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Fictiocracy: democracy as an illusion

Latin America is the domain of democracy as an illusion. An illusion that is maintained by its governments’ narratives, and a democracy that is corrupted by crime. Español. Português.

Mural painting in Santiago de Chile. Presence of Latin America, 1964–65. Wikimedia Commonns/Farisori. Some rights reserved.

In the past three decades, Latin America has managed to give continuity to its democratic systems of government. However, some data show that what is being consolidated in the region is an illusion of democracy which is not substantiated by a democratic institutional framework guaranteeing the welfare and indeed the life of Latin Americans.

This is an illusory democracy which is upheld by governmental narratives but is not backed up by the kind of state policies that would be expected from consolidated democracies. Thus arises Ficciocracia (Fictiocracy), a string of scenarios that fictionalize the virtues of democracy while reality is being dominated by power factions that transform the democratic system, by way of their management of crime and poverty, into an illusion.

These factions permeate, through illicit associations, the spheres of politics, the security and defense forces, the judiciary, trade unions, the business sector and organized crime. The resulting state of affairs has led to more deaths in democratic times than under the dictatorships that Latin American countries have endured.

This management of crime that penetrates democratic governments, for instance in democratic Colombia, embroiled as it is in a process of violence involving paramilitary groups, guerrillas and drug traffickers, brought the number of deaths during the last 55 years to over 218,000, according to research carried out by the Grupo de Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory Group).

The Mexican democratic system, beleaguered by drug trafficking, has recorded since 2006 over 116,000 deaths linked to crimes related to the drug trade, according to a report by the Italian organization Libera.

By contrast, the Argentine judicial system counted nearly 10,000 deaths and disappearances during the 1970s, when the country was under what is generally considered the region's bloodiest military dictatorship. These figures come to prove the scale and scope of organized violence when the leaders of the various sectors in any given country decide to manage or live alongside crime, rather than denounce and condemn it. And they show how societies suffer when authorities decide to fight it, when crime is already entrenched in spaces of power and in the fabric of society itself.

Another way to distort democracy is by purposively managing poverty, through patronage and social handouts. Latin America is the most unequal region in the world. In Argentina, for example, the income difference between rich and poor in the 1970s was 7-8 times; it is now between 28 and 32 times. The piquetero (picketing) leader Hector "Toty" Flores, who heads the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados de La Matanza (Movement of Unemployed Workers of La Matanza), argues that "we protesters are the desaparecidos (missing persons) of democracy", referring to the lack of opportunities that millions of people are faced with and the inability of the democratic system to generate them.

The following diagram attempts to describe four scenarios in which a democratic system can evolve, from full-fledged democracy sustained by the rule of law, to the ultimate expression of democratic illusion, anchored in schemes which are actually projects for impunity.


To describe how a democratic system becomes an illusion of democracy, four concepts can be of help: two of them focus on the degree of institution building, and two on the degree of social cohesion.

The concept of Institutionality takes into consideration the strength of the State and the agencies of participatory democracy, the capacity of public policies to generate social inclusion sustained over time and the power of state institutions to combat and condemn violence and organized crime.

The concept of Parainstitutionality refers to organizations and schemes which are used to perpetuate illegal financial and commercial activities and corruption and the discretionary management of public resources for the benefit of racketeers. These are the rules of the game that ease the corruption of the institutions of democracy and allow racketeering to implant itself within society by way of crime and violence.

The concept of Empathy is that which allows the different members of civil society to act within a framework of shared values, through the paradigm of care for the planet and the species, setting up agendas for collective action by way of shared political spaces. Empathy allows us to understand the situation of the other so as to achieve enough social cohesion to generate public goods and shield the community from those actors that threaten or undermine it.

Finally, the concept of Social Fragmentation reflects social structures lacking cohesion, where inability to articulate social programs and the division of community members precludes any kind of protection against the advance of racketeering and corruption. These are societies where fragmentation prevents virtuous networks from promoting public goods and solidarity networks from struggling for equitable access to opportunities.

Having defined these four concepts, we can now draw out four quadrants as in the graphic above.

In the upper right quadrant, where consolidated institutionality and high social empathy meet, the conditions exist for the rule of law, where democracy works in practice as an ethical project – a worldview that organizes society as a democracy, that is a system that guarantees human dignity.

It is the framework of a full and real democracy, where citizens' power and the means of participatory democracy - access to information, referenda, public hearings, lobbying regulation laws, participatory budgeting, cooperative banking and other tools that enable citizens to get involved beyond voting - ensure that the democratic system defines individual quality of life and the citizens’ contribution to determining the quality of community life. In this quadrant, the democratic system is fully functioning. It is the only quadrant in which represented democracy actually fits the reality of society.

