Churchill is often quoted on democracy as being the least bad of all forms of government. In other words, democracy is bad, but we know nothing better. This is far too general. The death of Socrates offers a fine illustration of how democracy operated in Athens, its famous cradle. He had to drain the cup of hemlock in the circle of his disciples and followers; the poison worked its way up his body gradually from the feet, slowly paralysing him to death. This capital punishment was meted out for several offenses. For one thing, Socrates’ refusal to accept remuneration from his disciples contravened the custom of the day, when all the other Sophists were considered the salaried employees of the students they taught. True enough, Socrates offered his wisdom free of charge, but by so doing he remained free to let go anyone who did not meet his satisfaction. In this way, he was able to forge a deeply personal, even charismatic, relationship with his followers, which rubbed the powers that be the wrong way. It made them uneasy in their concept of what constituted correctness in the name of democracy. Another serious charge: they found it unforgivable that not only had Socrates not fled the city during the months-long tyranny installed with Spartan assistance four years previously, but that he had watched idly as one of his acolytes stepped up as a spokesman for the new regime. The political elite expelled by the Spartans returned, regained power, and settled accounts with their foes. In the history of modern European thought, the case of Socrates is often regarded as the perfect example of the lack of scruple with which political power will ruin men of ideas on the basis of sheer suspicion.
The creation of a unified Europe itself was intended as a message for – and as an alternative to – those modern forms of tyranny: Fascist and Communist totalitarianism. This movement identified parliamentary democracy as the antidote to them. How are we then supposed to interpret warnings of a possible vote against the Union itself at the European general elections in 2014? And that, moreover, for the first time in its existence? The hypothesis may be theatrical and politically motivated, but it surely points to problems lying above and beyond the conflict of political interests.
Arguably, the political complications surrounding democracy today are rooted in the increasingly prevalent view of a unified Europe as a threat rather than as a protector and provider. The anxiety inherent in this perception has only mounted since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008. What gives cause for concern is that European interventions intended to manage the crisis were no longer confined to solutions of a technical nature as they had been in the past. In fact, the first signs of this shift of policy had manifested themselves even earlier (2004–2006), in connection with the so-called Bolkestein Directive. Here in Central Europe, we recall only too well how people of “western” countries were presented with the scary prospect of a Polish plumber showing up in their neighbourhoods as a competitor in the job market. He would be free, courtesy of the infamous Directive, to practise his trade in any member country in the name of the Union’s basic tenet, the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. Seeking to defend jobs and established privileges, left-wing politics in many places rallied behind far-right chauvinistic rhetoric to mount a joint protectionist effort aimed at thwarting the implementation of this liberal idea. The proposal was completely transformed by a string of amendments, adopted in a clamour so ardent that Bolkestein was sometimes called names, “Frankenstein” being chief among them. This is how individual liberty became an exercise in squaring the circle. This was also when negative voices, directed against the recently acceded new democracies, began to gather strength in the German press. Hungary and Poland, along with the others, got their fair share of these vituperations.
In other words, Europe’s liberal shift came under attack from several quarters of public opinion, and Bolkestein’s proposals vaporised in the heat of debate.
The situation is different today when the typical citizen is wary of European policy across the board. He specifically tends to think of the Union’s fiscal policy as the foremost threat to democracy. He perceives the possibility of European economic administration as a peril that is both very much real and certainly a cause for the gravest concern. Forcing austerity packages on several member states, Europe has abandoned the role of the protecting and embracing mother and become a stern father figure slapping around his children. This is how Europe is now seen everywhere where people in poverty, or at least drifting toward poverty, are prevented by sheer existential anxiety from identifying with the ulterior motives of fiscal discipline.
In the early 1990s, I represented Hungary in Brussels. The atmosphere in the hallways has changed a great deal since those days. Today, everybody is talking politics and, more significantly, everybody is thinking globally. Although the main item on the agenda is the fight against debt, all conversations, debates and statements, regardless of the topic at hand, have lately seemed to be intended as a political show of force on behalf of a uniform mindset. It is precisely this attitude that has incensed the people of Italy and Greece to the point of driving them into the streets. Many economists, individuals as well as groups, have also been vocal in condemning the policy of debt reduction and austerity. The masterminds in power counter by saying that the detractors tend to forget how indebted we are to the process of globalisation, which has necessitated both austerity measures and liberalisation. It was in this spirit that Commission President Barroso recently criticised what he saw as the obsolete ideology of the proponents of the “cultural exception”.
The new dilemma facing Europe gains a particularly graphic expression in the problem of legitimacy. Ulrich Beck, one of the prominent thinkers of the European left, has been urging an overhaul of the rules and institutions of nation-state policy. Europe must decide what to think about the legitimacy conferred by democracy. In other words, as the left sees it, hitherto unheard of types of legitimacy may be called for in the interest of a higher unity that integrates individual nations.
