Democratic Unrest
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

It is worth looking at the past as closely as we look to the future. In his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Samuel P. Huntington (the American political scientist whose theories on changes in the world order and the clash of civilisations caused heated controversies) said that the Portuguese Revolution of 25 April, 1974 began the third wave of democratisation that hit the Soviet Union and the whole of Eastern Europe, and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and which continued in Latin America and Africa.


Jacques Louis David, Serment du Jeu de Paume, le 20 juin 1789 [Tennis Court Oath], c. 1791 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Musée Carnavalet, Paris

According to this Harvard professor, the first wave of democratisation lasted almost a century from 1828 to 1926. It was followed by a wave of de-democratisation from 1922 to 1942 (Nazism and fascism). The second democratisation wave lasted from 1943 to 1962, followed by another wave of de-democratisation (communist totalitarianism, the Cold War and the Latin American dictatorships). The third wave of democratisation began with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and end of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, it seemed that liberal democracy, which at the time gained new prestige and became a universal force of attraction, was embodied in the shining light of the perfect, triumphant Statue of Liberty in New York. And then came the peace programme that philosopher Immanuel Kant called Perpetual Peace.

There was also talk, most likely too early, of a Hegelian ‘end of history’ (Francis Fukuyama). In view of everything that has happened in the meantime, we will only be able to say that history has ended if we accept the strange theory that we are living in a post-history that followed the end of history…

Indeed, events in recent decades have shown that history carried on with its greatnesses and miseries, comedies and tragedies, constructions and destructions, progresses and regressions. Thus we realised the excess and rashness of the triumphalistic democratic optimism that had accompanied the passage from the 1980s to the 1990s.

Little by little, as the time that we had been given passed, the growing mood was often of concerned scepticism, followed by a persistent pessimism that often resembled democratic nihilism. These negative feelings have kept on growing and multiplying. Democracies seem to be committed to – or even condemned to – scuppering democracy, which is why there has even been talk of the ‘suicide of democracy’.

Democratic regimes are being threatened by crossfire and converging phenomena that call into question the very foundations of representative democracy. All over the place we are seeing an explosive mixture of plutocracy and technocracy, populism and identitarianism, unlimited consumerism and environmental unsustainability, social rifts and generational ruptures, excessive corruption and media manipulation (Yves Citton talks about ‘mediarchies’ in the dossier of this edition of Electra devoted to the subject of democracy). This mixture threatens the democratic rationale, social equilibrium and citizenship rooted in universal rights and duties. Furthermore, in some cases, the popular vote itself has endorsed and normalised anti-democratic projects. All this is an aggressive affront to democracy or brazenly on the side-lines of democracy.

In order for us to understand the scope of the changes in contemporary democracies and new ways of experiencing (or not experiencing) politics, we must not lose sight of the profound, unprecedented changes in individuals’ relationship with themselves, with others and with the community. These changes, which have been leveraged by the social media, have resulted in the abolition of separation and erasure of the difference between private and public (Anthony Giddens and Philip W. Sutton). All this is compounded by the predominance of feeling – and especially of a feeling that is a mimesis of what others feel – that prevails over thinking and acting, asserting its specific qualities: fluidity, uncertainty, indecision, ambivalence and ineffability.

The Italian philosopher Mario Perniola says of this transfer:

In the replacement of ideology by sensology, bureaucracy by mediocracy and narcissism by specularism, thinking and doing are subordinated to feeling, which acquires the power to give thinking and action an effectual dimension that they would never achieve on their own.

Del Sentire

Contemporary narcissistic individualism, even if, or especially when, it is massified and specularised, tends to reject any common forms of public intervention that do not serve personal interests or bring personal benefits. The discredit of the collective, caused by the resounding failure of soviet communism, invites us to scorn any public intervention that does not have a quick utilitarian outcome and an immediate egotistical purpose.

Even the demonstrations held in the name of great causes, such as the climate and the planet’s future, often diligently take on tones of good individual conscience, superficiality and en masse, or of a performance in a society of media spectacles rather than a profound and serious, coherent and consequential political action.

