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The Decline of Democracy and the Coming of the Strongman

Russian President Vladmir Putin’s bold military intrusion into the Syrian civil war and tycoon Donald Trump’s unanticipated and too-easily-dismissed electoral ascent share a similar genesis, which in many  ways define the new political age into which we find ourselves slip sliding.

We may be witnessing a slow, but inexorable transition from the false dawn of planetary democracy (Jacques Derrida’s “new internationale”) to the much darker age of the political strongman. The devolution of the Arab Spring beginning in December 2010 into malignant chaos and extreme violence that has now come to redefine the Middle East itself is perhaps the most obvious of indicators pointing in that direction.

But other symptoms such as the bitter and intractable partisanship of the United States Congress and the rise of far-right populism not only in America but across Europe underscore this tendency.  The ubiquitous democratic efflux unleashed with the collapse of Soviet Communism a quarter century ago has now spent its momentum.

The new “global connectivity” along with the flattening of hierarchies, which the open architecture and easy access of digital communications was supposed to foster, has now become the occasion for the concentration of both financial and political power in the hands of anonymous and unaccountable elites, not to mention for the empowerment of vicious and ruthless non-state actors such as ISIS.

In America’s own dysfunctional political system the once familiar give-and-take of a consensus-directed legislative process has given place to the pathological spectacle of mindless ideological posturing and endless obstructionism on the one hand as well as the new sort of “soft Caesarism”, represented in the increasing resort to presidential executive orders in place of statutes, on the other.

What is behind this trend?  The media and academic literature is awash these days with both opinions and prescriptions.

In his New York Times blog piece entitled “Democracy and the Demagogue“,  Yale University political philosopher Jason Stanley argues that the growth of “anti-inclusive” rhetoric among politicians can be attributed to “two factors” that “have eroded the protections that representative democracy is supposed to provide.”

The first, according to Stanley, is the necessity of huge sums of money necessary to win the messaging wars that win elections.  Because of the huge costs of campaigning, political discourse is inevitably skewed toward “the interest of…large donors.”

The second, he proposes, is simply that…

some voters do not share democratic values, and politicians must appeal to them as well. These voters are simply more attracted to a system that favors their own particular religion, race, gender or birth position. When large inequalities exist, the problem is aggravated: People tend to take out their resentment on groups they believe don’t share their way of life.

Such an analysis, particularly in regard to his second point, exhibits the familiar somewhat condescending attitude of our present day Western elites toward the escalating number of populist uprisings around the world.   Without recognizing it, Stanley gives away his entire hand in the last sentence with his observation that it is these “large inequalities” that seem to be the very source of the problem.

Inequality is not merely a force-multiplier of the problem. It is the essence of the problem itself.  And whether we are talking about the original Occupy Movement or the sour charisma of “The Donald” with its strange admixture of anti-establishment fury that span the entire left-right spectrum, it is the specter of growing inequality that stalks the world these days.

In previous eras inequality was driven by the fact that certain concentrations of generative economic power (in the heyday of feudalism it was the seigneurial monopoly over land, in industrial times the ownership of the mechanized means of production) meant permanent, or at least periodic, gross imbalances between social capacities for production and consumption.

But, as David Rothkopf has brilliantly shown in a recent article in Foreign Policy entitled “The Paradox of Power in the Network Age”, the brave new world of interlinked digital communications has turned the impresarios of information into the new captains of industry in what might be described as a new gilded age with a silicon tint.

Rothkopf writes:

Who conceivably has the ability to influence more people: a major power, like the United Kingdom, or Google or Facebook? The power that used to control the waves or the ones that dominate the airwaves and the mind share of today? With an economy in which the building blocks of wealth are bits and bytes rather than acres or vaults of gold, whoever is best able to monetize connections, capture intelligence, or create unique new forms of value or advantages wins.

The real inequality lies in the divvying up of this global “mind share,” which can also translate easily into various emerging oligarchies among those who are natural gatekeepers for the flow of ideas.   Hence the increasing distrust of the media and a disdain for the power of the chattering classes, who can easily alchemize their symbol-creating power into financial dominance as well.

The proverbial “99 percent” who are denied access to the new citadels of virtual wealth and as well as the  Giorgio Agamben describes as the clouds of “glory” that have now been transposed from the personages of kings or dictators to media images and celebrities have begun to demand their own “fair share” of the new global mind share.

Religious fundamentalism and what the elites themselves dismiss as ignorant fanaticism become strategies of insurrection against what Slavoj Zizek terms “hegemonic multiculturalism,” a kinder and gentle form of political totalitarianism that treats real diversity (which is always in danger of degenerating from logos into polemos) as an existential threat to the current inegalitarian, elite world order.

Such a politics, Zizek wrote in The Guardian a while back, “always relies on the manipulation of a paranoid multitude,” which play the scripted roles of barbarians always threading to storm the gates of global civil society administered by the new autocrats of managed information and right thinking.

Democracy in the pristine, theoretical sense of popular sovereignty, as imagined particularly in the eighteenth century by Jefferson and Rousseau, was founded on a commitment to the idea of an increasingly educated demos that would over time render the formation of a permanent ruling class of information – as well as financial – elites historically impracticable.

Democracy in their view – and that was Jefferson’s vision especially – rested on a kind of intellectual egalitarianism vastly different from the kind of lowest denominator prejudicial consensus that DeTocqueville and Nietzsche rued with the arrival of the following century.

The real question of politics was first formulated by Carl Schmitt in the 1920s at the same time he minted the very concept of “political theology”.  The question, according to Schmitt, is straightforward: “Who is supposed to have unlimited power?”

Schmitt, whose “democratic” credentials have always been regarded as threadbare, and Jefferson, however, strangely do converge in their views on an answer to that question with the implicit statement – the one who is entitled to such “unlimited power” is the one who obeys God, or is faithful to the force of God as it manifests in the historical moment.

For Schmitt only the quasi-mystified political executor with his authority to declare the “state of exception” was worthy of that office.  For Jefferson it was exemplified in the virtuous and enlightened self-assurance of the vox populi, which he viewed as equivalent to the vox Dei.

But both figures in their own unique manner feared the disintegration of politics into a cacophony of competing, petty truth-claims, emotional reactions, and resentful identity-assertions ingeniously exploited, as in Zizek’s wry take on the dystopian features of the once-vaunted “knowledge society”, by the new (ruling) “knowledge classes.”

The “anti-democratic” hot spots that seem to be appearing all over the planet may in their own troubled way serve as symptoms of an underlying radical inequality among voices clamoring to be heard, a disequilibrium amplifying in point of fact the already recognized economic imbalances.

The longing for a “strongman” is the result of the decadence of once vigorous liberal democracies, which once allowed the play of even “politically incorrect” ideas but have now been allowed to rot slowly in the name of a cheap inclusivity and a surface “truthiness” that ultimately benefits only the corporate masters of the universe.

Schmitt himself wrote that “the exception is more interesting than the rule,” and although he had in mind the readiness of the political “man of action” to wade into the miasma of politics-as-usual and take charge, the sentiment could just as well as apply to a revitalized democratic sovereignty at its Jeffersonian core.

It has become a hackneyed adage that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.  But that democracy must be a new kind of deep democracy that is not so much about everybody having their say, but of reaffirming the theological wellsprings of democratic sovereignty itself.

As John Adams famously put it, a democratic form of governance “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The default option, if such a core is nothing more than the vanity of knowledge and expertise, is the coming of the strongman.

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