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Democracy, tell me your name!

by Théophane Le Méné

"Perhaps that is the “end of history”: the fact that most men and women play no part in building civilisation"

Philippe Muray wrote about many different visions of the world. When he wrote about the vision that has been imposed as the official narrative of our times, the author defined it as the endless paean of praise offered up by the Empire of Good to itself. Concerning the Empire of Good, the author of the eponymous article – L’Empire du bien – highlighted democracy’s plethoric metaphysics, the self-regarding nonsense characteristic of the modern world which he hated so much. Indeed, who could disagree with the idea that, today, democracy plays the role once fulfilled by the catechism? There are no speeches, no government policies that are not accompanied by a democratic stamp of approval, a signature proving the authenticity of their compatibility with the hegemonic discourse. And brave is the man who refuses to utter the slogan: “No freedom for freedom’s enemies!”

But it is not only in bars and pubs that we hear the endless complaints about the state of the country from those who do not recognise themselves in a regime elevated by history to the status of a god. However, as Winston Churchill once wryly observed, “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

What well informed observer of political life would be dishonest enough, today, to assert that sovereignty – as outlined in the nascent democratic ideology – belongs to the people? When citizens vote against a European Constitution, the Treaty of Lisbon is imposed on them within a matter of months. When they vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the French presidential elections, they are have Brechtian images of the fertile womb’s vile beast thrust in their faces. When millions take to the streets to display their opposition to gay marriage, they are reduced by the powers that be to a handful of violent extremists. When a crushing 93% majority opines that the Roms find it hard to integrate into French society, the head of state invites Leonarda, a young illegal immigrant sent back to her own country, to return to France regardless of the laws currently in place. And what is there to be said about the promises that successive governments have failed to honour? All we can do is shrug our shoulders and recognise that, paraphrasing Henry Queuille, the President of the Conseil, those promises only concern the people who take them seriously. No system can lay claim to perfection and it would be simplistic to reject the ideas of those unable to attain it. But when the regime begins to act in a way that contradicts its original premises, we have the right to question its legitimacy.

Hegel, Kojève and, later, Fukuyama predicted the end of history effected by means of a liberal democratic consensus that would make armed conflict a thing of the past. In fact, Jacques Attali, a leading advocate of democracy, said exactly the same thing when he asserted in Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming World Order (1990) that no democracy had ever waged war against another. Now, we know that the theological and political conception of the State implies a kind of virility, a sacrificial tonality that, according to Max Weber, demands “that it confronts the reality of death in order to defend the interests of the community.” But, instead, the advent of democracy has resulted in the diffusion of the liberal ideal of a pacified, and thus depoliticised, world in which everything possible is done to satisfy subjective rights and ensure that all individuals are able to pursue their own happiness. In exchange for which, modern democracy is able to forget its foundations – what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Perhaps that is the “end of history”: the fact that most men and women play no part in building civilisation. As the philosopher Marcel Gauchet said in 2009: “We can talk about a crisis of democracy in the sense that Western society has done away with the government of the people by the people.”

Just as much contemporary art camouflages its inherent vacuousness with a discourse of self-sublimation, modern democracy’s panegyrics to itself hide the fact that it has lost its way. But this immanent dialectic does not provide the necessary conditions for the re-enchantment of politics required to unite the people around the idea of the common good. Will the time come when a child emerges from the crowd to announce that the king has no clothes and that liberal democracy, in which we have been cradled since birth, is nothing more than a grandiose condom that prevents all contact between the State and its citizens to the benefit of a tiny elite? We have probably never been so close to such a situation.

Théophane Le Méné

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