The French historian and sociologist Marcel Gauchet, author of the book La Démocratie d’une crise à l’autre [Democracy from One Crisis to the Next], has been talking more recently about the current plight of democracies. He warns that we are at:

the close of a great historical cycle that began at the end of the 19th century with the entry of the masses into politics, the organisation of the workers’ movement and the redefinition of the public space around social issues. This configuration created the party democracy that dominated the 20th century. As of the 1970s and 1980s it gave way to a democracy of private individuals who cared very little about public affairs. The relationship with public affairs no longer has a place under the banner of collective aspiration to power but rather under a search for recognition. It is a total change in the democratic scene.1


Robert Capa, Liberation of Paris, August 25th, 1944 © Magnum Photos / fotobanco.pt


Direct (unmediated) and wild (unregulated) forms of participation by people (it would be inappropriate to say citizens), such as those who live through the different terrifying social media, have stirred up uncontrollable waves of ‘feeling’, emotional waves of aggressive irrationality, digital tumults of ethical collapse and political, civic and moral extermination campaigns that have driven people to say that, even in democratic states, we are living in ‘totalitarian societies’. In the ‘Passages’ section of Number 15 of Electra, there was a quote from Noel Gallagher, former vocalist of the British rock band Oasis,‘The only thing real on the Internet is the hate. Everything else is fake’.

In one of his most spectacular broadsides, Umberto Eco said, ‘Social media gives legions of imbeciles the right to speak’ and ‘it has promoted the village idiot to the bearer of truth’. Imbeciles and idiots can obviously also vote, but the ballot is secret and currently ensures that imbecility and idiocy remain invisible and mute…

Although we could espouse different hypotheses to analyse and explain what is happening in politics, no-one can swear by the good health of democracy, and everyone recognises the growing spread of a democratic malaise in the form of a harmful climate that seems to be the ‘end of the reign’ or even the ‘end of the kingdom’. This new age of democratic suspicion has been causing the relentless, dangerous erosion of all representative institutions and the merciless, irreparable discredit of their stakeholders.

This erosion and discredit can be seen in latent or visible forms of democratic fatigue and political anomy and is reflected in electoral abstentions and civic alienation that often give way to angry exasperation and anti-democratic forms of electoral revenge. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw warned, with the irony that made him famous, ‘Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve’.

Today, governing (in its broad sense) in democracy, and in democracies that have become real or virtual stages of the media spectacle society, is being forced to use weapons that will later be turned against those who use them. This ceaseless boomerang effect creates successive vicious circles of accumulated disappointments and discredit, disbelief and disinterest, distancing and grudges. There is no virtue that can resist, nor value that can be consolidated, nor reason that can be established in a democracy that lives in a permanent, unregulated war in which the best winner is the one that uses their worst weapons. Even Niccolò Machiavelli’s old, experienced Prince would be amazed at what is happening and feel disarmed and defenceless…

We could argue that, as a model, which by definition is always incomplete, unfinished and imperfect, it is the nature of democracy to live in crisis. This is its most natural state. Dictatorships are the regimes that present, represent and advertise themselves as definitive and perfect, free from crises and shortcomings. This is why the French philosopher Jacques Derrida said, ‘Being a democrat is acting in the knowledge that we never live in a sufficiently democratic society’.

Even if there may be truth in this normalisation of crises, we must recognise that today’s crisis in democracies is not just a natural crisis of incompleteness and imperfection. It is a crisis that dates back to the foundations of their legitimacy, targeting them and shaking them up, questioning the legality of the methods with which democracy is now put into practice. This deliberate, perverse vagueness that intentionally blurs the lines between the principles, resources and purposes of democracy, mixing everything together in order to attack the whole, wields a hugely destructive power.

On the subject, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben warned, ‘The whole discourse about the term “democracy” today is distorted by a preliminary ambiguity that condemns to misunderstanding those who use it (‘Introductory note on the concept of democracy’). And he explains the theory of this ambiguity:

Those who debate democracy today understand the term as both a way of forming a political body and as a government technique. The term also takes us to a conception of public law and an administrative practice: it designates the way in which power is legitimised and how it is exercised. As it is clear to everyone that, in contemporary political discourse, the term usually refers to a government technique – that, as such, is not at all reassuring – it is easy to understand the malaise of those who continue to use it in good faith in its first sense.

Agamben showed, however, that the ties between these two ideas – legal and political on the one hand and economic and governmental on the other – are deeply rooted in the classics of Greek political thought and have instituted an ambiguous tradition that is hard to unravel.

