Letter: “Democracy is nevertheless better than fascism”
“I also don’t think there’s anything good about democracy. There’s too little direct democracy, too few referendums, most politicians are only interested in holding onto their power and the rest are only looking out for whatever the employers want, and so on. But at the end of the day, I still think that democracy is better than fascism. You can freely express your opinion, even if it is critical. You aren’t locked up for protesting against policies – look at the demos against nuclear power or Fridays for the Future – you can vote for different parties and start a party yourself, immigrants are integrated instead of being killed in concentration camps...”
It’s so great that in this country a citizen who has paid attention in school always has a handy comparison ready. Imagine if you had to drop the comparison with fascism as a standard, then you wouldn’t have an “even worse” political system with which to quickly make democracy look “better.” Then what? Then there wouldn’t be anything left to measure democracy against other than itself; in other words: one would have to draw up a cool-headed balance sheet of this system of rule that looks at what democracy is, what role one plays in it, and what this highly regarded political system does for the citizens who freely and equally elect a government every four years. Certainly, one would have to take a closer look at your highly esteemed free speech and the rights to demonstrate, vote and join political parties.
And last but not least, one would have to examine your negative praise: it is supposed to be to democracy’s credit, you write, that it doesn’t build concentration camps in which immigrants and “lives unworthy of life” are gassed. Apparently, you think that democracy deserves admiration because it doesn’t just kill those it delcares its enemies. It sends a shiver down my spine to hear that democracy wouldn’t go that far. How far does it go with those it labels its enemies? Do you realize this praise gives a positive check mark to all the really existing alternatives in the real democratic purification arsenal for eliminating citizens who are declared enemies just because it lets them live? Don’t you notice that you aren’t making a comparison, but only drawing a limit as to how far a democracy goes in getting rid of people who it doesn’t like: ok, this far, but no further! Haven’t you noticed that instead of condemning fascism in the name of the democratic values you hold dear, you are theoretically presenting a seamless transition from democracy to fascism? All this escapes you or else you wouldn’t make this “comparison.”
But there is more to a comparison: first and foremost, one has to give distinct explanations of democracy and fascism. Only then would there be a basis for a comparison that makes clear what these two political systems have in common – this is, after all, what a comparison is – and what their differences are. I have to say I don’t see any of this in your question. In everything you like and dislike about democracy, I see a collection of misjudgments about democracy (more on this in a moment). And it’s no coincidence that fascism only makes you think of mass murder in concentration camps, maybe also euthanasia and the second world war. No question: these atrocities were part of National Socialism, but to reduce fascism to that, or to see these murderous deeds as something like the central point of fascism, misses the mark. Why should a political system like fascism, one which, after all, ruled over a whole society, be reduced to its dealings with its internal or external enemies?! Was there no economy, no education, no health care and social system, no infrastructure, no culture, no media? But, as I said, this reduction is no coincidence: because without these atrocities fascism would not serve you as a foil to democracy. For me, this all amounts to the conventional intellectual decision that wants to hold on to democracy at all costs while remaining – of course – a critical citizen. And one learns very early on that such (pseudo-)comparisons are good for these efforts: for example, when complaints about poverty in this country are rejected in a qualified way by pointing to the much worse forms of poverty in Africa, or when a complaint about living under the lash of a boss is belittled as snowflakery in comparison to how one’s grandparents “lived during the war.”
You could ask yourself, for example, whether it’s necessary to rule over citizens in order to organize a decent life in a region. Imagine for a moment that you had proceeded in this way and arrived at the critical conclusion that rule over people is only necessary where there are conflicts between citizens and between them and their rule. And imagine that you had come to the critical insight that this rule is then absolutely necessary for subduing such conflicts through the use of more or less state power; namely, in fascist and in democratic systems of rule! You would then have to mentally throw out both systems.
But now let’s stop beating around the bush: What you initially reported positively about democracy will not stand up to scrutiny. I will try to back this up by using the example of free speech, which you praise. Not that I would deny it, as some critical types do. Not at all! Only, I regularly ask myself why must a state power – even in the constitution – permit the free expression of opinions? Shouldn’t it be taken for granted that everyone should share their critical or uncritical thoughts with others, enter into dialogue about them, let themselves be better educated, or, conversely, convince others of their own judgments? And wouldn’t such a thing be a necessity wherever people organize their lives collectively? Obviously, not in a democracy: here, people don’t speak their own thoughts, but rather make use of the state’s permission to do this – whether or not they think about it every time they open their mouths in public, perhaps even thanking it.
