Towards a high energy democracy

ROBERT UNGER

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MY central thesis is that humanity in general, and developing countries in particular, should now create a new form of democracy, a high energy democratic politics, contrasting with the low energy democracy that now prevails in the rich countries of the North Atlantic world. The creation of a high energy democratic politics is an end in itself, an expression of the deepening of freedom; it is also a means to an end. It is the condition for the democratising of the market economy and for the reconstruction of the world economic order that is now being imposed in the name of the market. The energising of democracy and the democratising of the market go together as the two essential trends in the progressive platform of mankind today.

Underlying this thesis are two sets of themes. The first set has to do with the restlessness of the world under the sway of the neo-liberal programme. At the heart of the dominant worldwide project in political economy today, the project we call neo-liberalism, is a doctrine of institutional convergence. The whole world is meant to converge to the same set of best available practices and institutions, the institutions and practices now established in North America and Western Europe.

The world is restless under the dominion of this doctrine for two fundamental reasons – the anxiety of exclusion and the anxiety of difference. First, the anxiety of exclusion. What is the programme of the progressives in the world today, in the rich world or in the poor world? The truth is that the progressives have no programme. Their programme is the programme of their conservative adversaries with a ten per cent discount. They now appear on the historical stage as the humanizers of the inevitable.

The most important manifestation of this retreat is the failure of European social democracy to present a credible alternative. European social democracy has given up more and more of its characteristic features and retreated to defensible lines in order to maintain what it regards as essential, the preservation of a high level of social entitlements characteristically pronounced by the regressive taxation of consumption. And thus the outer horizon of transformative ambition in the world has become the attempt to reconcile American style economic flexibility with European style social protection, on the basis of the contingent institutional settlement established in the North Atlantic world in the aftermath of the Second World War. This settlement, even when combined with the professed commitment to humanize it through social safety nets for redistributive social entitlements, is unable to deal with the fundamental problem of social exclusion, unable to deal with it in the rich North Atlantic world and even more in the world outside.

To understand why the programme cannot deal adequately with the problem of exclusion, it is necessary to grasp the fundamental character of the reorganization of the world economy. The world economy today is no longer organized on the basis of the hierarchical distribution of production – advanced production in the central economies and more rudimentary or backward production in the peripheral economies. The commanding force in the world economy has become a worldwide network of productive vanguards or advanced sectors, established in the poorer economies as well as in the richer ones, and all in communion with one another, exchanging people, ideas and practices as well as goods, services and capital.

 

 

The essence of this new economic vanguardism is a radicalised practice of experimentation in production, the transformation of production into a form of collective learning. And, therefore, the construction of new regimes of cooperative competition, of flattened hierarchies and reformative innovation. Most of humanity, however, remains excluded from this network of advanced sectors – excluded in the richer countries as well as in the poorer ones.

There are two main devices available in the world for the softening of the social consequences of this division between vanguards and rearguards. They are: (1) the practice of compensatory redistribution through tax and transfer – the social safety nets or social entitlements; and (2) the politically supported defense and diffusion of small scale property. Neither of these devises, however, is adequate because neither is linked to the central logic of innovation and growth. It is by their failure to challenge this division between vanguards and rearguards on the basis of a new partnership between the state and the private producer that the progressives have surrendered the initiative to their conservative adversaries, and become as they now are, the humanizers of the inevitable.

 

 

The second set, the second anxiety, informing the restlessness of humanity under the sway of this neo-liberal doctrine, is the anxiety of difference. I remarked at the outset, the neo-liberal doctrine is a doctrine of convergence, above all of institutional convergence. The consequence of the realization of this doctrine is that the different civilizations of the world, disembodied from distinct institutional forms, are left afloat, ghostlike, as a kind of folklore, over the unified body of the convergent institutions. Now, in the world the distinct collective identities, including national identity, are increasingly being hollowed out, emptied of concrete content, above all of their institutional content, and what remains in the wake, in the aftermath of this hollowing out, is an impatient will to difference, a will to difference asserted in the presence of the waning of actual difference.

