Reimagining democracy – Fellows’ seminar by Marcelo Neves

1 October 2019

“We have to reinvent democracy – with an emphasis on responsible sustainability. Without sustainability, democracy will collapse,” said Marcelo Neves. “To maintain democracy we have to change our approach. The dominant democracies need to take other political systems seriously. If democracy wants some success we have to change our conception of adequate democracy. We must develop a new imagination to address the social and human environment constructed by other political systems. We need an ecological notion of democracy.”

STIAS Fellow Marcelo Neves

Neves is Professor of Public Law and Legal Theory at the University of Brasília. His STIAS work, which will result in the planned book Transdemocracy, forms part of the STIAS long-term theme project Crossing Borders with the subtheme Boundaries and Legal Authority in a Global context.

“This project is geared towards a new, interdisciplinary understanding of democracy, considering that so-called ‘democratic’ decisions negatively affect other people and thus become undemocratic.”

“The concept of ‘people sovereignty’ has to be redefined,” he said. “It is no longer sufficient to identify democracy with ‘we the people’. Democracy has to incorporate ‘the others’, ‘the peoples’ as an expression of its self-understanding. From an almost exclusive stress on people’s identity, democracy has to switch to an emphasis on peoples’ alterity. What is required is conviviality with the political others, that is, showing respect to others, also when visiting them at their home. If this path proves unviable, it would portend the elimination of the external political conditions of domestic politics, which would amount to an ecological catastrophe for existing democracies.”

mokratía was not democracy

Neves pointed out that modern democracy, in any case, has little to do with the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome.

“Dēmokratía in Ancient Greece was founded on exclusion,’ he said. “It was not freedom in the modern sense. It was an exclusionary legal and political model and a culturally chauvinistic, restricted, closed society. Only heads of households had power. Women, slaves and the landless were seen as dependent and thus excluded from public office.” He pointed out that in 431 BC the population of Athens was 315 500, however, only 13.6% or 43 000 were citizens (adult males) while 115 000 were slaves.

“A quorum of 6000 was needed (less than 2% of the population) for decision making – this was rarely achieved,” he added.

“More than three quarters of the population was excluded from political participation. Ancient Greek polities also leaned towards the notion of autarchy, favouring self-sufficiency.”

“In contrast, modern democracy emerged as a new semantic incorporating normative structures aimed at the universal inclusion of all persons as rights holders,” he continued.

However, Neves believes that democracy evolved in modern liberal revolutions based on a fundamental misunderstanding – “an emphasis on the isolationist concept of people’s sovereignty”.

“While the theory of democracy and the semantics of democratic practice point to the political inclusion of the people and to the constitutional differentiation of politics from other social domains, no actual effort has been made to take the idea of world society seriously. In particular, the concept of sovereignty has been developed based on the idea of autonomy, which is close to autarchy. The fact that society became world society has been overlooked, and thus the democratically organised state has not only a functional but also a segmented, territorial, political environment.”

“Politics and law remain territorially segmented. States claim self-sufficiency and isolation with democracy as a political system of each territory or of each nation state.”

While political inclusion and human rights increased in the dominant ‘civilised’ centres of the North exclusion persisted on the ‘barbarian’ peripheries with true democratic human rights as a privilege of the few.

“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that constitutionalism and democracy were intended as a set of provisions for the legal and political inclusion of some (white Europeans, and later US colonists of European extraction) and not all, despite the fact that the wealth of the happy few depended on the toil and (semi‐slave or enslaved) labour of the restless many,” said Neves.

“In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, territoriality remained a key aspect of the political organisation of democracy. Peoples remained physically apart. ‘Systemic garbage’ was thrown from centres to peripheries in the forms of slavery, invasion, war, support of dictatorship, multinational corporate corruption, etc. But there was a limited reflux from the periphery to the centre, primarily because the centre dominated the periphery through variants of imperialism which are incompatible with modern democracy, but factually compatible with domestic political inclusion (‘isolated democracy’). This was and remains the ‘dark side’ of the Enlightenment, whose legacy is far from overcome.”

“However, this was not restricted to the colonial period,” he continued. “In the neo-and post‐colonialsetting, the forward marchof democracy, resulting in legal and political inclusion in the ‘centre’ came hand in hand with geopolitical conflicts which resulted in the ‘centre’ being at the same time beacons irradiating constitutional and democratic ideas, and the exporters of practices of legal and political exclusion, including the support of authoritarian regimes in the periphery when it suited their interests.”

So-called democratic decision making affected other people of the same world society. Neves pointed to the foreign policies of the United States in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s which supported dictatorships and Western foreign policies in the Near East nowadays as examples.

“From 9/11 – the war against terrorism heralded a new wave of decision making that did not include listening to the affected peoples,” he added.

Back from the periphery to the centre

But increasing globalisation and interconnectedness means that information circulates despite political borders. Democracy in the modern sense must now survive in a world society – a complex social environment inside and outside of state territory.

“With the strengthening of world society at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, the convenient illusion of isolation and independency from the political environment was undermined,” said Neves. “More and more the reflux of ‘garbage’ came back without any recycling. One throws bombs, imposes corrupt rulers, blocks economic development in weak countries and disrupts international relations, but one cannot avoid the resulting human and social pollution. Not only in the form of terrorism and global criminality does the garbage come back, but also, and above all else, through the uncontrollable refugee flows caused by war, hunger and oppression.”

“We have seen attempts at new forms of isolationism such as rigid foreigner entry control and the building of walls. But it is no longer possible to prevent the reflux. Now it is not only commodities, money and information that circulate worldwide, but also human bodies.”

“The interdependence of world society is undermined,” he continued. “Society is in confrontation with nature, the legal system with the economy, the equality of democracy is at war with the inequality of capitalism.”

This, believes Neves, means we must focus on reimagining democracy.

“Dominating democracies must develop a new imagination to adequately address the social and human environment constructed by other political systems territorially organised into states. The concept of people sovereigntyhas to be redefined. The emphasis should no longer be placed only on autonomy, but also on sustainable responsiveness towards others and towards world society. To render sovereignty sustainable, it may be necessary to reconsider it. Without such a response, the hollowing out first, and then the collapse of democracy(ies), is not improbable.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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