The State of Democracy

For the last two decades, at least, we have got used to listening to a chorus of pessimistic voices, to which we attribute an ever increasing value of truth, which tell us about the ‘crisis of democracy’, ‘the unease in/of democracy’, the ailing ‘state of democracy’ and even the need to categorise it as ‘post’ to suggest that it has become necessary to update it conceptually.

It is from this situation favourable to grand diagnoses that the central topic of this issue of Electra was born: ‘The State of Democracy’. With this we intend to discuss the current drifts of democracy, the challenges and risks that it has to face, in this time marked by a return to extremisms, nationalisms and populisms (to the point that it has become tempting for many to draw an analogy with the 1930s). From anti-politics to depoliticisation, operated by an equivalence between democracy and the markets, including the reduction of the democratic ideal to free elections (but that have lost their role as a mechanism of alternation) and continuing with the degradation of parties, which were the fundamental institution of modern democracies, there is an abundance of expressive symptoms of the state of democracy. At the same time as it became an indisputable regime, a global civil religion (we are all democrats), democracy has also become an ‘empty signifier’. Some have said that it is a ‘fluctuating signifier’, while others have highlighted the ‘insignificance’ to which it has been reduced. All of these conditions and paradoxes of democracy become even stronger when we are forced to ask what has happened to democracy under the domain of the media. The name ‘democracy’ as the only one able to designate an acceptable, civilised organisation of political life corresponds to an idea that ‘real democracy’ can never reach: the crisis of democracy is also this permanent state of a regime that can never entirely match its concept.

The images featured in this dossier are the famous cryptograms created, in dialogue, by the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath and the German designer Gerd Arntz. These two pioneers of modern graphics were the founders, in the first half of the 20th century, of ISOTYPE, a non-verbal language with the political purposes of direct, dynamic, flexible, free and universal visual communication. When looking at these pictograms, which can be used individually or collectively, we see that the history of democracy is inseparable from the history of an iconography with great political significance.