Till van Rahden, “Democracy: A Fragile Way of Life”

Till van Rahden. Demokratie: Eine gefährdete Lebensform. Frankfurt: Campus, 2019. 196 PP. Cloth. 24.95€. ISBN: 9783593511344.Demokratie

1) What Mood Are We In?

Over the past fifteen years, we have moved from complacency and hubris to panic and despair. After the end of the Cold War, liberal democracy was taken for granted. Now it is in crisis: citizens are distancing themselves from politics, the people’s parties are losing members and votes, twitter and Instagram are crowding out public debates and civility. Our conversations today mostly revolve around the question how democracies degenerate and die. Across the globe, studies have appeared on the crisis of democracy.

My aim in Demokratie: eine gefährdete Lebensform is to challenge the sense of despair that informs recent conversations. Instead of obsessing about how democracies die, it might prove more useful to explore what keeps them alive.

2) The Primacy of Democracy

Perhaps we would do well to emulate Richard Rorty who argued for “The Primacy of Democracy over Philosophy,” Political Theory, or even Democratic Theory. Rather than searching for an analytically precise or normatively self-consistent “philosophical foundation for democracy”, perhaps we are better of asking what philosophy and the humanities “can do” for the democracies we live in. Like Rorty, I see myself as a follower of John Dewey. As a result, my book does not aim to offer scientific certainties about democracy.

Instead I hope to offer scholarly arguments and stories that may prove useful as we reflect upon what keeps democracies alive. A series of eclectic close-ups on the history of the Federal Republic of Germany offer episodes to think about democracy as a way of life. The democratic miracle of postwar German history allows us to better understand the cultural and social bases of democracy in public controversies, a democratic ethos, and in everyday life.

3) Democracy as a Fragile Way of Life

Democracy all too often is seen as the default system of government in a modern society. In fact, since 1918, democracy has often been regarded as only legitimate form of government. Even Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler publicly advocated their regimes as a perfect variation of democracy.

If we are all democrats now, we have lost sight of a banality–namely that liberal democracy is inherently fragile. Both as a system of government of government and as a way of life, liberal democracy is more unlikely and more fragile than a monarchy or a dictatorship.

“There is no great share of probity necessary to support a monarchical or despotic government,” Montesquieu noted in the “Spirit of the Laws”, first published in 1748: The “force of laws, in one, and the prince’s arm, in the other, are sufficient to direct and maintain the whole: but, in a popular state, one spring more is necessary, namely, virtue.”

Rousseau echoed such thoughts in “The Social Contract” (published in 1762). There “is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government,” the Genevan philosopher argued “because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is.”

Highlighting the inherent fragility of democracy allows us to draw attention to a set of simple questions: What are the cultural and social preconditions that make democracy possible? How can we strengthen and renew them?

4) Forms and Manners, not Ethics and Values

Yet how shall we best conceptualize such cultural and social foundations of democracy? In the German context, the most influential thinker to highlight the nexus between a moral order and liberal democracy is Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. The legal theorist famously noted that the “liberal secular state lives on premises that it cannot itself guarantee.”

A similar concern about secularism and its discontents is central to Charles Taylor’s idea of the “social imaginary.” A democracy, my fellow Montrealer has argued, are in need of some form of moral consensus that is based not on abstract Rawlsian reasoning but on lived experiences, social imaginaries in other words, that allow citizens to embrace democratic principles such as solidarity and equality. According to the devout Catholic, the concept refers to “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”

Obviously, no analysis of debates over forms, style, and manners can match the subtlety of Böckenförde’s legal reasoning or the dazzling brilliance of Taylor’s arguments. And yet, my aim is to suggest why Böckenförde’s fears may prove exaggerated and why Taylor’s emphasis on shared thick morality more problematic than is usually assumed.

Conversations about the role of forms, style, and manners for democracy as a way of life may contribute to a more nuanced, subtle, and literally radical understanding of democratic foundations. To emphasize forms over substance is not only an odd way of putting into question contemporary anxieties about the moral basis of democracy. More importantly, questions of style may help us in our attempts to square the multicultural circle and to navigate the tension between equality and difference. With this is mind, we can return to the question of democratic theory and revisit at once Böckenförde’s fears and Taylor’s emphasis on shared thick morality. To privilege forms over substance is to emphasize rules, manners, and conventions over shared values and an ethical consensus. Against this background we can perhaps begin to reconsider Böckenförde’s famous dictum: “The liberal secular state lives on premises that it cannot itself guarantee. On the one hand, it can subsist only if the freedom it consents to its citizens is regulated from within, inside the moral substance of individuals and of a homogeneous society. On the other hand, it is not able to guarantee these forces of inner regulation by itself without renouncing its liberalism.”

If a genuinely pluralist liberalism is justified in putting moral incommensurabilities first, the premises (that Böckenförde rightly calls our attention to) cannot be found in the realm of morality or ethics. A republican constitution, as Immanuel Kant was the first to point out, would have to work not just for a nation of angels but also for a nation of devils. It might therefore be more fruitful to focus less on the civic virtues and moral passions citizens hold, but to analyze instead how they articulate their ethical sentiments and fears in public. If liberal democracy is as much a way of life as a system of government, it would be short-sighted to focus on civic virtues, shared values and a common social imaginary. If we understand diversity as the inevitable effect of individual freedom, if we put moral incommensurabilities and questions of cruelty at the heart of our understanding of democracy, we need to fret less about values or social imaginaries and instead explore which forms, styles, and aesthetics help stimulate, sustain and revive democracy as a way of life.