In the upper left quadrant, institutionality combines with a fragmented civil society. This generates conditions favorable to corporatization (i.e., where the power of corporate interests, over and above the common interest, is relevant and decisive), creating a democracy tied to a moral project. Morality, unlike ethics which is a collectively-built project that focuses on human dignity, is a set of norms and rules imposed by power.

For example, until 1813 slavery in Argentina was a moral project, as for those who defined the norms at that time, it was correct and legal to own slaves. When public policies and state agencies in a democracy begin to be defined and managed by the forces of corporate lobbying, public sector goods become goods that benefit only a small sector of society.

These lobbying forces may respond to certain pressure agendas which are out in the open - business associations that manage their interests by ensuring that a particular law benefits a certain business sector – or hidden - union bureaucracies that use labour demands as an excuse to garner power for the management. They can use accountable methods – open and public negotiations, or public hearings, for government contracts – but also informal mechanisms, such as exerting influence on judges. In this quadrant, democracy gives in to the pressure of the powers that be and the public sphere, which should be enjoyed by all in equal measure, becomes a series of goods or services that benefit a particular sector of society, leading to a democracy of privilege.

In the lower right quadrant, parainstitutionality coexists with some empathy, both of which elements favour cartelization and turn democracy into a criminal project. This is the setting where cartels grow, where crime organizes itself on the strength of the cohesion that characterizes unlawful associations and overcomes social empathy based on ethical values and respect for law.

The strong empathy of mafia procedure – institutional corruption, organized crime such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling, black-market trading and human trafficking -, under some rules of the game which are duly complied with by all factions of the world of crime, prevails over the weakness of public and private institutions in ensuring the rule of law, and corrodes the State's capacity to control and penalize. In this way, parainstitutionality in the sphere of the state -  bribes to benefit a certain business group's bid for a public tender, kickbacks to politicians and security forces to ensure inaction on crime - and in the sphere of the market - protection to businesses so that they can operate without threats and assault, commercial companies and financial corporations engaged in money laundering to mask illegal activities – flourishes in parallel to regular institutions.

And empathy between those involved in crime and those who should be fighting it creates the required framework for coexistence to avoid chaos. In this quadrant, corruption and organized crime find the necessary conditions to prosper under respected mafia codes, turning the system into a democracy of crime.

The fourth quadrant, below left, merges parainstitutionality with social fragmentation, granting the conditions for the development of mega-corruption, which destroys democracy and transmutes it into an impunity project. The State is either absent or permeated by criminal forces and illicit associations which, in addition to seizing public funds, co-opt state channels, thus guaranteeing impunity to crime.

Civil society generates harmful transactions such as purposively managing poverty, crime to finance those in a position of power and influence, and ignorance to manipulate the population. And market rules are replaced by the strength of organized crime and companies become facades masking illegal business activities. The state loses control of the territory and the monopoly of violence, and societies are dominated by violence and crime. In this quadrant, complete social degradation is in full view: business becomes a shady deal; shady deals become structural corruption; structural corruption becomes impunity, and impunity becomes pretense. The gap between real democracy and illusory democracy is at its widest: this is the democracy of impunity.

Only one of the four quadrants is real democracy, where the State is at the community’s service: it is the quadrant presenting democracy as an ethical project. In the remaining three, democracy degenerates and becomes a scheme at the service of the powerful, the criminal, or the violent: democracy as a moral project at the service of the privileged; democracy as a project of crime, at the service of racketeers, and democracy as a project of impunity, ultimately co-opted by the power of violence and organized crime.

Therefore, in Latin America only very few countries, having succeeded in consolidating the rule of law, enjoy full democracy. In most of them, only conditions to live an illusion of democracy exist, as the systems of government are serving privileges, crime and impunity.

In this sense, we can say that Latin America is the domain of Fictiocracy: democracy as an illusion. An illusion that is maintained by its governments’ narratives, and a democracy that is corrupted by crime.


Translated by Katie Oliver, currently a volunteer at DemocraciaAbierta.


About the author

Carlos March es periodista argentino, ex director ejecutivo de la Fundación Poder Ciudadano y director de comunicación estratégica de la Fundación AVINA

Carlos March is an Argentinian journalist, former executive director of the Fundación Poder Ciudadano and director of strategic communication of Fundación AVINA.

Carlos March es jornalista argentino, ex-diretor executivo da Fundação Poder Cidadão e diretor de comunicação estratégica da Fundação AVINA.

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