The age of impatience: towards a democracy of instant gratification?

By definition democracy is a permanent deception, as imminent problems are made manifest and no immediate response is offered to them. Moreover, pressure of this sort can only become stronger as the grass always looks greener on the other side of the web.

Ivaylo Ditchev
5 June 2012

I will begin with the hypothesis that democracy is about time.

People’s demands and entitlements that were once contained by custom or religion are becoming ever more impatient and immediate. The new media transparency of the world makes it possible to compare oneself to faraway peoples and request symbols, rights or commodities, sometimes jumping right over local traditions. In 1848, European cities wanted to have their barricades like those in the French revolution; the Kemalists unveiled Turkish women overnight to make them equal to men; and as to the anti-communist revolutions of 1989-91, one of their symbols became, among other things, the desire for bananas that had certainly not been a substantial part of the East European diet, which thus became integral to the image of a western lifestyle (the first East Germans to penetrate the Wall and rush to the supermarkets were called “Bananenfresser”). Waiting, postponing gratification are difficult to legitimate. A new wave of impatience, linked to the ascent of digital technologies, declares that by definition everything should be available at once, at the speed of electromagnetic impulses. If not, one supposes that there is some bug in the system that needs to be removed.

Dictatorship and populism are about immediacy. The tyrant is supposed to take measures the very moment a problem has appeared and resolve it. Pending problems kill dictatorships of any sort. If power cannot or doesn’t want to act, the apparatus simply suppresses information about the problem, or at least transfers responsibility for it to a lower level (the real villain of the Bush era was Cheney, that of Stalin – Beria…). As to the populists, they play upon the hazards of public opinion, addressing ‘the people’ directly (and ever more physically in the age of screens), and thus bypassing mediators, procedures and institutions. Populists give the audience what they want immediately, at least at the level of promises; and for this very reason they are always ready to go in an entirely opposite direction from the one they went in yesterday, always with the same strong conviction. And curiously enough, each U-turn is hailed by voters as responsiveness to popular demands; instead of making the ratings drop, wavering and self-contradiction in fact raises them. Populists like Sarkozy expend their mandate in promising radical changes, reforms and new starts, acting in fact like challengers of their own position; others, like Bulgarian PM Borissov or the Romanian president Basescu, fire official after official to please the audience without taking the responsibility for nominating them in the first place.

The art of democratic government now consists in postponing, in tempering impatiences, and in proceduralizing demands that obviously cannot be addressed simultaneously. By definition democracy is a permanent deception, as pending problems are shown and no immediate response is offered to them. Moreover, pressure of this sort can only become stronger as the grass always looks greener on the other side of the web. This was already the case in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when emerging nation-states hastily modernized by imitating the more ‘advanced’ countries. Now, the problem is that even the time it takes for the modernization-effort itself seems illegitimate, as the dimension of progress has disappeared: instead models, patterns, techniques are to be absorbed into a global market of citizenships, tried on at home or abandoned. The time for the implementation of political projects has shrunk to the first half of the mandate, and seems to diminish further. Government action is supposed to deliver immediately, as Tony Blair in his time remarked, when he reported that journalists ask him on his way to Parliament what they will decide at the next cabinet meeting: there is no longer time to wait for the meeting itself to take place. So should there be a meeting at all - if the PM can announce beforehand what the outcome of it will be?

The new challenges to democracy: speed, impatience, the spatialization of the world. The Arab Spring has been a bitter test of how impulsive movements without programmes or leaders, largely using transnational channels of communication, have ended up electing into power religious groups who have patiently and rather traditionally, worked with the population for decades on end.

One way for democracy to deal with speed is to take up the challenge of what Pierre Rosanvallon has called ‘counter-democracy’  - a form of permanent pressure and control carried out by the people armed in-between with the interactive digital tools. But impatient citizens are rarely moved by long-term agendas like family politics or education; the pressure usually takes the form of negative demands like punishing corrupt politicians or bringing back death sentences for horrible crimes.

Some think that the democratic dispositif needs to speed up its action and resolve the problem before the citizens have had the time to mobilize for protest.  This perspective is often linked to some techno-utopianism, motivated by the belief that computers can replace political will.

Yet another possibility is to accept the fading away of the political and envisage the fragmentation of the sociopolitical scene to such a degree that problems are managed individually by specific agencies. At any rate, what we do know is that we can expect the clash between the impatience of citizens and procedural democracy to be amplified for the foreseeable future.

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