Citation guide: Jahanbegloo, Ramin and Jean-Paul Gagnon. 2014. “The Cultural Turn in New Democratic Theory”. In JP Gagnon, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought (Palgrave Macmillan). Pp. 56-71.
Gagnon: How do you define democracy?
Jahanbegloo: It has become commonplace in contemporary conventional political discourse to consider democracy as a superior form of political organization in our world. But there is a questionable value at the heart of this universal acceptance of democracy. While the very term ‘democracy’ carries with itself the idea of a ruling ‘demos’, there are many disagreements on the ways this ‘demos’ is defined and presented. My point here is that we cannot expect to arrive at an accurate definition of democracy just by determining it as the rule of the people (demos + kratein). In other words, democracy concerns an effective exercise of power of the people over the people. However, if we ask the question who rules in democracies today, the answer would be: those who are in a position of authority over a political community.
In the light of this analysis, we should distinguish between democracy as the rule of the people and liberalism as the rule of liberal oligarchs. I am referring here to modern democracies that Cornelius Castoriadis characterized as ‘liberal oligarchies’ where the decline of political trust goes hand in hand with a growing disengagement of citizens from politics. What, then, is the meaning of democracy in contradistinction from liberalism? Democracy can be defined as the explicit and responsible collective activity of citizens whose object is the institution of the establishment of conditions of equal participation and decision making of citizens. Liberalism, on the contrary, is the political sphere referring to the empowerment and enrichment of a group of representatives and policy-makers with liberal values who can perpetuate their instance of authority for the sake of their own social preservation. The liberal conception of democracy is based on the idea of negative liberty that Isaiah Berlin described as an answer to the question: ‘What is the area within which the subject (a person or group of persons) is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons’? However, the transformative conception of democracy concentrates more on politics as a cooperative way of life and stresses the necessity for public action. As such, we could more properly define democracy in relation with public action, meaning an action that is undertaken by the citizens and intended to have civic consequences. Liberals thus often remain oblivious to the notion of public action of citizens that the transformative conception of democracy cannot fail to underline.
In the realm of democracy, to speak about deliberation and transformation is to speak about decision making and choosing by citizens. Democracy thus requires that we have some working notion of citizenship, one that incorporates the ontological and ethical aspects of the concept of civil society. As a result, any democratic theory should organize itself around the concept of ‘civil society’ and not necessarily that of ‘elections’. Civil society helps democracy to locate in itself an ‘ethos’ of freedom through the explicit and transparent practices of diverse associations and institutions such as clubs, community organizations, churches and so on. Thus, civil society has a tendency to pluralism and diversity which tend towards a democratic civic virtue. Therefore, for those hoping to consolidate the spirit of democratic virtue, civil society seems the perfect place to start.
Turning away from liberalism
Gagnon: Yes, turning away from the minimalist procedural style of democracy conceptions is certainly an emphasis of much democratic theory from the last forty or more years. What I find interesting in your description is the focus on the ‘spirit of democratic virtue’ and, equally important, your viewing this to be something separate from liberalism.
Would you say then that we are in an era of new or markedly different democratic theory? If so, what are some contrasts between old and new – where exactly did the turn happen?
Jahanbegloo: I think liberal democratic theory does not represent today the theory of democratic community. As a consequence, the crucial problem in democratic theory is related to two factors: on the one hand, the legitimacy of collective decision making, on the other hand, the democratic process of violence taming in the social and political spheres. Granted this, no matter how liberal a government is, no matter what its proclaimed liberal goals are, it should not be a monopolizer of coercive power.
Most theories of democracy do not care to classify nonviolence as a parameter of political choice and action. The classical outline of liberal democratic theory is familiar: a distinction between two spheres of ‘the public’ and ‘the private’ or a distinction between the two conceptions of liberty (negative and positive). What should be added, however, is a normative principle which must provide a reasonably precise differentiation between nonviolent self-limitation of democracy and a violent delimitation of democratic power. What is suggested here is something of a democratic harmony between a set of substantive rights that are integral to the democratic process and a nonviolent self-limitation of democracy.
