Democracy is dying of success

Are we governing ourselves? Daniel Innerarity argues that societies have seldom been governed, in a handful of issues and only at certain times. Interview. Español Português

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano Daniel Innerarity
25 October 2016

Daniel Innerarity. Photo: all rights reserved.

Manuel Serrano: Referring to your discussion with Pia Mancini here in Lisbon, what would you say the state of health of democracy in the world is today?

Daniel Innerarity: I believe that democracy is dying of success. Democracy is an increasingly accepted system of government, there is a growing number of countries that have adopted systems that can be said to be democratic, despite their shortcomings. The problem we are facing has more to do with politics than with democracy. I try to explain this in my last book: we are living now in a democracy without politics, in a post-political era. Democracy works quite well as a space for discussion, mobilization, protest - for exercising the functions of what I call the negative sovereign: asking things, protesting at things. What is not working is the ability to frame these protests and turn them into an exercise in positive sovereignty: building, transforming, implementing. This is my general diagnosis.

We are living now in a democracy without politics, in a post-political era.

MS: What do you think, specifically, of the health of Spanish democracy and the political impasse that has resulted in nearly a year of a caretaker government? What is your analysis of the crisis of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE)? Is Spain a good example of what you just described?

DI: Spain is a very clear example of what I just said. Since 2008 we have been through a long string of protests, challenges, social movements, pledges against evictions - that is, a series of exercises in negative sovereignty. Civil society has managed to paralyze public works, hospital privatization processes, many things, but we have failed to set up an alternative majority, which would have required reaching a compromise and finding common ground between very different political agendas – the Socialists’, Podemos’, the nationalists’. The end result is that we will be having more of the same.

MS: What do you think is the future of the nation state as we know it? Does it have one? Is the refugee crisis a symptom of its decline?

DI: It is indeed. Regarding the refugee crisis, Europe and the cities have had a more daring, and bold position than states, much more commensurate with the nature of the problem. I live in a city that has made plans for hosting refugees, but it has not been able to carry them out because there are no refugees - because the bottleneck for their arrival is controlled by the state.

I think that Europe in particular, and the world in general, is being transformed through networks - linking cities, regions, nations -, global agreements being forged, and contributions from a huge number of institutions and experts. The instance standing in the middle - the instance that has been traditionally associated with the sill of the electorate - is the one that is going to suffer the most. It is also the one that holds back progress the most, not so much due to a problem of administrative law, but to the fact that the electorate is scared to death and has short-term interests. We are quite unable to agree on the common good.

MS: But, why are the states blocking the arrival of refugees? Are the political elites to blame?

DI: Well, we have here a very difficult problem to solve. As we have seen in Germany, when Merkel has been tough with the countries in the South of Europe, preventing what she has called "too much solidarity", she has done very well in the polls and in the acceptance ratings. But when she has adopted a responsible position on refugees, she has lost. It is not so much the elites who are to blame – this would be an oversimplification. Quite often, the elites behave in the way they do because they know that we, the voters, would not put up with certain situations.

Quite often, the elites behave in the way they do because they know that we, the voters, would not put up with certain situations.

MS: You published a book last year entitled Politics in times of indignation, an overview and an analysis of society’s idea of what politics is. Is there a risk, as you yourself said in an interview, that politics will become irrelevant?

DI: Politics is, partly, incomprehensible to people, partly a group of persons who decide on what is accessory, and partly a social system invaded by logics that are not its own: the logic of the media and the logic of the finance economy. So, sometimes, when I hear people refer to good politics or good government, I always ask a previous question: are societies being governed?

Throughout the history of mankind, societies have been governed on very few issues, and only at certain times. Usually, there has been chaos, the law of the strongest, and the sheer inertia of tradition. We humans have taken control of our destiny in political terms only rarely. The situation we are now going through in Spain is a very good example: there is no government, there is no capacity to govern. I would say that governing is the exception rather than the rule. We are probably heading towards a more chaotic world, where the legitimacy of increasingly less relevant governments is questioned, and where politics is not the place where the greatest wisdom and knowledge is to be found – though this is exactly what is needed to govern.

Either politics recovers some of its configuration capacity in environments where the chain of command no longer applies, and manages to regain some degree of strategic capacity, or it will become something that will not even have to be knocked down – it will become not relevant.


São Luiz Theather, Lisbon, during the conference "What Democracy". Nuno Ramos. All rights reserved.

MS: But are we not facing as well a problem of personal errors and values? Or is it purely an institutional problem?

DI: I do not think it is a problem of people making errors. I believe we make two types of mistaken approaches: one, by thinking that people are very important in politics, and the other, by adopting a regulatory approach - that is, thinking that values are very important. I am not saying that values and individuals are not important, but the systems, structures, institutions and government procedures are more important. This is what we need to watch, rather than the preparedness of whoever takes up the posts – which is important too -: whether the rules, the procedures and the structures are up to the challenges we are facing.

On the other hand, we must understand that most of the problems to be addressed require a mobilization of knowledge. Issues such as climate change, financial regulation, the fight against inequality, the use of technologies that involve great risks, must be addressed with the right values and not dismissing the high degree of knowledge needed in dealing with these matters. These are two errors which are weakening politics very much.

MS: What is your opinion on the rise of populism and what The Economist calls Post-truth politics?

DI: Well, in politics the criteria for truth are very different from those applying in other areas. When someone suggests otherwise, he or she conveys a very wrong idea of politics - as if politics had to do with factual objectivities. Politics has to do with words, with mobilization, with making sense, with moods, and due importance must be given to it all. In Trump’s case, for instance, his contempt for factuality is hard to believe. But it seems to me that this is not as relevant as the fact that we are not governing affections, the intelligibility questions. The politicians’ truth is the truth that mobilizes, that makes things understandable. The truth concerning the facts is a very small aspect of truth in politics.

The politicians’ truth is the truth that mobilizes, that makes things understandable.

MS: Let us go back to Spain for the last question: what do you think about the situation in Catalonia? Is the issue being addressed in the right way?

DI: I think there has been a vicious circle of actions and reactions that have led to a situation where the numbers for unilateral independence are not there, but the numbers are not there either for those who believe that this is a mere effervescence. No, it is a serious problem that could be addressed so that a vast majority of population would find itself represented in the solution, but at this stage this can no longer be done without a profound recognition of Catalonia’s subjectivity.

This interview was conducted on October 7, in Lisbon, at the conference "What democracy?” organized by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.

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