domingo, 1 de noviembre de 2009

Democracy faces the new millenium

By Patricio Lóizaga

The threshold to the end

The fact that the end of the century and the end of the millennium coincided filled us with questions. Ever since this phenomenon was first proposed as a “turning point”, it became widely popular and came to hold a great deal of symbolic weight, symbolizing the idea of the end of an era. The decade of the nineties began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989. This extreme expression of Cold War attitudes was destroyed in an act of popular rebellion, loaded with romanticism and surprises. At that me it was pointed out that at the beginning of 1989 almost no one would have predicted such an outcome. For the historian Ernest Nolte, “the Cold War ended at the moment that the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party , Mikhail Gorbachev, stated that this party did not feel itself to be at all the bearer of truth”. The Gulf War broke out very shortly afterwards, like the confirmation of the existence of a new international stage and of a new world order.
The idea of the change of an era, of the exhaustion of a historical period, seemed to accelerate as the countdown toward the year 2000 began, just as the decade was taking off. It is interesting to observe the recurrence of the term end in the most influential, most widely-read books of the nineties, those attempting to explain the origins of this supposed historical change. The idea of a radical change was expressed precisely with the concept of the end.
The most significant applications we can mention are The end of history (Francis Fukuyama), The end of work (Jeremy Rifkin), The end of the Nation-State (Kenichi Ohmae), The end of certainty (Ilya Prigogine), and The end of art (Arthur Danto). Philosophy, sociology, economics, physics, historiography, scientific journalism and aesthetics, all were proposing a turning point determined by a process that was coming to an end with the beginning of the last decade of the last century of the old millennium.
The historian John Lukacs published a book in 1993 that starting with the title associated the end of the century with the conclusion of a historical period: The end of the twentieth century and the end of the modern age. For John Lukacs, the modern era began in 1914 with the First World war and ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989.
This historical break was also being announced before the fact with other formulations, most of them preceeded by the prefix post. The end to explain its transitional nature led different authors to speak of a society that is postindustrial (Daniel Bell, Alain Touraine), postcapitalist (Peter Drucker), postmodern (Jean-François Lyotard, Lipovetzky), and post-traditional (Anthony Giddens) or of post-national identities (Jurgen Habermas).
It was a question of anticipating or defining the winding down of a historical era, and in the nineties the collapse of socialism appeared as an undisputable indicator of change. A change to a better society, to a more intelligent one? François Furet raised the idea of the end of an illusion in a book that took pains to analyze the importance of the failure of socialism, an illusion that lasted seven decades (1917-1990) and that determined in large part events on the world stage during that period, particularly after the Second World War, with the Yalta agreement and the emergence of the Cold war. The nineties would set the stage for the third postwar period, according to the Italian intellectual Furio Colombo, who maintains a more cautious attitude with respect to the nature and significance of the changes that contemporary society is going through. Colombo points out that the first postwar period witnessed the birth and development of nationalism, Fascism, and Nazism. The second postwar period, with the Yalta Conference and the division of the world into different spheres of influence, was symbolized by the Iron Curtain (the Warsaw Pact), the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War. Colombo defines the form of coexistence during the Cold War or second postwar period as “the equilibrium of terror”, while “the third postwar period appears unexpectedly just as the last decade of the century is beginning. There had been no indications that this was about to occur; no previous warning had been given. And thus the polemic was born. What really were the causes? What provoked the demolishing of walls and curtains, the dissolving of political parties, the disintegration of governments, the freeing of prisoners, the changing of laws and values, the abandonment of old clichés, and also of beliefs, movements, hopes and armies?”.
