The planetary crisis and the crises of democracy

Image: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas


The most urgent task of our time will be to question our most ingrained certainties, especially those that underlie what we understand by democracy

“Progress in science and technology is a fact, while progress in ethics and politics is a fiction. … The old demons return, often with new names. What we see as unalterable features of civilized life vanish in the twinkling of an eye” (John N. Gray).

For any observer who is not so attached to his most petrified convictions about what moves the world, and who has a minimum knowledge of the crimes and madness that accompanied the long and painful human adventure - since when the Homo sapiens began to conform to the condition of a civilized life, after the Neolithic revolution that took place about 12 thousand years ago –, the events of this millennium dawn tell us unequivocally that we are, once again, slipping into a deep crisis.

However, this time, it presents itself as a crisis of global reach and, thus, indicates that it will have consequences whose consequences could last for thousands and thousands of years, or even induce us to imagine that we have inaugurated a terminal phase for the conflicting history of civilization. However, the roots of this crisis, which we will reflect on later, were already inscribed in the very dynamics of the civilizing process, which dragged us to the current perspective of an imminent social and environmental collapse with which we are facing in the present, a harbinger of an unfathomable agony planetary society already for the next 10 to 20 years.

In the last five decades, at least four main overlapping phenomena have emerged that confirm this prognosis of apocalyptic hue, representing the catalysts of an announced global tragedy and evidencing the total incompatibility and unfeasibility of the capitalist world-system – which sustained the inaugurated Industrial Age 250 years ago – facing the already seriously disturbed metabolism of the Earth system. Are they:

(1) the overpopulation that reached 7,9 billion, largely due to the economic axiom of unlimited development and growth, which, combined with overconsumption, generated, from 1970 onwards, an environmental deficit (ecological footprint greater than the Earth's biocapacity – humanity begins to consume more than the planet is capable of regenerating) in which civilization has been consuming, from 2021, according to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), 74% more than what Earth's ecosystems can support, and that rate is set to grow further.

(2) irreversible climate change, whose alerts issued systematically since the Stockholm Conference in 1972, considered the first major meeting of state leaders organized by the United Nations (UN), were ignored, and which, according to more recent reports by the Panel Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change (IPCC), irrefutably represent a phenomenon of anthropic origin.

(3) the scarcity of natural resources, especially those that are at the base of the global energy matrix and that are indispensable to the dynamics that move the capitalist society of consumption and accumulation, such as oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, minerals and water drinking water, and which have fueled and exacerbated the geopolitical tensions, which are well known to all, representing the main triggering vector of wars and conflicts since the end of the XNUMXth century.

(4) surveillance capitalism – using here the name for the new conformations of capital, denounced by the American philosopher and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff –, the main responsible for the decline of democratic regimes, on a global scale, for the breakdown of the social fabric and for the advent of Surveillance, which has been dethroning the main foundation of modernity, the State, just as it has dethroned Christianity, the foundation of the Middle Ages.

This is our dramatic global context, revealing an extremely adverse and discouraging scenario for humanity, in which the multiple crises of today unfold. And it is closely associated with the recurrent decline of the various democratic experiences along the tortuous path of civilization. It's easy to make that inference with a quick foray into history.

Since the emergence of the first public spaces of politics in ancient Greece and Rome, democratic regimes have experienced different moments and situations – a few apparently promising and in general violently regressive –, in different places, among which it is worth highlighting: (i) moment of fertility, in its inauguration with direct democracy in the Athenian agoras (509th century BC); (ii) rooting, with the founding of the Roman Republic (27 BC to 1581 BC); (iii) of total suspension, throughout the Middle Ages, with the Holy Roman Empire and with absolute monarchies; (iv) restoration, in the Renaissance, with the Italian republican cities (Florence, Milan, Pisa, Venice), with the Dutch Revolution (1648) and with the English Revolution (1789); (v) retrogression, with the emergence and development of mercantile capitalism (1799th and 1947th centuries); (vi) of resurgence, with the French Revolution (1973-1970) and with the English industrial revolution of the XNUMXth century that inaugurated and boosted the capitalist system; (vii) of deep deprivation, during the first half of the XNUMXth century, with the Nazi and Fascist regimes, which came very close to suppressing democracy globally; (viii) compensation, during the short period of social democracy installed in the post-war period (XNUMX-XNUMX), in the main European nations devastated by the world conflagration; (ix) until reaching the current situation of accelerated decline, with the collapse of the State and its institutions, which began in the XNUMXs, caused by the emergence of the most sophisticated form of totalitarianism, the so-called neoliberalism.