Within the context of the nation-state, those exercising democratic power are authorised by a majority of voters. This popular sovereignty, bound to the national framework, is now often seen as outdated. There is a new kind of vision emerging that seeks to legitimise discretion over and above specific nations as opposed to the classic notion of democracy as being anchored in free elections. Its criteria include impartiality, reflexivity, proximity (to both problems and people), professional expertise and efficiency. The repositories of this emerging brand of legitimacy would no longer consist of parliamentary elections but of European-level courts, the European Commission itself and the European Parliament, along with various bodies and groups of experts and political scientists. In this sense, the new order is not founded on traditional democratic principles. It is oligarchic, if you like, insofar as one defines oligarchy as the rule of a small group – in the present case, of a narrow elite, composed, say, of the super-rich, of scientists, select politicians and their various representative bodies. This conception is subject to political debate. Is it possible, then, to vote against this Europe?
Democracy, however, is not simply a political issue. “Everything is politics” declared a popular adage in the darkest depths of the Kádár era, and everyone agreed with this wisdom. In those days “politics”, in the specific sense of conspiracy against power, included offenses as trite as the negligence of a bureau, say, in depleting its central supply of carbon paper, ink, drawing pins and typewriter ribbons. Considered to be acts of sabotage, such assaults on the established order could and did make it to the agenda of Communist party chapter meetings. They often carried sanctions. Times have certainly changed since then.
Democracy is also more than just an ideology, a notional construct of political thought, philosophy or neoliberal dogma. Of course, the key ingredient of the concept is participation, in the sense of people participating in electing their leaders and the programs they will support. The dilemmas of Europe revolve around a variety of political concepts, and the more uncompromising these concepts are, the more controversy they generate. For instance, the claim that nothing can be rational that is not rooted in the individual, for the ability to be free is an attribute of the individual, will be rejected point blank by those who regard man as a social being. Virtually all European debates can be traced back to this conflict of vision.
But democracy means more than just the clash of opposed views and principles. Political conflict also arises over the very structure of power and the possible ways of reforming that structure. Politics remains a central determining factor of public affairs in general, and specifically of the greatly contested issue of what transforms a mere mass of people into a society, and of how this society can be administered and organised in a hierarchical order based on considerations of education, health, the administration of justice and labour. The logic of power seeks to integrate people in a regulated society. This effort requires political action that will not shy away from resorting – to a lesser or greater degree as required – to ruse, subterfuge and tweaks, if this is what it takes to achieve its goals.
A particularly egregious case is Romania’s demographic policy under Ceaușescu. This introduced a ban on contraception and abortion in an effort to boost the population. Women capable of bearing children were forced to undergo mandatory gynaecological examinations in an effort to prevent illicit abortions. Work places with a predominantly female work force, such as textile factories, were subjected to random raids by pregnancy test commandos. Some women were so desperate to dodge the test that they escaped by jumping out the window.
In a dictatorship, policy and its implementation are pitted against practice. Democracy still offers the most plausible solution for avoiding a disciplinary policy that seeks to create and maintain order by means of coercion and violence. Evading social and political expectations, ambivalent conduct, and even political indifference are all central to the essential meaning and operation of democracy. It is easy to see that, in this sense at least, democracy is not diametrically opposed to other political systems. The difference between them is one of degree, which can certainly be felt but is much more difficult to quantify or conceptualise. Once again, the emphasis is on degree. This is the crux of the problem. There is a contradiction between the political idea of some kind of settlement and its implementation in terms of what the individual can and will do to interiorise, reshape or evade political will. We live in the throes of ambivalence, uncertainty, duplicity, concealment, half truths and hush. What we say is not what we do.
Democracy is the domain of the future – a contingency that is not particularly interesting and perhaps even less predictable – in which many believe freedom will supply a reassuring answer to the questions of why authority is unnecessary and why men of action have no problem with having but few points of orientation at their disposal.
Or take the example of the American spy scandal, which has sent shock waves through the media and permeated daily conversation everywhere. The discovery that other countries were also guilty of surveillance poured oil on the fire. The impassioned protests can be readily followed on Facebook and Twitter, where so many people share the intimacies of their daily lives. The research and analysis of such personal details has become an industry in its own right. Not only police divisions but corporate personnel departments, head-hunters and other entities regularly study private information that many people voluntarily divulge about themselves. This has been known for quite some time without ever bothering online exhibitionists. Those indignant about the spy scandal will often have no qualms about using the latest applications offered, say, by Google, which predict and recommend events specifically to them based on a profile extracted from their correspondence, diaries and phone calls. Smart phones keep track of the user’s location at all times. The right application can show you the way home on a map, tell you how long it will take to get there, and may even remind you to buy some milk on the way. The world has become a single village. We are served and watched by servers from a location known only to God. Where are they? In America, we might think. But where is America anyway?
