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A Morbid Democracy

Old and New Populisms

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Monica Simeoni

The crisis of democracy in Europe and the inability of the political parties and élites to adequately meet the challenges of globalisation exposes the increasingly fragmented middle classes to the temptations of Euroscepticism, and, in some cases, xenophobia. This appears to be a portrait of contemporary reality, but the current crisis has deep roots. The Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset described the pathologies of the mass man and of the nascent democratic system as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century, in a significant text entitled Una democracia morbosa, which appears to foreshadow the present state of affairs. The crisis of the average man, the degradation and devaluation of culture appear to be the distinctive traits of the new, post-ideological democracy of our times, known as «audience democracy». The political parties, faced with this profound crisis, in some cases seek dangerous shortcuts through demagogic and rhetorical use of the term «people», while the charismatic figure of the leader gains in prestige as a reference model. Resentment, caused by lack of representation of the just demands of the citizens, can turn to anger and destabilise the institutions of democracy. There is therefore an urgent need for an inclusive Europe with a renewed welfare system, based around the citizenry and not the masses.
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3. Democracy: Evolution or Involution?

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3.1. A “totalitarian democracy”?

The crisis of politics and of the traditional parties has remote origins, not only here in Italy but in the whole of the Old Continent, including Northern Europe, traditionally liberal countries, founders of modern welfare. The reasons are complex, and the features that characterise it numerous. The very concept of democracy was the brainchild of the late eighteenth-century French Revolution. Revolutionary France and Rousseau’s ideas laid the basis not only of modern philosophy but also of modern politics. They created the premises for the sociological, cultural and political transformation of the new society that was taking shape. The bitter and violent struggles that followed over the years and which led eventually to the Restoration, impacted upon the social tissue not only of France but that of the rest of Europe too1. In those years, a slow, but continuous march towards individualism began along with a change in personal claims of a political nature too.

Sociology, from its origins in the mid-nineteenth century, availing of philosophical categories, portrayed reality in two distinct modes: the holistic and the individualistic, which have recently been combined. The former, essentially Hobbesian and pessimistic as far as human possibilities are concerned, favoured a rigid system of coercion aimed at creating social order, underlining its reproducibility (positivism) (Cesareo, 1993, p. 62). The latter, thanks to Rousseau, emphasised the idea of natural liberty, original to man, who, as protagonist, impacted on society through direct participation. This is the...

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