In general terms, this was the tortuous trajectory of democracy through history, which, subjected to various obstacles, showing spasms of vitality and adjusting to the contexts of each historical moment, managed to sustain itself and, today, is experiencing perhaps its worst drama, which seems to point to an unstoppable collapse.

One of the best analyzes about how democracy has been languishing nowadays is in the book how democracies die (Zahar), Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. According to them, the new means by which democratic regimes are in decline is very different from the traditional methods, which invariably took place through coups d'état under strong military coercion. Levitsky and Ziblatt unveil, taking as their main reference the circumstances (created since the 1980s) that allowed the rise of Trump in the US, “another way of ruining a democracy. It's less dramatic, but just as destructive. Democracies can die not at the hands of generals, but at the hands of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” It is, according to them, a very subtle process, in which “democracies decay little by little, in stages that are barely visible”.

This phenomenon is spreading rapidly around the world. One of the assessments that identifies it is recorded in the report of the Global State of Democracy (document produced by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance – IDEA, an intergovernmental organization dedicated to strengthening democracy in the world), published in November 2021. The report is uncontested in stating that “democracy is at risk. Its survival is threatened by a perfect storm of threats, both from within and from a rising tide of authoritarianism.” As mentioned in that report, democratic erosion in recent years has been overwhelming, noting that “43% of democracies experienced declines in the previous 5 years; patterns over the previous 10 years were similar, affecting more than half of democracies”.

The phenomenon affects more than two thirds of the world's population, threatening, on the one hand, the great regional economic powers such as the United States, Brazil and India, whose democracies were apparently very vigorous until recently, and, on the other, the advancement of political regimes traditionally autocratic countries, which includes China and Russia (the analysis here should not be confused with the very rich cultural traditions of the communities in these countries) as relevant protagonists in today's new multipolar geopolitical configuration.

Another global study on democracy that has obtained results similar to that carried out by IDEA is the project Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), coordinated by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. It adopts an approach to measuring democracy through surveys carried out with 3.700 specialists from several countries, from which a database is assembled that tries to measure the level of democracy in each country, considering that democracy is limited to the following principles: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative and egalitarian.

It is worth noting, however, that there is a relevant aspect that can make this method of evaluating the V-Dem reductionist, as well as that of the IDEA report, if we take into account the notion of democracy in Maturana, which is “lived democracy” , the one associated with a nostalgia for the pre-patriarchal way of life, called matristic. In it, the legitimacy of the other and the coexistence of the diversity of ways of life were naturally accepted, that is, “European matristic peoples had nothing to defend, both because they lived in the consciousness of the harmony of diversity, and because they did not live in appropriation”.

These two models for evaluating democratic regimes (IDEA and V-Dem) do not capture in their analysis the pluralism of values ​​that are inherent to the diversity of forms of human coexistence. Political philosopher John Gray was one of those who studied liberal societies in depth in this regard, reaching the paradoxical conclusion that “a society can be civilized without recognizing rights, while one based on rights can be contaminated by barbarism”. In this case, the two assessments may prove to be very limited, as they assume a Western conception of democracy that would be best for everyone, therefore appropriable, universalizable and defensible (not infrequently, by force of arms).

