American Government and Popular Discontent: Stability without Success
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The departing prime minister, Rami Hamdallah , a former university president, has led what was a largely technocratic administration, mostly made up of lawyers, business figures and academics who were technically politically independent but had the approval of both Fatah, the mainstream party that is the dominant force in the West Bank, and Hamas. But the reconciliation project it was designed to embody has made little progress, and its promotion of a contentious social security law prompted widespread street demonstrations.
The shift only adds to the sense of uncertainty and disarray that has characterized Palestinian politics after more than a decade of deep divisions between the West Bank and Gaza, and with peace talks with Israel long at an impasse. Palestinian political leaders are jostling for position in an expected internal race to succeed Mr. Abbas, an ailing octogenarian. The Trump administration has slashed funding to the Palestinians and taken a series of other punitive measures in hopes of compelling them to participate in an American-led peace process.
Domestically, with no Palestinian elections on the horizon — the last national ballot took place over a decade ago — public resentment has been growing.
The law, which was in the process of being amended, has effectively been suspended. Hamdallah was first appointed prime minister in and became head of what was supposed to be a government of national reconciliation in June This idea is far from spontaneous because it is precisely the center-left and the centre-right parties who built the welfare state. This ideology was not proposed to subjects of a dictatorship or to the victims of a tyrannical government, but to citizens of the world most established democracies. Acceptance of this kind would have been very unpopular, and it would have hardly reached a relevant impact.
How could it be possible, then, that a sector of the population let us suppose we are talking about the people that has seen their jobs, their economic conditions and their prospects worsen gets to blame the political parties they have supported for decades without accepting any responsibility for this decline? This upheaval cannot be explained solely because of the worsening of materialistic conditions or the growth of social inequality because, among other things, although inequality rates are sometimes dramatically pronounced, such as in the early 20th century, in the countries concerned, and despite their flaws, there are still social protection structures that no other society has ever enjoyed.
If it has not been possible to substantiate dissatisfaction as it had been done since , for example by the alternation in government of conservatives and social democrats, it is because the demand of another alternative has become necessary. This foundational negligence, which was being used to take turns in holding onto power with little effort and even less discourse, had become, little by little and to a large extent, electoral machinery.
It would be an error to think that this discontent is a radically new phenomenon and that it is exclusively related to the recent financial crisis: its roots are much deeper and its history much older. It could not be any other way because, as we have already said, it was about in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries reaching the peace treaty that would put an end to the devastating and hatful religious wars that seemed endless, precisely because they stemmed from the irreducibility of the antagonistic cultural identities that condemned them to resolve their superiority in the battle field.
The social agreement demands as a precondition for cohabitation that only after having been signed, individuals can acquire a certain identity family men, firemen, Bretons, Protestants, priests or soldiers based on the understanding that it is compatible with the private identity of each of the remaining signatories. This is the reason why public law is always the precondition and the foundation of private law. But, it has also been known that the political legitimacy of the state based on the rule of law and of the laws that derive from it can only be thought of as if fiction would have been and still is a fact granting legal reality to what lacks material reality and hence using that ideal model as the aim towards which legislation should tend.
Hobbes knew that in real societies individuals came from a certain identity at least that of the lineage community that they belong to , but he subjected those communities to the jurisdiction of a society that makes their members free enough to judge, independently of their identity and, therefore, of their prejudices. The same objectivity is demand, nowadays, to a citizen that is a member of a jury, a representative of the parliament, or a judge that presides over a court — that is the ability to place public interest over private interests —related either to their community or their identity.
During the 19th century, the liberal societies experienced several forms of discontent and received very articulated and well-deserved criticism from or in the name of those deprived of civil rights and liberties that should constitute citizenship. We must say, of both, that they had good reasons to feel discontentment towards the rule of law which was not such for them , and that they reclaimed their nature as citizens with full rights.
It took its time for the complaints regarding this flagrant inequality to make its way. But, it would not have been possible to interpret the labor movement of the 19th century as a political movement if it had had material welfare as its only goal. It had political relevance because the aspiration for social rights was a mean to reach higher purposes: the full acquisition of civil rights and public liberties.
Consequently, the state had to witness the enormous disasters of the two World Wars and all of their sequels. Due to this turn of events, after World War I, many politicians, intellectuals, jurists, philosophers and mere citizens experienced specifically political discontent against states based on the rule of law: they were convinced that this institution had been overwhelmed by unprecedented circumstances and that it had to be replaced by a new type of state in which many laid their hopes. Since the coming of the Russian Revolution, the communist states had erected a universally material welfare coverage project.
However, they denied their subjects the civil rights of representative democracies, which they considered a simple make-up for exploitation, so they never granted them even though they had enough material welfare to exert them. Rawls understood that the state based on the rule of law had no other alternative than to be thought not only as a pacifier of identity tensions, but as what we nowadays call social state.
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As legislators, the citizens have the legal power to endow public rights, but they cannot legislate on the amount of material welfare that shall belong to them because it depends on circumstances that are not legally controllable nor, therefore, foresee their private identity. And it is because of this ignorance that, when legislating, they will do it, necessarily, in such a way that those that are the unluckiest are not totally abandoned by their partners because any of them could be in the same situation in the future.
And it is in this sense that it should be said that the liberal state has, implicitly and since its own creation, the need for democracy to be social, as well as juridical, despite the welfare state being the only entity which has set out this condition in a clearly obvious and manifest way. This being the state of things, the construction of a democracy that was social and based on the rule of law at the same time, was an explicit and unprecedented programmatically experiment.
