The crisis of political legitimacy

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Vijay Prashad*

Liberal democracy systems cannot become “very democratic”. The repressive state apparatus restricts democracy in the name of “law and order”. Its objective is the defense of the property.

Millions of people are on the streets, from India to Chile. Democracy was the promise made in both countries, but it betrayed them. They aspire to the democratic spirit, but have found that the institutions – saturated with money and power – have become inadequate. They are in the streets for more democracy, for deeper democracy, for a different kind of democracy.

Increasingly, in every region of India, ordinary people unaffiliated with leftist political parties took to the streets to demand the annulment of a Fascist law that would turn Muslims into non-citizens. This huge wave grows even as the government tries to declare demonstrations illegal and closes the Internet. So far, twenty people have been killed by police forces. None of this has stopped the people, who have declared loud and clear that they will not accept asphyxiation from the extreme right. It is an unforeseen and overwhelming uprising.

Democracy was shackled by capitalist power. If political sovereignty were only about numbers, workers and peasants, the urban poor and youth would be represented by people who would put their interests first, being able to have more control over the fruit of their labor. Democracy promises that the people can control their destiny.

Capitalism, on the other hand, is structured to allow capitalists – the owners of the means of production – to have power over the economy and society. From the point of view of capitalism, full democracy and its implications cannot be allowed. If democracy becomes effective, the means of producing wealth will be democratized, which would be an outrage to property, the reason to which democracy is reduced.

Liberal democracy systems grow around the state, but such systems cannot become “very democratic”. They become repressed by the repressive apparatus of the State, which claims to restrict democracy in the name of “law and order” or security, thus becoming barriers to full democracy. Instead of saying that the defense of property is the objective of the State, it is said that the objective is to maintain order, which means an association of democratic practices with vandalism and criminality. Socialists who demand an end to the private appropriation of social wealth – which is theft – are singled out as criminals, accused of attacking not property but democracy.

With this trick, through the financing of the private media and other institutions, the bourgeoisie is able to convincingly show that it is the great defender of democracy. To this end, it defines democracy as being just the holding of elections and a free press – which can be bought just like any other commodity – and not the democratization of society and the economy.

Social and economic relations are left out of the dynamics of democracy. Trade unions – the instrument for the democratization of economic relations – are openly disparaged and their rights restricted; social and political movements are negatively affected and NGOs emerge, in general, with an agenda restricted to small reforms, without challenging property relations.

As a result of the barrier between elections and the economy, the reduction of politics to elections and the impediment of the democratization of the economy, a sense of futility arises. This is illustrated by the crisis of the representative structure of liberal democracy. Declining voter turnout is one of the symptoms, which still include the cynical use of money and the media to divert attention away from any substantive discussion of problems. realfor “fantasy” questions. This practice stemmed from the search for common solutions to social dilemmas, inventing false problems about the functioning of society. Thus, they hide issues related to hunger and hopelessness.

The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the "illusion of achievement". Bloch wrote that the benefit of social production "is reaped by the large capitalist upper stratum, which employs Gothic dreams against proletarian realities." The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be realized in the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to ward off any working-class project.

It is in the interests of the bourgeoisie to destroy any project of the working and peasant classes. This can be done through the use of violence, the law and the “illusion of achievement”, namely through the creation of aspirations in capitalism that destroy the political platform of a post-capitalist society. Working class and peasant parties are ridiculed for their failure to produce a utopia within the confines of capitalism; are ridiculed because of projects considered unrealistic. The “illusion of fulfillment”, Gothic dreams are seen as realistic, while the necessity of socialism is portrayed as unrealistic.

The bourgeois order, however, has a problem. Democracy requires mass support. Why would the masses support parties that have an agenda that does not address the immediate needs of the working class and peasantry? It is here that culture and ideology play important roles. “Illusion of achievement” is another way of thinking about hegemony – the arc of how the social consciousness of the working class and peasantry is shaped not only by their own experiences, which allow them to recognize the illusion, but also by the ideology of the ruling class. that invades your consciousness through the media, educational institutions, and religious backgrounds.

The illusion is amplified when the basic structures of social welfare, guided by the people in government agendas, are shattered. To mitigate the harshness of social inequality that results from the private appropriation of social wealth by the bourgeoisie, the State is forced, by the people, to create social welfare programs – in the area of ​​public health and education, for example, as well as targeted programs to the poor. If they are not available, people will start to die – in greater numbers – in the streets, which would call into question the “illusion of achievement”.

But, as a consequence of the long-term profitability crisis, these programs have been cut in recent decades. The result of this crisis of liberal democracy, a consequence of the neoliberal austerity policy, is high economic insecurity and growing anger directed against the system. A crisis of profitability thus becomes a crisis of political legitimacy.

Democracy is a numbers game. Oligarchies are forced by establishment of democratic systems to respect the fact that the masses must participate in political life. But – from the point of view of the bourgeoisie – they should not be allowed to control political dynamics; they must be political and depoliticized at the same time. They must be agitated enough, but not to the point of challenging the membrane that protects the economy and society from the spread of democracy. Once this membrane is breached, the fragility of capitalist legitimacy ceases. Democracy cannot be present in the economy and society; it must remain on the level of politics, it must be restricted to electoral procedures.

Austerity regimes harm people's lives, who cannot delude themselves with the belief that they do not suffer from cuts and unemployment. Austerity takes away the fog of illusion. This one is no longer as convincing as it was before the basic needs cuts. The bourgeoisie prefers people to conform to “masses” rather than “classes”, preferring groups with a variety of conflicting interests that can be molded according to the structure produced by the bourgeoisie rather than their own class positions and interests. As neoliberals see their political project run out, with their own dreams of fulfillment around terms like “entrepreneurship” becoming nightmares of unemployment and bankruptcy, the extreme right emerges as the champion of the moment.

The extreme right is not interested in the complexity of the historical present. It addresses the main social problems – unemployment and insecurity – but does not analyze the context of these problems or observe the real contradictions that need to be faced so that people can overcome them. The real contradiction is between social work and private accumulation; the unemployment crisis cannot be resolved unless this contradiction is resolved in the name of social work. As this is unspeakable for the bourgeoisie, it no longer seeks to resolve the contradiction, but adopts a “bait and switch” strategy – it is acceptable to speak of unemployment, for example, but there is no need to blame private capital for this; instead, migrants or other scapegoats are blamed.

To obtain this “bait and switch”, the extreme right has to go against another line of thought of classical liberalism: the protection of minorities. Democratic constitutions are aware of the “tyranny of the majority” and set barriers to “majoritarianism” through laws and regulations that protect the rights and cultures of minorities. These norms were essential for the expansion of democracy. But the extreme right is not premised on protecting democracy, but on destroying it.

It seeks to inflame the majority against the minority to bring the masses to its side, but not to allow the classes within them to develop their own politics. The extreme right has no loyalty to the traditions and norms of liberal democracy. It will use institutions for as long as they are useful, poisoning the culture of liberalism that had serious limitations but which at least provided space for political contestation. That space is narrowing as far-right violent action legitimizes itself.

Minorities are disenfranchised in the name of democracy; violence is unleashed in the name of the majority's feelings. Citizenship is reduced around majority definitions; the people are told to accept the majority culture. This is what the BJP government has done in India with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. This is what the people reject.

The fiction of democracy is maintained as the promise of democracy is nullified. It is this promise that has people taking to the streets in India, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, and many other places.

*Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian and journalist. Director General of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research.

Article originally published on the website Brazil of Fact.

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