Daniel Innerarity is a returning face to Save Liberal Democracy – he is Professor of Political Philosophy, Ikerbasque Researcher at the University of the Basque Country and Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.
The unexpected victory of Trump in the latest American elections will inspire many analyses. What interests me here is to suggest some of the keys which could help us figure out, as a beginning, why we understand so little of what happens to us and turn to certain elements of political culture that would explain the factors that his campaign was able to mobilize. Democracy – according to Trump – connects with certain underlying evaluations from part of the American society – the civic and populist culture of the old Jeffersonianism, the capitalism of proprietors in the face of financial globalization, a certain depletion of the multicultural paradigm – no matter how little it represents a correct solution to problems by those who have managed to set themselves up as spokespersons. What Trump has been completely incapable of doing is to give the least coherence to these objectives, a value it seems to be less important for him than objectivity.
1. The perplexity of the elites
Unexpected things are taking place, for those who in principle have the best instruments available to know society and anticipate its possible evolution also: bewildering electoral results, loss of referendums against all predictions, the advance of reactionary political forces… The pavilion of the disaffected consists of people from varied backgrounds, from both the right and the left, classic conservatives and progressive snobs, the American Republican Party and the Clintons, the European Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. In times of fragmentation, the only thing that cuts across is confusion, although it tends not to last as long on the right. In general, conservatives deal better with uncertainty and do not have too many pretensions of formulating a theory of society, as long as things are functioning. The left tends to suffer more from lack of clarity and takes a long time to understand why workers vote on the extreme right. From this arises the debate about what the left should do (liberals, democrats, socialists or progressives) to recover some strategic capacity in the midst of a situation that it neither understands nor, naturally, controls. In any case, it may be that the distinction between the right and the left is less relevant than the difference between those who have understood it (Trump and Sanders) and those who have understood nothing (classic Democrats and Republicans).
How to explain this confusion? My hypothesis is that it has its origin in the fragmentation of our societies, urban segregation, exclusion and the dualism of labor. We live in societies that are pierced through with multiple fractures; in the United States, specifically, between the coastal cities and the interior of the country, between the white population and minorities, between the Protestant work ethics and a culture of abundance and entertainment… At the same time, the media, traditional and new, have accelerated this fragmentation of cultural and political identities; the social networks especially allow the creation of abstract and homogeneous communities in certain enclaves of opinion where the psychic self-segregation of the ideological communities is reflected.
“Social networks allow the creation of abstract, homogeneous communities in certain enclaves of opinion where the psychic self-segregation of the ideological communities is reflected.”
One of the consequences of this breakdown is the inability to understand one another, not only from the point of view of sharing common objectives, but also from the merely cognitive aspect: coming to terms with what is happening to others, of the reason for their disaffection, before disparaging the fact that they don’t have real solutions for this discontent or allow themselves to be seduced by political propositions which do not represent any solution. On the one hand, that group of older white Americans, who come from the upper middle class and are moved by a spirit of racial resentment against the America of the minorities embodied by Barack Obama, who feel irritated by immigration and global trade. On the other hand, the withdrawal of a civilized minority who distances itself from “populist” impulses, not so much because it has a superior idea of democracy, as because it does not suffer the threats of a precarious situation like those hardest hit by the crisis or does not understand the fears of those at the bottom. The ruling elites do not have a good understanding of what is happening within our societies, probably because they find themselves in enclosed environments which make it hard for them to understand other situations. There are no shared experiences or common vision; just private comfort, on the one hand, and invisible suffering, on the other. Those who have turned in the direction of public affairs have not understood how corrosive for democracy persistent inequality and difference of opportunities are proving to be. The multiple upheavals experienced by American society (with its equivalents in other parts of the world), from the Tea Party to Trump or, at the opposite extreme, the Occupy Wall Street movements and the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders, are the symptoms of a disaffection with a forced “modernity” on the part of Americans, while the elite and its formidable propaganda apparatus repeats over and over again that there is no other possible viewpoint.
What are those areas in which profound social changes have occurred, which leave a good part of society indignant and have not been interpreted properly? I would summarize them into three processes which are particularly visible in American society, but which have very similar manifestations in other societies: a degraded politics, which is not thought of as the exercise of public virtues, and which gives the impression of being the profession of a closed circle of privileged people who are dedicated to carrying out intrigue; a model of accelerated virtual capitalism which offers many opportunities to some, but which destroys complete employment settings and proves literally incomprehensible to many workers; and, in the third place, a dualism in reference to the multicultural phenomenon also, idyllically celebrated by those who only experience their benefits, and excessively feared by those who live in their more confrontational situations.