Many of the attempts to clarify and explain the poor condition in which democracy finds itself are both necessary and insufficient. One of them claims that the disappearance of clear, distinctive political and ideological alternatives (giving that heavy, tepid sensation of ‘more of the same’ and ‘all the same’) frustrates, paralyses and discourages voters.

Others argue that the political, economic and financial system called neoliberalism, which globalises and is itself globalised, has taken over the real powers that belonged to politics. It has left the politicians as prisoners of an inescapable logic that forces them to serve, whether they like it or not, the imperatives and interests of the system’s orthodoxy, leaving them impotent and incapable of making a difference that generates choices and alternatives. In the 1990s, this inability to make a real difference, create a consistent alternative and dare to adopt courageous heterodoxy was called ‘single thought’.

This single thought, which permits no differences, or alternatives or heterodoxies, is considered to be the repository of the sense of history and the direction of progress. It represents a new historical determinism, which is certainly as dogmatic and mistaken as the old Marxist-Leninist determinism of both dialectic and historical materialism.

This new determinism, even when evoked repeatedly with almost religious unctuousness, belies and contradicts the words of the liberal philosopher Karl Popper on the misery of historicism, open societies and the vision of an always undetermined future to be built by the novelty of our thinking and deliberation of our actions.

This single thought, with its structural absence of otherness, unbalances and shuts down the democratic political system, meaning there can be no escape valves and preventing its dynamic creative work. It is single thought that many hold responsible for populisms and national populisms that are spreading and threatening even old, consolidated democracies. These populisms, with their anti-political and anti-politician discourse, have paradoxically resuscitated politics in its most savage and ruthless form.

There are people who have a different view of contemporary populisms. Take the well-known political scientist Chantal Mouffe whose article for this dossier of Electra sets out her ideas on the phenomenon. Here, she clarifies some of her concepts that help sort out the political and social threat of populism today.

Some other political essayists claim that the intentional, methodical annulment of politics, political philosophy and even political economics that we have seen was aimed at their forced, demeaning replacement by financial economics and commercial sociology, thereby transforming politicians into mere managers, salespeople or marketing specialists.

The Gordian knot gets even tighter when people say that any politics not conducted in accordance with the laws and rules of the dominant social and economic system ignores reality and our obligations to it. This politics is accused of being utopian or an ideological delusion, an economic fiasco, a management failure or irresponsibility towards the future and the generations that are going to build and endure it.

This means that there is no longer a choice between different policies, diverse doctrines, diverging ideas, opposing ideologies, conflicting moral policies or antagonistic proposals, all to be reduced to a ‘responsible’ or ‘irresponsible’ choice between reality and fantasy.

This fantasy – said to be incompetent, unacceptable and full of terrible consequences – has been given the infamous name of ideology or ‘ideological preconception’. The canonical code of the global economic and financial system describes as ideology whatever does not agree with this system. Everything that defends or reasserts it on the other hand, however ideological, utopian and unrealistic it may seem, as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu showed, is always called realism, pragmatism, truth, accuracy, competence, management skill, financial correction or a vision of the future.

Therefore, when this system and its devices call for ‘reforms’, it is clear that these reforms are those that adapt what has not yet been adapted to its orthodoxy of preconceptions, purposes and gains.

In this same assembly line of conceptual instruments of power, the classic distinction between right and left was considered an anachronism and useless both for describing the political reality and for working within it. But those who proclaimed this were those who then began to flaunt the trophies that symbolised the triumph of the right over the left.

The effects caused by this unstoppable movement – or this relentless revolution (that since the 1980s has reconfigured democracy – and many say captured and falsified it) , were compounded by another source of pressure that has weakened it even further. It is the judicialisation of politics and the continuous attempts of the legal system to oppose, superimpose or impose itself on the political system in accordance and complicity with the media system. These combined attacks on the credibility of the democratic regime are a powerful cause of its fall from grace and a serious incitement to populist and anti-democratic impulses.

It is not a matter of denigrating or ignoring the essential role of the normal, indispensable exercise of judicial power in compliance with the law and the fight against crime. It is a question of recognising the creation of a device that generates and manages media sensationalism on legal issues, thereby making judicial power a kind of merciless, vigilante enemy of the other powers and their representatives or protagonists, the famous and powerful, in an opportune, premeditated, strategically planned display to show off their legitimate power and corporative strength.

