Democracy is Fragile

Original Article: La democracia es frágil
Source: El País
Published: 7 Oct 2018

On 21 October 1949, Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell to thank him for sending a copy of Orwell’s book, 1984. Huxley also used the occasion to write that his own vision of an authoritarian future, described in Brave New World, was much more likely. It may not have been very polite of Huxley to point out the faults of 1984, but in the same missive Huxley established an interesting distinction between two ways to imagine the tyranny that awaits us: one that will come via repression by “flogging and kicking them into obedience” (the Orwell model); or another that will be imposed by means of suggestion and seduction, leading them to “[love] their servitude” (the Huxley model). Despite their differences, neither of the authors had much hope for the survival of democracy as we know it.

Today we don’t have two or more intellectuals who compete to see who more accurately predicts the horrors of the future, but rather thousands of political experts analyzing what the hell is going on with our democracies. It’s a new academic specialty: unraveling what is behind populist movements and the hair-raising turn towards illiberal democracies. The experts carefully consider every advance of the populist parties; they identify the voters; they make wake-up calls when faced with the appearance of “strong men” and their devious and unlawful mass communication strategies; and they observe the rising number of survey respondents who don’t view living under a democratic system as essential. And ultimately, at some point in the future, the experts detect with terror the face of fascism.

Almost all of these concerns mirror Orwell’s model rather than Huxley’s. Of course, it’s difficult to free ourselves psychologically from the experience of the period between world wars, and the fall of totalitarian regimes. But the family resemblance is undeniable. Like before, we live in times of radical change: technological modernization — “hyper-modernization” in our case; fear of the future and the loss of class status drives us to search for security behind the rearming of the state; the fear of immigration and existential instability make us yearn for the supposed “natural communities”; the taboo of racism has been eliminated and the discourse of hate has become common currency — domestic and external enemies are identified everywhere. Resentment as the dominant passion has also returned, as well as mob mentality, although now it can be found more often in the form of swarms online versus masses in the street. There is, therefore, sufficient cause for concern. But everything is at the same time much more complex. Let’s try to be a bit didactic.

A Government of the People

Liberal democracy is something very straightforward, but not easy to put into practice. It is based on the proclamation of political equality of all citizens and the respect of individual autonomy that must be guaranteed by means of protection of individual rights, pluralism, and checks on political power. To that we should add the capacity on the part of citizens to participate to the degree possible in the decisions that affect them. Only in this way is it possible to imagine a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Everything else, an incredible variety of practices and institutions that we always associate with it, is nothing more than different historical variations intended to permit the realization of those principles, instruments for the realization of the ideal. Although they can also be crucial.

For some time now we have seen that many of these instrumental elements are starting to fail, such as the division of powers, the system of partisan representation, and the decline of governability. I’ll ask my colleagues to forgive me for the simplification, but all of these deficiencies could be characterized as plumbing problems, institutional and procedural requirements used to connect the regulatory ideal to the determining empirical policies. The drama begins when there is no more water to inject into the system, and the dense web of pipes that transfer popular will and permit citizen control start to seize up. That is, when power has migrated to authorities other than institutional ones, such as markets, large companies, and other systemic imperatives. Thus we see the deficit of sovereignty and the crisis of governance derived from globalization and its new inter-dependencies.

The primary consequence is that we stop exercising effective democratic control over the decisions that affect us the most, with the corresponding loss of confidence of the citizens in their leaders, who are unable to coherently transpose the popular will into concrete political decisions. In this way the promise of democracy, the ability to imagine a people with the freedom to decide their destiny, is fundamentally broken. Furthermore, the supposed political equality of the citizens becomes a farce when faced with runaway economic inequality. The maxim of W. Streeck, “voters versus markets,” accurately describes the current dilemma.

The Technological Challenge

Despite everything we’ve seen up to now, democracy continues to survive, albeit with some difficulty. It is showing great resilience, although for me its two major challenges for the future are connected to its own technological development. The first challenge, deriving from the spectacular reorganization of the public sphere, is the progressive loss of a common world that the Internet is causing, with the fall of sounding boards and the systematic distortion of the truth. One of the great virtues of pluralistic societies was that differences could be resolved via shared spaces and language. We don’t have those anymore. Words change their meaning to fit the interests of whatever person or faction distorts them to create their own reality. And, as Montaigne said, “by realizing our understanding solely by means of the word, he who distorts it (…) dissolves all the ties of our politics.”

Curiously, words like “communication” and “community” have the same root. Without the search for sincere understanding, the public sphere loses its sense as the place where we negotiate everything that is “common” between us. Reason requires plurality and getting carried away by argumentation, not for spurious “reasons” wrapped in primitive emotions. To break that plurality is why Orwell imagined that the new oppressors would design a “neo-language” that would prevent the imagining of alternative worlds. It is what the new soft dictators à la Putin utilize by means of the control of information. The English author did not realize, however, that it is much simpler to resort to the strategy used by Yahvé in Babel, to dissolve all communication, creating small and separate linguistic islands, just like where it appears we are heading. But there is something in which Orwell and Huxley were in agreement: there is no more effective form of power than to be able to decide what is truth, manifested today as alternative facts and all the cunning of post-truth politics. We therefore find ourselves in an environment where increasingly technocratic politics can coexist with all the clamor of mere opinions, supported by little more than emotional inducement.

On this wild ride we have forgotten that sacrosanct principle of liberal democracy, which is individual autonomy: the capacity to shape the world according to our volition. Without it, liberty is not possible, because with it, every subject is sovereign. And, nonetheless, as historian and thinker Yuval Harari tells us, this is precisely the area where new technologies pose the greatest threat.

What is new is that individual preferences, wishes and thoughts, that earlier were only accessible to individuals themselves, are now visible to external observers. The individual is no longer a black box. On the one hand, because he does not cease to leave traces all over cyberspace; and, on the other hand, thanks to neurosciences, cognitive psychology, and bio-technologies, we increasingly know more about how individuals react to stimuli and, thus, multiple forms of manipulation become possible. The Huxley model would have already ceased to be fantasy. In addition, advances in artificial intelligence will soon make it possible to automate different forms of intervention in the human soul, according to whoever has control. In the words of Harari, “once somebody gains the technological ability to manipulate the human heart — reliably, cheaply, and at scale — democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show.”

If democratic politics originates from the free expression of individual preferences, then the moment when this will has been reduced by the subtle control of anonymous powers is when the danger to democracy will really begin. Because in those places with a traditional dictator, one knows at least how to identify the enemy and fight against him. The effectiveness of the new type of submission lies in the fact that we will most likely have no idea what is being done to us. More than that, it will make us enjoy, excited and happy, a hyper-consuming and seductive world. It is the classic “bread and circuses”: basic income for the “superfluous classes” and an entertainment industry for everyone. It won’t even be necessary to formally destroy the democratic system. Perfect domination! But don’t forget that to arrive at this reality requires our participation. We still have time.