Year XXXVII, 1995, Number 2 - Page 87
The Crisis of Democracy and the Crisis of Foreign Policy
Nowadays, there is an increasing awareness of the fact that the industrialised world is going through a crisis of democracy, that is, of an increasing detachment of citizens from the political class which is supposed to represent them. This phenomenon is demonstrated by low electoral turn-outs, by the spread of corruption, by the excessive power wielded by political lobbies, and by the growing popularity of extremist or “anti-government” political groups, whose power is based on the all encompassing rejection of politics that is gaining currency among the electorate.
Some have even been driven to predict the end of democracy itself, while among those who refuse this gloomy perspective, many believe that it is possible to provide an exclusively institutional solution to the crisis, in particular by taking advantage of the new resources made available by technological progress. In today’s world information travels with unprecedented speed and in unprecedented amounts, and citizens now dispose of quantities of data infinitely greater than those available to them in the past for the purpose of making up their minds about the problems which politicians are obliged to tackle. With this in mind, it has been argued that a participation in the political process which is restricted to a vote every few years is insufficient to give people the sensation of counting for anything in the process of political decision-making; and this provokes a gulf between the electorate and its representatives. The solution, in such a perspective, would be to exploit data transmission techniques in order to consult citizens more often about the nature of the substantial decisions of the moment, while refining techniques in such a way as to eliminate as much as possible an excessive simplification of the issues involved and the creation of artificial controversies. The goal is gradually to eliminate the distance separating opinion polls from referendums, and increasingly to extend the use of the latter in such a way as to tend towards the obsolescence of representative institutions and to achieve forms of semi-direct democracy.
It is a fact that there exists a connection between the degree of technological development and the structure of power. It has been due to the innovations that have allowed people, goods, capital, information and images to move, and be transmitted, ever more rapidly from one place to another that democracy has been able to evolve from being a technique for governing a city, as in ancient Greece, into a technique for governing a continent, as is the case today in the United States. Yet it is also true that the same conclusions can be drawn for dictatorship. The fact remains that technology as such is neutral with respect to forms of government, since the same tools can be used by the governing class to oppress and manipulate the governed as by the governed for controlling the governing class, or for throwing them out of power.
Democracy is not only a technique of government. It is based on the idea of citizenship. And citizenship, experienced as a positive value and not as a purely juridical fact, is above all the consciousness of belonging to a political community that is able to pursue a great political design on which depends the security of all and the realisation of the fundamental conditions for affirming the great values of civil co-habitation. This has occurred, albeit very imperfectly, during recent history in both East and West, when, in the most tense period of the cold war, the opposition between democracy and communism, and the threat of nuclear war, gave an idealistic content to politics and a justification for citizens’ support of the political authority. This was repeated briefly when Gorbachev aroused people’s hopes that the world was heading toward a durable peace that would be guaranteed by a United Nations Organisation capable of assuming the role of an embryonic world government on the basis of cooperation among the states belonging to it.
Yet this period has come to an end, and no great political design is now discernible in the world political scene. The United States has by now been deprived of its historic role as the defender of democracy against the threat of communism. It is manifestly unequal to the task of guaranteeing on its own a world government, and its foreign policy is conditioned by increasing pressure for a more isolationist stance. The UN has been weakened by serious blows to both its finances and its prestige. The Russian Federation, having abandoned its internationalist ideology, is riven by disturbing imperialistic temptations. Western Europe is not finding the strength to confront alone the problems of its own security and its own stability, and risks sinking once again into the suicidal logic of the clash between divergent national interests, while the eastern part of the continent is being destabilised by nationalistic shocks and by the ethnic wars which have torn ex-Yugoslavia apart. The alliance between the United States and Japan is currently in crisis which, in addition to provoking serious commercial disputes between the two countries, is obliging Japan to take responsibility for its own foreign and security policy, something it has never had to cope with in the post-war era. This in turn raises the prospect of radically transforming the political framework of the Far East, and of re-awakening in the other countries of the region fears and defensive attitudes that had seemed definitively overcome.
Certainly there is not a lack of positive signals in the world, such as the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, the laborious peace process between Israel, the Palestinians and Syria, and the probable end of the bloody civil war in Northern Ireland. But there remains the fact that these events do not form part of a broader, world-wide design that is oriented toward the pursuit of a great objective capable of mobilising hopes and arousing energies. And the lack of such a political design, in the different regional situations where arduous attempts are being made to overcome centuries-old injustices and profound hatreds, means that the forces that are working for peace and for the emancipation of peoples risk isolation and defeat.
The crisis of democracy is therefore linked nowadays to the crisis of the world balance of power, or rather, of foreign policy tout court. The collapse of the illusion that the victory of democracy over communism would coincide with the end of history, and the dissipation of the Gorbachevian illusion that world peace can be founded on good will and on co-operation among peoples, has meant that politics has lost its bearings, and is tending to degenerate into a sterile competition between sectoral interest groups. Politics needs to find another global design, one which can restore hope to people and revive the democratic process. Yet overcoming the crisis presupposes deriving the consequences from the realisation, which moreover has by now penetrated into the collective consciousness, that humanity now represents a single community of destiny.
This means that foreign policy can no longer be regarded as an activity whose goal is to guarantee every individual people the necessary conditions of security for pursuing their own progress, since by now the progress of each people can be pursued only within the framework of the general progress of mankind. For this reason the only political design, however distant its achievement may be, that can nowadays make individuals feel that in some way they are participants in the global process of furthering the values of peace, liberty, equality and justice, and hence reinforce in them a sense of citizenship and revive the democratic process, is specifically that of the progressive abolition of foreign policy, that is, the progressive political unification of the human race.