An emphasis on democracy a way of life need not lead us to focus on questions of morality and norms. Instead it invites us to analyze questions of form. Those who view cultural homogeneity as a prerequisite for liberal democracy overlook the fact that a specifically democratic form of civic cohesion emerges not from harmony, but from discord. Forms, not norms, are crucial here. Our ability to accept moral dilemmas that we cannot solve but only navigate, our capacity “to grasp what we cannot embrace,” presupposes forms and conventions, rules and procedures that allow us to live with deep pluralism.

Reflections on ways of life, questions of style and democratic spaces allows us to hone our feel for the cultural and social foundations of democracy. No matter how stable a democratic government and a constitutional order may seem, without ways of life that allow for and encourage democratic experiences it will wither and perish. If, as Böckenförde emphasises, liberal democracy requires that citizens also cultivate, shape and renew a democratic ethos in everyday life, this presupposes a democratic commons, i.e. cultural forms and social spaces, that offers everyone the chance to experience freedom and equality in everyday life in a sensorial way. In short, to explore democracy as a way of life is to focus less on how democracy works, but on what democracy feels like.

5) Rebuilding a Democratic Commons, Cultivating a Democratic Aesthetic

A democratic way of life does not emerge out of thin air. It presupposes a democratic commons, public spaces and institutions that allow for democratic experiences in everyday encounters among citizens. These include public squares and streets, public parks and swimming pools, municipal libraries and museums, kindergartens and playgrounds, youth centers and sports facilities, schools and universities – in other words, places that not only serve the greening of the city, transportation, or education and invite people to stay, but also offer a “stage for social and political participation”.

Together they offer spaces of democratic experiences, opportunities to experience freedom and equality in everyday life, to cultivate a sense of what democracy feels like. The fact that schools, playgrounds and parks have long been in poor condition in many places, especially in impoverished post-industrial German cities such as Offenbach, that municipal museums such as the Lehmbruck-Museum in Duisburg are restricting their opening hours for lack of money, and that municipal libraries are reducing their range of services or closing branches, is a more serious threat to liberal democracy than the rise of populism.

Together, these public spaces, places and public goods embody the idea of the common good. They create the framework that allows citizens to cultivate democracy as a way of life. Democracy thrives on political opposition, ideological struggle and moral conflict. But these conflicts can only develop their creative force if we preserve the democratic commons in which we can navigate conflicts and accept ambiguities. The more the signs of a crisis of democracy become apparent, the more evident it becomes how costly it is to cut the budget of those institutions and to neglect those public spaces and places that allow for democratic experiences and a deep pluralism, that strengthen the civic sense of community and a culture of participation and peaceful discord.

The infirmity of the democratic commons is a threat to liberal democracy, first as a way of life, then also as a system government. A democracy that is no longer preserves these public goods and cultivates democratic ways of life puts at peril its very social and cultural prerequisites. If we obsess about efficiency and performance, controlling and benchmarking in the public sphere and privatise public goods because the “invisible hand” of the market leads to supposedly fairer solutions, we lose our keen sense of democracy as a form of life.

Especially in cities it becomes apparent: the “leaner” and more efficient the state, the more liberal democracy is endangered. Democracy as a system of government, but above all as a way of life, costs money, and without a strong, effective tax state it is impossible to sustain it. More than other forms of rule, democracy needs spaces for democratic experiences, forums and forms of civic cooperation and discord, however inefficient such forms of unsocial sociability may be. Without the “intersection of social circles” (Georg Simmel), the vitality of democracy dries up. If we do not want to give up the spaces of democratic experiences that enable us to fill the idea of a society of free and equal citizens with life and meaning, we can no longer afford the withering of our democratic commons and the loss of public goods. Without them, democracy hangs in the air. It will wither and die. It is for us to keep it.

*For further reading, see two recent discusssions of Demokratie:

Sieglinde Geisel, “Ein Plädoyer für das Gespräch mit Jedermann,” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 13 January 2020.
Jens Hacke’ review, “Jenseits von erfahrungsabstinenter Moralphilosophie und marktradikalem Effizienzdenken: Der Historiker Till van Rahden fragt, was Demokratien am Leben hält,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 3 February 2020.

Till van Rahden teaches modern history at the Université de Montréal where he held the Canada Research Chair in German and European Studies from 2006 to 2016. He specializes in European history since the Enlightenment and is interested in the tension between the elusive promise of democratic equality and the recurrent presence of diversity and moral conflicts. In 1993, he received an M.A. in American history from The Johns Hopkins University, and in 1999, he completed his dissertation at the University of Bielefeld which was published in 2000 as Juden und andere Breslauer with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht and received the “Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History.” He has co-edited Juden, Bürger, Deutsche: Zur Geschichte von Vielfalt und Differenz 1800-1933 (Tübingen, 2001), Demokratie im Schatten der Gewalt: Geschichten des Privaten im deutschen Nachkrieg (Göttingen, 2010), and Autorität: Krise, Konstruktion und Konjunktur (Paderborn, 2016). His recent publications include two monographs, Jews and other Germans: Civil Society, Religious Diversity and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860-1925 (Madison, 2008) and Demokratie: Eine gefährdete Lebensform (Frankfurt 2019).

Leave a Reply