In a widely-read article that unleashed heated debates all around the world and was first published in the scholarly journal The national interest around the middle of 1989, Francis Fukuyama put forth the idea of the end of history. Fukuyama’s reflections on history are based on the experiences the world has been going through since the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties –the end of the right-wing dictatorial regimes, the collapse of Communism, and the victory of liberal democratic ideals, which at the beginning of the nineties seemed to have no rival capable of disputing their place on the political and economic plane or that could successfully debate it on the ideological plane. In this first text, which would later be developed into a book, Fukuyama asserted that the convulsions of the twentieth century would result in the almost absolute hegemony of economic liberalism and political democracy, an evolution that few would have foreseen.
What does such a provocative and almost irritating title want to convey to us? How can it be that history has an end? Isn’t history and infinite dialectical process? There is a form of optimistic fatalism or fatalistic optimism in Fukuyama, as there was also in his teachers Hegel and Koyeve.
Fukuyama conceives of history as a unique process, evolutionary and coherent, with a beginning, middle, and end. History, then, culminates in an absolute moment, at which time a final, rational form of organization of the State and society reigns victorious. We are present, according to Fukuyama, at the end of a process in which conflicts evaporate in order to satisfy the needs of mankind. Obviously, Fukuyama does not propose to us that history itself has come to an end; he proposes, instead, the end of the conflicts that we have known up to now to be the engines of history. For Fukuyama, the universalization of the liberal democratic system is the fact that puts an end to history as we have known it up to now.
The German historian, Ernst Nolte affirms, in his book Dopo il comunismo, that “toward the end of the millennium one can say that some seventy years of the twentieth century have, in reality, been the era of Communism, since during those years Communism represented the most powerful and determinative challenge to the entire historical tradition of the liberalism”.
The language (end and post) ant the historical events (failure of Communism, replacements of a manufacturing economy for a service economy, preponderant role of knowledge and information) take turns feeding on the idea of the end of one of one historical era and the start of another. At the beginning of the nineties, criticism appeared to have been replaced by the necessity to analyze and justify the advent of a new society. Its customs and its consumer goods, all appear as the stars of the social sciences, and a climate of “acriticismo” (a concept created by the author – a tendency of intellectuals in the social sciences at the beginning of the nineties, conceptually opposed to Kant’s criticism) comes to pervade the intellectual world. It is a case of analytically interpreting (or justifying) what has happened or what is to come. A kind of fascination with change invaded us; as well, when faced with change, a kind of resignation numbed us. The new millennium and the end of the century do not now seem to be a mere calendrical caprice; we believe ourselves to be present at the last chapter of a historical process, and language not only shows the way and orients us, it also imposes on us the need to interpret the agony of the millennium from the threshold of the end and the culture of the post.