2. Politics without civic virtues
In the imagery fed by the recent American electoral contest, not only did the left and right confront one another, but also two concepts of politics, which in turn allowed for a version of left and right: civic republicanism and liberal/conservative elitism. Without all of the nuances which such a framework would require, I think that Trump and Sanders aspired to represent the first, the civic ideal, while the Republican and Democratic parties would be seen as the second, the so-called “establishment”.
The elections have reactivated the myth of the common man of the radical/plebeian tradition, so much a part of the foundational history of the United States, the immediate relationship with nature, the rejection of abstraction and bureaucracy, the political intrigues of federal power, the aversion to corruption and organized groups, an unshakeable faith in American ideals and the common good. Just as it happened with Brexit, which brought to light the contrast between the countryside and the city, the recent American elections have reflected the opposition between the Jeffersonian dream of a decentralized democracy of small-business owners and the Hamiltonian conception of a centralizing industrial power (Meade 2009).
While liberal democracy only requires a society of cultivated consumers, the civic, populist conception of democracy requires a whole world of heroes, as stated by the sociologist Christopher Lasch, who years ago reaffirmed a Midwestern identity, where an authentic American democratic culture inspired by Protestantism would be found (some character types on which Robert Altman built his movie “The Last Show”, to cite just one example, among many which could be mentioned).
And the fact is, the products of the American cultural industry explain the current political confrontations better than many treatises on the theory of democracy. We find that celebration of the democratic man in the films of Frank Capra, where the American ideal is extolled, the life of the civic community which is based on the individual ethics of its members, a model of virtue which seems an anachronism in the era of political manipulation, financial scandals and delocalized employment. In some of the characters in his films (thinking of James Stewart playing the protagonist in “It’s A Wonderful Life”), we find characters who in some way carry out in modern society civic virtue, associated with martial glory in pre-modern society (Capra 1971).
The antithesis of this decent ordinary man can be found in the protagonists in a television series such as “The Office”, psychologically laminated characters, whose only reference is a mass culture in which their only duty is not to impose their preferences on others, a floating, amorphous self, disenchanted and cynical, who lacks prejudices because they also do not have an opinion of their own which can be exposed to criticism. While showing the inanity of the world of office work, those who conceived this series are not attempting to alert those with a “bullshit job” about their proletarian condition; on the contrary, the cynical irony neutralizes any awareness of their own alienation and possible protest thereto.
It seems to me that this is the background of a large part of the political disputes which are taking place in American society and other parts of the world, a deep dissatisfaction with certain ways of doing politics which are those most opposed to the republican model, with its idea of public virtues and civic commitment. We live in liberal democracies understood as procedures for political confrontation and governmental structures which erode democracy as a form of civilization. Those who are successful in this world of telegenic or tweeted oversimplification are not, of course, those who best represent that civic culture, but those who best take advantage of its decadence. It does not stop being paradoxical that Americans have entrusted this recovery of civic virtues against the “establishment” to a person as ignorant of democracy and as little politically virtuous as they themselves. The fact that certain political extremisms do not constitute a genuine solution to our low intensity democracies, and even represent some of its worst manifestations, should not prevent us from considering these phenomena as the symptom of a malaise which needs to be well interpreted, and for which democratic solutions need to be offered.
3. Old and new capitalism
Another of the contrasts that was in play in the recent American presidential election was that which distinguishes classic industrial capitalism from the new digital capitalism, that of the great industrial cities of the interior from the financial or creative capitalism of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The evolution of capitalism which converted what we could call the real economy into something almost obsolete, the work of the industrial system and manufacturing, replaced by the one of the “symbol analysts” (Reich 1991), whose interest consists of connecting with successful communities, the global market of rapidly circulating money, to glamor, fashion and pop culture, the prosperous and mobile elites who live in their cities where people enjoy themselves but no one can lay down roots, educate their children, live and die (Lasch 1995, 6). A complete virtual and immaterial economy has arisen in recent years, a capitalism of stockholders and speculators, without real owners, which contrasts with the original idea of capitalism in which one’s condition as a paid worker was only a temporary stage before one could have access to the condition of being an owner of the means of production.
For a large part of the citizenry, the policies of deregulation, globalization and de-localization of industrial employment, territorial imbalances and the innovation economy are seen as a genuine threat which appears to benefit only a small group of people graduating from the best universities. We live in an economic and political system which favors the concentration of wealth and power, without benefiting the population as a whole. Even more than a question of justice, there is also a problem of understanding; behind the protests against the new capitalism, there is both moral indignation and irritation caused by confusion.
This recent development of capitalism is part of that growing virtualization of the world which many people cannot understand. It is a question of an economic model which reinforces the power of those in charge and of the capital while reducing the value of human labor. Just as mass production had disconnected the worker from the talents that were previously necessary as artisans, mass marketing now disconnects the workers from their customers. Perhaps we find the most eloquent example of this disconnection in the profession of banking, depersonalized and governed by impersonal forces which operate far from the workplace (profits or balances that are required by headquarters). It can be illustrative to recall in this respect that in the United States of the 19th century, it was forbidden to open a branch in a locality different from the place of origin of the central office of the bank. To evaluate the reliability of any lending and investment operation, the bankers had to be able to maintain a direct relationship with their borrowers, an ability based on practical experience with the community. Today this practical knowledge of the customer has been replaced by algorithmic models and the banking advisor by bureaucracy.
