Theater of Cruelty

Choice? No, why?

Free elections are a matter of course in modern democracy. But rather a lottery, says Belgian historian.


David van Reybrouck. Against choice. Font Forlag, 2014

Belgium is the homeland of surrealism. The country has a long tradition of innovation and creativity, not only in art, fashion and architecture, but also in politics – both for good and for bad. With a welfare state (and debt) Norway can only dream of (free kindergartens, free public transport up to 16 years, hospitals without queues), the Belgians have established an academic tradition from free and free-thinking universities. Now they have produced a liberating fearless response to the great challenge of our time: political powerlessness. For our western democracy has become more toothless, but at the same time more voiced. Historical champions of democracy, Europe and the United States have developed societies that can no longer meet the needs of most people. Emerging nationalism and economic injustice are putting our traditional democratic values ​​under pressure. New and innovative movements outside party politics – neo-parliamentarians – are gaining momentum, such as Occupy Wall Street in the US, Podemos in Spain, Cinque Sterre in Italy and Maidan Square in Kiev. Imagine that we are lucky enough to have someone who sees the big picture and take us on a historical and idea-political journey about elections, where it is simply and conclusively concluded, but wonderfully credible with elections. Which states that choices are out. Old hat. This is good and insightful political science entertainment at a high level.

Our time is dominated by democratic fatigue; people are feeling powerless, some declining turnout shows.

Not democracy. Belgian, Dutch-speaking author and historian David van Reybrouck opens up a whole new world for us in Against choice. As rude as his compatriot Magritte's drawing of a pipe – which was not a pipe but merely a drawing of a pipe – van Reybrouck lures us into a logic we never thought we would bite: Elections are not democracy. He plays the role of choice in our modern democracies easily. As readers, we are so provoked that we have to flip through the pages quickly to see what the author thinks is the alternative to our democratic understanding breast milk. Because is there any alternative to choice at all? Here we have fought and died for democracy and freedom of speech for generations. Free elections sit imprinted on the brow of the universe, fortified for eternity in the UN Convention on Human Rights. And besides: Never in history has the world seen so many democracies in countries expressed, precisely, free elections. So what's the problem then?

Impotence. Has van Reybrouck lived too long in a country dominated by political, linguistic and cultural minefields because people in the north do not understand a rift word in the south, and people in the south do not have a rift word in the west? No. Van Reybrouck paints a credible picture of a traditional Western mindset that is no longer able to live up to its original ideal. Our time is dominated by democratic fatigue; people are feeling powerless, some declining turnout shows. Political engagement in the form of party membership is steadily declining, and is only around four per cent in the West, with a fair exception of Austria and Norway by about ten per cent. Why vote when it makes no difference? Technology gives us technocracy – to the people's despair and growing fury. Then it calls for strong leaders – who do not necessarily take the flags of consideration for neither election nor parliament. Van Reybrouck appeals catchy wide.
Being a parliamentarian has become a career path, van Reybrouck states. Politicians no longer serve the good of the people. He may have heard Erik Bye's swirling Facebook video – which, with the artist's vibrant face and quivering voice, reaches us far into the soul as he proclaims: "Politicians are the servants of the people, not the people's masters. They must not forget that! " Van Reybrouck totally agrees with Erik Bye.

Exhaustion. While democracy is 3000 years old, elections have only existed for the last 200. Therefore, it may be a little early to conclude that democracy is exhausted. But, elections have been a reality long enough for us to become electoral fundamentalists. Aristotle said in his time that "elections belong to the aristocracy; lottery belongs to democracy ». Elections were introduced to bring a new, non-inherited nobility to power. "We despise the elected but worship the voters." "The next choice becomes more important than fulfilling the last." On the whole, van Reybrouck gives us soundbites like pearls on a string: "Election is the politician's fossil fuel." While elections were once used to build land, they are now the source of the destruction of democracy. And this is where the reader really starts to wonder: Should we exchange choices with lottery? Yes, is van Reybrouck's answer – and we reach the book's climax. But here goes Against choice unfortunately, but probably absolutely necessary, into the textbook genre. That's what Van Reybrouck needs when he first spins the arc.

“Politicians are the servants of the people, not the gentlemen of the people. They must not forget that! " Erik Bye

Entertainment. But first: In many ways, Van Reybrouck's starting point for our own municipal election is that elections have been transformed into entertainment objects: In a narrow cafe, under a low roof, around a small table, two circus horses were ready for battle. Viewers could feel and feel the excitement – and observe how tense and adrenaline-filled the prime minister was when she stared at her rival on the left. There he stood, handsome and slender, but looked increasingly longing for supportive looks among the audience. Dolly Parton and Dean Martin, van Reybrouck would probably have suggested. Lightning-fast verbal tirades were parried and riposted. Facts pointed and demented. The rhetoric sat so quickly and precisely from the left corner that the audience overlooked the 30 kilos too much, and their eyes landed more and more often on two somewhat spotted, fencing hands from the right that distracted any verbal attention. To the great delight of the audience Sigrid – a beautiful, gentle and disarming Synnøve Solbakken – stood among the pending arch-enemies. What a show!

Ikea Furniture. It is these ingenious, cruel, yet fascinating performances van Reybrouck highlights as one of the signs of the bankruptcy of our time. Choices are dominated by rival professional experts in persuasion techniques, he writes, referring to the work of British sociologist Collin Crouch. People's choices are captured by the politician's behavior more than the content of politics. And that wasn't the point?

Aristotle said in his time that "elections belong to the aristocracy; lottery belongs to democracy ».

Elections have become for democracy what the financial sector is for the economy, van Reybrouck tries to say: a goal in itself – while it was only intended as a tool. Choices are exported almost like a piece of furniture from Ikea; free and correct choices are mounted on site, or with the help of the attached manual, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan or Congo. The author's respect and disgust for referendums are adorably true in his description: If you don't know, say no!

Early phase. Then to the concept of soldering, where the book flattens out in a more descriptive genre. It's a shame, but important. For our Puritan minds, very concrete proof that lottery is a serious process needs to be learned, with recent experiences that can be quantified and quality checked. This makes Van Reybrouck thorough and comprehensive, but to the slightly boring, compared to the starting point. Descriptions of democratic newcomer work in Ireland, the EU and Iceland fascinate, but unfortunately end up in tables and deprive the book of its original charm.
The combination of choices and lottery, and different versions of citizen forums, provides room for hope. Van Reybrouck manages to open a stimulating perspective that democracy, as we know it, is still at an early stage. Very early. And that we have a lot to look forward to.

Frisvold is a writer and former leader of the European movement, living in Brussels.

Paal Frisvold
Paal Frisvold
Writer for MODERN TIMES on Europe issues.

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