Cover of Puerto Rico en el mundo

Cover of Puerto Rico en el mundo

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.

From the Left and Right

From the Left and Right

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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