Democracy “As If“
by Dagmar Kusá, Assistant professor, Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts, Slovakia
More than a century ago, Hans Vaihinger formulated his philosophy “as if” to describe our willing choice to live in a world of logical contradictions. As we cannot reach our ideals (e.g. a truly just society), we produce imperfect fictional explanations full of deliberate errors to fill in logical gaps and oversee the inconsistencies. When the fiction includes glaring contradictions, it requires a generous dose of irrational belief or outright pretense (“corrections”) on the side of the establishment as well as on the side of the people. Our psyche seeks stability and cannot function without fictions. But the kind of “corrections” necessary to make a fiction appear persuasive depends on the type of fiction itself. Often, they can only be reconciled through illegitimate means, for example by transforming hypotheses into dogmas—as if becoming a because or so that. This is the simplest way to rid the system of tensions. But the more such corrections are used, the more complicity it requires of the receiver.
From Ideology As If to Democracy As If
Slovaks have lived through a number of dogmatic fictions in the recent past. The rigid Stalinist regime was discredited and loosened in the 1960s following Stalin’s death. The reformist communist leadership was looking to resolve many of the inconsistencies of Stalinism through their “socialism with human face” program. The Warsaw Pact invasion in Czechoslovakia in 1968 quashed the attempt, and with it, ended all hope of finding an equilibrium in the communist fiction without “forceful corrections.” One could either succumb to a new dogma of Normalization or abandon it and go into exile.
Thereafter, a new dogma, “real socialism,” emerged. The normalization period in Czechoslovakia was described by Miroslav Kusý as a pretend ideology, “ideology ‘as if’”. Kusý was inspired by the title of Vaihinger’s book. However, if Vaihinger’s dichotomy were to be accurately applied, Kusý’s title should have been “ideology ‘because.’”
This “ideology ‘because” was introduced in a simple declaration by the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Vasil Biľak, who said “real socialism is that which we have here!” The new dogma abandoned not only the attempts to humanize socialism but also the pursuit of socialist ideals as such. Instead, the leaders claimed that “real socialism” was better than the original communist utopia, trumping the Marxist-Leninist designs.
The regime devised an Orwellian language to create an alternative reality. As Kusy observed: “Rising prices become the leveling of price relations, discrimination of citizens, equal in the face of the law, becomes the class approach, energy crisis becomes the objective challenge of intense growth, monopoly on information becomes freedom of information, right to freedom of religion becomes the religious retardation, right to political opinion becomes anticommunism…”
The language served as a thin veil—nobody was expected to believe these claims. People were only expected to manifest their consent and in return, they could live in relative comfort of the grey economy. Tacitly agreeing to this arrangement was, however, also morally corrupting. Citizens used the same kind of language to cover up frequent theft, shirking of duty, bribery, excessive drinking, etc. The mode of existence demanded that people turn a blind eye to corruption, discrimination and oppression of others, and that people practice self-centered uncare of the other. In his exposé of Slovak political behavior throughout the past few decades, Martin Šimečka sees the indifference of the majority as the dominant thread of Slovakian history. Indifference towards the fate of the persecuted in the totalitarian regimes, indifference towards the members of religious, ethnic, gender, or other minorities persists up until the present. This indifference has been translated into an exclusivist notion of citizenship, which differentiates between “our people” and the others, who don’t quite belong and are not entitled to the same rights.
The dogmatic fiction can only survive as long as the pretense is intact. It requires full cooperation—willingly suspending disbelief or at least turning a blind eye to the glaring contradictions. Thus, the pariahs of the dissident circles, who pointed out the lies of the regime were considered to be the mortal enemies of the regime and had to be silenced. Dogmatic fictions can collapse when enough people recognize and denounce the sham.
David Ost, although harshly critical of Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, compellingly argues that the common workers or students, unlike the public intellectuals of the Charter 77, owing to their lack of connections, know-how, and public visibility can not resist the dogmatic fiction to the degree that elite intellectuals can. The masses do rise up and act politically, in the Arendtian sense, when a critical mass of the pariahs consolidates. The Revolutions of 1989 were rare examples of such a mobilization.
Since the collapse of the communist regime, a new, democratic, fiction has emerged. This fiction has been subject to contestation between competing visions: one based on human rights of individuals and communities, inspired by a forward-looking vision of a just society, and a dogmatic and exclusivist version of “democracy” which caters to “our people,” here and now. The latter democracy, the “democracy because” prevailed during the early years of independent Slovakia under the premiership of Vladimír Mečiar. Despite the rampant corruption, violent organized crime, and massive embezzlement of funds, many, intoxicated by nationalist populist promises, acquiesced to the Mečiar regime. Subsequently, the majority also acquiesced to the twelve years of the Fico government during which oligarchs gradually captured the state and the top public offices in government, judiciary, prosecution, and police through corruption, nepotism, and embezzlement. After all, the state inconvenienced “others”—the ethnic minorities, foreigners, journalists, LGBTQ+ communities, progressives etc.
Supporters of Mečiar’s or Fico’s democracy either fully believed the fiction, or willingly took part in the transaction, propping it up in the name of the nation, tradition, and social security, shutting their eyes to the outright violations of justice and equality. The economic transformation after 1989 underscored these tendencies. The strong neoliberal pressures prioritized economic growth as the primary element of democratization. Transgressions against the rights of the excluded minority groups were legitimized in the name of the social and economic rights of “our people.” The populist governments simultaneously enforced neoliberal economic policies and neoconservative ideals of protectionism, traditionalism, and exclusion.
