hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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democracy as intercession — 2

Democracy exists in representation of the people and intercession for the people. Everyone who participates in democratic deliberation has the calling of not just to forward his or her own interests, but also the interests of those who cannot speak at a given moment – because they cannot be present, for whatever reasons, or because they are too young, or because they are not yet born.

Politics is thus, in my understanding, not about how I can further my own interests, but how we can serve our common interests. I cannot deny the legitimacy of a decision of those who were elected by me when this decision goes a bit against my interests of today (provided of course that there is a court of appeal because the elected can err). People will have contradicting claims based on their interests and in a democracy the final decision will never, nor can ever, favour one interest and deny the claims of those that did not win the vote.

Democracy, the rule (kratein) by the people (demos), means that the people are the carrier and source of the authority of the rules and laws that are binding for them. This authority is not derived from some royal power or godly entity. Freedom, as Rousseau said, is obedience to the laws which we have written ourselves, and in that light we have to consider democracy to be polytheistic, even to the extent that every citizen is a god. Gods, however, and we should know that from history and our current global situation, do not live together peacefully; they are jealous and for them, it is always ‘the winner takes it all’. The ‘cujus regio, eius religio’ that was established in 1648 did not usher in a peaceful century; Northern Ireland was the stage for violence of groups that found their inspiration in the same holy book; over the last decades, people have been using their Kalashnikovs and butcher knives calling on the name ‘allah’. Religions claim to contain an exclusive truth that has the highest authority, even over those who do not believe in their god, or in any god. Holding on to religions will lead to a fight between godly claims that will only end with the peace of the graveyard, where there are only losers.

Whatever we might believe, democracy forbids arranging society based on final answers given by humans, other than what has been concluded by us in an ongoing search and debate. ‘The winner takes it all’ is utterly un-democratic and leads us straight to the killing of the dissenter. In a democratic society there is an ongoing discussion about conflicting interests and about proposals for the future that never will be resolved in a final victory. A democratic virtue of paramount importance is protecting each other from the delirium of the won election or the victorious battle. This ongoing discussion leads to an ‘acquis communautaire’ that is authoritative for human society. That ‘acquis’ contains answers to the question: “how can we, you and I, make this world a better place for us, for our children, and the children of our children?” When formulating this ‘acquis’ we intercede for each other, for those who are not present, and for the future generations who are not present yet.

It is a fruit of the Enlightenment that we know that we can speak on behalf of everyone else, that we can do intercession for each other, and that we can and should exercise our capacity of reason to formulate insights that will be to the benefit of all people, whatever they are, wherever they live. John Rawls was the last to formulate this perspective on what is good for all when he developed his theory of justice from the simple rule: take the perspective of the most disadvantaged person in society and make it so that that person can lead a decent and dignified life. Not what we achieve for ourselves, but what we do for others, i.e. for all people, is the start of justice and of a better society.

That intention has become completely suspect since new gods have entered the scene, replacing those we just sent away on perpetual retirement leave. Having done away with the almighty gods we are now faced with a polytheism of identities. We hold everyone to be a representative of that person’s gender, race, socio-economic position, nationality, etc. Some of these identity-gods are disguises of the former almighty gods – for example, when a dress code for women is now not presented as ordained by a god, but as expression of someone’s identity. Identity has become sacrosanct. Every person is seen as heavily encumbered by its communal and cultural identity. The unencumbered subject that John Rawls saw designing a society that is good for all is declared dead.

For religions, human life flourishes only when subordinated to a particular deity; any influence of other sources makes human life impure. Under the gods of identity, everyone speaks for himself, herself, itself, themself only, but nobody has to hear them. Only persons with matching identities can speak out loud and can speak for each other, or can translate a poem. The gods of identity forbid intercession – not just because it is hold to be impossible, rather, is seen as impure, immoral.

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