Figure 1: The School of Athens, Raphael. Fresco at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican (1509-1511)
What is meant by democracy? It is known, and this is popular knowledge, that democracy is a political system that organizes societies, taking into account the collective opinion in decision-making by governmental apparatuses. So far, so good. Two ideas can automatically appear as a mental image: either one visualizes the ballot box with which the citizen is asked to interact at least every four years; or, if one resorts to nostalgia, it is possible to visualize the Greek agora. In either of these two cases, one must think about the real levels of popular participation in both spaces. In the classical assembly, we must recall that only citizens were allowed to participate, since foreigners, also referred to as metecos, enslaved people, women, and children were excluded from participating; and in the second case, the ballot box in the electoral college, the majority of people choose to collaborate in decision-making on a single day every four years.
This is extremely important: one day, every four years, which would be one day out of approximately 1,400 days. Therefore, the population is convinced that it lives in a democracy. Still, if one analyses it carefully, the passive participation (so to speak) of the majority of citizens is reduced to less than 0.001%, that is, almost nothing. Of course, it must be taken into account that the way parliamentary democracy works is by electing the representatives of the people, and that it is them, following the wishes of the citizens, who will be in charge of running the State. In other words, minimum participation means that others will be responsible for looking after the population's interests. This is the general idea behind the concept of democracy. Since not all citizens can actively participate in decision-making, because it would be chaotic, a strategy of passive participation is formulated with the aim of looking after the interests of the majority.
But this gives food for thought, especially in recent times with the resurgence of populism and nationalist regimes. It has been seen with leaders such as Trump, Boris Johnson, and now especially with Putin. Can it be said that they are looking after the interests of the majority, or instead that they are doing precisely the opposite? Are they democratic regimes, or perhaps oligarchies, or in fact authoritarians?
Figure 2: Taking on Putin with peashooters, Tony Bell. Digital art creation (2022)
One thing that happens with populism is that when politicians defend unreasonable arguments, such as stating that they will make the country go back to the way it was, the opposition is left without useful tools to refute these arguments. How do you confront what does not exist? (Rosanvallon, 2020). That is why it is very important, even necessary, to try to understand populisms in order to be able to provoke, or at least stimulate, their crumbling. They should not be underestimated; their greatest power lies in provoking indifference in those who would be their potential opponents. And why is this important? Because, despite the fact that populists present themselves as standard-bearers of democracy, they nevertheless advocate policies of exclusion, draw an artificial world of abundance in which more than half of the population does not fit, and exercise an intentional control over bodies through propaganda and the call for continuous conflict (Rosanvallon, 2020).
Democracy is in danger; it is mutating. What was sold to the general population as a potentially universal future, the democratized Western capitalism that was to provide a solution to all problems, is collapsing (Mishra, 2020). Individuals see how history is constantly renewed, while new ideologies keep appearing. Reality itself is ideologized since it is the product of the continuous generation of meanings, of interpretations of what surrounds people. The spread of hatred can be felt: racism, misogyny, blaming the "other" (as if there were an ontological wall separating different collectivities) (López Petit, 2017). What has become of the modern ideas of freedom, equality, and fraternity? Something very simple: from the beginning, these concepts were not designed for everyone. They were the ideals promoted by a very small minority that did have the option to prosper in freedom, but always excluded others from that process (Mishra, 2020).
In other words, in reality, the Westernized idea of freedom is based on the expulsion of others; there are existences that are not even necessary, and are therefore forgotten, omitted (Membe, 2017). That is the magic of post-industrialized capitalism; it is capable of generating parallel universes, distinct ontological categories, divisions that no longer respond to the oppressor and the exploited, but which are interwoven and give rise to a much more complex mechanism. This can be seen in the abysmal divisions established between the global north and south, between the east and west, and in the social nuclei themselves with precarious work and the invisibilization of the most disadvantaged strata (De Sousa Santos, 2010). It is no longer that we live in a class society, but that we live in many classes and kinds of societies simultaneously.
Figure 3: Cartoon by Jack Swanepoel. Comic drawing (2016)
How can this apparent dissolution of democracy be handled? How can it be that most people do nothing about it? This is where cultural capitalism comes in. It objectifies each of the life experiences, and it is no longer that objects are bought, and services are consumed, but that one gets to buy and consume the time of one's own life. Therein lies the entertainment that has the population blind in front of this expropriation (Inclán, 2015). Faced with such a situation of total dependence on the system, however, people are gullible; they have internalized all its mechanics and dynamics to the point of satisfying the imagination with the acclaimed audiovisual productions of dystopias: apocalyptic worlds, anachronisms, even zombies. Anything that takes the individual out of the cruel attempt to analyze their own reality brings them peace of mind in the face of the impossibility of action. One wants to believe anything that eludes the crude truth that is either experienced or, on the contrary, ignored.
However, these television and literary genres are not too outdated; dystopia is already here, although no one is aware of it. Human intervention on the planet has reached a point where even the geological processes themselves are being modified. The Anthropocene is a reality, and all that it entails as well: the proliferation of pandemics, natural catastrophes, the mass extinction of species, overpopulation and the destruction of the ozone layer (Naniche and Ramoneda, 2021). How is it possible that the regime that was going to ensure prosperity and development, however, has led to such a disaster? What does democracy have to do with all this? If the system is governed by democratic regimes, is all this the fault of the population? That is, all of us? One should not conclude that, but totally the opposite: the citizenry has been deceived (Emke, 2018). Political parties are voted for in a process of limited passive democracy, and then that democracy becomes even more self-limiting. It is not reproduced within the parties insofar as there is what is known as voting discipline, in addition to the inexcusable meddling of corporate giants in governmental dynamics. In short, the democracy we live in is not and has never been as it has been portrayed to the people.