Admittedly, it can be concluded that a democratic polity could be consistently protected against itself through nonviolent means. As such, the process of collective decision making should be in conformity with the democratic principles of nonviolence. When considering the subject of nonviolence, the name of Hannah Arendt may not quickly spring to mind. Despite her vigorous advocacy of participatory politics and her famous critique of the totalitarian system, Arendt rarely addressed directly the philosophy of nonviolence, except occasionally to discuss the issues of power and violence. Though having been an acute and attentive analyst of the American society, Arendt’s conceptions of political pluralism and ethos of worldliness never truly focused on the political project of the American civil rights movement and more specifically the nonviolent struggle of Martin Luther King. Even her controversial essay entitled: ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ which followed the historical events that unfolded in Little Rock in the fall of 1957 and the spring of 1958, argues against forced integration, which according to her undermines the basis of cooperation and diversity in American society, without taking seriously into consideration the nonviolent campaigns of Martin Luther King and his followers.
As wrong as Hannah Arendt might be on so many of the particulars of the situation in the American civil rights movement and in relation with the true philosophical significance of Gandhian nonviolence her views stand as a warning to a too facile version of dismissing nonviolence as an irrelevant mode of political thought. Nonviolence is thus central to the democratic theory of Arendt. But Arendt’s democratic theory is only concerned with the problem of limiting violence, never suggesting nonviolence as a mode of political construction. However, like Gandhi, Arendt finds the need to equilibrate means and ends. Because though she sees that violence is an extricable part of the political realm, she recognizes the fact that violent means have a potential to produce a cycle of resentment and revenge.
Gagnon: Yes, the spiral of doom. Arendt’s position on violence was, for example, important for me in a previous work where I argued (Gagnon, 2012b) a history of violence to be a root cause regarding the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Jahanbegloo: This is more clearly developed in On Violence (1970), Arendt’s most important book on the role of violence in political life. For Arendt, violence signals a descent into conditions which, instead of ameliorating the detrimental effects of dictatorships, either reawaken them in new forms or even exacerbate them. She emphasizes Aristotle’s point that man, ‘to the extent that he is a political being, is endowed with the power of speech’, while ‘Violence itself is incapable of speech’ (Arendt, 1970: 51). The point is to focus on power rather than violence, for the latter ‘is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues’ (ibid., 70). Arendt argues that violence is ‘utterly incapable’ of creating power – that ‘The danger of violence, even if it moves consciously in a non-extremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic’ (ibid., 44).
She thereby explains succinctly how violence diminishes the power of those who use it. So for there to be a politics at all, each promise must insist upon its nonviolent terms and conditions. Hence Arendt’s repeated insistence on resisting the simplistic reduction of politics to violence and standing in opposition to the claim that violence is necessary for all foundations and unavoidable in all revolutions. This is a claim that she suggests is refuted by the American revolutionary experience and to which we can also add the nonviolent struggle of the Indian independence movement.
As for Gandhi, he presents the idea of shared sovereignty as a regulatory principle of democracy and, at the same time, a guarantee that there is a limit to the abusive use of political power. It is also a principle that has a meaning only with reference to the idea of responsibility. The major shift in focus that appears in the Gandhian debate is from the everlasting idea of deriving political decision from the primacy of the political to an idea of the primacy of the ethical where the pursuit of moral life in politics takes Gandhi to an argument in favour of the responsibility of citizens. Gandhi’s challenge to the modern state is, therefore, not just the ground of its legitimacy but also its basic rationale. The Gandhian principle of non-violence is presented, therefore, as a challenge to the violence that is always necessarily implicated with the foundation of a sovereign order. Gandhi’s critique of modern politics leads him to a concept of the political which finds its expression neither in the ‘secularization of politics’ nor in the ‘politicization of religion’, but in the question of ‘ethics of togetherness’ which is framed in terms of a triangulation of ethics, politics and religion. This Gandhian moment of politics leads indubitably to the possibility of a synthesis between the two concepts of individual autonomy and nonviolent action. I see here the true turn to new democratic theory.
