Opinion: Democracy – an inventory

Members of the Rebel Dragons movement, the Italian version of Spain's Indignados, demonstrate outside the Italian parliament Rome, October 14.
Members of the Rebel Dragons movement, the Italian version of Spain's Indignados, demonstrate outside the Italian parliament Rome, October 14.
14 October 2011 – El País (Madrid)

After the demonstrations in Greece and the Indignados in Spain, popular protest has spread across Europe and, with the Occupy Wall Street movement, crossed the Atlantic. Be it direct or representative, the very idea of ​​democracy is under scrutiny, says José Ignacio Torreblanca.

With the camp-in on Wall Street, public anger over the crisis has ended up covering the entire political and geographic arc from Greece to the United States. At first glance, the two cases seem to have little in common. While the Greece of Papandreou is in crisis due to an exceedingly inefficient patronage-based state that has racked up debts it can never repay, the U.S. of Obama has fallen victim to a handful of financial markets that have imploded and are dragging the economy towards the brink. To simplify matters, we might say it’s a case of state failure on one hand and market failure on the other.

However, Greece and the United States resemble each other much more closely than we suspect these days. Athens and Washington are cradles of democracy: the first of direct democracy, the second of representative democracy. The ideal of democracy, so masterfully set forth in two texts with impressive similarities, Pericles' Funeral Oration and Lincoln's Gettysburg address, is what is being challenged today.

First it was the turn of direct democracy, which degenerated into populism, demagoguery and a population that could not be governed. Looking back at the tragic end of Socrates and his cup of fatal hemlock, the founding fathers of the United States, not surprisingly, balked at talk of democracy. Instead, they described their political system as one of “representative government” – i.e., a system that, rather than enable the people to govern themselves, granted them the power to elect their rulers and remove them from office regularly, as a way of preserving their freedoms.

Quality of democracies has deteriorated

With all its limitations, this system of government has been extremely successful. In our political and geographical context at least, representative democracy has been imposed on both fascism and communism and, although it is always under threat from populism and nationalism, the combination of representative governments and market economies has tended to lead to open societies that respect freedom, prosperity and diversity.

The problem is that representative democracy has not only become irreplaceable outwardly, but also inwardly – for direct democracy is not a viable alternative for governing societies as complex as ours. And in this way, democracy has become stagnant right at its very core, which places the representative nature of the governments above the demands of the governed.

Over time, these governments have been taken in tow by two agents: political parties, which have turned our political systems into systems of partisanship governed by a political class that is neither accountable nor transparent; and the markets, which have subjugated political power to their own special interests and thus devolved into a separate autonomous power.

The consequence is that the public interest has been relegated to the background as a guiding principle for public policy, and systematic accountability of accounts as a mechanism of control in the hands of the citizens has been overridden. Therefore, while the number of democracies in the world has consistently expanded, the quality of the democracies has deteriorated considerably.

Ideal of Athenian democracy failed

Most of our countries are now democracies in all the measures that we define as democratic, but they are far from being democracies of the quality that their citizens deserve and aspire to. In boom times, when resources were expanding and problems of distribution more easily to solve, the inherent tension between efficiency and democratic representation were easily resolved in favour of efficiency – and at the expense of representation.

But as the economic crisis has erupted in full force our political systems have been stripped bare, for on top of their inability to manage the economy (either through incompetence or because the solutions do not lie within national competencies) they have seen exposed both their miseries in terms of lack of representation and their subjection to the power of the markets, whose excesses they are unable to regulate.

The ideal of Athenian democracy failed, and it took hundreds of years to reinvent itself. Representative democracy, though it is not being questioned by those outside it, will slide into an extremely important internal crisis if it fails to free up the channels of representation and regulate the markets effectively in the general interest. From Athens to Wall Street, the ideal of democracy is struggling to survive.

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