Democratic Boredom

Democratic Boredom

Tedio democrático

Yvon Grenier

When artists and writers find inspiration in the realm of politics, they are generally enthralled by fierce charismatic leaders and by dramatic or tragic episodes of history. What really turns them on is purificatory violence, which they typically find in wars and, most of all, in revolutions. As Octavio Paz wrote: “From Coleridge to Mayakovski, Revolution has been the great Goddess, the eternally beloved One and the magnificent Whore of poets and novelists.” Paz also proclaimed that “Revolution has been the public religion of modernity, whereas poetry has been its private religion.” Poetry, cornerstone of the human experience for Paz, rhymes with revolution—not with the ordinary politics of constitutional democracy. And indeed, we can hardly imagine, say, a masterpiece such as the painting La liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix, commemorating, rather than the July Revolution, French citizens (that is to say, adult males who pay taxes) casting their votes for the legislative assembly; or Siqueiros’ monumental La marcha de la humanidad featuring numerous square metres of pigments to the memorable political reform of 1964.

In other words, the alternative is between the potentially destructive but exhilarating politics of utopias, or its rather dull substitute: pragmatic politics. This conjures up memories of Goncharov’s famous novel Oblomov (1849), in which Oblomov is faced with a similar alternative, in the form of two possible fiancées, and nonchalantly opt for the second. This fiction gave birth to a new syndrome, Oblomovism, which Lenin reviled as a disorder of the Russian soul that causes aversion to risk, mediocre autosatisfaction and low self-esteem. In the capitalist democracies of our time, Oblomovism is seemingly a widespread phenomenon. The literature on political participation indicates that political apathy, epitomized by low electoral turnout, reflects less a rejection of the status quo than a cosy and vague indifference, if sometimes coated with shallow cynicism. The pursuit of happiness takes place in the private and individual sphere, and sometimes in the private sphere of politics as well (as character María del Rosario Galván avers in Carlos Fuentes’ La silla del Águila: “politics is private passions channelled in public activities”). Politics, including postmaterialist politics, is losing the competition for the motivation and seduction of a fairly content citizen-consumer. This citizen is not deficient in ambition or ability to handle change; simply, s/he sees no compelling reasons to seek fundamental political changes.

Following a period of transition that was both dramatic and pregnant with promises of rebirth, “consolidating” democracies typically experience, often for the very first time, how mundane and ordinary political life is in a democracy. It is not difficult to draw parallels with the post-revolutionary situations described by sociologist Max Weber in his famous conference Politik als Beruf (Politics as vocation) in 1919. In a new democracy, politicians (often recycled officials of the old regime) devote their energy to learning the new rules of the political game, the who gets what, when and how. Debates of ideas seem to fade in the background, while fierce competition for access to resources and power rages at all levels. And when appetite for ideas lingers, as in Central Europe for instance, it frequently manifests itself as nostalgia, if not for the old regime, at least for a radical, tragic and messianic political ambiance.

In fact, democracy always brims with a healthy dose of political boredom, essentially because it proscribed the victory of one particular agenda, beyond the minimal absence of dissent on the viability of the democratic mechanic itself. It supposes a balancing act between different definitions of the good society, as well as the peaceful resolution of conflicts that may emerge. Furthermore, without illustrious victors or romantic losers, democracy produces what could be called a vast middle class of happiness, with lukewarm citizens easily glossed over or ridiculed by the philosophers of history, the muralists and the epic poets. The democratic ideal is a utopia (u topos: a place that does not exist), but day-to-day democracy is not, because the impossibility of total victory or “final solution” forces actors to seek success in the pursuit of limited and achievable goals.

The great challenge of democracies in this new century will be to strive for advances in living standards with ideas and policies that are pragmatic, tolerant, and prudent. Which is to say, somewhat boring (from an utopian perspective), but. . . hopefully not too much! It is imperative to combat anomy and apathy with a new awakening to the politics of serenity and reason. This is arguably the only way to reconcile the ethic of conviction with the ethic of responsibility. Again, Octavio Paz gives us a useful hint: “Criticism of progress is a signal, a promise of other changes.” He refrains from taking his argument to its logical conclusion: criticism of the ideology of progress is the seed to a new conception of progress, one that is viable and without “final solution”. Progress is dead; three cheers for Progress! Inventing the New Man is not difficult: it is impossible. Conversely, it is incredibly difficult but feasible to improve education, public health, the environment and the judicial system, or to reduce poverty and inequalities.

But I am getting too excited here . . .

NOTE: A good example of a boring country: Canada. A vast suburb of the USA, prosperous and with high level of human development; without much sound and fury, but comfortable and civilized. A country that is liberal, progressist and conservative, with heaps of conceited modesty. . . Altogether, a good illustration of what democratic tedium has to offer.

—The author lives peacefully in the forest of Nova Scotia, Canada.

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