Gagnon: That I think is an exceedingly interesting and important point. My own work on nonviolence has been to focus a lens on the theory underlying ‘non-military democracies’. These are places like Costa Rica – comparatively tiny states with no military force whatsoever and, interestingly, that often have some laws in place restricting the possible growth of a military. But there is still in those places and in that theory, as you rightly pointed out, the coercive nature of liberal oligarchic governors and even the sometimes coercive violence of certain demotic civil society constellations. Your focus then is a dramatic challenge to the very foundations of mainstream democratic theory: how can a theory, practice and political or social entity be democratic when it is implicitly, legitimately in that sense, underpinned by violence? That is, as Brian Head (2008) or others I would think put it, a ‘wicked problem’.
Are there some contemporary examples of polities that exhibit phenomena associated with this turn to new democratic theory?
Jahanbegloo: Non-violence and negotiation, over the last half century, have been the hallmarks of successful political transitions to democracy and democratic movements around the world. A 2008 study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan shows that over the past 110 years, violent campaigns succeeded historically in only 26 per cent of all cases, compared to 53 per cent in the case of nonviolent, civilian-based campaigns. Therefore, the overall claim is that the resort to violence greatly reduces the probability of democracy building.
Most dictators sense a real dilemma when facing nonviolent campaigns, and will use all kinds of propaganda to try to undermine them. Foreign aid can dissuade activists from participating because they perceive the campaign to be a puppet of a foreign power, thus making it appear less legitimate. Experience has shown that non-violent insurrection cannot be imported from outside. But when homegrown movements do not get any support from the international community, they rarely succeed. Freedom and democracy are more successfully won nonviolently by the people who seek it, rather than imposed violently by governments who decide which people deserve it.
Many would consider this as simplistic optimism. Maybe, but what if back in 1980 South African leaders like Mandela had predicted that the Apartheid regime would end peacefully and that in a nonviolent plebiscite all ethnic groups of South Africa would elect a black president? Even Mandela would probably have been dismissed out of hand. And yet it happened, because at the time of the overthrow of the Apartheid regime South Africa was ready for the Gandhian moment and an unarmed struggle for justice, peace and freedom.
Islamic countries in the Middle East and North Africa still have far to go in knowing how to take the next steps in fostering the democratic evolution of a society that includes nonviolence, justice and peace. Looking back over the last hundred years in Iranian history, especially since the movements led by Iranian civil society, we see the growing influence and impact of nonviolent struggle among Iranians.
Gagnon: This raises a point that I would like to mull over. It is something that every interviewee in this book has done: nobody, in response to the arguably ‘democratic’ turn in North Africa and the Middle East as of late said ‘wow, this actually happened, who would have thought?’ That is the kind of condescending rhetoric that came from certain media and academic commentators from 2011 onwards. I think to us, in this book, the uprisings were possibly unexpected in their timing, but not their eventuality. Making strides for something called ‘democracy’ was not beyond the capacity of the plurality in the Maghreb for instance. And I think when political turmoil of the ‘democratic’ sort started broiling we were not amazed by the turn to ‘democracy’ but rather concerned about the violence and how ‘democratic’ things would unfold in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Iran is not exactly the poster child for research into democratic theory in the Middle East. In your opinion, is Iran contributing novel thought, practice or futures for democracy? Do you think these are being largely ignored in the literature?
Jahanbegloo: Focusing on recent history, one fact is quite clear: Iran has proven to be a difficult country to study and understand, especially by outsiders. Going back to the events that unfolded in Iran in 1979, the world was baffled to witness a revolution that was not only done in the name of God and religion but that millions of Iranians essentially traded in a progressive monarch for a radical cleric. Such an event was so drastic and unusual that it not only changed the course of the Middle East and international politics but also challenged many theories on revolutions. With that said, the Green Movement has proven to be equally complex and troublesome to understand on many levels; it is yet another example of the difficulties the outside world has had in understanding the contemporary political and social environments of Iran.
