The Mirage of Liberal Democracy and the Importance of Art

The whole Liberal Democracy thing all started off so well. It deteriorated pretty quickly though.

Much has been written about political apathy, disenfranchisement, the democratic deficit – in essence, the political process has become distant from its protagonists in Western Liberal Democracy. This has been grist to the mill of libertarians, and small-state reactionaries, yearning for less government intrusion in people’s lives. But government, and in particular liberal democracy, is supposed to be of the people, by the people. Today, I’m going to look at Juergen Habermas’ work on the public sphere, juxtaposed against Hayek on Spontaneous Order, and Carl Schmitt on States of Exception, as well as Fukyama and Huntingdon on the concept of political decay. Finally I’ll look at art and the creative process as an antidote to modernist nihilism, bringing in Gilles Deleuze and a few others.

Political Displacement

There is a gap between the experience of political power, and the experience of citizenship. In the first instance, proclamations from any capital city in the Liberal Democratic world are delivered in broadcast mode: they may be more or less taken on board, though they are increasingly economic or bureaucratic in nature, and mostly devoid of artistic merit. On the receiving end, there are increasing shrugs, if indeed the proclamation has been heard at all. The exercise of power is devoid of meaning for people; to set the bar even lower, it is often devoid of relevance. Power, it seems, is more an exercise of wealth management than it is of real control over the lives and destinies of people. While we think of power, or are taught about power, in that it is about control, it actually makes sense that it is not.

Part of this has to do first with the nature of liberal democratic government, and second to do with the enforceability of law. On the first point, government is laden with hypocrisy. The nature of modern government is such that it accelerates inequality, while professing to oppose it. Fundamental principles such as equality of opportunity are increasingly revealed to be untrue. Universal human rights are not universal, as the migrant crisis has highlighted in devastating detail.

On the point of enforceability of law, it is clear that laws are regularly flouted and most often undetected. From the relatively banal traffic violations, littering, and narcotics abuses that happen every day, to the far more serious violence against women and children, the law often simply unenforceable. White collar crime, where bankers siphon billions from ordinary people, is often unpunished, in part because their resources allow them to game the system.

A further point to note is the nature of States of Exception, such as during our current COVID-19 pandemic, or in times of war, where the principles of liberal democracy are openly suspended in the national interest. As Carl Schmitt has argued, this is the only time that such standards matter: when the State itself is threatened, how does it behave? His view is that it reveals Liberal Democracy for what it truly is: a Mirage.

The Economic Sphere and Spontaneous Order

The word ‘mirage’ of course echoes the world of FA Hayek and in particular The Mirage of Social Justice. There, Hayek argued that social justice was devoid of any real good, in any kind of objective sense. In essence, he said that social justice was the product of subjective value judgements that effectively imposed a tyranny on the population. Here, I’m arguing that liberal democracy itself, and the principles that it claims to hold dear, is a mirage. Our sense that power is concentrated in a ‘sovereign’ and redistributed through some kind of social contract is clearly untrue in two fundamental respects: first, that those in whom power is vested have no such power to control or compel that is either universal or even handed. It is a concentration of wealth and title, but little more besides. Second, the social contract fails in that individuals bear a diminishing sense of obligation or belonging to the State. An enormous minority don’t generally bother to vote, and most retain a sense that the State is something to be avoided or evaded. From an Irish perspective, this is no mere hangover from colonialism, though it’s often comforting to think that it’s the Brit’s fault (as in so many other things). If we are to be honest, it is a more fundamental relationship with power that is broken.

Hayek spoke too about spontaneous order, which I’ve written about here before. It is a seductive concept, one that suggests that the State, politics, and manufactured order are empty vessels, that society would function fine if left to its own devices. This is of course an over-simplification, but the natural (it seems) human tendency towards self-importance compels us to think otherwise: that our actions matter, that we can dominate and control, that our will can be imposed upon this domain! Even the closest knit family has its rebels and its frustrated m/patriarch, as so much literature tells us about. From the kindly father trying to do good, to the disciplinarian mother insisting that the physical beatings are for their own good, what chance does a national government have to actually control people if even families are ordered so, well, spontaneously?

