Democracy under Social Pressure

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“[…] And everyone must lose his mind, everyone must! The sooner the better! It is essential — I know it.” (E. Zamyatin, “We”, 1924)

(The headquarters of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, 1934, Rome, Albert Harlingue, Gettyimages)

Definitions and Reality

In the past month we have talked about words, their fraudulent use, and their influence on our life. We also talked about the human desire to be part of something bigger, and how many totalitarian regimes in history have done nothing but offer this possibility to millions of people. In this short interlude I would like to ask a question that partly concerns what we have discussed.

The question I would like to ask is inspired by the Italian political and social situation, but this does not mean that it can be less valid for those who live in other countries where a similar situation is present. The question is:

If a Country where the misuse of language has led to a situation of social pressure such as to question freedom of expression, without the use of real coercive means, but only through strong social harassment, can that country still be defined a democracy?

The first answer I would have to give, if asked to me, would be simple: “The vote is secret, so where is the problem? Nobody would ever know if you say that you vote X and then you vote Y instead”. As an old, anti-communist slogan of the Christian Democrats in the postwar years states: “In the secret of the urn, God sees you, Stalin does not”.

And that’s a good observation. Almost.

But let’s consider the whole thing from a broader perspective.

Let’s think about what is created in the time before one enters that cabin. We have talked about the insincerity of political language and the confusion it creates when it spreads between civil society: how conscious can a citizen be, considered exercising his or her right under this form of “self-hypnosis”, to which society, media, parties, colleagues, friends, family subjected it? How much social pressure can the average individual withstand? And how much democratic institutions can?

Electoral propaganda has always been part of the game, since politics has existed.

But in this case we talk about confusion caused on purpose. To what extent, empty a word (or, well, many words) of their meaning, can undermine democratic institutions to the point that they can no longer be considered such?

Democracy derives from the Greek (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā, from dēmos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’) and, over the centuries, its political theory has developed up to our concept of liberal democracy, with the balance of powers, the rule of law and the individual rights. But the basic concept remains: rule of the people. And what happens then, if the people have developed and internalized a different “Meaning” of all this? Or worse, if it is not aware of any meaning at all?

In short: if the “meaning” of Institutions and basic democratic principles had been profoundly altered, can we still claim to be in a Democracy?

[Obviously the subject is complex and will certainly be treated in further writings. This short piece is intended to ask the reader a question that I have been asking myself for quite some time. I would be really happy to know what your thoughts are in this regard.]

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