As a nonviolent, youthful and civil movement desiring change within the Iranian society, the Green Movement was a historical struggle for establishing a lawful and accountable government. It increasingly became clear that the fraudulent election had given the people of Iran an opportunity not only to defend what little democratic rights they had but to also attempt to begin to lay new foundations for a true democratic Iran. Arguably, the thought of the Islamic Republic crumbling and coming to an abrupt end seemed to be certain as the Green Movement grew and gained momentum. Considering the complexities of Iranian society, it is important to highlight the fact that the Green Movement, specifically in regards to its democratic beliefs, did not suddenly materialize within Iranian consciousness in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections.
It goes without saying that in the last twenty years Iran has been on the course of a major political and societal evolution since the increasingly young population has become more educated, secular and liberal. As a result, this generational gap has divided Iranian society between essentially conservative and reformist elements which has brought liberal ideals to the forefront of political discussions in Iran. The Green Movement was arguably the manifestation of such changing political, social and cultural attitudes that have been slowly emerging among Iran’s intellectuals, students, women activists and overall young population.
What became clear with the Green Movement in June 2009 was that the Iranian political structure had faced a crisis of legitimacy and the current power holders had lost moral credibility by virtue of their cruelty and lies. As such, by asserting the republican principle of popular sovereignty, the Green Movement posed a counter-claim of legitimacy against the political theology of the absolute sovereignty of the Supreme Leader. In addition, most of the demonstrators who questioned the entire legitimacy of Iran’s electoral process, unlike their parents, belonged to a new generation who did not experience the revolution of 1979 and wanted another Iran.
Gagnon: A political rupture caused by generational change.
Jahanbegloo: Most of them were not around or are too young to remember the revolution. They made up one-third of eligible voters in the Iranian presidential election. These youngsters were a reminder of the fact that a monolithic image of Iran did not reflect the mindset of the 70 per cent of the population who are under the age of thirty. The young Iranians’ quest for democracy presented serious challenges not only to the status of the doctrine of the ‘Velayat i Faqih’ (Guardianship of the Jurist) and questions of its legitimacy, but also to the reform movement and its democratic authenticity.
Ironically, 2009’s Green Movement parallels two strategies used in the 1979 Islamic revolution: nonviolence and communication technologies. In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries used available technology to circulate [Ayatollah] Khomeini’s speeches clandestinely on cassette tapes. In 2009, Facebook and Twitter became the weapons of choice for young protestors in Iran. Nonviolence was used by protestors to express their concerns and to show the government that they did not want to retaliate to the violence of the para-military forces of the Basidj [a type of militia]. Also many young students and activists believed that nonviolence was the only way to achieve peace and democracy in Iran.
The movement, without a doubt, had the capacity to resort to violence in order to counter the brutality of the regime, yet this did not occur. As a result, the demonstrators were determined and encouraged to seek some sort of dialogue with the state rather than plunging the country into another period of bloodshed. Another possible reason for the Green Movement’s nonviolent nature can be attributed to the fact that many Iranians, specifically the younger generation, have moved away from the ideological worldviews of Marxism-Leninism and radical Islamism, which had led to much of the violence that occurred in the first years after the revolution of 1979. The Iranian Revolution of February 1979 was a great socio-political change with a hybrid synthetic intellectual discourse, but it was undoubtedly not an intellectual change in the direction of a critique of violence in Iran. On the contrary, it was a great political change that heralded the return of massive and long term violence to the annals of modern Iranian history.
