During the post Cold War period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, left-wing and right-wing utopias disappeared from the political field. Liberal democracy arose as the dominant form of organizing the postindustrial State, to the extent of monopolizing the discourse of power struggles. In other words, there are no openly totalitarian parties since the 1990s, except in few isolated cases. Even in Spain, where the authoritarian tradition of Franco`s regime seems to dominate the right-wing party, its leaders now cling to a discourse that proposes loyalty to democracy and the State of Law.
The general impression is that World War II put an end to fascism and that the project for communism disappeared with the disintegration of the USSR. All political sectors seem to conform today to the parliamentary and electoral institutions of democracy. This new age marks “the end of History” that Francis Fukuyama announced. The American right-wing theorist speaks of the mythical kingdom where electoral democracy becomes the final form of human government, and the market economy becomes the only possible system for the production and distribution of wealth. The path that mankind had traced in order to take over the world, which is what defines the history of humanity, has finally reached its destination.
Beneath that apparent universal consensuses, however, lurked an unexpected explosion of ethnic, religious, and territorial conflicts which had supposedly disappeared. At the same time, the reorganization of the global economy on supranational foundations generated new social conflicts as a reaction to the escalation of Inequality and exclusion. The new global economy, made possible by the rapid development of media and information technology, fit into what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have called Empire. This new supranational structure, different from traditional territorial colonialism, has generated a wide and profound global critique. The World Social Forum is an expression of that resistance. This new and unexpected challenge to western universalism was created precisely by the political antagonisms that Fukuyama had declared to be obsolete.
Niklas Luhman reminds us that the binary structure of politics is a natural phenomenon that never disappears; instead, it is redefined as times change. The German theorist insists that the specificity of liberal democracy as a political system resides in a division of power between those in government and the opposition, implying a continuous binary struggle. For example, the antagonism between progressives and conservatives does not seem to be as strong as it once was, but is now articulated around other issues, like the social policies of the State (expansive or restrictive), or the regulations of the economy.
Carl Schmitt, a right-wing philosopher and jurist who has been one of the most consequential critics of parliamentary democracy, acknowledges that political antagonisms can adopt many forms but that it is illusory to think that it is possible to eliminate them without the forceful intervention of the State. According to this view, it is harmful to blur the line between right and left in democratic practices because it prevents the formal construction of clear political identities. The homogenization of political discourse in apparently democratic consensus has the effect of reducing the programmatic offer and of trivializing it. This, in turn, contributes to a generalized distrust of parties and of the political class, discouraging civic participation in the political process.
Elias Cannetti adds that parliamentary institutions channel the natural hostilities of the political field by peaceful means. In a liberal democracy, the contending sectors renounce violence by accepting electoral verdicts. Counting votes puts an end to confrontation. By conceding defeat in 2000, though convinced of his opponent`s questionable victory, the U.S. Democratic candidate, Al Gore, validated this civilizing function of the electoral process.
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that political actions in democratic systems should arise from competing political identities, without minimizing their diversity. Political parties and electoral processes alike should reflect real antagonisms in order to provide institutional expression of contending social visions and conflicts. On the other hand, when political parties stop reflecting real conflicts through apparent homogenizing consensuses, antagonisms may assume violent forms, some of them difficult to manage with the tools of democracy. The absence of political alternatives with which to identify creates favorable conditions for fundamentalist movements, be they partisan, religious, ethnic, or nationalist. The fundamentalist mentality constitutes, in turn, the greatest danger confronting freedom today. It is characterized by the notion that the political adversary is not an opponent with whom we most coexist, but an enemy we must destroy.
As a political system representing the possibility of freedom, liberal democracy is not the inevitable result of history, nor has it been able to eliminate social conflicts. On the contrary, experience makes us aware of its limitations and fragility. We cannot assume its historical continuity. Liberal democracy requires that its institutions be protected and cultivated under the assumption that it will never be able to eliminate social conflicts, and can only hope to keep them within the range of political actions that exclude violence. We should keep in mind that democracy is endangered when antagonisms are hidden behind apparent consensuses that actually denote apathy and an abandonment of the political sphere. Moreover, when liberal democracy is identified as inherent to the structures of the market economy, it risks, as it seems to occur in Venezuela, having the excluded masses become attracted to authoritarian, illiberal, populist movements built on paternalistic practices that retain certain democratic forms while abandoning its liberal content.
In conclusion, the recognition of genuine junctures of opportunities for change in the context of long term global transformations emerges from understanding the nature of the political field. It is imperative, therefore, to place ourselves within the actual antinomies of the real world and to think about the political beyond the limits of electoral politics.
Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Centro de Investigación y Política Pública
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 22, 2008.
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