This intermediation and distance is borne out in many other environments in which a dematerialization of the working world is occurring. The American philosopher Michael Crawford presents this in a very interesting way, who, in view of casino capitalism and the speculative economy, defends the industrial, and even artisanal world, as indicated by the fact that he defines himself as a philosopher and motorcycle repairman (Crawford 2009). It is something that has already been pointed out by Richard Sennet in his reflection on artisanship (2008), and which is part of the popular image of American society, as presented, for example, in those American TV programs which extol do-it-yourself attitude, neighborhood solidarity and the struggle for survival in the midst of a hostile nature.
“It is truly ironic that the one who steps forward to resolve these tensions is someone like Trump.”
It is true that in all of this there is a lot of nostalgia and a romantic vision of the old industrial world, an overly negative view of globalization and an inability to understand the transformation of the knowledge economy, which is not necessarily equivalent to financial speculation. On the other hand, it is truly ironic that the one who steps forward to resolve these tensions is someone like Trump, who is not exactly coming from the world of NGOs and anti-globalization movements.
One of the dilemmas we have to face is to correctly interpret certain resistances to globalization that are not always irrational. The coincidence between part of the left and of the right in their opposition to the TTIP should be food for thought for both. The withdrawal of “America First” or “La France d’abord” is an inadequate response to a real problem, that of the disconnection between markets and societies. We know the enormous costs the closure of open spaces has had in history, but we also know that it is very costly not to pay attention to the signals sent by people, no matter how stupid and incoherent they may be; they express a desire for protection that they have a right to, even if it is in conditions very different from the commitments achieved by the old national welfare state. As long as this is not achieved, there will be resistance to the configuration of open spaces for commerce and free circulation of people, resistances in which reasonable aspirations and foolish reactions are always mixed, but which are never unfounded fears.
4. The end of multiculturalism?
One of the most surprising facts in the recent American election is that the battle was mainly settled in the socioeconomic area and that conflicts related to cultural diversity were less relevant. There are those who quickly came forth to proclaim the end of multiculturalism and the return of other areas of confrontation prior to claims for recognition and even a certain return of classes in view of the primacy that differences in gender and culture have had in recent decades. After years of talking about “post-socialist conflicts” in which collective identity replaced class interests as areas for political mobilization, where the fundamental injustice was not economic exploitation but cultural domination, it seems that we are witnessing a return to question of an economic nature: only in that way can the social groups who were mobilized to give Trump the victory be explained, and the fact that some who previously voted for Obama, and whose vote Hillary Clinton now claimed, had so little motivation to go out and vote.
This has been the interpretation according to which some have proclaimed the end of multiculturalism. Mark Lilla stated in the New York Times (Nov, 18, 2016) that American liberalism has fallen into a type of moral hysteria regarding racial, sexual and gender identity, which has distorted its message and converted it to a force incapable of unifying society and governing it. Politics also deals with shared interests and propositions for everyone; even the defense of a difference requires a general governing framework based on rights, without which the triumphs of the movements in favor of women’s rights, for example, who did not want to vote in a different manner but in the same manner as men, would never have taken place. To Lilla, explaining Trump’s success by the resentment of a group of white, rural religious men (the “whitelash thesis”) would prevent the Democrats from understanding that that group of Americans really feels like a marginalized group, in that it does not fit into any of the affirmative action categories.
Now, if the inhabitants of the interior of America have mobilized in this way, as a group discriminated against, then we would not be dealing with the depletion of multiculturalism but in a new phase of it, in which the recognition of a group that was not on the list of the unfortunate is simply defended: that of those who did not belong to a group which would justify special recognition. Multiculturalism would be criticized as not being sufficiently multicultural. What started in order to destroy a certain hegemony would end up turning into an instrument against possible discrimination against the ones who formerly were the dominant ones. This unexpected development in argumentation would suppose a type of posthumous triumph of the multicultural cause. Those who do not feel that they are accepted by the racial or sexual categories that multiculturalism has come up with would be taking revenge on it…returning to a multicultural logic. To avoid agreeing with what is being fought over, Pascal Bruckner proposed in Le Monde (Nov. 9, 2016) that we should interpret this development in another way. It would not be a question of adding another distinction to those currently recognized, but of sublimating them to the whole; it is the return of the People (or the Nation), after decades of attention to the minorities, the return to the social after the ethnic. Time will tell which logic motivated this new skirmish in the struggle for equality, whether it is the cultural or economic paradigm (or both, and to what degree). We could stay for the moment with the resigned statement of Michael Walzer who, without proclaiming the end or return of anything, limited himself to describe his bewilderment in the face of the new situation with a nostalgic gesture: “some of us imagined that the sum of all the particular victories would be a society of equals.” (2015, 40).