Another impact and accomplishment of the Green Movement was that it intensified the internal divisions of the regime. It showed the ‘deep fissures’ of the factional and ideological groups within the Islamic Republic. Moreover, the Supreme Leader was also no longer seen as the ‘neutral arbiter’ of the state and lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Iranians. It became apparent that the state was not invincible and was internally unstable since it was dealing with many conflicts regarding the future direction of the Islamic state. As such, with the Green Movement of June 2009, the divide became deeper than ever before between the Iranian state and Iranian civil society. It also created a gap between those who believe that normal economic and political relations with the West are vital to Iran’s future and those who disdain such relations as violations of the Islamic revolution’s ideals.
The Green Movement was certainly not the first time that Iranians have sought to create a better and more democratic Iran. Iran’s historical struggle for establishing an ‘accountable modern government’ can be traced back 150 years, including the notable example of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Ever since the initial days of the Islamic Republic of Iran there have been two contending sovereignties in Iran: a divine and a popular. The concept of popular sovereignty, which is derived from the indivisible will of the Iranian nation, is inscribed in Article I of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. The divine concept of sovereignty, in contrast, is derived from God’s will which, through the medium of Shi’i institutions of an Imamate, is bestowed on the existing ‘faqih’ as the rightful ruler of the Shi’ite community, a perception which forms the foundation of the doctrine of the Velayat-e Faqih.
Gagnon: Divine sovereignty displaced the humanism of the Iranian demoi. That’s interesting.
Jahanbegloo: Increasingly, however, divine sovereignty has been less about religion than political theology. As for popular sovereignty, it has found its due place in the social work and political action of Iranian civil society. The presence of these two incompatible and conflicting conceptions of sovereignty, authority and legitimacy have always been a bone of contention in Iranian politics, often defining the ideological contours of political power struggle among the contending forces. The advocates of civil and democratic liberties in Iran have tried to give the popular conception its due place in the framework of Iranian social and political institutions. The crisis in Iran that followed the 2009 Iranian presidential elections is thus rooted in the popular quest for the democratization of the state and society and the conservative reaction and opposition to it.
Furthermore, there is another factor distinguishing the current political crisis from previous instances of political factionalism and internal power struggles in Iran – a crisis over a deep-seated ideological structure inherited from the Iranian Revolution. The crisis in Iran thus is not simply a conflict between pragmatists and utopians or between reformists and conservatives. It is basically over how political agency and the political sphere are to be defined in Iran. What we have witnessed in the past two years in Iran is a conflict between the realm of politics, which aims at imposing an absolute sovereignty through the practice of violence, and the realm of the political, meaning the resumption of popular agency in the public sphere.
The multiple actors of Iranian civil society are not only trying to challenge the legitimacy of an extant sovereignty, but also to discover the better ‘angels’ of their social nature in an effort to form and express moral capital. In essence, the level of future success of democratization of Iranian society is closely related to the level of moral capital expressed and practiced by Iranian civil society. Considering the complexities of Iranian society and politics, it is important to highlight the fact that the Green Movement, specifically in regards to its democratic beliefs and liberal stance, did not suddenly materialize within Iranian consciousness in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections. In other words, in the last twenty years Iran has been on the course of a major political and societal evolution since the increasingly young population has become more educated, secular and liberal.
As a result, this generational gap has divided Iranian society between essentially ultra conservatives and reformists. It has brought more democratic and liberal ideals to the forefront of political discussions. The Green Movement was arguably the manifestation of such changing political attitudes that have been slowly emerging among Iran’s intellectuals, students and overall young population.
Tacking into the winds of the turn
Gagnon: It seems then that Iran is a forgotten locus for the study of democracy. Of course the Green Movement of circa 2009 onwards was, and still is, focused on by scholars of democracy. But the deeper politics of Iran – the broader history of democratic engagements and the descriptions of contemporary normative moralistic turns are, I think, lacking at least in the English literature. I am happy about your book called Democracy in Iran (2013) hitting the shelves – that should help to open this door for other scholars interested in nonviolence, democracy and Iran.