Some of the voices that have been raised against democratic asthenia refer to those who might be the other reasons for this weakness and accuse the left of betting everything on so-called divisive identity causes, while placing social issues on the back burner and abandoning the field where the rights of the most unprotected, vulnerable and needy are defended.

The catalogue of democratic erosion factors also contains the crisis in the welfare state, the causes of which are also bones of unconfessed ideological contention. For some, the problem lies in the size of the state apparatus, which is too big and guarantees too many rights that are not financially viable. This argument can be summed up as, ‘There is not enough money to pay for the current welfare state’.

In reply to these statements, others retort that the capitalist regime in its current stage is founded on financial speculation, the domination of profit and social inequality. The welfare state therefore goes against the natural, intrinsic logic of new capitalism, by which it is unacceptable to use money for solidarity and equality – and not competition and difference, competitiveness and income, which are the driving forces of its victory march.

It is clear that, for people who embrace neoliberal ideas, they strengthen democracy rather than weaken it, as they take the energy of freedom, the results of initiative and the advantage of the enterprising spirit further than they have ever been before. For those who espouse these ideas, the current crisis of democracies is just growing pains. They believe that the real cause is inertia that rejects change and wants to hang on to outdated myths of equality and the distribution of wealth, even when they are unable to create it and are incapable of dealing with the new times. This is the time of capitalist development based on technology, communication, globalisation, the market and profit.

Whatever its nature and its cause, the crisis of democracy exists and is present. The reasons we have listed are further compounded by deep-seated reasons that have discredited politics and democracy, accused of being unable to respond to vital questions. These include the growing acceleration of time; the world’s continuous changeability under the overwhelming push of technology; the menacing instability of the economic and social factors that determine the insecurity of daily life; and the permanent fallibility of expectations, making everything contingent, provisional and precarious. This inevitably generates uncertainty and apprehension, frustration and fear.

Shoshana Zuboff , a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert on the effects of new technologies on the world of work has called our time ‘the age of surveillance capitalism’ and sets out these three laws: Everything that can be automated will be automated. Everything that can be computerised will be computerised. All digital apps that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control. This highly respected author believes that Google and Facebook are or have become the ‘antitheses of democracy’.

Even if they are not clearly visible and are just vaguely perceived, all these changes, with their omnipresent consequences for democracy, generate an individual and collective malaise and a disenchantment that appropriate, reduce or eliminate the vitality of democracy.

In the face of so many pressures and risks, democracy often seems to be a sequestered, impotent regime that is incapable of fulfilling its promises or achieving its goals of safeguarding the principles on behalf of which the following are instituted and proclaimed: defence of the general interest and the common good; compliance with the laws of democracy and equality of all under the law; and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms that both arise from and embody it.

In an interview for this dossier of Electra, political scientist Wendy Brown states:

I take critical theory to continue to be an extremely important intellectual (and not simply academic) activity intended to unsettle the givenness of the present, understand how its elements were made and legitimated, and what alternatives might be immanent within the present for building the future.

Sufragista, Londres, 1909

Suffragette, London, 1909 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Heritage Images / Museum of London

In a situation of so much danger in the present and so many fears for the future, there are obviously questions arising from perplexity and concern. What is the significance today of the statement made by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, that democracy was ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’? What is the meaning of the people today and what is government of the people?

How can we understand that democracy has internalised intentional, disproportionate campaigns that, in a mixture of political populism and media sensationalism, portray it as ‘a corrupt and corrupting regime’, without these attacks granting it a ‘supplement of soul’ to redefine and reassert itself in opposition to the regimes of the ‘new man’ or ‘perfect man’? These, that in the past, made crime, the banality of evil and looting their ID and now have the nerve to put themselves across as heroes of morality and warriors for good?

How can we accept that democracy has allowed the discredit and unpopularity of the parties and ‘partocracy’ (denounced less by those who want to regenerate and perfect them and more by those who hate and want to malign them) to be installed in its vital centre as an engine for challenging politics and keeping citizens away from public life?

Or is it possible that the distancing of citizens from politics is a good sign, as the things to which they pay attention are what really matter: private enterprise, individual decisions, family life, professional careers, social success and money to meet their wants and needs?

How can the alienation from politics be regarded as normal by younger generations, which seem inclined to passively accept the unacceptable, although they bear the brunt of the shortage of career opportunities, precarious employment, personal vulnerability, dependence on parents and postponement of independent living?