Whatever the case may be in that regard, it is certain that Democrats have not understood the full scope of the phenomenon of cultural diversity, which also includes aspects of conflict which are difficult to manage. The discussion of elites in view of cultural diversity lacks realism and sincerity; both are injurious to those who regularly deal with that diversity in its less idyllic aspects. There is a type of progressive who feels cosmopolitan and morally superior because he raises himself above his interests, when in reality his interests are not in play and those sacrificed are the interests of others who are more vulnerable, more in contact with the areas of conflict. There is a type of arrogance and hypocrisy in the multicultural elites, because their experience of otherness is reduced to pleasant encounters in the diversity bazaar (in consumption, entertainment or as cheap labor). They are elites who do not feel the physical lack of safety in their neighborhoods or insecurity in their employment. Some on the left, in New York and Paris, love to talk of empathy, but they flee from any debate about the concrete reality of a multicultural society in which not all conflicts are motivated by xenophobia, as if there were no difficulties in integration other than those caused by racist behavior. Is that the only explanation they have for the fact that the workers in the industrially degraded areas of the USA and the outskirts of Paris are voting on the right?
If the left, the liberals or the elites don’t come to understand this (apart from Sanders and Trump in a certain sense, in their own way), it is because they have no contact, either with the industrial world or with “the others” and only see the advantages of globalization or the delights of diversity. The problem is that those who embody the rebellions do not represent a real solution to the problems that they have been able to identify. Not even all of those who voted for Trump or Le Pen think that they have the necessary solutions. The only thing that they have probably done better than the other elites is to understand what is going on and to correctly understand the keys to their electoral benefit.
How, then, should we understand the new conflicts? Can we be sure that class conflicts will return, after decades of cultural and identity-based confrontation? How can we determine who really is excluded and why (if due to being a woman or belonging to a certain race or simply for being poor)? Of course, they are not speaking from the logic of classes who are making claims in the style of “we are the 99%”. Many of the protests that have taken place in recent years have not been class mobilizations at all, but have made up the radical opposition to a system in which a very small minority would benefit and a great majority would suffer.
I do not believe that questions related to sex, race or identity are going to disappear from the American political scene or from our democracies in general. In the same way that it may have been a mistake to suppose that the claims of minorities were going to dissolve the social question, someone who tried to return to a class logic which does not take into account the specific discriminations that, for example, African Americans are still subject to, as the recent protest movement Black Lives Matter shows, would also be wrong. It is easy to understand that there is a relationship between economic inequalities and racist violence. The paradigm of recognition does not invalidate the problems of redistribution. In fact, all of the axes of oppression in real life are mixed; it often happens that someone who is culturally excluded is economically disadvantaged. In addition, there are not purely economic areas or exclusively cultural spaces; any social practice is at the same time economic and cultural, although not necessarily in the same proportions, as Nancy Fraser warns (2003, 63). Probably the most appropriate thing is to state that justice today needs to be thought of as redistribution and recognition at the same time.
No one has come up with a more accurate, albeit modest, conclusion than Walzer: “it doesn’t look like we are going to get the insurgencies we need.” (2015, 39). Neither the unions, nor parties are involved in it. There are interests that are not sufficiently represented, or in the way that they deserve. Emigrants, young people, future generations, and especially vulnerable workers cannot be represented in the way that the old union struggle represented the paid workers, but the political parties are not an adequate vehicle for the political commitment of the citizenry. It is possible that there are new majorities waiting to be born, when the cards between the elites and the people are dealt, when the game begins that will rearticulate politics, economics, society and culture according to the new circumstances.
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The elites argue that certain reactions are not reasonable and do not offer appropriate solutions, and it is true, but that does not exempt them from the responsibility to investigate the causes of this malaise and consider that they are perhaps doing something wrong. Insisting that politics is representative, that globalization presents many opportunities and that racism is evil, is something that is only good for being “right”, but is not useful in coming to terms with why political elitism is so irritating, to what degree globalization represents a real threat to many people, and which aspects of multicultural conflict should be resolved with something more than good intentions.
But the people are also not necessarily wiser than their representatives, so that that formula of inverted elitism which is populism does not solve anything. The underlying problem is the lack of a common world. Solutions will only come to light by sharing experiences, that is, feelings and arguments; if, instead of continuing to oppose the thinking of those on top to the impulses from below, the former interpret the irritations of the latter appropriately, which is an indispensable condition for the ones who are irritated to be able to trust the intentions and abilities of those who represent them.