And this will to difference is all the more poisonous, all the more dangerous, because it is so impatient. A collective identity that is emptied out of concrete content cannot be the object of any real compromise because there is nothing to compromise. And thus the nations, the ethnicities come to hate one another all the more intensely as they become in actual life more alike. The true solution of this problem is the substitution of the impatient will to difference by the collective capacities to create actual difference, to equip collective originality with the institutional means for its realization.

Under democracy prophesy must speak louder than memory. The differences that are most important are not the ones that we remember, or have inherited, but rather the ones that we can collectively create on the basis of the materials that have historically been given to us. So that is the first set of underlying themes in this argument – the restlessness of the world informed by the anxieties of exclusion and of difference.

 

 

The second set of underlying themes is that there is an alternative, a progressive, productivist and democratizing alternative. In the domain of political economy, which I shall not address, this progressive alternative requires that the market economy be reinvented – redesigned, democratized, through a radical decentralization of access to productive resources and opportunities on the basis of a decentralized partnership between the state and private enterprise. And in the domain of politics, my central subject, this progressive alternative requires the development of a high energy democratic politics.

The large, continental, marginalized countries in the world – China, India, Russia, Indonesia and Brazil – are the natural seats of resistance, both practical and spiritual, to the dominant neo-liberal project. Each of them, for difference reasons, has recently been inhibited in the realization of its potential for defiance and reconstruction and thus each of them, to a greater or lesser extent, has come to acquiesce in the Metternichean settlement that the North Atlantic countries have attempted to impose upon the world. But each of them will recover this potential for defiance and reconstruction.

It is only by the formulation and successful achievement of heresy, of developmental heresy in some of these countries that a fundamental change can be introduced into the world situation, leading at a second stage to a reconstruction of the basis on which the world economic order is now being built. In the name of freedom a world order is being constructed that allows capital to roam the planet but imprisons labour in the nation state or in blocs of relatively homogeneous nation states such as the European Community. This is not freedom. This is a form of despotism developed in the name of freedom.

My focus then is on democracy, on high energy democracy, the reinvention of democracy; the transformation of its institutional content is part of this larger progressive agenda to which I have just alluded. It is, however, a special part. The institutions of democracy are those institutions that are capable of generating all the other alternatives and, therefore, occupy a unique place in the proposals of a progressive alternative.

 

 

I shall proceed in four steps: First, I characterize the general or speculative content of the democratic project and its spiritual basis. Second, I address in general the work, the task of democratic experimentalism looking beyond the immediate concerns to generate a progressive alternative to neo-liberalism. Third, I characterize the restrictive or low energy democracy from which I hold we must escape. Fourth, and finally, I give institutional content to the idea of high energy democratic politics.

So first – the conception of democracy of the democratic project. One way to understand the conception of democracy beyond the narrow focus on a broad-based political pluralism is to say that democracy is the attempt to advance in the zone where the conditions of practical progress, especially of economic growth, intersect the conditions for the emancipation of individual from entrenched social divisions and hierarchy.

 

 

In the 19th century, liberals and socialists alike believed that there was a pre-established harmony, a natural convergence between the institutional requirements of practical progress and the institutional requirements of individual emancipation. They were mistaken. There is no such pre-established harmony. Their view now threatens to be replaced by an equally dangerous superstition – the superstition of a tragic liberalism hoping that the institutional requirements of practical progress and individual emancipation inevitably conflict.

There is, however, some subset of the conditions of economic growth that can serve the demands of individual emancipation, just as there is some subset of the institutional forms of individual emancipation that serve the requirements of practical progress and economic growth. And it is in that zone of potential overlap that the democrat wants to advance. The overriding instrument of this advance is institutional experimentalism – the piecemeal and gradual, but nevertheless cumulative, reinvention of the institutional form of society to the motivated practice of radical reform. Programmatic debate in the world is now inhibited by a false rhetorical dilemma. If I propose something to you that is far away from what now exists, you will say ‘very interesting but utopian.’ And if I propose something that is close to what exists, you will observe, ‘feasible, but trivial.’ And thus all possible proposals are made to seem either utopian or trivial.