On the other hand, the best diagnosis that most consistently shows the global crisis of democracy is perhaps reflected in the lack of perception of the phenomenon on the part of the market, which is what, in the end, conducts all the dynamics of civilization, especially after the laissez-faire global to have been installed since the 1980s.

In more recent years, the Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum in Davos began to touch upon the deep contradictions and incompatibilities of the capitalist world-system. Its conclusions are supported by the opinions of more than 12.000 national leaders, responsible for identifying and monitoring critical short-term risks for their 124 countries. The report that was published now in January 2022 found that the most worrying threats to their societies in the next two years are: “erosion of social cohesion”, “livelihood crisis” and “deterioration of mental health”.

However, this Davos report makes no mention of the risk associated with the decline of democratic regimes around the world, even though Western “democratic capitalism” is in an unstoppable process of decay, in the face of the ascendancy of Asian illiberal capitalism. This data confirms what the long history of the conflicting and contradictory political dynamics of liberal democracy, also known as “market democracy”, has demonstrated: deep down, market and democracy were never partners, but competitors.

Faced with this scenario of sharp decline of democratic regimes, it is up to us to ask what would be behind this difficulty of human beings in living together in a democratic way. Why, after 2.500 years of so many democratic experiences, was it not possible to follow a path different from the one that led us to the current emblematic and dangerous situation? It is possible to envisage a return to civilizing stability without there being a more comprehensive and capillary rescue of democracy, which considers the need for its realization also in everyday life, in micropolitical spaces and, above all, in relation to the environment with which the human animal has an umbilical dependence to live?

Even if that portion of 0,003% of the world's population, which comprises the owners and managers of megacorporations - the so-called Ultra high-net-worth individual (UHNWI), the multimillionaires who in 2020 accumulated US$ 35,5 trillion – who dictate the paths of civilization, become convinced in time of the unadaptability of the capitalist world-system in relation to the Earth’s ecosystems, any new post-capitalist arrangement would not necessarily undergo a unrestricted democratic form of inclusive, tolerant and plural coexistence between man and the Earth system, of which he is an integral and inseparable part?

This reflection also needs to look at the philosophical premises that sustained the long historical process, from which civilization was being molded. After the failure of the absolutisms supported by the Christian faith, the market logic that channels subjectivities towards consumption and accumulation, the excesses and mistakes of the nation-state founded on Enlightenment fantasies of progress, reason and individualism and, more recently, from the Surveillance triggered by the technological revolution, is there still political imagination and, above all, environmental tolerance on Earth's part to support new imperial forms of coexistence that, even combined with rhetorical and low-intensity democratic mechanisms, can stabilize self-destructive human impulses? Finally, what would explain this fragility of democracy and the inevitability of totalitarianism, degeneration, barbarism and the growing prospect of humanity's self-destruction?

Although these questions, apparently so insoluble, can lead us to think that there are no alternatives to civilization, this is only true while we are still stuck in the thought pattern that has generated the deficit of democracy and the consequent permanent state of civilizing malaise. The Outstanding French Philosopher Edgar Morin, which celebrated its centenary in 2021, in its book The Seven Necessary Knowledges for the Education of the Future (Cortez), gives us some clues to rethink the ideal of democracy. For Morin, “democracy is based on the control of the machine of power by the controlled and, in this way, reduces servitude. Democracy is more than a political regime; it is the continuous regeneration of a complex and retroactive chain: citizens produce the democracy that produces citizens”.

It seems that the most urgent task of our time will be to question our most ingrained certainties, especially those that underlie what we understand by democracy. A good start is to reflect to what extent we are citizens who produce democracy, as Morin suggests, that is, to what extent do we really live it in our daily lives, and do not bend to the servitude of the tyrannies that capture it and prevent its realization. Finally, what would explain this enormous contradiction in human behavior, which only feeds more and more the pathological relationship of voluntary servitude?

*Antonio Sales Rios Neto, federal public servant, is a writer and political and cultural activist.

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