The King is dead! Long live the King! is the well-known phrase used in France at the death of a monarch to announce the enthronement of his successor. The motto, used since 1422 on the occasion of the death of Charles VI and since the 13th century in England, signified the continuity of the monarchical institution, the automatic legitimisation of whoever was proclaimed sovereign, but also the attempt to put an end to the intrigues and quarrels that were common at the end of each reign.
It also meant the ratification of the unity of the kingdom, and the people’s obligation to accept vassalage to the new ruler and to renounce secessionist or rebellious attempts.
Can one say today “Democracy is dead, long live democracy”? This is what seems to happen with each new election of representatives, in which ideas or programmes are less and less important and interesting, and more and more interested in the aesthetics of publicity and the dirty war tactics that accompany them. A strategy that presupposes and encourages collective idiotisation, but whose power of seduction is diminishing.
So much so that in the electoral events of recent decades, the majority faction tends to be the one that prefers to abstain from participating, a fact paired with countless signs of popular scepticism about the reliability of the options in the fray.
And no wonder: the repeated betrayal of pre-election promises, the banality of courtly quarrels, the defamation of media conglomerates together with the portion of corruption that really exists, the ever-diminishing space left by the de facto power to root transformations, the lack of internal democracy and militant disaffection in the parties, the similarity of postulates and obedience to the capital of most of the candidates, the murky scheme of campaign financing, are aspects that, among others, explain and justify the popular distancing.
Of course, the magnification of the dilapidation of democratic mechanisms serves the concentrated power, which conveniently amplifies it, feeding despair with the ideology of anti-politics so that the real protagonist, the people, do not aspire to any change.
In contrast, when occasionally a leader emerges with a certain degree of coherence between proposal and reality, when the people feel an effective change in their living conditions and, above all, a recognition of their inherent dignity, a relationship of devotion and loyalty emerges, often similar to a religious type of veneration. The political right, the sectors of power and their media acolytes then speak of “populism”, without managing to break the link.
But popular dissatisfaction with the lukewarmness and innocuous centrism, the supposed “rationality” of many leaders, also gives rise to irrational figures who exude hatred by attracting adherents with false and immediate proclamations.
These are the monsters who strike a chord of necessity in the midst of the asphyxiation, not only economic, but also existential, of individuals anguished by loneliness, the fragmentation of the social fabric, disorientation and the failure of illusory or provisional meanings of life. These ogres, engendered by the system in order to push agendas to the right without their more politically “correct” representatives being at fault, saying what they cannot say, are also the personification of resistance to transformation and to the speed at which changes have taken place in dizzying times.
This is also where the fundamentalist denominational currents hatch their eggs, which in an exacerbated dualism promise to exchange the “earthly hell” in which we live for a dubious transmundane paradise, offering an iron ethic and emotional restraint in the face of generalised shipwreck, in exchange for a few bucks. This is how these new Protestants – today called neo-Pentecostals, (from the Greek pentekostes, the fiftieth day after Pesach (Passover) in the Hebrew tradition on which Shavuot (feast of the first fruits) is celebrated, or the descent/baptism of the Holy Spirit to the apostles in the Christian interpretation) – return to the old practices of indulgences that Luther criticised so much, receiving from the faithful hard cash in exchange for the blessing of their pastors.
Of course, the phenomenon should not be reduced simply to a hoax who’s marketing alternately combines mythical figures, smiling faces or apocalyptic sentences. On the other hand, explaining the impact of these currents by claiming that they are exclusively geopolitical domination manoeuvres from the United States, counterposing their predominant cults in order to weaken the Catholic flock and silence the echo – especially in the 1970s and 1980s – of the rebellious youth currents that drew on Liberation Theology, can lead to a restricted understanding of the issue. Although the latter is a factor that should be included in the analysis, in view of the accelerated expansion of these churches in the poor peripheries of Latin America and the Caribbean, which surely, in a sort of counter-reformist counter-coup, motivated the Church of Rome to elect an Argentine and Latin American pope in an attempt to regain the support of the neglected social sectors.
The religious cults that proliferated in the region after the social mutilation that took the lives of thousands of left-wing leaders at the hands of military dictatorships, have as a common characteristic the return to a certain type of direct experience, in the style of ancient mystics who advocated ecstatic contact with the ineffable, in rejection of the incomprehensible formality of ahistorical rituals. Hence, beyond their showiness and their interpretation in a Christian and conservative key, it must be recognised that in the eyes of the believer, they contain a quota of spiritual benefit and the renewal of a faith buried by stagnation and centralist bureaucracy habitually allied with the powerful.