Inconsistencies and excesses like this have become an integral part of our private lives. No system other than democracy allows man to live his life in peace, without having to deny his self-contradictions. This is not to say that most people like to brag about these personal paradoxes, but that almost everyone today feels that life would not be worth living without them, yet will act infuriated when caught red-handed in an incongruity. In the world we live in, one no longer needs to jump out the window when the commissars knock on the door. Contradictions are natural collaterals of the daily operation of the political system we call democracy. This is the reality of Europe too.
A few weeks ago the chief analyst of CRISP (Centre de Recherche et d’Information Socio-Politiques), a political think tank based in Brussels, suggested that the issue at stake at the upcoming European parliamentary elections would be whether voters would decide for or against Europe. That question is on the agenda everywhere. Several parties running their campaign on the platform of a No vote are members of the European Parliament and even beneficiaries of financial support extended by it. Václav Klaus wants his country out, and he is not the only politician thinking this way from Britain to the eastern boundary of Europe. What is more, some have raised the idea of finding a way to deport obstructionist states from the Union. In this ironic reversal, Europe is seen as voting No towards some of its own members.
These questions are inevitably political in nature and all of them can be deduced from the sharp conflicts outlined above. But politicians have yet to devise a way to break with Europe. There is no institutional framework currently in place from which one could say No to Europe. One can only oppose some other’s European policy in the name of one’s own and label that other as “un-European”. Irreconcilable differences manifested in cut-throat disputes can only coexist in a democracy. Anyone who has witnessed the Goebbels-like gesticulations of a Verhofstadt or a Cohn-Bendit also knows that – no matter how terrifying these orators may appear – all of this is no longer happening on the floor of the Reichstag.
Seeing this political show unfold on stages across Europe, it is easy to imagine how the antagonists would make each other imbibe hemlock in quantities traditionally reserved for beer if only they had the power to do so. The lesson we can learn from the death of Socrates is more pertinent than ever before. In vain did many try to persuade him to leave the city because this was demanded by the interests of Athens. Be off in God’s name, carry on with your teaching in another city- state, they said. But Socrates elected to die rather than to obey. Had he decided to leave, the truth might never have come to light that, in a democracy, absolute truths are capable of coexisting side by side, only to be transmuted into other absolute truths. By his choice, Socrates demonstrated the fact that no power is everlasting. By swallowing the poison, he chose to reaffirm his home and status as a philosopher. Buried in great honour, wept for by his disciples, cherished in memory and paid a tribute by Plato, Socrates boasted an end that strengthened and perpetuated the life of his community. His plan was fulfilled because his truth lived on to refute the power that had sent him to death in the name of another truth. A truly democratic turn, if there ever was one. The philosopher survived because Socrates did not flee. Instead of vanishing in the thin air of emigration, his spirit remained hovering over the city of Athens, defying the will of his political foes. No poison could have been potent enough to kill his ideas and memory.
The lesson for today is that voting against Europe would be tantamount to escaping into emigration. But what is it from which one might want to escape? A peculiar kind of autocracy has taken root that is in the process of implementing a programme of intellectual terror from the highest ranks of the European Union down to the level of the individual member states. Its aim is to leave people snug in the illusion of their individual liberty while reducing them to mere consumers in a world that the members of the elite see in completely uniform terms. We are all familiar with the central dictum of this uniformly correct thinking: “We are being globalised, inevitably.” I am free because my smart phone will find me a Starbucks in Los Angeles as easily as in Paris or Budapest, and because I am allowed to live my life even if it is rife with contradictions. Yet there are certain things I must not think or do. I am not allowed to question that the same solution will work everywhere. And those who do – for instance by considering the enforcement of local interests to be a part of freedom – will be declared guilty of incorrectness. These judgements of power are more than just misdemeanours. Such views – like any criticism levelled against democracy and individual liberty – satisfy the elements of a cardinal sin. Behind the terror of correctness, there lurk both the monster of a uniform society and the recognition that there is no point in trying to escape from it.
Before raising to his lips what was to be his last drink, Socrates had talked philosophy with his friends and taken a bath to make life easier for the women who would attend to his body. He went out as a social being. By dint of his last deed on earth, he managed to solve a philosophical problem. We are indebted to him for our broader understanding and experience of democracy today. In arguing about and defending nation, community and morals, we are not going to vote against Europe. We are going to vote against those who strive to usurp and monopolise democracy in the name of regimented thought.