What of talk about the forgotten contributions by Arabs or Persians historically to the development of democratic praxes? Do you think that we are just beginning to uncover the contributions these historic thinkers have made to democracy?
Jahanbegloo: The recent revolts in the Middle East shows once again that the deepest life of democracy is in the passion of its citizens, and that this is a fluid arena which has to deal with unforeseen challenges from both within and outside the society. It seems that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt reenergized Iranian civil society, helping it become firmer and more outspoken in its demand for democratization in Iran. Despite some similarities between Egypt and Iran, there is however a strong element of difference, which is the role played by the military forces in the two countries. The Egyptian military, it goes without saying, stopped short of banning strikes and other protest actions and continuously attempted to reassure opposition leaders that it was genuinely committed to a democratic transition in Egypt. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ senior leadership, meanwhile, tightened its grip on Iranian society, getting prepared to confront and subdue, by any means necessary, all those who actually or potentially posed a serious threat to the stability of the Islamic Republic as it then stood and as it currently stands. If this is truly the case, the civic movement in Iran has a much harder struggle ahead of it than those in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Iranian regime is more ruthless and systematic in repressing its opponents than either former Tunisian President Ben Ali or former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It also has a stronger ideological base than the Arab governments in the Persian Gulf region. The regime has based much of its international appeal upon being a righteous Islamic answer to corrupted regimes around the Middle East; now the government’s anti-democratic domestic policies are steadily sweeping away its legitimacy as ‘popular’ and ‘Islamic’. By asserting the republican principle of popular sovereignty, the Green Movement has posed a counter-claim of legitimacy against the Iranian theocracy.
From a political perspective, many Western countries, including the United States, were not exactly sure what was happening in Iran and even more importantly they did not respond quickly or place much pressure on the Islamic Republic in light of the atrocities that were being committed. To a certain extent, the lack of initial support for the Green Movement by the international community may have been due to the fact that outsiders were unclear about the goals or the success rate of the demonstrators. They also knew little about the parties or groups involved since the movement was launched by a young, diverse and secular generation from within Iranian society yet they were being led by ‘aging revolutionaries of the Islamist regime’.
Oddly enough, most media outlets in the West were continuously unsure as to exactly what the protestors were fighting for, which only furthered the confusion. The United States certainly was caught off guard and had not anticipated that the Iranian presidential election would be plagued with allegations of fraud or would become the catalyst for months of street demonstrations that would rock the foundations of the Islamic Republic. The Obama administration strategically eluded taking sides in the early phases of the Green Movement, which was also the case for many other Western countries. Even several days after the election results were announced and violent government crackdown had become rampant in Iran, Vice President Joseph Biden stated that the United States government would not comment on the situation in Iran ‘until a more intensive review’ and analysis had been done.
However, when fast-forwarding to what has become known as the Arab Spring, Western countries have been far more supportive, responsive and aggressive as seen with the case of Libya and the overall involvement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Such a commitment from Western countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, has been partly due to the reality that politically the situations in countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt seemed to be far more clear-cut and transparent thus making it much easier to get involved. In the case of Libya, the lack of factionalism and the clear power structure with a single dictator at the top not only allowed outsiders to better evaluate and understand the situation but also made the possibility of regime change much more realistic.
Why did the West not openly support the Green Movement or take direct action against Iran, similar to what occurred in Libya? For one, the Islamic Republic’s power structure has proven to be extremely complex and intricate thus making the possibility of regime change much more challenging. In 1979, regime change was possible and did occur due to the fact that there was one single figure wielding power, such as the Shah, but presently that is no longer the case since there are multiple figures, factions and levels of government involved in running the state. To further complicate matters, the Islamic Republic and its core is also extremely radical and is held in place with a strong Islamist ideology and a military apparatus that is ready to defend the regime from both internal and external threats. All these factors combined essentially dissuaded many Western powers from taking direct action against the Islamic regime when the Green Movement emerged and only added to their overall confusion in assessing the right strategy. Nevertheless, the Green Movement is just one of the many examples in Iran’s recent history that has baffled and confused many political observers and governments.