The myth of the intelligent society or of the paradoxical society

On Sunday, March 17, 1991, Saint Patrick’s Day, dedicated to the patron saint of Irish immigrants, was celebrated with particular fervour in New York City. The city woke up covered in green ribbons (in honour of Saint Patrick) and yellow ribbons that, because of a widely popular song (“Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree”), had come to symbolize hope for the return of the victorious war combatants. The celebration in honour of Saint Patrick was being combined with the one to welcome home the veterans of the Golf War, that had just concluded. An air of effervescence and emotion filled most American citizens. That day and that week emotionally-charged events took place at John F. Kennedy Airport, when the Golf veterans were spontaneously cheered by the public. Strangers, both men and women, began to cry and hug each other in a spirit of patriotism. I recall the case of a black war veteran with a movie actor’s face –a combination of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington- surrounded by young people who embraced him and kissed him and asked him to sign their T-shirts, while they took photographs of each other for posterity. I thought that not even Ronald Reagan at the height of his most ambitious conservative dreams of the eighties could have dreamed up such a scene. Everything seemed to be in order. American society was becoming reconciled to itself as the defender of Western values, revalidating its leadership, and burying its old conflicts that derived from the errors and collective guilt for its foreign policy of the previous three or four decades. With a “politically correct” operation, it hoped to bury such opposed attitudes as the firmness of Nixon and the softness of Carter, experiences in the end so frustrating in one way or the other to American public opinion. There emerged completely new political leadership in the person of Colin Powell, a black general, also with movie star good looks (just like the soldier in the anecdote at JFK Airport), who considered running for president on the Democratic as well as on the Republican ticket. This would have been inconceivable just a few short years before. On the other side there was the villain of the piece, with a clear public profile and a definite danger to the universal spread of the liberal democratic system, a politically incorrect person as the enemy of all; a unifying factor, generator of an unprecedented consensus. At the beginning of the 1990s, who could defend an antidemocratic fundamentalist? With what arguments? Saddam Hussein had erupted on the international scene as the ideal enemy, and the experience of the Gulf War had only served to ratify the establishment of a new cycle of history. The decade had begun with unanswerable events that supposedly indicated to us the direction that history would go, a way that was unequivocal, determinant, definitive.
Nevertheless, things were not so simple, so linear. On the front page of The New York Times on that Sunday, March 17, 1991, there appeared a brief article of some 30 or 40 lines in length, signed by Daniel Bell, under the title, “The myth of the intelligent society”. The author of The coming of post-industrial society denounced the paradox of the Gulf War, the degree of sophistication of the military hardware, for example, intelligent weapons such as the Patriot missiles, and the simultaneous absence of social weapons to combat, for example, a Manhattan infested with the homeless. Bell placed in evidence the paradox of a society with the intelligence to wage war but without the intelligence to solve social problems. A society that celebrated its presumed victory with a dangerously uncritical attitude.
It’s worth the trouble to observe that this challenge to the triumphalist climate did not come from an intellectual of the left. It wasn’t a case of a marxist-influenced thinker, such as Noam Chomsky. This time the spoilsport was no one less than the intellectual who was the first to speak of the end of ideology and to define post-industrial society.
The paradoxical nature of this fin-de-siècle society was not exhausted with the lucid allusion of Bell. A sea of opposing tendencies was noticeable when the most evident contradictions in the world in which we live were analyzed.