This false rhetorical dilemma has its source in the unavailability of credible images of structural change, of a way of thinking about the institutional restructuring of society. And because we lack such a way of thinking we fall back on the criterion of political realism according to which a proposal is realistic to the extent that it is close to what already exists. This trap has been prepared for us by the modern history of ideas of our society.

Our imagination of structural alternatives and structural discontinuity remains in tandem with the decaying force of the great fatalistic narratives of the 19th century like Marxism from which we have been unable to disengage ourselves. And those forms of social science, such as the positivist social science which are now practiced in the American university system that have repudiated these fatalistic narratives, have also in the course of this repudiation discarded the idea of structural change or structural alternatives.

 

 

They look at social life one dimensionally, as the residue of all the acts of problem-solving or interest balancing. They are a naturalization of social life. The task of the intelligentsia, especially in the countries that I named, the natural seats of resistance to the present Metternichian settlement, the task of the intelligentsia is to reconstruct an imagination of society that is able to redeem the idea of structural alternatives or structural discontinuity but to free that idea, once and for all, from the baggage of 19th century determinism.

Now, this conception of democracy that I have just outlined, draws most of its power, its energy, from a spiritual base. It has a dialectical relation with something that lies beyond politics and has to do with personality. In the Christian West, this basis can be described in the following way. There are two central organizing conceptions in Christianity. First, there is the idea that the focus of the moral might, of the experience of the personality, is love: the radical acceptance and imagination of individuals by one another.

The second central idea is the idea of the spirit, of man as spirit, being something infinite caught in something finite. If we translate this idea into a set of reform measures it means that there is always something more in us than there is in the social and discursive world that we construct and inhabit. They are all finite, and we in comparison to them are infinite. Now, what is the relation between these two ideas in Christianity – the idea of love and the idea of transcendence.

 

 

One account of the relation, suggested for example by Hegel, is that it is in love that we are able most completely to recognize one another as the context transcending spirits that we really are, rather than its limited place holders in some grinding machine of social divisions and hierarchies. But there is a problem with this answer. The problem is that we are not yet, or not yet fully, those beings who are able to transcend context and recognize one another as context transcending spirits. We must make ourselves into these beings through history, through politics, and that’s the connection with democracy.

What are the difficulties of this Christian vision as an inspiration to democratic experimentalism, in particular in dealing with the division between biographical time and historical time. If the solution to this problem can only be developed historically, in the history of humanity, what about us? What about each of us who must live in biography and not in history? There is no adequate solution for each of us now and thus the Christian imagination has often alternated between pelagianism, that there be redemption now through politics, and the opposite – surrender, accommodation, to the existing order of society which is then softened or spiritualized with the Christian vision as a kind of obfuscating halo cast over the gross realities of the social order.

 

 

In the world of democracy that is the necessary climate for the progressive alternative by which there must be a contest or conversation between this Christian view of the source of inspiration and other views, which have other powers and other affirmatives such as the Hindu view. And what must be the common, basic elements of this spiritual universe, hospitable to the radicalisation of democracy? A first common element is the focus on the basic problem, which is the point of intersection between politics and spirituality. We must in the world, individually and collectively, reform society so that it is less inhospitable to spirit. We must defy its institutions and reconstruct them, but at the same time we must accept the inalterable conditions of human finitude. We must not commit idolatry towards the institutions of society, not sanctify them, but neither must we deny our own vulnerability and limitations.

A second common element is the recognition of the problem of personality, the problem of being something infinite, something uncontainable, that must nevertheless live in finite contexts. And the third common element in this spiritual universe hospitable to democracy is the determination to disrespect institutions, to treat them experimentally, to challenge them and change them the better to respect one another. We cannot respect one another as persons if we give the respect that we owe to one another to the contingent institutional settlements through which society is organized.

Now I come to the second part of my remarks: the work of democracy, the task of democratic experimentalism in general. There are three main works that democracy must accomplish through the exercise of institutional experimentalism. First, democracy must change the institutional basis for the relation between cooperation and innovation in practical life. At the heart of economic growth and of all forms of practical progress lies the complicated relation between the requirements of innovation with cooperation. We must cooperate and we must innovate.

