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OPINION

Crisis and democracy

It is time to react against the systematic scrapping of the democratic state, which we are told is necessary to end our financial malaise

The crisis is the first of our concerns right now, but the degradation of democracy it appears to be causing lurks in the penumbra. We are told that the time has come to change the labor market, cut back the welfare state, readjust the taxation and banking systems - anything but correct the deficiencies in our democracy, such as the electoral law that so brazenly favors the two-party system.

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, representative democracy has had no competitor in sight. But we would have to go back to the 1930s to find the established democratic institutions so remote from public feeling. And just when democracy seemed above question, the critique of its institutions is growing. This, indeed, can be attributed to the very consolidation of democracy, internal criticism being a sign of good health.

Another argument might be added. Now that democracy has no serious competition, criticism of it is less risky. In the Cold War any criticism of the Western model that was too vehement was interpreted as preference for the Soviet one, meaning that you had to measure your words when criticizing representative democracy.

But the general malaise seems to go far beyond such reasons. Even before the collapse of the Soviet system, a growing irritation with the Western system was perceptible. In the 1970s, the left spoke of a "crisis of legitimacy of late capitalism," and the right of the "ungovernability" of established democracies. The irritation has been spreading, so much so that in some countries it is hardening into anti-democratic attitudes. Even in Germany, with socioeconomic indicators among the best in Europe, one hears politics spoken of in terms of irritation and weariness. Politicians are thought of in bitter terms, while citizens lose interest in politics and turn their backs on it.

Where does so much annoyance come from? In a world where so many mutations are happening, the institutions seem less able to respond to challenges. But in spite of this impotence they remain petrified, without projects for change. The immobility of the institutions, amid so many changes, might explain the malaise. Their inefficacy is most manifest when a political class uses them exclusively as a source of personal enrichment. The speed of change produces dizziness, while stagnation produces infection.

Throughout Europe we perceive a decline in the ability of political institutions to resolve problems. To dissemble this trend they take on false appearances, obliging people to swallow the result under pain of being defamed as enemies of democracy. This ambiguity leads to the utilization of the institutions for ends other than those they are intended for. Their inability to cater to perceived needs is the underlying problem; the resulting corruption a mere by-product. Hence, as a means of fighting corruption, a strengthening of controls is ineffective in the long term, as long as the underlying problem remains: the inadequacy of political institutions in meeting the needs of the third millennium.

The crisis of democracy is not a circumstantial phenomenon that can be resolved with a few superficial repairs. It demands substantial changes. Of this we are aware, but also of the lack of consensus on the possible content and extent of change. For the left, the ground has fallen away from under its feet, carrying all its assumptions with it. And the thesis of the right, that everything comes down to freeing society and the economy from the claws of the state, though in harmony with the internationalization of the economy, clearly points to the dismantling of the welfare state, which is an indispensable pillar of democracy as we know it.

We have to react in time against the systematic scrapping of the democratic state, which is being sold to us as necessary for our climbing out of the crisis, even as we pay greater attention to the new forms of democratic organization that are raising their heads in society.

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