At the end of the eighties, a Japanese writer, Kenichi Ohmae, was the first to speak of “the borderless world”, the title of a book that became world-famous while postulating the supremacy of economic globalization over the Nation-State the political and institutional organization par excellence of modernity. While Fukuyama is a United States citizen of Japanese origin, a Harvard-and-Yale-educated scholar of political philosophy, who works for the Department of State analyzing defense policies and international politics, Kenichi Ohmae was born in Japan; he is the foremost proponent in the United States of the strategic management theory. Trained as a nuclear engineer, he became an advisor to great multinational companies. Educated at MIT, for various years he has been the executive director of the Tokyo branch of the international consulting firm McKinsey. He often writes for the Harvard business review and The Wall street journal. The various books he has published are required reading for the most important Western businessmen. Here we have two of the most influential thinkers of what we will call the Globalization Economic Model. One, a philosopher, with connections to the US governmental intelligence offices for strategy and defense; the other, a key figure in the world of international business consulting.
From Ohmae’s book (The borderless world), the idea of “soft borders” can be inferred. The launching of NAFTA and the increasing integration of the European Community and Mercosur spoke to us of a progressive regional globalization oriented toward the idea of a one-world government, of irreversible, irrevocable power that Ohmae as well as Fukuyama suggest to us. Paradoxically, this tendency, this process, hasn’t slowed down the dream of autonomy of Fleming and Walloons in Belgium and of Basques, Catalans, Scots, Irish and Quebecois.
The author Michael Keating has carried out a revealing study of nationalism in Catalonia, Quebec and Scotland. Keating first took on this project in the late eighties when he learned that in public opinion polls Scots had expressed the desire for Scotland to be an independent member of the European Community while remaining part of the United Kingdom. Keating began to investigate this phenomenon, and, to his surprise, he discovered that the polls taken in Catalonia and Quebec had the same ambivalent results. The author asked himself if these results were the fruit of the ignorance of those participating in the polls who did not know one was either within a State or not within a State. Keating’s answer was negative: rather, the citizens questioned were ahead of the game compared to experts on constitutions and international affairs. They drew attention to the limitations of the traditional category of the Nation-State. With their answers they are pointing out the need for a new formula to express national identity. The crisis or the transformation of the concept of the Nation-State implies a complex process that does not recognize economic, commercial and administrative globalization as the only determining factors. The Nation-State as we have understood it up to the 1990s appears to be under siege both externally from the Globalization Economic Model and internally from factors more cultural (language, race and traditions) than economic. In the nineties we saw that while economic boundaries were softening, paradoxically, cultural boundaries were hardening. These boundaries were hardening with the reaffirmation of autonomy, with the terrorist violence of many of these reaffirmations, as in the case of the Basques and the Irish, with ETA and the IRA, or with more peaceful means of expression, as in the referendum in Canada. National identity is not only not disappearing –as the apologists of globalization appear to have predicted- but in many cases it is being reaffirmed. We see also how racial discrimination has become worse, with waves of repudiation of entire communities because of their ethnic origin. We see as well, often with embarrassment, figures that reveal the realities hidden behind statistical simplification. Unemployment in the United States in the nineties averaged only five per cent (6.6% in October of 1996, 4.1% in October of 1999), a satisfactory indicator for economists. Nevertheless, a study of the composition of this percentage tells us that unemployment has grown by thirty per cent when speaking of young black or Hispanic men with post-high school or college educations. When Hispanics are not content with unskilled labour and study at universities and become equipped for higher-level jobs, they are excluded by the system. Boundaries that soften; boundaries that harden: the paradox of economic integration and social and cultural exclusion showed more than one face in the nineties.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