 

 

The problem is that every form of innovation – technical, organizational or social – requires cooperation. Simultaneously every innovation challenges cooperation by threatening the rigidified social expectations and claims in which every real historical form of cooperation is embedded. We heighten the productive and practical powers of mankind by creating over time forms of cooperation more friendly to innovation, and less threatened by innovation. That is the first work of institutional experimentalism. It is incompatible with that work to treat a particular form of the market economy, such as the form now established in the rich countries, as the natural and necessary form of democracy.

The second task of democracy, its second job, is to change the relation between individual security and social flexibility. Imagine a society in which individuals are allocated to different social ranks. Where the membership of each individual in this hierarchical social ranks is given, what can the individual do in his life and indeed, how he can speak or how he can feel. In such a society and in such a culture the basic condition of individual security is inseparable from the rejuvenation of the social order.

In the present liberal democratic and market society there has been a partial separation. We are allowed to experiment with society to some extent and we are given guarantees of political freedom and private property. But the nature of these guarantees is such that to a very large extent they continue to limit our power to transform. What do we want? We want more power to transform society to the permanent radicalised practice of experimentation. But at the same time we want the individual to be and to feel secure in a haven of vitally protected interests and powers.

The relation of these protected interests and powers to the flexibility, the capacity for transformation, is like the relation between the love that a parent gives the child assuring the child that it has a place in the world and the willingness of the child to risk and to contest and thus to make himself, through transformation and self-transformation.

 

 

So that is the second work of democracy: it means we must be committed to the democratizing of the market and the energizing of democracy, the institutional force of a heightened experimentalism, with the social order. But at the same time and as the basis for that heightened experimentalism with the strengthening of the endowment, the empowerment and the security of the individual. Something must therefore be taken out of politics, paradoxically, for politics to become stronger and more transformative.

The third work of democracy is the work of creating difference, collective difference. I said earlier, under democracy prophecy must speak louder than memory. The role of national differences in a world of democracy is to develop the powers and possibilities of humanity in different directions. For these direction to be really different, they must also take distinct institutional forms. To strengthen this power of collective originality, the power to make difference is one of the objectives of a progressive project today.

 

 

Now, these three jobs I have described have a common metaphysical and moral basis. They have the same general character. Their direction is to narrow the difference between the normal activities that we pursue within a framework, or within a context that we take for granted, and the exceptional activities by which we challenge and change parts of that framework. These exceptional activities must prove to be more continuously and more constantly leading to the extension, the outgrowth, the deepening of the normal activities. The practical meaning of this goal is that we must diminish the extent to which crisis and calamity are the conditions of change. Humanity, according to the poet, would rather be ruled than changed, and thus it changes only when groomed. Through the development of an alternate form of democracy we must weaken this dependence of transformation upon catastrophe.

Now I come to the third part of my remarks. The neo-liberal political economy is now proposed in the world as the partner, as the counterpart to a low energy democracy, the kind of democracy now established in the rich North American countries. This low energy democracy is composed of two sets of institutional elements. The first institutional element consists in practices and arrangements helping to maintain political society at a low level of mobilization – rules about political parties, about the media and about money. And politics itself has a kind of ecstatic divergence from the normal, practical business of life. These rules and arrangements historically replaced something else – the proto-democratic liberalism of the 19th century that through qualifications to the suffrage and the multi-plication of intermediate levels of representation attempted to contain and suppress popular influence and demagogic threat.

 

 

The second element intrinsic to the organization of this low energy democracy is the preference for political arrangements, including constitutional arrangements, that slow politics down, hindering the frequent practice of structural change and reward. The prototypical example of this slowing down of politics is the American Presidential regime and its Madisonian scheme of checks and balances, designed deliberately to establish a rough equivalence between the transformative ambition of a political project and the severity of a constitutional obstacle that its realization would need to confront. But an equivalent to this deliberate slowing down of politics can be achieved even in pure parliamentary regimes when parliamentary life takes place against the backdrop of a very uneven organization of civil society forcing the political parties to negotiate every proposal for change with a small coterie of powerful vested interests. And thus all politics degenerates into a practice of inconclusive bargaining about marginal redistributive claims.

