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Wounded Democracies

by Paolo Naso

by Paolo Naso, Professor of Political Science at the Sapienza University of Rome and Coordinator of the Mediterranean Hope Project of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy

A specter wanders around Europe, and it is not the one described and invoked by Marx and Engels in 1848. It is not a revolutionary ghost but, on the contrary, a reactionary one: under its fluid and evanescent forms, it is easy to identify that nostalgic intertwining of nationalism, authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism that distinguishes yet another version of the Right that is affirming itself in Europe, in the United States and in other areas of the world.

The definitions change but not the political substance of a project that today is recycled in the formulas of sovereignty, populism and religious nationalism which, variously intertwined, have shown their political strength in Trump’s United States of America, in the Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Putin’s Russia, Orbán’s Hungary, Morawiecki’s Poland.

The documented research by Kristina Stoeckl published in this issue of Confronti helps us to understand the genesis and scope, cultural rather than political, of extremely diversified currents of public opinion whose convergences are visible only in the long perspective. Let’s recall some common traits.

The first element that characterizes some of these formations is conflictuality. Their growth and, in a certain sense, the legitimacy of movements that are sometimes structured in real parties – Vox in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany – derive from a lineup in the opposition, from the choice of an antagonism frontal towards the “system,” the European institutions, the “power.” What they express is a generic antagonism, which fails to specify itself in specific formulas and objectives but which directs social anger towards the desire for “radical change.” The consonance with the language of certain sections of the more radical Left is surprising but it would not be correct to derive a summary judgment of homogeneity and mutual approval.

The “change” invoked by this New Right, in fact, goes in the direction of the restoration of a presumed ancient order rather than in the construction of a new order, however confused and unspecified. In the speeches and on the platforms the ancestral reference to the values ​​of Tradition, of the Nation, of Religion recurs, interpreted as absolute imperatives to be defended against those who threaten them or simply problematize them. In this perspective, conflict is physiological, and constitutes the necessary feature of a political strategy that is based on the principle of opposition to the existing order. The enemies may vary but the privileged target remains the immigrants – with the reinforcing variable of the “Muslims” – the LGBTQI + community, the “globalists” such as Soros and the Jews. The culture wars often mentioned in the research develop from hate campaigns against these groups. If only for this reason, the hypothesis of the recoverability of these formations in the democratic game appears very naïve. As would be deemed suspect any strategy of proximity – if not of alliance – with these groups by forces that claim to act within the framework of the democratic order.

The second element is populism, understood as a palingenetic reference to a recognized and celebrated “people,” as opposed to the institutions of representative democracy. In this narrative – which as is well known also in Italy has found wide consensus – the “people” is attributed a miraculous and cathartic function, capable of releasing energies that the political system cages in closed, corporate and selective enclosures. The degeneration of the forms of politics – clientelism, abuse of power, corruption – is certainly a real fact that runs through the democratic systems of the five continents. And it is true that in a democracy power belongs to the “people,” as we read in the Italian or the United States Constitution. The problem, however, is how this sovereignty of the “people” can and should be exercised. The Italian formula is well known: “in the forms and within the limits of the Constitution,” that is, it is within the framework of a system of rules that specifies the procedures through which the abstract principle of sovereignty is concretized and can be concretely developed. As a reaction to these constraints, populisms are born and developed on the wave of simplified ideas and mediated by charismatic guides who end up being their exclusive and venerated interpreters. The paradox is precisely this: populism invokes the “people” but ultimately relies on the “leader,” on the individual who ends up interpreting the popular will. The theme is not new and refers to the tradition of charismatic authoritarianism that has played so much in the history of European fascisms.

A corollary of populism – and it is the third element – is the so-called sovereignty, a political culture that at the beginning of the last century was more clearly defined with the term “nationalism.” The new expression, however, is not a simple linguistic camouflage but intends to affirm a precise political point: no supranational authority can limit the sovereignty of individual states. In a globalized world that seeks a solution, for example, to the problem of environmental overheating, desertification or speculative bubbles, denying the role of supra-national governance bodies is no small problem. Finally, by refusing or delegitimizing supranational mediators and institutions – from the United Nations to the European Union – sovereignty gradually builds the scenarios of wars “necessary” to affirm the autonomous strength of the state. It is easy to imagine what the outcome, albeit predictable, of the clash between so defined sovereignties could be.

The third element in the field is obviously religion which, as clearly stated by Stoeckl, acts in a context significantly different from the past: postsecularization. References to Habermas could be extended to other authors such as Beck, Casanova, Berger, Taylor and various others – for a synthesis of the debate we would like to refer to our book L’incognita post-secolare (Guida, 2015) – and indicate a precise change of the interpretative paradigm that condemned religions to a progressive exit from the public scene, directly proportional to economic growth and the secularization of states and behaviors. This did not happen, and indeed the last, bitter surprise of the last century was the re-emergence of increasingly aggressive fundamentalisms against political systems, and not just those that we roughly define democratic and Western. On the one hand, in fact, we have witnessed the gradual eclipse of a narrative and a political project which, by promising social justice and freedom from capital, have actually imposed the ideologies and dictatorships of “realized” socialism; on the other hand, this ideal void has not been filled by the social effects of a mercantile liberalism that has progressively restricted the audience of its beneficiaries and has literally excluded entire peoples and continents from “progress.” In the conjunction of that collapse and this void, the fundamentalist message managed to present itself as an exit strategy to a crisis that was clearly not only “material” but referred to value and cultural aporias.

Following the thread of this reasoning,
those who put the phenomenon of fundamentalisms in the context of post-modernity are right – the plural is a must, both because it concerns different confessions, and because it is expressed in very different forms, not all necessarily violent. However one interprets them, fundamentalisms are a response – albeit one of the worst possible – to the challenge of globalized society. In a time of dis-orientation and dis-landscaping, a strong and muscular religious idea indicates certain and easily practicable paths. Religion is back in the public domain because other cultural and political subjects have retreated, defeated in terms of consensus, authority and even effectiveness in pursuing their goals. On the other hand, the answer cannot be the secular ostracization of religious feeling but the tiring “democratization” of religions, their adaptation to the forms and rules of democracies which must necessarily be liberal and pluralist, even on the confessional level. Another challenge. And in this process, even secularism is called to redefine itself and reshape itself in a form which, despite the separation between state and confessions, assumes the relevance of the “religious factor.”

Political analysis does not always aim to seek solutions to the crises it denounces, but it is obvious that the issue of “wounded democracies” constitutes a challenge of primary importance. Grasping the social and political dangerousness of the culture wars and of that specific subset that are the conflicts waged by religious fundamentalisms, what can be done? What roads remain to be traveled? How to defend the democracies of freedom from both theocratic dictatorships and the illiberal democracies that are also consolidating in Europe? How can the influence of democracy also be extended to authoritarian and fundamentalist regimes? Western attempts in recent decades to forcibly “export” democracy have yielded unsuccessful and even counterproductive results: today’s Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan are no more democratic than they were in 2001, before the military interventions carried out in the name of “democratic” normalization. But if that strategy is now archived, sunk in a moral and military defeat, it is not clear what the alternative of a democracy of freedom and rights should be.

Paolo Naso

Paolo Naso

Professor of Political Science at the Sapienza University of Rome and Coordinator of the Mediterranean Hope Project of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy

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