21 December 2007

John Berger on Democracy and the Past

The current issue of Brick contains a typically insighful essay by John Berger - "Erasing the Past - Some Notes Around a Drawing." You can link to the essay under a different title here. The essay traverses contemporary politics in Poland* and France, the Chilean experience of neo-liberalism, and personal conversation with a friend. But Berger's focus is on how erasing the past and, in particular, the complex narratives required to recount it, is a crucial step toward subverting vital identities, whether personal or collective. (Here he is responding to Naomi Klein's analogy between the shock used to torture individuals and the shock neo-liberalism applies to societies in the process of 'economic reform.') In politics, this consists in a refusal to examine the past, to speak of it as a source of explanations (which are not necessarily exculpatory) for our current predicaments. Here is Berger:

"Such a conspiracy of silence changes profoundly the nature of an election. The first democratic principle is that the elected remain accountable to those who elected them: how they govern will later be assessed by those they govern. To put it differently: the elector's questioning of the elected has, in the long term, a role in the process of decision making. A dialectic of argument replaces blind, undemocratic obedience.

If candidates do not outline their vision of the epoch they're living in and lay out their proposed strategy for survival, if this remains unsaid and unread, the electorate cannot fulfil their dialectical role, for there has been no dialogue about the essentials. When a candidate is, or pretends to be, mapless, the electorate is reduced to being a dray-horse.

What I call a reading of history implies a shared taking into consideration of events, their causes and their consequences, a discussion about the possible margins of manoeuvre (history is seldom generous), and then the presentation and explanation of a policy. Promises made without this are all delinquent."

This seems quite right. Candidates are danagerous insofar as they treat voters merely as consumers who can choose rather than citizens who can demand and assess explanations. They subvert by their actions and presumptions the very dynamic processes of debate and challenge and questioning that are central to democratic accountability and therefore to democratic politics.
* You might compare Berger's discussion with this essay by Adam Michnik condmening the recent, fortunately unsuccessful, Polish lustration campaign that was translated last spring in the NYRB.

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