Democracy Has Run Out of Future

Illustration insert: despardes.com

Ivan Krastev & Leonard Benardo in Foreign Policy: We live today amid the dregs of time. A sense of doom is shared on all sides of the political spectrum. Democratic politics in the West has turned into a clash between two extinction rebellions and two nostalgias: an extinction rebellion of climate activists who are terrified that if we don’t radically upend our way of life, we shall destroy life on Earth, and an extinction rebellion of the “great replacement” right, which lives in fear that if something doesn’t change, it is the end of our way of life. The right is nostalgic for the past. The left is nostalgic for the vanished future. Radically different in their goals, they share one common vantage point: an apocalyptic imagination.

It is in the context of this creeping eschatological position that one can assess the originality and importance of Jonathan White’s In the Long Run: The Future as a Political Idea. White, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, offers an original reading of the current crisis of democracy by defining it as a temporal regime and arguing that an “open future,” one that is not predetermined but is shaped by human agency, is a precondition for the successful functioning of democratic regimes. In his view, “When the future seems to be closing in, institutions organized around the idea of persistent disagreement and changing opinion start to look out of place.”

By contrast, the reigning characteristic of our “age of emergency” is that there is no room for error. If certain decisions are not taken today, it no longer matters whether they will be taken up tomorrow. It will be too late.

White’s argument is that, just as humans die in the absence of air to breathe, democracy can die from the inability to dream collectively. What makes democracy work is a productive tension between a near future and a distant and utopian future. The near future is the one we can plan for—the one that politicians promise to voters and remains at the center of democratic accountability. What the government did yesterday and what the parties pledge for tomorrow will always be the bread and butter of electoral politics.

White, however, is correct to insist that the distant and utopian futures, ones radically different from today’s reality, are also constitutive for democratic regimes. Distant futures are the basis for political hope today and the motivation for deferring the gratification of immediate political goals. Take the future out of democratic politics and elections turn into civil wars with ballots or a never-ending crisis management.

But today our relationship to the future is marked by collective distrust. The resulting imbalance between democracy as a project and democracy as a projection of futures—whether economic, demographic, or technological—is at the center of the West’s current crisis. Uncertainty about the future, and the resulting hope that tomorrow can be radically different from today, are the hallmarks of the democratic idea. The question is whether uncertainty is still possible in our current age of emergency.

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