Hayek’s macroeconomic response to this observation was misguided; small-state neoliberalism merely created another kind of elite power structure, and arguably has created the conditions for a new totalitarianism. In addition, the new modern liberal democratic state has been so denuded through privatisation that it no longer has the tools to exercise control that it once had. However, if his prescription was off, his diagnosis has significant merit, and deserves further study. If power is therefore somehow unreal, not substantive, what is the role of leadership? What does a position of political authority mean? We will return and conclude with an answer to this question.

Habermas, the Public Sphere and Political Decay

Juergen Habermas has had (and continues to have!) a long and distinguished career, and is perhaps most notable for his work on the public sphere and what he refers to as communicative rationality. This is in essence a sense that reason can be arrived at through dialogue, through genuine engagement with one another. Alternately put, perhaps, it’s a kind of crowd-sourced ontology. Within that post-enlightenment environment, the public sphere was used within which to construct new legitimacies for social institutions. These institutions had to continue to persist those justifications from generation to generation without feudal inheritances or church blessings to reinforce them.

However, the decline in participation in the public sphere has undermined those legitimacies of liberal democratic institutions as they have become untethered from the people they purport to serve and represent. At the same time, absent a hereditary or religious mandate, these institutions assumed for themselves what Adorno and Hockheimer called an Instrumental Rationality – a combination of the economy, and an institutionalised survivalist instinct to persist their charter. Productivity, progress, wealth have become the objects of Government. This dovetails seamlessly with the emergence of late modern capitalist economics; as Alistair Campbell said to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, ‘we don’t do God’. It is politics untethered, and by extension it is organised humanity, untethered. We are, as Martin Heidegger would later decry, uprooted.

The decline in the public sphere, and the attendant erosion of institutional legitimacy immediately brings to mind Francis Fukuyama’s work on Political Decay, and that of Sam Huntingdon before him. The decline in the effectiveness of organisations as seemingly innocuous as the forestry service was telling, and could be modelled across other areas of government, and in other governments around the world. Fukuyama essentially put political decay down to changes over time, including for example the mobilisation of new social groups that could not be accommodated.

Political Dehumanisation

Humanity under seige: At a recent rally in Tennessee, protestors held up a sign saying ‘Sacrifice the Weak’.

Shorn of any transcendent legitimacy, with neither God nor tradition deserving of official respect, even basic humanism has suffered. During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the Lt. Governor of Texas suggested of the economy that ‘there [were] more important things than living,’ having previously suggested that senior citizens might be willing to die in order to save the economy. Signs at a rally in Tennessee to support re-opening the economy before public health could be fully assured exhorted the government to ‘sacrifice the weak’. People don’t matter in this new world of Soylent Green. The economy, progress, profit and productivity become ends in themselves.

Art and Salvation

It is not just Government and the Economy that have merged; the Academy too, especially in the last few decades, has all but collapsed into a numbers-focused, industry-serving tool of the economy. And it is in this, perhaps, that we see both evidence of social decay, and hope for a possible future. The idea of a university, as Cardinal Newman wrote in the 1850s, is not merely to produce cogs in an economic engine. As Sophia Deboick summarised Newman, ‘…the ideal university is a community of thinkers, engaging in intellectual pursuits not for any external purpose, but as an end in itself.’ It is in the broadest possible terms, about art. It is art in the sense that Hobbes intended it in his introduction to Leviathan – ‘For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE…’ – the artifice of man, that great capacity of people to think and to create and to make.

Gilles Deleuze said that all creative acts are acts of resistance, acts that are opposed to something. The creative act must be the object of the human, the highest order. This is what engagement in the public sphere means, engagement with genuine belief in one’s argument. This has to be independent of economic or power structures, it has to be personal, human, and subjective, so that it can share itself in the commons with what Habermas refers to as intersubjectivity. The decline in the humanities, in the arts, is what has rendered us impotent. Universities are factories, artists are first of all commercial, and everyone has a website.

So what then should leaders do? What does it mean to lead? It must mean to foster the creative spirit; not the entrepreneurial spirit, or the merely independent spirit – but the artist in each of us. We have order, we are order, even if liberal democracy is a mirage. But if we are not all artists, we are nothing, and we will never have peace.

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