Citizenship has a second dimension, which nevertheless is intrinsically tied to democracy. This concerns the sense of belonging to a city. It is in the city that democracy has its cultural basis, where it takes root in the gaining of awareness about the nature of real problems, in the immediate experience of everybody’s needs, in the debates which are carried forward day after day between men and women who know each other. It is evident that the cultural basis of democracy does not lie in the methods, as sophisticated as they are impersonal, of registering opinions which, to the extent that they are not formed through debate, are by definition arbitrary. Yet this albeit fundamental second dimension of citizenship can not exist without the former. In today’s interdependent world an intense dialogue between people about the problems of cohabitation can be developed in cities only to the extent to which the problems about an individual community’s quality of life, which are tied to the nature of a specific piece of territory, are not isolated from the general context of the problems affecting the whole of the human race. The common good of the city is therefore such only in as much as it is felt to be a component of the common good of the human race. When this awareness does not exist, and hence the institutional consequences are not derived, the reduction of the political horizon to the local (or regional) community becomes a principle for undoing social life and a factor which serves to break up those broader solidarities whose enlargement and consolidation are the main historical contributors to the process of human emancipation.
There exist today two truths whose transparency is so great as to render them invisible to the vast majority of people. The first is that the creation of the nation-state has been definitively overcome by history and represents the bottleneck that lies at the heart of the crisis of democracy. The nation-state is a structure which bases its legitimacy on the tribal selfishness of nations that are closed within their own claimed naturalness, and that as a result can not support the great design of world unification which would provide the basis for the hope of universal citizenship. Moreover nation-states, precisely because of their closed nature, simultaneously extinguish all impulses toward local self-government, imposing an unnatural uniformity by means of the centralisation of their administrative, financial, educational and military structures, and hence prevent the revival of the idea of citizenship as active participation in the life of a city.
The second is that the superseding of the nation-state can take place in Europe in the coming years, and indeed will not happen if it does not come to pass in Europe, since only in Europe, through the integration process, has the phenomenon of the de facto eclipse of national sovereignties been realised in specifically political terms: and on this will depend the destiny of the whole human race during the current period of its history. Nevertheless, the people in Europe who bear the responsibility for managing national power, and alongside them the representatives of culture and the media, are almost completely unaware of the immense opportunity facing Europe and of the seriousness of the charge which Europe’s power-brokers will have to answer to before the tribunal of history if this opportunity were to be lost. By accepting the national framework as the primary framework of the political struggle, Europe’s politicians are wasting their energies on fictitious controversies about false issues, on sterile battles for the attainment of historically irrelevant objectives. Moreover, this is taking place precisely as the very framework within which the political battle is being carried out is disintegrating, which is opening up for all Europe the perspective of a collapse back into violence, disorder and dictatorship.
But this situation can not continue for long. As the former president of the Italian Republic, Luigi Einaudi, put it, “In the life of nations, the mistake of not knowing to seize a fleeting opportunity is irreparable.” Europe’s opportunity to make its unification process irreversible through monetary union and radical institutional reform will most probably expire with the end of the second millennium. The political motivations for European unity are becoming exhausted, and the economic drive alone will not be sufficient to keep afloat a political framework which, if it is not rapidly completed, will be unable to avoid collapse. In any event it is clear that Europe’s current intergovernmental arrangement can not last indefinitely. If that were the case, there would be no reason to try and supersede it. The fact is that Europe has arrived at the moment when it is obliged to take decisions on which will depend its survival as a political entity in the world balance of power, and thereby the destiny of the democratic process.
The periods in which great historical choices are played out are moments of crisis, in which the greater the opportunities are the greater are the dangers, and in which therefore the free will of people becomes a decisive factor. In order for Europe to appreciate the need to decide in favour of unity in the coming years and, in this way, to set the seal on a decisive turning-point in the world’s history, this will must be manifested primarily in two places. It must be expressed in some great decision makers, that is, in statesmen who are aware of the great opportunities and of the extreme dangers which Europe faces, and hence of the enormous responsibility that rests on their shoulders. But it must also be manifested directly in the citizens, without whose driving force no great historical transformation can be undertaken. Europeans must be conscious of the fact that European citizenship, which the very logic of the process forced the heads of state and government to recognise in the Maastricht Treaty, can not take shape and is destined to turn out to be an illusion, if the first of the rights which give substance to the idea of citizenship is not exercised: that of choosing democratically, at the European level, the men and women who are to govern the citizens of Europe.
The two areas where the European will must be expressed are not independent one from the other. The consciousness of citizens increases dramatically when their leaders confront them with specific decisions, just as the capacity of leaders to take vital decisions depends on the support of the citizenry. Thus, it is only through the reciprocal influence of these wills, and through their mutual reinforcement, that the European constituent process can come into being.
It is in this perspective that the federalists have a crucial role to play. They are currently the only political movement which is conscious of the nature of the choices to be made and of the importance of what is at stake. Certainly, the federalists are not members of the existing political order, and hence they have no power. But they are part in a virtual sense of a political order that has not yet been established, and this gives them a different power which is decisive in historical turning-points, when the old order has been worn away by corruption, impotence and hypocrisy: the power of truth. They have the responsibility to speak the truth, trusting in its capacity of self-diffusion through its inherent power of persuasion, without falling into the fatal error of believing that the force of a political message depends on the means used to spread it, and without renouncing the coherence of their positions in the name of a purely ritual, and hence irrelevant, consensus. They must affirm with pride their difference from the political parties, and reject with pride the idea that involvement in politics means aping their displays of power, compromises and intrigues, as well as refusing to align themselves along the false ideological fronts that are engendered by national politics. The federalists must exercise with rigour and tenacity their irreplaceable role as the conscious vanguard of Europe’s citizens.