We can see that material welfare depends, on the one hand, on the production activity of individuals and, on the other hand, on the circumstances, never fully manageable, which are external to them. In other words, the state grants the right to expect a fair distribution of wealth and poverty in each historical situation this is an important observation, because in , when the project of the welfare state appeared specified in the advanced liberal democracies, Europe was economically destroyed by the war, and there was not much wealth to share out.
This is normally what we refer to when we talk about the acknowledgement by the state of social rights of the population or of social cohesion programs, and the programs for fighting against financial inequalities, which are some of the distinguishing features of the welfare state. Nevertheless juridical welfare will only be satisfied if it guarantees that this material liberty will become political liberty: that is to say, the liberty to choose the public law that will allow one to live in peace with the rest of individuals, regardless their origin or social position, and the liberty for individuals to choose their own life paths.
Only those who took side with totalitarian political solutions communists or fascists were left out of this consensus —they were, electorally speaking, a minority and therefore were rejected towards the ends of the political spectrum, and were almost always left outside from parliaments. From the moral and intellectual superiority which disregarded parliamentary democracy as being an optical illusion resuming in this way the traditional speech of the revolutionary communist parties , the cultural left adopted political models that were no longer historical heirs of the Russian Revolution because they had lost, in their opinion, their revolutionary authenticity when agreeing on a pax oligophrenica with capitalism.
What then was the reason for young students who had enjoyed liberty and materialistic conditions never before achieved, to revile the European and North American democratic societies in the s and idealize, romantically, those of other places in the world like Cuba or Vietnam where, to be honest, there was little welfare? For all of them, the welfare state, with its dense and powerful social assistance, could be interpreted as a micropolitical biopolitical, more specifically control device against populations.
Naturally, the criticisms towards the welfare state are legitimate and even essential in a political regime that, just like parliamentary democracy, makes criticism its fundamental device for rational deliberation. Without a doubt, during those years there were many things open to criticism in national and international stages starting with the Vietnam war. But the most remarkable aspect of this movement was that the political organisations that developed it that were and still are politically marginalized used the same militant rhetoric of war and considered the authentic political leaders to be Che Guevara or General Giap, whilst the Presidents of the republics and the Prime Ministers of the liberal democracies were considered wimps of the Great Capital.
From onwards, the criticism and the attacks against the welfare state came mainly from the right although certain elements of this criticism became politically transversal, and part of the ideological language born in became generalized. This theorist held that, from the rational decision point of view, the gamble of the signatories of the social contract that legislate thinking that they may have the worst of luck and hence promote a social state based on the rule of law is too conservative because if they accepted higher risks this is, if they cease putting themselves in the place of the most disadvantaged they could obtain greater benefits.
Let us imagine a group of friends, colleagues or neighbors that gather once a year at a restaurant for dinner. As time has gone by, they have established a habit: when supper is over they share the bill, each contributing with the same amount. But one night, one of the dinner guests refutes this habit and announces that he will only pay for what he has actually consumed. This unexpected decision forces the rest to proceed equally, and as a result, one of the guests does not have enough money to pay the bill. Consequently, what had for years been a group of friends becomes suddenly divided into two sides: those who can pay and those who cannot.
But under these labels there is no mention to two political programs as it is to a same and paradoxical emotional and rhetorical load with two heads. This description has been, for its part, also used so profusely, with such variety and for so many different cases that it seems, due precisely to this overuse, to have lost all its conceptual value. Or, in other words, it seemed that it had lost all its conceptual value until some of its receivers decided, more or less in the turn of the century, to transform this sign of infamy into a sign of distinction so to use the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu and give this term a positive meaning.
And this is the subtle sense that makes it more interesting. I normally say that populism is to politics what sensationalism is to journalism.
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Regardless of how widespread the disease is, sensationalism is still a disease that makes journalism bleed and move away from public interest that is, serving as an instrument for the formation of public opinion which is essential in democratic societies to merely follow, as someone said, the flow of concern of the public, frequently with the lowest and meanest interests, often contradictory and always changing and opaque, and that have certainly nothing to do with the public interest.
Despite all, it is worthwhile to keep the difference at least the de iure difference between journalism and sensationalism, as even the noblest purposes become corrupt when they are pursued through miserly means that transform information into sentimental propaganda. Something similar happens with populism and with neoliberalism as one of its facets.
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But it would be very difficult to find a politician who, during a campaign, has not resorted sometimes to these messages or promises to obtain a handful of votes or to obtain better results in the surveys. Nevertheless, the solution cannot consist in accepting the confusion between politics and populism as a fatality, resigning oneself to choose between better or worse populists. When democracy works well something that does not happen every day nor in every place , the politician that fosters the base instincts of their followers, or that makes implausible promises, ends up paying for these excesses in the ballot boxes.
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It involves disbelieving political representation and forging the myth of an omnipotent and ruthless enemy that penetrates all the institutions, that perverts conspiratorially all the spaces of liberty and criticism, and that is immune to the formal mechanisms of liberal democracy. And this is precisely the populist formula. When this formula is successful, when it effectively leaves a mark on citizens, the idea that in order to beat this enemy we need something more than social democracy based on the rule of law and something better than politics in the modern sense also permeates.
And to achieve it is necessary to appeal to the people that must go beyond their Constitution to fight against their enemies. And what then takes its toll in the ballot boxes is contradicting the desires of the followers or rejecting promising chimeras. Populism is not an alternative to neoliberalism neither is the other way around : both are symptoms pertaining to the same political decline syndrome, of the breaking of the social contract that has been at its foundation since the appearance of modern society.