The process of market deregulation or liberalization, based on the idea of competition and transparency, contrasts, paradoxically, with the tendency toward the growing concentration of capital in the hands of a few gigantic corporations. The exponential growth of wealth, calculated through the Gross National Product of certain countries, nevertheless does not signify the decrease in poverty in those same countries and in the world in general.
In 1997 a report was presented by the United Nations Program for Development (UNPD) dealing with economic growth and human development, which was written by first-class experts and scholars, among them Robert M. Solow, recipient of a Nobel Prize in Economics. Recognized for its academic seriousness, the report points out that the increase in world income has been distributed very unequally and that this inequality is growing.
In the most developed countries of the world, known by the acronym OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), there are more than one billion people who live below the poverty line, and their number tended to increase in the nineties in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
In the report’s synopsis, we find these figures: at the present time, the assets of the 358 wealthiest people in the world, that is, multimillionaires in dollars, is equal to the incomes of 45% of the poorest of the world’s population, or 2, 3000, 000, 000 people. It is worth the trouble to reiterate this notion, since it seems truly unbelievable: we are comparing 358 people with 2, 300, 000, 000.
The “trickle-down” theory of the generation of wealth, proposed by economic ultra-liberals and political neo-conservatives as a long-term solution to the problems of inequality, is being refuted on a daily basis. On the other hand, the Soviet threat is no longer a factor on the world stage and cannot provide us with the contrast of the moral supremacy of a system with defects over a dictatorial system, with all the wretchedness resulting from its repressive system. There are other threats that the world faced at the end of the nineties, ones of a different nature, with other characteristics. If we keep a critical eye in our analysis, everything would indicate that the pace of events is speeding up.
We can affirm that the nineties witnessed the collapse of two great illusions of the twentieth century. The first lasted some seventy years, from 1917 to 1989. The second lasted only seven years, from 1989 to 1997, when it came to an end with the international dissemination of the report of the OECD. There are those who see this conclusion as premature and interpret it as only the first controversial step of an ultimately victorious model. With the socialist model vanished, along with its empirical experience and influence in history, and the so-called post World War II Welfare State called into question, which sought to solve the problem of the unequal distribution of income with policies of social assistance, the neoconservative economic model of the eighties seemed to find in the major political events of the early nineties (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War) the perpetuation of an irrevocable tendency that would continue to be confirmed through indicators of improved well-being. With the fall of the wall, there were constant speculations on the possibility of using resources previously destined for armaments for social programs. At an international meeting on commerce and competition that took place on February 8, 1990, Kenichi Ohmae, speaking of his book The borderless world as a kind of manifesto of the end, said the following: “The interconnected economy (the world without borders) increases the well-being of individuals and institutions. It is open to all who desire to participate in it, above all through governmental deregulation. It creates neither losers nor absolute winners since market mechanisms adjust the competitiveness of the nations with sufficient equity by means of kinds of types of rates of exchange and employment.” Let us observe the notion of “sufficient equity”.
The conclusions drawn by the United Nations categorically refute the author of The borderless world and lead us to define this period of seven years as a second great illusion. The erosion of this new illusion, ten times as short as the precious one, happened without the dramatics of the political events that resulted in the demise of the other tragic illusion of the twentieth century. Although following this reasoning we observe that when the demise of the first illusion of the twentieth century, the Marxist illusion, was confronted, it was replaced with the second illusion, that of the Globalizing Economic Model as the end of history, one could refute this line of thought by noting that this time no third illusion has presented itself as a replacement or alternative model. But what can not be doubted is the critical recognition that makes clear the illusory character of what we have defined, then, as the second great illusion of the twentieth century. One might reflect that the Globalization Economic Model represents liberalism at its most absolute when confronted with the failure of Marxism. With the dialectical process to which it had been linked since the birth of Marxism excluded from the discussion, the liberal model of the nineties appeared in approached like those of Fukuyama and Ohmae as complete and sufficient in themselves. In other terms, never before had liberal ideology and capitalism confronted a world stage with no ideological, political or economic opponents. By sustaining the thesis that we are entering the end of history, Fukuyama suggests that we are entering an era in which the really crucial problems of humanity will have been solved and that we are headed for “a universal culture of consumers”. When speaking of the two great illusions of the twentieth century, the Marxist illusion and the illusion of the Globalization Economic Model, we understand that obviously the expectations of one and the other were quite different although we can point out that there exists a correlation, one often not noticed or at least not emphasized, between both plans for society: economic determinism. Although an author like Fukuyama tries to endow the Globalization Economic Model with philosophical and political meaning, he does not stop seeing economic factors as decisive when he defines the universal character of the culture that is to come as one made up of “consumers”.
Ralf Dahrendorff points to Furio Colombo in the book The third postwar period: “To maintain that the economic system determines the political one is a prejudice, of Marxism as well as of capitalism”. The language of the Globalization Economic Model expresses, in general, a high degree of voluntarism (a philosophical doctrine that gives human will primacy over the intellect). This totalizing voluntarism (from an author’s note; “totalizing” is used here to meant that it explains all of history, as Marxism attempted to do), implied in the idea of economic integration as a motor and in political union leading toward a unitary world government as an inevitable beneficial result, does not fail to invest itself with violent, utopian traits, previously attributable only to Marxism. If Marxism, understood as real socialism, wanted to erased all traces of dissident individualism in favour of a model that would be realized in it totalizing universalism, the Globalization Economic Model of the 1990s would seem not to assume the contradictions and the conflictiveness that it carried within itself. Economic determinism buries, or, in the best of cases, postpones the debate over the nature of the institutional regime, on the characteristics of democracy in the new millennium when faced with the failure of the Marxist historical experience. While Marxism wanted to dissolve the class structure, the globalization Economic Model proposes to dissolve nations, the Nation-States. This Globalization brings with it the promise of the atomization of power and the emergent autonomization of the individual-consumer, in a framework of equity (let us recall the quotation from Ohmae, “sufficient equity”, at the end of The borderless world). The critics should make visible the tendencies toward the concentration of power and corresponding deautonomization of the individual.

