The cultural project Frontiers of Thought, which ends in November, has hosted, in its last 2018 seminar, political scientist and journalist Mark Lilla, professor at Columbia University, in New York. Brazilian philosopher, professor and writer Luiz Felipe Pondé shared the stage with him. Both discussed the future of democracy under the mediation of Fernando Schuler, PhD from the University of Columbia and professor of Insper, in Brazil.
Lilla opened the night exposing the main arguments on his books, which travel back in history to revise the growing progress not only of neoliberalism, but also of antidemocracy trends in many countries around the world. “Among the USA leftists, more specifically in the liberal side, a new ideology has been built, focusing on individual identities rather than collective ones. This process has been very paradoxical.”
Lilla highlighted that movements stirring the USA in the 50’s had their motto on the solidarity of groups seeking equal civil rights, including Afro-American, women and gay people. “I consider fights for those rights one of the most glorious moments in the history of my country.”
He noted that the language of those movements emphasized equality, not individual differences. Great efforts were needed to convince the conservative population to join these causes, whose accomplishments are still defended fiercely. “Even in the Trump era, society is infinitely more open and more tolerant than 50 years ago, and this is great news.”
Individuals as solitary particles
Lilla has kept track of the most significant political moves in the history of American citizens and assesses how large collective identity groups and solidarity language between citizens have gradually been replaced with an increasing singular identity and disconnected from social context or support groups and social demands.
“During the Reagan Era (Ronald Reagan, republican, president of the United States,1981-1985), something changed in the American left, which changed the language on equality for citizens for a language on individual identity and awareness of social differences. In other words, a change from solidarity principles to self-definition principles.” In the professor’s opinion, one consequence of this new posture was the possibility of same sex marriage, for example. The continuous fragmentation advance, however, leads the youth to question their gender individually, describing it in ways that may lead to an ever-growing isolation.
“They first think of themselves as individuals, who have unique identities that differ them from people of other identities. This is the reason why they get easily offended,” said Lilla. Moreover, the result of an excessive individualization would cause, according to the professor, suffering due to loneliness. “Young people are procrastinating wedding more and more or simply choosing to live on their own. Depression and suicide rates keep going up in the western world, more alarmingly among youngsters.”
To Lilla, this isn’t due to lack of money, opportunities or because these young population is overstressed. “It’s because they’re just like us, who are living our lives ever lonelier.” Isolated from family and from each other, says Lilla, we are becoming what French writer Michel Houellebecq called in his bleak novel “Elementary Particles”.
In his insights, Luiz Felipe Pondé pondered on how the democratic system fluctuates between untruths and myths that, on their turn, undermine the perception that a lot of struggle is needed to ensure our democratic rights – efforts that some of us aren’t willing to make. Freedom of speech is one of those democratic rights. “Although most people are concerned with freedom of speech, they don’t actually enforce it. People live very well without freedom of speech.”
According to Pondé, although people do have good faith, individual priorities compete with our daily attention. “One of the ways to think of ideal democracy is that you go home, go to bed, sleep, you are happy with yourself, thinking you’re highly involved with the so-called democracy virtues, when maybe the main concern, before it all, is dinner, not that thing called freedom of speech. That’s why you suddenly catch yourself assuming certain positions that would be undemocratic.”
Other myth commonly accepted, according to the professor, is that more culturally educated people, with broader repertoire or more access to formal education, supposedly are likelier to take better political decisions. “This simply doesn’t seem to be true. You can be a reasonably well-informed person with a strong ideological position.”
On top of that, democracy as an aggregating system, which allows flexibility between individual and collective rights, is failing on its role of keeping dialogue and political opening. “At least for the most part, the more people discuss politics, the more they hate themselves, unless they’re discussing among comrades. You talk to people who think like you and those are the ones who you invite to dinner, right?
Both bring to light democracy frailties and how civilism’s downfall will lead us to weary conflicts. By sharing the same territories, greater interests and social ties, there is no possibility to not reap the wrong choices of our compatriots who, for example, voted for those we did not.
“The only thing that keeps us together is civil society ties. Sometimes these ties are badly knotted or barely knotted – if they are loose, thing starts going downhill very fast”, said Lilla. He notes that building such ties may take generations, but they can easily decline by means of radicalism.
“Democracy without democratic rights doesn’t last. It moves towards oligarchy, theocracy, nationalism, tribalism, authoritarianism. I’m not exaggerating when I say each of these pathologies exist in the current American democratic life. And it’s sad to think that Brazil may soon suffer the same plagues we do.”
According to Luiz Felipe Pondé, the solution may lie beyond casting ballots and maybe in a new system, less representative, that may review technical matters promptly. The strong presence of the Supreme Federal Court in Brazil is an indicative that democracy is adapting to lower a little popular pressure, especially on technical management matters, by judging what is and what is not constitutional. Thus, we would assume voting has a less influent role. “Instead of deciding on economy, we could decide on an economist, who can then decide on our country.”
Content published in December 19, 2018