideas of social order and solidarity, in other words, change over time with the inevitable long-term historical transformations.
For many centuries, for example, the Western world privileged autocratic regimes based on hierarchies legitimized by criteria of moral authority. The absolute monarchies, under which the territories of the great European states were united, were able to subordinate all of the powerful church and aristocratic structures but despite their material, institutional and symbolic power, they could not resist the revolutionary movements that swept the European continent (1791-1848) with a new, anti-authoritarian vision of a political order based on the ethics of civic freedom.
Since then, modern Western history has been dominated by the principles of coexistence in freedom, and the former subjects of the crown became autonomous citizens who lived in free communities. These foundational principles have taken on a variety of political forms in the world. The historical process of implementing republican and democratic systems of government has been diverse in terms of formal structures, emphasis, social vision, and cultural and territorial circumstances. Puerto Rico represents one of these variations.
The diversity of experiences and nuances also relates to the fact that nothing is ever static or finished in the history of humankind. The natural imperfection of human beings is inevitably reflected in the culture and its institutions, which means there are always deep and inevitable contradictions. Recognizing the inevitability of these imperfections and contradictions of the human condition, however, does not eliminate the desire, also natural, to improve living conditions, justice, and quality of life. To put it another way, perfection is not possible in nature or in the culture (or in politics), but it is possible in the imagination. For that reason, humans continually turn their intellectual and creative abilities toward the future, to understand, invent and transform (reform) their reality.
To assume responsibility for understanding who we really are and where we are, we must develop the habit of critical thought. There is no such thing as an authority that knows everything on any topic. Even in the pure sciences, we see new paradigms arising and continual revision of knowledge. The same occurs in the social and moral fields: everything should be questioned intensely, rigorously and honestly. The bad habit of delegating to an external authority the work of thinking and directing public affairs, whether that authority is political, religious or analytical, represents an easy and docile passivity that increases ignorance and reduces usefulness, which goes against the ethics of democracy. The act of thinking, on the other hand, requires constant conscious effort and, in the end, it is what makes it possible for an intelligent and educated citizen to fulfill his or her democratic duty and be capable of influencing events in the public sphere.
A responsible citizen is not merely curious about the past and what is happening in the present, but also wants to understand how the world came to be what it is, where it is going and how it is in urgent need of reform. The current severe global economic crisis, for example, the deepest in nearly a century, has generated a sense of urgency around the world to adopt new public policies that redefine states’ relationships with economic institutions. This includes a reconsideration of issues as radical as the internal organization of the state, of governments, for the purpose of bringing them up to date with the times. It also demands serious thought about the social role of the state and the universal principles of social responsibility. Various proposals have been suggested in Puerto Rico, such as the creation of micro-businesses in poor sectors of society to overcome the economic depression in the sectors excluded from capitalist investment. Others visualize a renewal of the commitment to public education as a way to make this viable and to reactivate the state’s social commitment to education. The list is endless, but one issue that appears to have captured the public interest with a greater sense of urgency is that of natural and urban environmental issues. It is a struggle between those who seek to exploit these resources in the short term for their private benefit and those who oppose this exploitation because it will use up resources for future generations.
Under current democratic thinking, today’s crisis has adversely affected the institution of the state, the organization of the economy and the political culture. Extensive and intensive citizen action in the public sphere, beyond politicians, is therefore imperative as a corrective measure. Citizens must vie for control of institutions of political power that have established strategic alliances with development groups for their own purposes. Given the circumstances under which we live today and the challenges that they present, sustained citizen vigilance and participation are ways to unleash analytical talent to address the problems of Puerto Rico’s political organization, institutions, and ethical, legal and political foundations. This includes creating policies that lead in reality, and not just rhetorically, to democratic coexistence and hopes for the future.
Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.
This post is also available in: Español