The institutional content of this low energy democracy is sustained today by a spiritual climate and nowhere is this spiritual climate more manifest today than in European social democracy. The message is: politics most become little so that individuals can become big. The sublime is to be privatized, and all the great energies and visions arrested in the labyrinth of subjectivity. The nations of Europe devoted the first half of the 20th century to slaughtering one another and the second half to drowning their sorrows in consumption. They then pledged themselves under the care of politicians, bureaucrats and philosophers who taught this doctrine that politics must become little for individuals to become big and then they fell asleep. This is the spiritual world that is now presented as the political basis of the neo-liberal political economy, an economics without a politics, the economics of a society where the citizens have fallen asleep.

 

 

I now go on to the fourth set of my remarks: high energy democracy. The work of democratic experimentalism requires a break with its low energy democracy. This break is a necessary condition toward the development of a progressive alternative to the neo-liberal political economy – the democratizing of the market. At the same time the pressure to develop such an alternative in political economy is the greatest inducement to the reinvention of democracy. The first great requirement in the institutional reinvention of democracy to the end of creating a high energy democratic politics is the development of arrangements heightening the level of organized political mobilization, for example, through the break up of the media oligopolies, through the diffusion of alternative forms of property and the means of communication, through extended free access to the means of mass communication in favour of social movements as well as political parties, through the public financing of campaigns, to the containment of private finance to the multiplication of forms of direct democracy in combination with representative democracy.

The second institutional requirement of a high energy democratic politics is the preference for arrangements deliberately designed to accelerate politics and to diminish the dependence of structural transformation upon crisis and calamity. In a traditional presidential regime, for example, such an objective can be achieved by equipping the regime with mechanisms for the rapid resolution of impasse between the political branches of government. If the President and the Congress (in the U.S.) conflict in relation to a problematic proposal, they should be able to resolve the impasse either by a comprehensive programmatic plebiscite on the terms which they agree on or by unilateral power that either branch of government would enjoy to call simultaneous early elections for both branches of government. And in this way the political logic of the regime would be reversed; it would be transformed into a machine for the acceleration of politics.

 

 

The same idea can be achieved under the conditions of a parliamentary system. By distinguishing clearly between quixotic legislation and the general programmatic proposal of a government and creating a mechanism for both comprehensive plebiscites and early elections, independent of the failure of a parliamentary majority, as the result of a programmatic impasse.

The third element in the institutional development of high energy democracy is the recreation of the links between the governmental centre and the localities. On one hand, different parts of a country, the states and the municipalities in a federal system, must have strengthened powers to deviate, to stage their own experiments, to create their counter models. But on the other hand, federalism must be flexiblized, so that the central, state and local governments can associate in transfederal bodies, that would be responsible, for example, for the super-vision and the execution of minima of investment in education, and educational performance in local schools. A breaking of the rigid form of federalism and its substitution by an open form of coordination between central and local governments.

 

 

The spiritual climate in which all these innovations would proceed is the very opposite of the privatization of the sublime that now characterizes the low energy politics of the North Atlantic world. A tearing down of the walls that separate the world of private business and private longing from public life; and the acceptance of the idea that politics must be big for individuals to be big. So all of this is a refusal to accept the end of history, to get off the roller coaster, an insistence on rhetoric, to the experience of history as a contest over the basic terms of human life.

Now, all of this requires sacrifice, not just material but spiritual sacrifice. In particularly it requires the abandonment of two false forms of assurance. On the one hand it requires the abandonment of the idea that there is some clear road to freedom and prosperity, to inclusion in the first world, a road that is characterized by imitation – there is no such road. But, on the other hand, at the same time, it requires the abandonment of the attempt to survive by nostalgia and by memory. It requires the abandonment of any fossilized national culture or civilization, and the willingness to throw it open to contest and reinvention. The role of the heart is that we can keep only what we renounce and recreate. It is by its obedience to this law, this law of renunciation and recovery, written on the tables of the human heart, that India will make itself great, and help bring light and hope to humanity.

 

* Based on the author’s B.N. Ganguly Memorial Lecture, ‘What Kind of a Democracy Helps a Country to Remake Itself?’ Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, 7 August 2001.

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