The question arises as to why this permission is needed and what this cherished freedom involves? By the constitutional authorization of free speech, I am not even thinking of the fact that the state can then also take it away from its citizens. To be sure, it can and does do that, but freedom’s praises are not sung because of the always present threat of censorship. Despite all that, it is anything but absurd to say that the state, by giving this permission, is pursuing its own concerns. And these concerns are obvious: when it encourages the citizens to give their critical views on everything and everyone in letters to the editor, in discussion groups, or at public meetings, when it gives permission to vent opinions from morning to night in all kinds of internet forums, when young people are taught to be critical and teachers in schools and universities are encouraged to form “their own opinions,” then it is probably a serious concern of the supreme permit-giver to find out what its people are thinking. It is less interested in gossip about neighbors, in arguments about the latest episode of a tv talent show, or in the judgments of millions of self-appointed football coaches about last night’s game. First and foremost, it is interested in hearing the critical thoughts of the citizenry about government activities. Just as the citizens have good reasons to complain, it also has good reasons for taking note of them. What is required of the citizens in terms of policies between elections rarely meets with unanimous approval: pensions are not enough, wages are unfair, health care is always getting more expensive and worse, there’s not enough spaces in day care centers, schools are falling apart, immigrants are upsetting them, etc. The government is interested in the type of griping that is addressed to it, that accuses it of omissions, misconduct, failures or negligences of duty, hence is far from examining the work of government on political grounds. In short: to the extent that the citizens envisage as the addressee of this criticism and hold politically responsible only that authority which is answerable all these omissions, namely the state, the politicians can continue to present themselves as being in charge of the citizens’ concerns and to inform the citizens whether and how their concerns fit in with the political projects undertaken by the government. In this way, the democratic system manages to keep the citizens toeing the line, despite the chronic dissatisfaction of large sections of the population with the results of state policy. And by the way, the citizens are allowed to express their anger with the ruling politicians by voting for the next ones who then continue the same circus. This comes under the democratic value of freedom to vote, which is once again held in very high esteem in democracy – without the assembled voters racking their brains about the fact that voting will not change the causes of their constant frustration.
So the politicians are pretty much ok with the world of democracy. Especially when the citizens’ criticism is not only characterized by a trust in the state that is as unjustified as it is unshakable and unshakably critical, but also when it takes the form that anything like the practical realization of their concerns against all kinds of resistance is out of the question: i.e., when all complaints are presented as mere opinions. In this way, citizens submit to the democratic dictum that everyone is entitled to express his opinion, but only under the condition that he grants the same entitlement to all other citizens, even if they express different or even antagonistic concerns – which is supposed to happen from time to time in this society. This is exactly what makes every expression of opinion an expression of an opinion which merely records the fact that it is “mine, which nobody can take away from me”! In this insistence on his subjectivity, the opinion-holder recognizes the legitimacy of every other opinion – which also must not be “taken away” from the other citizen, no matter how much it contradicts his criticism. In this way, the exercise of state-permitted free speech proves to be a way that the citizen is voluntarily self-disarmed: The citizen reduces his interest, i.e. what he wants realized for himself in practice, to an opinion and thus separates it from any action aimed at carrying it out. Conclusion: the citizen is permitted to publicly announce his criticisms, wishes, and demands, and the elected political leaders will then decide whether they are justified – as a rule, according to a criteria that ensures the citizen will, first, continue to powerlessly make use of free speech for his complaints and that, second, he will thank the authorities for allowing him to enjoy this insipid freedom and thus show that he is loyal to them despite his criticism of the authorities.
“Still better than fascism”? Just because fascists don’t repeatedly produce unity between the people and the political leadership by permitting and encouraging criticism via free speech but simply presume this unity and react violently when it is questioned? By the way, democrats in government don’t like this either. When, for example, an organized gtoup insists that there can be no talk of such a unity because this society is characterized by class conflict, democrats in government are pretty quick to call the state police and resort to bans on such organizations when their arguments catch on with the class of income-dependent employees – see, for example, the ban on the Communist Party of Germany. For democrats, this is only the last resort for completely undesirable opinions that have any public political effect. Before that, there is pluralism of opinions, one of the values of democracy in which academic institutions, the public sphere, and the market for books, magazines, and other media are kind enough to sort between proper and improper ideas. And they are so effective at this that deviant ideas, although permitted, still have no chance of being included in the canon of considerations worthy of consideration.
If one thinks through the comparison with fascism discussed here, then it is important to note that both systems of rule are united, that they have their own methods for depriving politically undesirable ideas and organizations of any effectiveness among the people. The methods themselves are different: While democracy puts great stock in pulling politically unacceptable ideas from circulation without shutting down their authors at the same time, fascists – as is well known – see things differently: Only if the authors are also pulled from circulation is there then a guarantee that their forbidden ideas will no longer be well received by the people.
So what do you think is “better” about democracy? That it doesn’t lock up or just chop off the heads of people with dissenting political views? Do you instead want to praise the methods by which democracy, in its pluralistic way, ensures that ideas considered out of line and disruptive are publicly excommunicated, unfortunately to the applause of much of the public?