In many groups belonging to these churches, this belief is linked to a kind of “prosperity theology”, according to which acceptance through faith leads to worldly riches and success. As will be understood, this creed, from which an “entrepreneurialism of poverty” is derived, is precisely adapted on the one hand to the pressing needs generated by capitalist exclusion and, on the other, to the individualistic sense of a salvationism in which only winners have a place, orbiting within the usual parameters governing the law of the American jungle.
In this way, both the justified alienation and popular disbelief in political schemes emptied of meaning, as well as the hired gun of the conservative order, act in non-consensual complicity in the murder of democracy. However, it is worth asking ourselves whether democracy, beyond the profuse conceptual apparatus it tends to distil, has ever existed, or is government by the people, self-government, still a dream, a utopia, an aspiration?
Democracy as part of the historical process of enlarging freedom
No phenomenon emerges complete, pure, or overnight. Human history can be seen as a flask in which successive actions and reactions, activated by relations of differentiation and complementation, give rise to provisional and unstable syntheses, some more extended in time than others, but finally and always capable of being modified.
When speaking of democracy, a reduced and incomplete sampling is often used, directing the look to a specific and recent model developed in the course of Western civilisation and, in particular, to the type imposed by the hegemonic power of the day, nowadays already in trouble. Quite possibly, the decadence of the attraction once exerted by the lights of Hollywood and its associated institutions is today cast as a decaying shadow over the once-declared poem of freedom and democracy.
Or did indigenous peoples, blacks, women or immigrants enjoy equal rights and opportunities since and after the revolution of 1776? Or did the American citizen choose to voluntarily submit to the denial of the right to universal health care, housing and education without distinction, to the incessant and unhealthy increase in armament, to the illusion of extreme exitism and to the permanent failure that the binary image of winners and losers entails?
Even so, the aforementioned model of democracy, intimately related to the idea of the “nation state”, inspired a relative disengagement of many peoples from unilateral exploitation by European colonial powers, without abandoning the patterns of cultural domination.
A scenario that was too euphorically called “independence” and even “decolonisation”, laying the foundations for people to acquire a perception of possible individual and collective rights, but also opening the door to a multinational concentration of power identical to that of former empires, only without fully making visible those who pulled the strings of the system.
Thus, after peoples have suffered millennia of alienation and been trained in habits of servitude coined by soulless elites, cemented by moral and legal codes and defended by the violence of armed and religious institutions, how could one think of social subjects determined to assert their freedom? Far from provoking the repentance of minorities for such humiliations, this was the main argument of the elites to deny full citizenship rights for long decades, proscribing or conditioning the vote of the majorities. Thus, it was only after prolonged struggles for the right to vote that universal suffrage was achieved in the 20th century, a principle that has since been continually subverted, even suspended and banned by the dominant sectors.
Still today, the bombardment continues through pervasive media manipulation and personalised propaganda attempts to prevent people from being able to make an unconditioned choice about what is best for their lives. And even if such a demolition of elementary democratic principles were not persistently produced, can it be assured that the people, suffocated and oppressed by a cruel reality that forces them to bleed to death in order to barely survive, are in the best conditions to stop and freely reflect on which government suits them, or if any suits them at all? From where to remove it the necessary energy to commit themselves, mobilise consciousness, better understand the complex web in which the system tries to trap the multitudes?
How is it possible then, in this context, to give a sense of evolution to the course of history, if at every step we take, the scourge of violence, misery and inequality threatens to extinguish all hope for the human condition?
It is obvious that without a distribution of economic power, a radical improvement in the living conditions of the people, democracy is and will remain a chimeric construction without a solid foundation. It is therefore necessary to move towards a new conception of multidimensional democracy, which guarantees the proportional advancement of equity not only in the dynamics of political decision-making mechanisms, but in all social dimensions.
Humanity’s struggle for emancipation is permanent and growing, in spite of and in virtue of every setback, and is not – as is commonly believed – only a reaction to the iniquity of external events, but, as we shall see below, reflects an impulse in the world that comes from within, from the inner self of human beings.
Democracy as an impulse for liberation, an expression of human intentionality
In the last 200-300 years the development of science has made it possible to improve life. Its younger sister, technology, has collaborated with the creation of numerous useful artefacts (and a great variety of objects of dubious utility as well…), amplifying the capacities of the species.
The increase in the understanding and use of more or less fixed principles during certain periods (commonly referred to as “laws of science”), together with the profusion and showiness of the derived technological wonders, have created in humanity, despite being the main actor of its own plot, the belief in the determinism of external events and in particular, of the prevalence of the materiality of phenomena over human life.
