No demos without kratos

Ever since the French Revolution, all modern regimes that have claimed to be democracies have rested on some form of people power. Can we really be so sure of the principle that divides the democratic ‘us’ from populist ‘them’?

No, democracy in Europe is not on the brink of collapse. On the contrary, writes Filip Kostelka in an article first published in New Eastern Europe, ‘we live in one of its best times’.

The fact that populists need to maintain a democratic veneer shows how far we are from the bare-faced fascism of the 1920s and 30s, according to Kostelka. Voters overlook breaches of democratic principle because populists give them what they want.

But authoritarianism tends not to be rewarded electorally. If voters were to fully understand what populist policies meant for democracy, the Melonis and Kaczyńskis of this world would not be where they are now.

It’s a paradoxically reassuring observation that most of us would greet with an inward nod of agreement.

And yet… Can we really be sure of the ‘principle’ that divides the democratic ‘us’ from populist ‘them’?

What are we talking about here? Procedural democracy? When we accuse populists of demagoguery, are we prepared to defend our liberal systems of representation, with their built-in defences against plebiscitory rule?

Democratic values? The populists might offend our progressive sensibilities, disregard what we hold good and true, but how exactly does that make us more democratic?

As James Miller recalls, ever since the French Revolution, ‘almost all modern regimes that have claimed to be democracies have rested on some form of people power, whether realized in a revolution, or by upholding a more mild-mannered doctrine – often, a myth – that all legitimate governments must be created by, and subjected to, the will of a people.’

In other words, no demos without kratos.

In his new essay for Eurozine, John Keane writes that environmental degradation is the most insidious form of democide there is: one that threatens the ethos of equality itself.

Democrats, Keane writes, are rising to the challenge. But democracy, ‘the most anthropocentric ideal ever conceived, will have no future unless its ideals and practices are rid of the deep-seated prejudice that “humans” live outside “nature”.’

This may be stretching democracy beyond recognition, counters Miller: ‘If anthropocentrism really is an ethical mistake, then shouldn’t democracy be staunchly opposed?’

These articles are the first in the new Eurozine focal point ‘The writing on the wall’: an ongoing compilation of articles on the state of democracy at a historical moment of war and instability.

Upcoming articles will develop the Keane–Miller debate as well as look at concrete cases of democracy in south east Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

We will also be going beyond worn narratives of ‘democratic backsliding’ and be asking whether a declinist bias prevents us from recognizing moments of democratic renewal.

Published 8 March 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Eurozine

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