The University Bookman


Winter 2015

Is It Too Late for Democracy?

book cover imageNell’età della tarda democrazia. Scritti sullo Stato, le istituzioni e la politica (In the Age of Late-Democracy: Essays on State, Institutions and Politics),
by Lorenzo Ornaghi.
Vita e Pensiero, 2013.
Paperback, 385 pages, €28.

Flavio Felice

In a passage of his Politica methodice digesta atque exemplis sacris et profanis illustrata (1603), using a simile to explain governance, the political theorist Johannes Althusius writes: “as from strings of different timbre, tuned harmonically, born a sweet sound and a sweet melody, in the concatenation of low, mid, and treble tones, so the State will have the agreement and the link between those who command and those who obey, and from the condition of the rich and the poor, the industrious and sedentary, from this kind of different people for instance, is a very gentle and suitable harmony; and if it is guided toward unison, the result is a commendable, happy, almost divine and very durable harmony.”

When read through the eyes of the contemporary reader, these words appear either as an ancient and idealized age or as an optimistic hope for the future. No one could describe the internal order of (national) states today using the image of the “sweet sound” or “sweet harmony.” The modern state is a cacophony of voices and competing interest groups. Complaints about the increasing presence of an invasive, ossified oligarchy, growing social inequality, and unequal opportunities for the new generations speak to political and social confusion that is more often described—with a picture that is now overused, but still (journalistically) effective—like screams in the square.

When we have arrived at the point where policy is in retreat because it is incapable of expressing ideas and ideals, institutions (even international ones) are in check and the object of growing mistrust, and the ruling classes are unprepared and unable to express positive qualities, it is necessary to understand the motivations that led modern democracies into this phase of deep unease. The most useful way to approach how this problem of legitimacy has come to pass is not the one that leads us to dwell on individual episodes of our national history, addressing it within a single disciplinary (or scientific) enclosure. On the contrary, a good understanding of the present state of our democracies can come only by focusing on the transformation of the long run, on the changes that have affected (and interest) in depth our institutional and political systems and, last but not least, our society, trying not to expel from the study of single phenomenon its connections with other aspects of the issue.

A useful tool for a research of this kind is offered by Lorenzo Ornaghi, through a recent publication: In the Age of Late-Democracy. The book contains several papers presented over the course of more than twenty years, preceded by some previously unpublished introductory remarks anticipating the arguments that will be developed in the following pages, and opening with a consideration that is a perfect starting point for reflection on democracy.

Ornaghi writes: “Whenever in a political system there dwells a policy that is only the struggle for personal positions of power, or that is widely perceived as such, it is usually very near the point at which even the institutions of that political system will be or will appear hopelessly stranded.” The focus on institutions is crucial because, shortly afterwards, the author recalls that institutions—especially political ones—have the specific task of “giving orders to the competition between the political ‘parties’ and to every struggle, more or less harsh or wild, whose aim is the conquest of power.” But, above all, they must prevent that “social vitalism be harnessed and weakened by an overwhelming and pervasive policy.”

The theme of institutions is crucial to understanding why Ornaghi defines the current democracy as “late”: making it such is the weight of a chain of “growing discrepancies or inconsistencies,” especially those “between the traditional political institutions and a working life of democratic politics in which ‘ordinariness’ and ‘extraordinariness’ exchange roles and reciprocal perspectives, between the system of values which historically are the basis for the former and the set of values […] of which the other moderately promotes the current distribution and, more moderately, production.”

An ideological understanding of democracy puts larger-scale systems, such as “capitalism” or “socialism” above individual ideas as a driver of social or governmental change. If, however, we assume a post-ideological theoretical perspective on the genesis of social institutions, an evolutionary and incremental approach, indebted to Hayek’s evolutionism, Popper’s fallibilism, and Sturzo’s historicism, then institutions appear instead reducible to the ideas and ideals held by individuals. These ideas and ideals are translated into rules that, once embraced, require habits of obedience. Transgression of any rules in turn results in a sanction; that is, moral, administrative, or criminal proceedings. Ornaghi argues that seeing social institutions in this way—as embodying the ideas and ideals of those individuals constituting those institutions—will help correct the modern state’s fall into what he calls “indifferentist drift,” that is, exalting a bureaucratic functionalism and search for power above seeking the common good that became a hallmark of the “‘immeasurable’ century”—as Ornaghi defines the twentieth century—and that is not necessarily doomed to indifferentist drift, which is typical of an exasperated functionalism.

While the institutions of “late democracy” do not pay the price of ideology, it is equally true that they run the risk of having to pay that of pragmatism and functionalism as ends in themselves, behind which lurk in ambush extremist defenses of politics as a system merely of gaining the most advantageous position in a zero-sum game. Knowing and understanding institutions stripped of the rhetoric that invigorate “counter-democratic” forces is for Ornaghi a necessary step to restore a proper understanding of the role of institutions. A culture that regards institutions in an incremental way might present an antidote to the post-ideological indifference that Ornaghi identifies. This incremental approach would start from consideration of the person as an ontological and political reality. This approach may also be the best device for the construction and defense of social institutions: their genesis, their maturity, and their eventual sunset. 

Flavio Felice is full professor of the History of Political Thought at the Pontifical Lateran University and President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies (Milan-Rome)

Posted: March 15, 2015

Did you see this one?

Scalia the Originalist
Edward Whelan
Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)

Only a man who remembers his debt to his ancestors is likely to plant for posterity.

Russell Kirk


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