Jack Reid puts the case for religious organisation as a transformative force in our political culture
Democracy, founded above all on the principle of equality, is struggling to function properly in contemporary Western societies, primarily due to the insatiable individualism that these cultures currently foster.
This observation is not new, having been discussed by a wide range of social commentators including critical theorists like Jurgen Habermas, Christian theologians like John Milbank, and more recently Blue Labour’s very own founding father Maurice Glasman.
In the process of undermining democracy’s core ethos, the recent onslaught of neo-liberalism – an economic ideology that celebrates consumerism and individual autonomy – has forced us to recognize that even democratic regimes can degenerate into tyranny.
Contrary to the conviction of enlightenment figures, this regression does not require the prior influence of a strangling sacred ideology, but stems instead from an problem rooted within democratic culture itself.
The nature of the problem is curiously paradoxical. Democratic culture is fundamentally based upon the principle of equality of condition.
Yet equality of condition – or at least the type endorsed by neo-liberal philosophy – is in fact the fundamental enemy of democratic culture, having a doubly negative impact upon democracy’s potential for success.
First, the principle of equality of condition results in making individuals feel entirely independent, and has thus produced massive social atomisation. Every individual is primarily concerned with his or her own material interests.
As a result, the complete loss of social solidarity renders it impossible for democratic culture to flourish. At the same time, increased societal disunion makes it extremely easy for governments to deceitfully manipulate public opinion, mainly for their own gains.
More often than not, this manipulation centres upon atomised society’s fears. Democratic governments frequently use claims that the public need defence from the terrorist or the immigrant as an excuse for spurious measures, including the suspension of basic democratic tenets such as habeas corpus, free speech, freedom of the press and humane treatment. This opens the path towards petty autocracy.
An example of such a slide is illustrated through the case of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, created during the Bush administration by capitalizing on the post 9/11 climate of fear sweeping across the United States.
Second, in democratic cultures where everyone is equal in principle, the real exercise of power rests upon public opinion, the clearest expression of the will of a majority of citizens. However, there is no reason to assume that public opinion will equate to what is morally good, or that it will accord with the law.
This problem comes to the fore when a majority public opinion dominates that of a minority. Here, democratic culture runs the risk of imposing what de Tocqueville deemed ‘the tyranny of the majority’.
In the modern state, the democratic system is beset by a multitude of contrary interests, making it simply impossible for democracy to satisfy each individual concern.
There is no ultimate equality of views, only a competition of interests, and eventually democracy will recognise the interest upon which there is the most consensus. At this moment, the democratic ideal of egalitarianism is lost.
The November 2009 minaret controversy in Switzerland offers an example of the ability of majority public opinion to become oppressive. Following a referendum, a 57% majority of the Swiss general public voted in favour of a ban on the building of new minarets across the country.
The initiative, which has since caused international controversy, had been supported by right wing Swiss groups including the Swiss People’s Party and the Democratic Union.
Those groups offering the strongest opposition to the initiative included the Swiss government, NGOs and Catholic bishops, who had warned prior to the referendum that the proposal did not represent ‘the Christian values and democratic principles of Switzerland’.
In sum, it is evident that the crisis democratic culture finds itself in stems from the limited social parameters of neo-liberalism, which has brought with it massive atomisation, inequality and injustice.
With the failure of the secular creeds – socialism, communism – to challenge neo-liberalism’s social ills, it may at first glance seem that democratic culture, lacking an antidote to the corrosive effects of the neo-liberal virus, is doomed.
To rescue democratic culture from this irreversible slip into consumerist despotism, we must re-focus our train of thought upon a fresh openness towards religion, and the redeeming qualities it holds.
Primarily, religion promotes solidarity. This then, stands in direct opposition to the neo-liberal principle of discord. A solid community of individuals can operate as a strong social unit and does not easily become enslaved to tyrannical institutions.
Additionally, religion provides a source for morality and the moral guidance of people. Democracy can only function within a framework of tolerance, and the pursuit of truth and justice for its own sake.
Religion can influence public opinion and direct the customs of a community towards this ideal. As a result, religion can provide the moral soil upon which democratic culture can bloom.
Finally, in direct opposition to the fundamental aspirations of neo-liberal philosophy, religion deals in immaterial matters and centres the individual’s train of thought upon eternal issues not of this world.
Religion, then, can provide a remedy against the unrestrained, avaricious individualism that modern society harbours. In doing so, it might provide one of the only paths to democratic culture’s salvation.