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24 September 2014updated 09 Sep 2021 7:01am

Is “democracy” nothing more than a slogan now?

The time has come to define and demonstrate differently what it means to be a democrat by giving the word to the citizens instead of keeping them hostage to debates between politicians.

By Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder

The current rise of Isis to prominence in the Middle East occasions, above all, a meditation on democracy, rather than on fundamentalism. Western countries have for some time now compared themselves to the worst political regimes. Despite all the problems with social and economic injustices, they have claimed, the benefits they offer their citizens far outweigh the precarious conditions of living in a fundamentalist dictatorship. Today, Isis fits in a vast array of such comparisons that allow Western leaders to draw, in the sharpest way possible, demarcation lines between the civilisation they purportedly represent and the barbarism of this new political formation.

What is telling, however, is not that the West can appear as a democratic model compared to the regimes it condemns but that it has to measure itself against such alternatives in the first place. The time of political ideals is long gone, as far as our rulers are concerned, and even the relatively defeatist “doing the best we can” motto sounds quite unbelievable, coming from our Prime Ministers and Presidents. Democracy has become a concept so empty of substance that it needs to be juxtaposed to religious fundamentalism to gain a modicum of meaning.

At the same time, citizens of various countries in the West have begun seriously worrying about the way in which they are governed. They are right to wonder about that, because the world is now so complex that ruling it has become almost attempting the impossible. But few politicians seem conscious of this fact and continue behaving as if the world and all the living beings who inhabit it were not in danger. Most of the time, they take one decision or another in a reactive manner and without a clearly pre-established plan for or against which citizens could pronounce themselves. Supposedly, that is democracy.

Is this word, “democracy”, nothing but a slogan today? No doubt, our leaders try to give meaning to it again, by fighting against regimes that are obviously antidemocratic and generally less armed than they are, above all, lacking the atomic bomb. It is then common to see coalitions of military powers endeavor to annihilate people who are poorer, unarmed, and who belong to a culture which does not share the same values. Often, these coalitions are unofficial and indirect, operating based on the principle of inaction: for instance, not providing enough necessary financial and other kinds of assistance to African countries ravaged by the Ebola virus, or skewing the balance of military might in favor of Israel in its conflict with Palestine. And all that in the name of democracy!

How can citizens still understand anything when they are required to vote democratically in their own country, which perpetuates nondemocratic behavior abroad? How can they form their opinions between the moralising discourses about tolerance, multiculturalism, or respect for minorities, which they have been taught at school or at the university, on the one hand, and the news that they watch on television, read in newspapers, or listen to on the radio, on the other? Can they become anything but bipolar? Or should they only focus on their purchasing power?

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The time has come to define and demonstrate differently what it means to be a democrat by giving the word to the citizens instead of keeping them hostage to debates between politicians. It is urgent to offer them to vote for points of a program that they really understand and that concern them as human beings, not only as consumers. The questions this program would need to address include: How to make possible a future for themselves and for their loved ones? How to preserve their environment? How to adopt new values suitable for their epoch instead of remaining trapped in the ideas of the past that now amount to mere ideologies? How to develop their relations to one another, including as people belonging to different cultures and traditions? How to rethink the question of ideals and religious Absolutes? And so forth.

There can be no democratic renaissance without plenty of thinking energy going into an elaboration of these and related questions. The real test for democracy is whether it cultivates such energy or whether it silences proposals conducive to new political programs that trouble received ideas and influential people alike. Are not scholars and academics encouraged to worry more about their careers than about the safety and the development of humanity? It is, after all, a lack of thought that paves the way to totalitarian regimes, including those that deign to speak in the name of democracy. Hence, the most fitting response to fundamentalism would not be an unthinking comparison of the “progressive” West to the “backward” rest of the world, but the nurturing of thinking, oriented toward making the world livable again, no matter how uncomfortable its insights might be.