This look, which has developed in a clear and just reaction to the thousand-year-old ecclesiastical dictatorship in the West, and which by extension has had a strong influence in its colonies, tends to look at the world from an exclusively materialistic and mechanistic view, typical of the industrialist period. This prevents us from composing reality from an understanding of the structure of human life, which is built from the perceptual world but also from emotion, intellect and the immaterial but powerful profundity of the intentionality of consciousness.
In this interaction between the intangible and the tangible, the human collective creates realities, following a process of liberation that, not without some resistance, modifies social and political schemes. This impulse operates through the different generations, which often question what has been built by previous generations, branding it as outdated, incomplete or mistaken.
It is precisely this dynamic of history that today puts a deformed democracy in check, with the young cohort being the first line of denunciation, non-collaboration and a silent and ostensibly abstinent rejection of the obstruction of the emancipatory course that today’s distortion of democracy represents.
Therefore, the best optic to assume in order to get out of the political swamp, generating new and revolutionary horizons, is to add to the methodology of social and political change the analysis of the transformation of the living landscapes in the human interior, considering the existential dimension of the collective subject, which, in short, is inseparable from the meaning of this practice.
In the words of Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine, “human actions are like the intersection of reality and possibility. I would like to highlight the role of utopias. Utopias are general ideas of new possibilities. They are important for the future of humankind.”
Murder and rebirth. Towards a real democracy
Known in Ancient Egypt as Bennu, the Greeks and later the Romans renamed the mythological bird capable of being reborn from its own incineration as the Phoenix Bird. Will democracy be able to do so?
The German physicist Clausius, in his corollary derived from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, stated that “no cyclic process is such that the system in which it occurs and its environment can return at the same time to the same state from which they started”.
If such a physical law can be applied to the democratic ideal, it is undeniable that the premises on which this political system emerged, even in different cultural experiences, have varied and varied greatly. A fact which, moreover, would add to the explanation of its decline (or murder).
In the present and future context, what conditions would popular self-government (literal translation of government from the Greek “demos”, which meant nothing other than a place or constituency together with those who inhabited it) have to have in order to conform to the human aspiration for greater freedom and collective development?
If we are to look into the future of democracy – if it continues to be called that – we can take two different looks. One, which hypothesises a more or less near future, for which we will have to study what lives and is projected from the friction of the coexisting generational landscapes in the same historical period in struggle with the resistance of the main vectors of established power.
The second, which raises our vision towards a more distant horizon and allows us to glimpse a certain constant in the growing rhythm of history.
In relation to the immediate, the demands that will tend to be projected by a good part of the generation (between 35 and 50 years of age approximately) that is today assuming a preponderant position in different fields of the social scenario, the demands for an equal relationship between genders, direct democracy, greater autonomy, decentralisation and horizontality in decisions, together with environmentalist and animal care proclamations, in a context of strong digital technology fetishism, are notable.
It could be argued that, even if they are of the same age, the feelings of a young urban middle-class person are not the same as those of a young person living in a favela or rural area, especially if these differences are increased by gender, culture or socio-economic conditions. Such objections are of course acceptable, just as there is irrefutable evidence on a daily basis that people of different ages do not embrace the same causes because they belong to the same stratum.
What we wish to highlight here, beyond the difficulty of establishing absolute, let alone deterministic, categories, is that the growing intra-generational interconnection is homogenising (or imposing) a certain core of aspirations, which ends up catapulting itself to the social surface in clear contrast to the sensibility of other eras.
For the same reason, this generational proposal is severely opposed by older age groups, a backward segment whose demographic proportion is significant in places like Europe, Japan or the Southern Cone of Latin America due to the relative ageing of the social collective.
What is certain is that the transforming movements, if they want to take democracy to new and good harbours, will only be able to count on the drive of the new sensibility, for which they will have to include its catalogue of demands.
As for the longer term, it can only be said that beyond the corsi and ricorsi, the non-linear progress proposed by the Neapolitan historian Vico, the direction of history is ascending and has as its driving force the need to liberate human beings from their factual deficiencies, in a course that goes from determination to indeterminacy, humanisation and freedom.
Hence, driven by this unstoppable force that moves history, future societies will tend to break down the violent concentration of power that today dominates all spheres of social life (economic, cultural, political, communicational, etc.), creating decentralised and federative modalities that give the community and individuals greater power over their lives.
Only then, in a close and real democracy, will it be possible to exercise, for the first time, the much-talked-about and today-manipulated human rights.
 Lecture at the Museo de La Plata, La Plata, Argentina, 24 October 1991. Included in the Electronic Magazine N°8 of the Humanist Movement (date and link).
This note has been included in the book “El asesinato de la democracia“, by Aram Aharonian, published by Editorial Ciccus.