In the shadow of the nation



Where are the people on the political chessboard?

The theme of populism, understood as the irruption of the people in the political life of a country, outside the official institutions of representation, is on the agenda today. One wonders, then, whether the people were in the past an inactive political element or, on the contrary, a disturbing one. What is meant, after all, by people in the political vocabulary?

This last question was considered fundamental during the two great revolutions of the XNUMXth century, the American and the French, when monarchical sovereignty was extinguished and it was necessary to find another holder of supreme political power.

In North America, the colonization carried out by the so-called Pioneers (Pilgrims), at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, represented the repudiation of the medieval tradition of dividing society into three estates: the nobility, the clergy and the remaining population; the latter is generically called people (the people) and stripped of the privileges enjoyed by the first two estates. You Pioneers they had fled England because they were Calvinists and therefore rejected the official Christian religion of the kingdom. It was a group of liberal professionals, merchants and landowners.

In fact, the political vision common to Founding Fathers of the United States, with the sole exceptions of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, was one of distrust or contempt for the people. The declaration that opens the constitutional text of 1787 (We, the people) represented, in fact, a mere rhetorical expression, since in no article of the Constitution is it declared that sovereignty belongs to the people.

Likewise, when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, King Louis XVI summoned the three official groups – clergy, nobility and the so-called Third Estate (Third state) – to meet in the assembly of the General Estates of the Kingdom (Etats Généraux du Royaume), which has not occurred for more than a century. Well, at that time nobody knew for sure who should represent this Third Estate, in which the revolutionary nucleus was concentrated.

It so happened that, when the assembly was called, the representatives of the clergy and nobility refused to attend the inaugural session, in protest against the decision to adopt individual voting by representatives, and not the traditional collective vote of each estate. In view of this, a member of the Third Estate proposed that those present gather together in Assembly of Representatives of the French People. The name was, however, immediately discarded due to its ambiguity, since at that time the word people was used to mean both the common people – the “vile, nameless vulgarity” that Camões spoke of – and the population in general, including people deprived of political rights, such as women. To resolve the impasse, the solution found was to replace the word people by nation.

The irony of this historical episode is patent. To remove the ambiguity of the term people, the French revolutionaries enthroned as holder of sovereignty one of the most notable political icons of modern times: the nation, in whose shadow the most varied anti-democratic regimes have comfortably sheltered. And the reason is simple: the nation can exist politically as a symbolic reference, but it only acts in practice through representatives. As determined by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, “the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation [with a capital letter]. No corporation, no individual can exercise authority that does not expressly emanate from it”. The embarrassing question, however, is when and in what form the nation expressly appoints its representatives...

Over time, jurists ended up accepting the principle of democratic sovereignty, following the Athenian model of Ancient Greece. That is, the supreme political power belongs to the people. But this is where the fundamental question arises: who actually constitutes the sovereign people?

In Modern History, the answer was given from the North American and French Revolutions of the XNUMXth century: the composition of this new collective sovereign is given by the Fundamental Law, called Constitution, a term used in the Roman Empire to designate an imperial normative determination (constitutio principis). However, the same question arises: who actually elaborates and promulgates the Constitution?

Now, historical facts soon demonstrated that the people, like the nation, soon became a merely symbolic sovereign. In other words, the celebrated democracy simply camouflaged a true oligarchy: while sovereignty was constitutionally attributed to the people, in reality it came to be actually exercised by the minority bourgeoisie. Capitalist society, as Marx demonstrated in the mid-nineteenth century, is always divided into two opposing parts: bourgeoisie and proletariat.

In any case, the institutional dissimulation of the people as sovereign prevailed unchallenged in Western legal systems throughout the XNUMXth century.

In the following century, however, everything was broken when the First World War broke out, followed by the Great Depression, consequent to the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929. Contrary to what Marxism predicted, instead of the structural division of society into two opposing groups – bourgeoisie and proletariat – a shapeless mass of individuals emerged from the social base, without autonomy or organization of their own, submitted to a totalitarian or simply authoritarian State. The distinction between these two types of state organization was first proposed in political theory by Karl Loewenstein in 1942, in a work devoted to analyzing Getulismo in Brazil (Brazil under Vargas).

While in the totalitarian State civil society practically disappears – as private life, even in the domestic sphere, is reduced to a minimum –, in the authoritarian State an important fraction of the people bursts onto the political scene; however, not autonomously, but as a shock troop of a charismatic leader, who exercises power for his own benefit, formally maintaining the constitutional institutions in force. It is in this sense that the authoritarian state is said to be populist.

It is important to consider that at the base of both these types of state organization there is the phenomenon of massification of society and that this was linked, successively, to the two great stages of the evolution of the technique of social communication in the 1920th century. In Europe in the 1990s, the establishment of continental radio broadcasting allowed the explosion of the Nazi-fascist movement. The creation of the third generation internet, in the XNUMXs, gave rise to the global expansion of authoritarianism.

The totalitarian ideology was based on the primacy of Force over Law, transforming politics into a permanent struggle against the Enemy, internal or external. However, after the end of the Second World War, of the totalitarian States, only the Soviet Union remained, which had been part of the Allies against the countries of the Nazi-Fascist Axis. In 1949, China became yet another totalitarian communist state under the leadership of Mao Zedong.

Neither, however, of these two states remaining from totalitarianism survived until the end of the century. The Soviet Union began to break up in the 1991s and dissolved in 1976, becoming, both it and its former satellite countries, authoritarian capitalist states. As for the totalitarianism of the People's Republic of China, it entered into crisis with the death of Mao Zedong in 2013; in XNUMX the country became, under the presidency of Xi Jinping, the largest authoritarian capitalist state in the world.

As for authoritarianism, it was established in the last decade of the twentieth century in several countries of Eastern Europe, as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It then expanded, maintaining its democratic appearance, to various other regions of the world, such as the United States of Donald Trump, Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary of Victor Orbán, Poland of Andrej Duda, Turkey of Erdogan, the Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines and Narendra Modi's India.

In conclusion, even today it is not known theoretically where to place the people on the political chessboard.

* Fabio Konder Comparato He is Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP) and Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of the capitalist civilization (Hail).

Originally published in the magazine capital letter, Year XXVI no 1145.

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