The “democracy because” does not like the vocabulary of human rights; rights discourse are depicted as either an imposition from the West, as “gender ideology,” or as a project of ethnic minorities to gain extra rights at the expense of the majority. The language, once again, distorts reality by instilling fear and resentment.
A ritual of rebellion
Recently, the national parliamentary elections (March 2020) were won by a coalition which rallied to end the state of capture and sweep out the corruption brought about by the Fico administration. That the “democracy because” was finally challenged en masse appears positive. However, the new administration is a hodge-podge of mostly conservative and populist forces. This administration started its tenure amidst the corona pandemic. It took fast and effective measures to keep the pandemic in check. Some of them, however, trampled the rights of several communities: members of the LGBTQ+ community were unable to seek reunification with families or loved ones should they be hospitalized; Roma settlements were forcefully isolated from the rest of the population (initially using the army forces), while not preventing the risk of virus transmission within the Roma community sufficiently. Reactions of the majority illustrated the exclusivist stance against the “other” in Slovakia—with many either praising the government for the early intervention in the settlements, failing to even notice any discrimination, or on the contrary, criticizing the government for the “excessive care” given to the Roma communities.
While the decisions of the new government during their first 100 days of rule were veiled by the pandemic, gradually the lack of a vision, moral standards, and even of competence are now coming to light. Policies to systematically alleviate the situation of the most vulnerable are lacking. Instead, political leaders are using this time to carry out their conservative agenda. There are currently four bills in the National Council seeking to limit the rights to abortion (one from the pen of a part of the coalition, three from the circles of the extreme right-wing opposition). People with ultraconservative orientation are being assigned political posts requiring expertise in gender equality (e.g. at the Ministry of Labor) in the name of the protection of traditional families and values. The strongest Party of the Common People (OĽaNO) announced that they will occupy the positions of the heads of the district offices and the prime minister has called for the vetting of the candidates by the public—asking the people to report any dirt they may have on the candidates, which, in his view, will somehow guarantee their expertise and non-partisan standing.
But the “so that-ism” of the current administration is best illustrated by the current case of the Speaker of the National Council B. Kollár, who has been accused of plagiarism in his master’s thesis. Despite the fact that in the past, both Prime Minister Matovič and Kollár demanded the resignation of the previous speaker of the National Council, who was also accused of plagiarism, Kollár refused to resign and Matovič went out of his way to defend him. Soon it turned out that Matovič had to face an accusation of blatant plagiarism on his diploma thesis and an unsuccessful vote of no confidence in the parliament. The mantra of “fighting mafia and corruption” has become the default justification for all government actions.
“Because Fico” (the reminder that “if we lose, the previous cadres will be back”) is a formula used to counter all criticism and resistance. Unfortunately, it has also been picked up by the junior coalition partners of a more liberal democratic inclination; It is a feat of argumentational acrobatics used to justify, for example, their abstention from the vote for the removal of the Speaker and the Prime Minister from their posts; the Members of the Parliament voted not to remove them. This leaves us in a situation where the two of the highest political representatives in the country are accused of cheating and stealing and the ruling coalition stands by them in the name of the fight against corruption, theft, and for the rule of law. The facts are plain for all to see, however, they are side-stepped and relativized, and downplayed through blackmail.
In the 1950s, Max Gluckman published a famous socio-anthropological study of the rituals of rebellion among the tribes of Southern Africa. There, he described staged rebellions against the tribal kings in order to affirm the principle of openness and interchangeability of the tribal chiefs in their social structure. The rebellion served to reassure the community that the system is working, providing catharsis for social tensions, while paradoxically strengthening the status quo. The parliamentary elections of 2020 were in effect such ritualistic rebellion. The protests against corruption and murder of an investigative journalist that marked the two previous years, culminating in the presidential elections of a progressive female candidate Zuzana Čaputová, failed to deliver a critical mass that would lead a more widespread political action and change. The political parties that are aligned with the values of progressive liberal democracy did not meet the necessary 7% threshold and remained outside the gates of the parliament in the March election. The president, thus, is unfortunately an outlier rather than a symbol of the current Slovak politics.
The Democracy As If
Liberal democracy, as a vision, and even more so as a political practice, is always an as if enterprise. It is dependent on dialogue, problem solving, reconciliation of countervailing principles, building of bridges among diverse interests and views. It values expertise and learning. It requires the public to have skills that are learnt through education and political practice.
“Factual truth,” Arendt writes in her essay on truth and politics, “is always related to other people: it concerns events and circumstances in which many are involved; it is established by witnesses and depends upon testimony; it exists only to the extent that it is spoken about, even if it occurs in the domain of privacy.” When the factual truth is purposely suppressed by the rulers “in the name of” some notion, it is a sure sign that the democratic practice has departed into the realm of dogmas.
There are certainly islands of progressive political action in Slovakia within the fragmented and relatively weak civil society—the students who led the anti-corruption movement, the activists who protest the clero-conservative attempts to curb rights in the name of “traditional values,” the young people who willingly enter the state administration with intent to change practices within, teachers who change lives in remote areas for pittance, or those who are entering political parties, mobilized by these efforts. However, when the new administration, which ran on the call for a “decent Slovakia” condones the same practices that it advocated against and the majority of the public accepts it as normal, the prospects for moving away from a dogmatic quasi-democracy are bleak.
Dagmar Kusá teaches Comparative Politics and International Conflict and Cooperation at the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia. Her recent work focuses on the impact of memory regimes–legislative and institutional frameworks for addressing the past during democratic transitions–on the quality of democracy a few decades later.
This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.