The return of the Democratic Paradigm

What was the heart of the analysis of contemporary society in the books having the greatest impact that we have discussed up to now?
The impact of the consumer society and information, the modalities of production (of goods and services), the new technologies, and the crisis of ideologies conceived as great narratives (for example, Marxism) were the axes around which contemporary debates turned from the second half of the century towards the end of the millennium. Science decided which questions it could not answer: the end of certainty began to show itself. The economy and its implication for production and culture headed the list of debate topics. Democracy was not the hub of the debate; rather, it appeared to be a passive, pre-existing receptor of changes of an economic nature. Meanwhile, a group of notable academics was busy studying and analyzing the evolution of Western political organization systems, but with scant academic and non-academic repercussions. Books such as the above-mentioned ones, The coming of post-industrial society, The end of work, and the controversial The third wave of Alvin Toffler were bestsellers in and outside of the academy and unleashed fierce debates. However, the majority of the works that dealt with the evolution of democratic institutions, by thinkers like the Italian Giovanni Sartori, the British David Held, the American Robert Dahl, the Frenchman Alain Touraine, and the Argentines Ernesto Laclau and Guillermo O’Donnell did not stir up interest beyond groups of specialists. It can be argued that authors like the French thinker Jean-François Revel, seen as the most representative figure of the democratic right, and the Italian Norberto Bobbio, a paradigmatic author of the democratic left, had a great deal of social repercussion in their respective countries. This happened when they dealt with concrete facts in mass-market publications, in which, even if it is true that they were strengthened by the consistency of their academic speculations and their erudite preparation, they seemed more connected to news reports dealing with current political events. The great debates about democracy were displaced by great discussions of the economy. Democracy did not seem to be at the centre of debates on contemporary society at the end of the century. Democracy in the twentieth century appeared to be much more on the defensive from the attacks from totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that were displaying their strength. That is why great political scientists like Norberto Bobbio and Giovanni Sartori have spoken of the “unkept promises” and “pending matters” of democracy. Democracy in the twentieth century was busier defending itself from its opponents than in developing its potential. The process appears to have been oriented more toward territorial expansion than toward perfecting the system itself, although democratic theory has continued making advances in research and policy proposals at university institutes. The first two world wars; Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism; and military dictatorships in Latin America, Greece, Spain and Portugal revealed a vision of democracy at siege during the twentieth century. All of this has retarded in great measure its development toward more participatory governments, within the framework of a greater decentralization of power in favour of the citizenry. The democracy of de-verticalization and horizontalization of the conduct of an ever more active civil society is presented as evidence of a broken promise in the nineties. One could say that, at the start of the decade, the old threats to democracy were disappearing, the last one with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The threats take other forms now, other natures: democracy at the end of the century appeared to be under attack from the culture of mass media that deadens participation in civil society
A paradoxical, curious phenomenon is the simultaneous underdevelopment of democratic institutions and the wide development of democratic theory. The theories have been fulfilled. The new constitutionalism incorporates new rights while the theory analyzes models of participatory democracy, on the one hand, and makes proposals on the other. Nevertheless, this entire formidable analytical structure, with all its arguments and proposals, is much more academic than general in nature. As we have mentioned before, the institutional structure has not been the core of the analysis of the crisis and changes in contemporary society of the end of the century; the debate has taken place elsewhere.
This observation is central to the sociological diagnosis of the age in which we live. We have underestimated the importance of the political paradigm to the advantage of economic factors, and this the outstanding feature although it has not been acknowledged as it should be in public discussion. Only through the recovery of the institutional core as the centre of the debate in society can we rid ourselves of paradoxes and contradictions.
Democracy, formerly besieged by authoritarianism and totalitarianism, has arrived at the new millennium in an underdeveloped condition, without having fulfilled its potential. What is evident is the disappearance of traditional authoritarian and totalitarian threats and the revelation of another type of threat, that derived from a great concentration on the economy and information within the framework of a media culture that discourages the participation of its citizens. The idea of a society of spectators has replaced a society of citizens, the natural expression of democracy.
The consumer society carries within it the idea of the sovereignty of the consumer as an exercise of freedom, and it has been proposed by the theoreticians of consumerism as an improvement over traditional citizenship. This underlying emergent depolitization in the “universal consumer culture” gains strength from the expansion of the spectacle through its paradigmatic instrument, the television.
Culture-as-spectacle, politics-as-spectacle, and television-as-politics achieve high visibility in the nineties, something easily identifiable by us all.
The criticism of the effects of the media and consumer culture is much more effective and clear in art than in any other area, and it is this which I propose to develop in the remaining chapters. We will also see how cultural criticism is slipping toward what is expressed in magazines, on television and in design. The observation of aesthetic manifestations from the perspective of cultural studies can help us to interpret the paradoxes and contradictions of our society. But first it is necessary to make a distinction, a declaration about one of the most invoked, most worn out, most perhaps most confused concepts of the eighties and nineties: postmodernity. What do we speak of when we speak of postmodernity? Can we speak of postmodernity indiscriminately in the sphere of aesthetics and the sphere of ethics and politics?

Excerpted from the unpublished book The reign of cynicism (American edition of El imperio del cinismo). Translation by New York University.

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