The answers to these questions will always be many and divergent. They will also be partial, incomplete and insufficient because they are not able to explain how the multiple movements of incessant, simultaneous and successive ruptures and revolutions in all fields grow faster and deeper and make everything ‘fluid’ (Zygmunt Bauman).

The increasing complexity of political, social, economic, cultural and media phenomena would require something that, in everyone’s opinion, has not appeared enough: politicians with free, bold thought, unwavering courage, a panoptic and strategic vision, a vast culture and broad understanding of history and the world. The politicians meeting these requirements are not, and can never be, satisfactorily replaced by those who just demonstrate effective management skills, a suitable technical specialism or tactical and media-oriented talent supported by spin doctors.

This shortage of actors who are prepared for the Shakespearian drama being played out on the political stage has shut out that voice with personal authority and an all-encompassing, perspicacious and farsighted view that otherwise would give politics, and its path and discourse, a new vital impetus capable of allying thoughts and practices, understanding and action, efficiency and audacity, inspiration and persuasion, fluidity and power.

In a 2009 book entitled Démocratie, dans quel état? [Democracy, in what state?], eight of the most respected contemporary philosophers, including the contributor to this edition, Wendy Brown, all address democracy differently.

The only point on which these authors agree is that democracy cannot consist only of the right, from time to time and with more or less conviction, to drop into a ballot box a rectangle of paper that we call our ballot; or in a modern alternative, this right cannot be exercised only by pushing an electronic button, a modern act replacing that legitimising gesture, with which we freely express our wishes for our political future and for the sake of which men and women from many different times and places on the planet have forfeited their lives and freedom.

The most interesting thing in this engaging book is that, even in the radical way in which they question and challenge democracy, these thinkers reveal an impasse that often takes over their own thinking or occupies their refusals and acquiescence.

There are words without which the world would not be the same. The ones below were delivered by Winston Churchill and were soon being quoted as a proclamation or mantra or else regarded as a prayer or invocation. On 11 November, 1947, two years after winning the war against Nazism and fascism and then losing a general election, Churchill proffered them in his vibrant voice:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

statue of liberty

Statue of Liberty, New York, 1886

These words from the arch enemy of Hitler and Mussolini, imbued with his mordant humour, resound today with a melancholic, meditative touch. And they may even have a doubtful inflection. How sure can we be of the future when we repeat the words of this old British bulldog?

Today there is a worrying suspicion that democracy cannot resist the things and people that besiege and sequester it. If this is the case, there is no point in hanging on to the illuminist belief that, thanks to its legitimacy granted by the people, democracy will always be able to renew, reinvent, regenerate and defend itself from anything that denigrates or belittles it.

In this current political anguish caused by so many impasses, blockages, misrepresentations and intimidations, it is understandable for people to shout out the urgent need for democracy not just to be reinvented, but rather rebuilt from the ground up. As we have seen however, rebuilding operations run the risk of failing and making things even worse that they were before…

Others think that democracy has had its day and that democracy is no longer a regime of and for our time. For these people, we are living in a time of post-democracy, a term coined by the British sociologist and political scientist Colin Crouch, who has also written an article for this edition of Electra. This compound term can be found in the dictionary alongside words that have the same prefix, such as post-modern, post-Christian, post-politics, post-artistic, post-work and post-human…

Alexis de Tocqueville said, ‘in democracy every generation is a new people’. We might imagine that this future people would be inclined to create another, more appropriate paradigm of civic intervention by inventing new forms of participation, reinventing politics and shaping it to suit future times and a world of intense, successive changes.

The ‘Subject’ of Electra 19 is devoted to the state of democracy in our times, addressing many of these questions and challenges. Divergent voices present various concepts, arguments, hypotheses, concerns, disapprovals and accusations. We are well aware of the controversy that this topic may arouse.

We also know that this question is not only controversial but also inexhaustible. Therefore, our only intention here is to say some of the many things there are to say about it. And, we may add, we will be, as we have always been, watchful and aware…

The democratic unrest in which we live may take the form of real or symbolic insomnia. It is about sleep and its history that we talk in the ‘Metropolitan’ section in a remarkable interview with the American historian Roger Ekirch.

With Edition 19 of Electra, we continue to keep an eye on the world and the times that make and unmake it. Our readers know that this is a good reason for the magazine to continue to be ‘an unmissable read’.