The question whether modern politics, the way it has existed for centuries, will survive the 21st century is no joke nowadays. The Manichaeism of the left and the right, which, in Milan Kundera’s words, “is as stupid as it is insurmountable,” and which is deeply grounded in Western Europe and North America, is much more than partisan politics. Had it been that way, it would have been quite safe to assume that no other way can be offered to deal with polarities and opposing visions of human existence than democratic politics with its ethics of rational compromise without losing one’s core principles, dignity and identity.
However, on a closer look it appears that this is not so. We suffer from unproductive, albeit dramatic, encounters of irreconcilable and mutually exclusive moral concepts, cultural codes, and visions of the world around us which politicians try to appropriate, accommodate, and monopolize nowadays. Yet not a single chance exists to reconcile those poles reaching a common denominator.
At this point, a moral compromise of our time, which we call human rights ideology, could be quite deceiving even in the West. Undisguised irritation of right-wingers at every hint dropped by their colleagues from the left concerning LGBT rights is reciprocated by the left at any time when it comes to an attempt of the right to single out the persecution of Christians in the world, or merely to mention Christianity as a driving force behind Europe, or at least as a form of moral and political sensitivity – the attempt that usually is turned down by the left.
As long as politicians are preoccupied, not to say obsessed, with the human body, privacy, and memory, they will tend to replace the search for a good policy with the quest for the moral majority bulldozing their way towards new forms of social control, the latter being disguised as moral and educational concerns.
It was with sound reason, then, that Michel Houellebecq described this internal conflict of modernity as a clash of two fundamentally opposing anthropologies: the other-worldly one oriented towards a distant ideal in whose name its adherents speak and act, trying to cover a characteristically modern territory of human sensibility and life, and this-worldly one, which does not pretend that it has any superior or paramount plane of existence and identity, and which is overtly materialistic and hedonistic. The first preserves life in all of its forms fiercely opposing abortion and advocating the divine beginnings of the human being, and the second defends the relationship between the female body and her dignity, or that between privacy and freedom.
The first is a fraud in the sense that it presents itself as a time-honored and ancient tradition speaking a modern language of power and acting as an actor of today with the voice of a thousand-year-old collective prophet; yet, in a way, so is the second, since it tries hard to introduce itself as a voice of today, although it speaks out in favor of an old idea of anthropocentrism deeply embedded in the Renaissance. What is left behind the struggle of these two deeply antagonizing and mutually exclusive anthropologies is a fundamental tension of modernity.
What is a proper public agency (provided there is any at all) of the mystery of human life, freedom and conscience? Who speaks for us? Those who control us or those who supposedly know us better than we do? In fact, neither.
And this brings us to the next pivotal question: What is the potential of politics to represent modern humanity, and what is the future of political parties, those agents of power that speak in the name of the relationship between the individual and community translating their private concerns into public matters, empowering them, and connecting them to the public domain?
In the epoch or Facebook, and especially after the Arab Spring, it becomes obvious that political parties will survive into the next century or perhaps even into the second half of this one on the condition that they begin to act as, and close ranks with, social movements. Otherwise, parties are at the peril of becoming irrelevant and useless. Either they will come close to social movements as a new expression of sporadic social and political will (something similar to the Indignados in Spain), or they will lose the ground functioning merely as outdated and banal cliques.
As groups of people conscious of their political goals and interests, political parties are at risk of being removed, in the long run, by politicized corporate or semi-religious groups, which can be tinged with vague post-modern sectarianism. Human bonds and joint dedications are much stronger in such quasi-religious groups than in political parties, whereas the pursuit of economic interest can be much more efficient in quasi-parties organized as new cells of the corporate world. In both cases, old-fashioned political parties that always relied on the classical logic of power deeply embedded in the territorial unity, as well as in the modern marriage of politics and culture, will find themselves in a no-win situation.
Genuine democratic representation and legitimacy, rather than the search for efficacious forms of public communication, appears as a pivotal problem of present politics. In addition, that same question remains unanswered as to whether our modern political sensibilities are in tune, or at odds, with our ethical and existential concerns.
We cannot leave them out if we want to avoid the nightmare of grotesque politics, which would end up in TV reality shows becoming the predominant form of political life and recruiting new folks for politics exclusively from show business, sports, and the adult movie industry.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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