Let me come back to your point on democracy and participation with an eye on Iran and the Middle East. Until very recently, many people in the West regarded democracy as a Western affair. I suppose recent events in the Arab world and Iran has changed their views, but I am not too sure about that. Democracy is not a Western experience. It is a universal one. There is no such thing as a democratic DNA and if some people in the West still believe in this racist theory, they are certainly the last ones to possess such a quality. Having lived in the West for a long period of my life, I came to the conclusion that Western democracies have forgotten what democracy is all about. As a matter of fact, today’s form of representative ‘democracy’ in the West (what Castoriadis calls ‘liberal oligarchy’) is nothing but a masquerade of democracy. In fact, people in a democracy should take the major decisions to run it not just as consumers but as citizens, which is a much more inclusive category.
However, if we take into account that in today’s Western societies the vast majority of the economically active population are politically passive, we can say that generalized consumerist passivity has taken over the globalized world and the destiny of democracy with it. Should philosophers and political scientists choose to ignore this fact, preferring, instead, to celebrate the collapse of participative citizenship, that would not surprise me. After all, as Hannah Arendt once wrote: ‘Men in plural . . . can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and themselves.’ To understand this statement further, we would do well to look at recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Iran. What we see in these uprisings is the process and condition in which different societies recognize that their democratic experiences are their own inventions. The common thread running throughout all these experiences is the point at which people understand that politics is meaningful enough to assume responsibility for it.
The very meaning and existence of politics is to think of politics not as something which is given to humans on earth but as a common experience of social life and a shared value of freedom. As Arendt says, ‘the term “public” signifies the world itself, insofar as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it’. We can add that democracy is when this common world posits and projects itself explicitly and transparently as the unique source of its invention and institution. Losing this sense of explicit commonality and selfinstitution either destroys democratic life or limits it to a meaningless act of voting every four years.
Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract (1762) about the English people that they believe they are free because they can vote, but in reality after the time of voting they lose their freedom. This is the tragic state of democracy in today’s Europe and North America. If Western democracies are what they are, it is also because those who live in Western societies are apathetic, indifferent and even cynical about politics in general. We must say that Westerners have some responsibility in what is happening today in Western democracies. As Ortega Y Gasset once said: ‘We do not know what is happening. And that is what is happening.’ To locate the gap between our ideals of democracy and contemporary institutions of democracy, we must first understand our ideals. If we define a democratic citizen as a self-governing individual, we can say that the ideal of participative democracy decreases the gap between the idea of democracy to come and political practices of democracy in today’s world.
I need to stress, however, that this tension between democratic self-institution and self-organization and economic and political liberalism should be envisaged as the paradoxical nature of modern politics. Democracy can never grow without democratic passion. The West has lost this passion while genuine passion for democracy is emerging in the Muslim world and inspiring the young people in the Maghreb and Middle East to value freedom and dignity. That, it seems to me, is why political passion is the essence of democracy, not some temporary aberration. We could use some of its spirit in the West.
Gagnon: That is a needed point. Political apathy in European countries and their previous satellites (like the USA, Canada and Australia) is often not linked to a serious decline in democracy. Some scholars defend apathy (Jones, 1954; Utschig, 2000). It is looked at empirically as a useful device in democratic politics rather than a core element of a kind of democide. It is certainly an ongoing debate in current thinking: is apathy homogeneous? Is it leading to democide or to a different kind of democratic politics? Is it a reinvigoration of democracy? These types of questions are understudied ones. We need to have more discussion on the nature and impact of apathy in democratic theory.
Given that you do focus on apathy as a central culprit for the ailments of contemporary Western democracies, where do you see this turn to new democratic theory taking us? Is it a cure to the political disease of the West called apathy?
