Democracy now! Democracy tomorrow?
The future of democracy
Many people worry about losing the standard of living they have achieved, or even their “homogeneous” national identity, and are therefore leaning towards authoritarian political forms.
Criticism, intervention and protest are coming to the fore in many areas of Europe, and in various forms; this is an enrichment of conventional representative democracy. From “Occupy” to “Stuttgart 21” in Germany, “Uni Brennt” in Austria, and also “Tahirplatz” and “Indignados” – several movements have emerged in recent years that are united by a core demand: democracy. Some demand that it should be “genuine”, others that it be put into practice “now”. New forms of political participation, non-representative and non-hierarchical, are being tested and tried out. Initiatives such as “Meine Abgeordneten” (My Delegates), “Open Petition” and “Demokratie braucht Bildung” (Democracy needs Education) have arisen in Austria. There was an international campaign against ACTA (the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement), which successfully raised fundamental rights issues. The European Citizens’ Initiative is an instrument that has been in place since April 2012 and gives civil society the chance to make progress with issues and concerns such as water as a public commodity or unconditional minimum wages. Nor does democracy stop when it comes to the economy: campaigns on the topic of the “solidarity economy” or “economic democracy” encapsulate the need for democracy in the economy. NGOs and employees’ representatives unite to insist on legal regulations, to ensure that social responsibility is not limited to the “good will” of consumers’ purchasing power or to voluntary CSR (corporate social responsibility) measures taken by companies.
From this perspective it is easy to share the view of Colin Crouch in The Strange Non-Death of Neo-liberalism (2011) that there are no grounds for despondency. Throughout history there have been few periods when those in power have been held in such little awe or when demands for openness and transparency have been expressed so forcefully as now. The treatment of the “big players” is critically supported by an incredible plethora of citizens’ initiatives, journalists and scientists, while new electronic forms of communication support the establishment of critical publicity channels in a great many areas of society.
At the same time, we know that the hearts and minds of many citizens no longer really support the political system of representative democracy. One example of warning signals of this kind is the Austrian values study, which reveals that phenomena such as apathy, a desire for a strong leader, indications of social Darwinism and xenophobia, and mutual alienation between the political classes and citizens are also part of reality (see Die Österreicher innen [The Austrians] (2009) by Christian Friesl, and others). Many people worry about losing the standard of living they have achieved, or even their “homogeneous” national identity, and are therefore leaning towards authoritarian political forms. People who are scared of sliding even further downhill perceive that their interests are not represented in the conventional political system, and no longer have anything to do with it. But democracy needs participation and acceptance by its citizens, or else it will founder.
Neo-liberalism has a neutral relationship with democracy. Its protagonists aim to achieve political power and structural economic objectives. Political equality is formally respected as long as democracy does not require social inequality to be abolished by means of political participation. In the anticipated ongoing debate on the ability of democracy to weather the future, and what it actually means, this will be a central consideration, together with reaching agreement on attitudes towards people. Or, put more specifically, whether the majority can share a strong perception of "the others" as equals; such a perception being essential to our survival, or at least to our ability to live well. We must also take up the question of the role played by the development and consequences of emotions in political life. Ideas, concepts, internal attitudes and principles are becoming ever more closely associated with bodily perceptions, personal experiences and memories – all of which are anything but mere rational processes. As a socio-ethical educational institution we already focus on these issues of social equality, attitudes towards people and the significance of emotions – democracy as a “matter of the heart”!
P.Alois Riedlsperger SJ
Ksoe – Katholische Sozialakdemie Österreichs
Translated from the original text in German