What is the alternative? Critical analysis. First, one must observe the emerging expressions of authoritarianism and neo-populism, study and understand them, in order to be able to counteract their advance. Secondly, it is necessary to draw a future together. If the conversation focuses on the collective past, there is nothing left but to give rise to nationalism, which is how division and exclusion begin (Snyder, 2018). But what to do in a society immersed in a global catastrophe from which the future has been stolen? There is no future, no one is able to conceive of it among so much announced disaster. What can be done is to build it, to generate a future for collectivity (Snyder, 2018). And to do so, the first thing that must be recognized is that the great achievement of power has been to install itself in the affective world, in desire, and in personality. Places where it was thought that only instinct ruled, yet, in which, instead, hegemony installs its deepest ordering regimes. It is for this reason that the only way to attack the apparatus of oppressive power becomes collective, ceasing to focus political interests on the idea of who one is individually, and trying to evaluate the connections established with others, lives as shared, the existence of the multiple and through the multiple. Donna Haraway, a biologist and feminist philosopher, and professor emeritus at the University of California, should be followed when she encourages generating new kin relationships (Haraway, 2016).
Figure 4: Power to the People – Tutti a casa, documentary poster (2017).
If what people really want is to establish a new real, and effective, democracy, they must complicate the existing one (Rosanvallon, 2020). Simplification only leads to monumental imbalances and inequalities. And for this, it will be necessary to establish a new conception of power, to take it and stop receiving it as exercised. That is to say, to embrace power as resistance, to understand it in Foucauldian terms of relation, and to engage in a guerrilla war (Gonzalo, 2021). To take creation and the exit from the establishment as a banner, to do activism, to play with artivism. In short, to promote the intersection of the different struggles, because in the end, the link that unites all the displaced people is the desire to live. One must demand one's own existence to be recognized, and this cannot happen if the same is not recognized for others. The protection and devotion of the war-state regime in which the whole world finds itself leads only to self-submission and expulsion from the very spaces that people generate.
Global democracy must be understood as something that goes beyond institutions and even localized governments; the new democracy that is yet to come must be based on public, critical and activist reasoning. What becomes of it will depend, to a large extent, on how much time people are willing to invest in conjugating it. In the end, there is no truer thing than the idea that "enunciating means activating" (Gessen, 2018). Therefore, new truths must be enunciated, collective truths, traversed, multiple and multiplied. Only in this way, through imagination and creativity provided by stepping outside the norm, will it be possible to give meaning again to those empty signifiers appropriated by the executor, and it is not only a matter of giving meaning, but of generating meaning, of creating, and of activating (Gessen, 2018). We are in a battle for the dignification of life, and that battle must be democratic and collective.
Figure 1: The School of Athens, Raphael, Apostolic Palace in the Vatican (1509-1511). Available on: https://www.wga.hu/art/r/raphael/4stanze/1segnatu/1/athens.jpg
Figure 2: Taking on Putin with peashooters, Tony Bell (2022). Available on: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/imageserver/image/%2Fmethode%2Fsundaytimes%2Fprod%2Fweb%2Fbin%2F276dd4e2-9729-11ec-bcb9-65f2c5c7f961.jpg?crop=1600%2C900%2C0%2C0
Figure 3: Cartoon by Jack Swanepoel (2016). Available on: https://nhppa.org/?p=11384
Figure 4: Power to the People?, documentary (2017). Available on: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5137118/
De Sousa Santos, Buenaventura (2010). Más allá del pensamiento abismal: de las líneas globales a una ecología de saberes. At Descolonizar el saber, reinventar el poder, p. 29-60. Uruguay: Ediciones Trilce.
Emcke, Caroline (2018). The spiral of hate. From the networks to the political reality [lecture]. Barcelona: CCCB. Available on: http://www.cccb.org/es/multimedia/videos/conferencia-de-carolin-emcke/230022
Gessen, Masha (2018). Imagination and democracy [lecture]. Barcelona: CCCB. Available on: http://www.cccb.org/es/multimedia/videos/masha-gessen-la-imaginacion-y-la-democracia/229303
Gonzalo, Ignasi (2021). El problema del poder. Barcelona: Fundació Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.
Haraway, Donna (2016). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making kin. Environmental Humanities, 6 (1), p. 159–165.
Inclán, Daniel (2015). Abyecciones: violencia y capitalismo en el siglo XXI. Nómadas, v. 43. Colombia: Universidad Central.
López Petit, Santiago (2011). Lo no-ideológico en tanto que verdad. Barcelona: Espai en blanc. Available on: http://espaienblanc.net/?page_id=718
Membe, Achille (2017). Rethinking Democracy Beyond the Human [lecture]. Malta: European Graduate School. Available on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_k3YIupGok
Mishra, Pankaj (2020). The world today. Reflections on the legacy of imperialism [lecture]. Barcelona: CCCB. Available on: https://www.cccb.org/ca/multimedia/videos/pankaj-mishra/234871
Naniche, Denise and Ramoneda, Josep (2021). La era pospandemia: ¿hacia un renacimiento o una edad media? [lecture]. Barcelona: Observatorio FundlaCaixa. Available on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYpUjfMU6jo
Rosanvallon, Pierre (2020). Re-founding democracy in the age of populism [lecture]. Barcelona: Palau Macaya. Available on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rR4UX5emUI&t=808s
Sen, Amartya (2006). Desarrollo económico y libertad. Magazine: SinPermiso. Spain: Montesinos. Available on: https://www.sinpermiso.info/textos/desarrollo-econmico-y-libertad-entrevista
Snyder, Timothy (2018). Una defensa de la libertat — Sobre l’auge de l’autoritarisme avui [lecture]. Barcelona: CCCB. Available on: https://www.cccb.org/ca/multimedia/videos/timothy-snyder/230435