Jahanbegloo: The loss of strength and of the meaning of democracy in the more developed world is not only sad and dangerous for those societies, but it would also impact inevitably on the chances of the developing world to move towards democratic systems. The reasons for this decay are many, as I tried to suggest in our previous exchange, but I would like to stress one in particular: the loss of what you call ‘democratic passion’.
No institution, no tradition, no level of development will save democracy from withering away in the absence of passion. What comes to my mind here is Baruch Spinoza, who wrote that without passion no human activity, though supported by reason, can prosper (see, for example, Principia Philosophiae Cartesianea, 1663, Tractatus Theologico- Politicus, 1663, and Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata, 1996 ). But how can we re-kindle in citizens, either spoiled by well being or resentful because of exclusion from it, the passion for democracy? How can we show that, as the people in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate to have understood, that only through democratic rights can we achieve the satisfaction of our needs both of justice and of material well being?
More than twenty years ago the end of the Cold War, the beginning of global politics and the new rise of religious violence in the post- September 11 world, has brought complex concerns over specific issues. Think of the contrast between particular cultural identities and universal rights and the tolerance of human diversity and a ‘right to solidarity and hospitality’ in liberal democracies. However, although the politics of globalization has increased interaction among different geographical actors, diminishing the role of the states and weakening nationalist feelings at the nation state level, it has undermined, by the same token, Immanuel Kant’s (2005, through Guyer, Bowman and Rauscher) idea of a ‘world republic’ that would lead to a sort of global peace. We entered into a ‘globalized’ community without necessarily entering into what Kant called ‘a universal community . . . where a violation of laws in one part of the world is felt everywhere’. Many considered the end of the Cold War and the nonviolent changes in Eastern Europe as a move towards the Kantian project of ‘perpetual peace’. But the extraordinary changes that have been occurring in international politics since 1989 have created new challenges to the inauguration of a cosmopolitan democratic order – this has stymied expectations of a Kantian dawn.
Also, the growth of horizontal cross-cultural connections and the erosion of state-centred paradigms in difficulty with an amorphous and shifting constellation of cultural identities and economic interests created a crisis of political leadership in the new world order. Today, politics is no more a process of political education. The crisis of democracy as manifest seems to be expanding to all the categories of thought and standards of judgment which have been considered as the hallmark of liberal democratic regimes. The regressive pattern of our democratic judgment in Europe and in North America suggests a crucial need to reopen the debate about what democracy is and how it might be re-defined.
I believe that the increased violence that is in evidence now in the global political arena is a symptom of the contemporary crisis of democracy. I think we need to distinguish between the ‘spirit’ of democracy and its legal and political institutionalization. As Arendt says clearly the spirit of democratic action is that of freedom and the possibility of a new beginning. As such, the dignity of democracy transcends the institution of a democratic government. This capacity of beginning anew is the premise and promise of democracy. Arendt saw in the democratic process of political participation the coinciding of the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning. What we saw in the recent democratic uprisings in the Maghreb and the Middle East was a new and inspiring beginning, yet we need to wait and see if a new idea of freedom will take hold in the institutions and structures of power in this region of the world.
The transition to democracy in the Middle East tends to be a more complex process, which has at least two stages: First, resistance against authoritarian politics (which succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia and has failed for the time in Syria, Iran and Bahrain) and then the phase of institutionalization of democracy. It seems to me that many analysts in Europe and in North America have doubts about the capability of people in the Middle East to handle democracy. However, I agree with Thomas Jefferson when he affirmed: ‘I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.’ That is why democracy is never a given. It is a task. That is why democracy is neither the ballot box, nor a party in power. It is the political capability of people to go to ballot boxes and to make political parties and their leaders accountable. It is only if we believe in this reality that we can change democracy from an empty word in our public discourse to a framework for a fulfilled political life realizing our human capabilities and creativities in its utmost form.
Reference guide: 2014. Jahanbegloo, R. and JP Gagnon. “The Cultural Turn in New Democratic Theory”. In JP Gagnon, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought. Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 56-71.