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Exhausted societies and fatigued democracies

Very often, politics is analyzed from the strict sphere of power. There, institutions, as factors that regulate human interaction in order to avoid uncertainty, play a very relevant role. Analyzes revolve around elections and their results in shaping the powers of the state and their usual confrontation. Political parties are the focus of attention, as well as the different leaderships. Ideologies in terms of sets of values and comprehensive elements of the world are also objects of interest. Finally, public policies that meet demands, to a bigger or smaller extent present, constitute a fundamental axis for the study of politics. With all this, typologies are conceived, and you know of the progress or setback according to certain parameters. Thus, we speak of the erosion or fatigue of democracy and even foresee its collapse.

Such is the concern for these aspects that, nevertheless, on many occasions, it tends to leave aside the concrete sphere that is made up of people where the exercise of power takes place. The overexposure of visions strictly centered on the political-institutional requires, therefore, an interdisciplinary approach to reality. Demography, for instance, helps to explain social change by pointing out how variations between different age groups, fertility rates, and migratory movements are intimately connected. All these aspects have a substantial impact on political processes today.

Likewise, the changes that have taken place in society under the shelter of the technological revolution in which we find ourselves, have caused a profound commotion as never before in the history of mankind. This is due to the exponential speed at which they have occurred both in time and space. Moreover, these transformations show a clear imbalance in their development towards the private business sector.

Works such as Heinz Bude’s La sociedad del miedo or David Riesman’s La muchedumbre solitaria have been completing Zygmunt Bauman’s premonitions about the liquid society and its effects. The ideas that we are moving from the promise of upward mobility to the threat of exclusion; that emotions are replacing reasons and that what moves us forward is no longer the positive message but the negative one, have been taking center stage. A scenario, then, in which fear leads to impotence; where we are solitary individuals; where the idea of “us” is in crisis due to the almost limitless multiplication of the identities we fit into.

Philosopher Byung-Chul Han has also theorized about this new state of affairs by referring to the society of exhaustion. Using the metaphor of the swarm, he alludes to the human being’s capacity for self-exploitation in an existence in which new technologies multiply tasks, making time, as never before, a scarce commodity. Being permanently connected also contributes to exhaustion. If we add to all this the fact that, with the proliferation of identity politics, also clearly pressured by the digital revolution, the politics of resentment is taking over the public square, the outlook cannot be less favorable.

The society of exhaustion consolidates the abundance with respect to formulas that, although in temporal terms are not so old, would seem to carry an unbearable longevity. If in Latin American countries, the democracies currently in place have been in force for less than half a century on average and their performance has been reasonably positive, it would seem that the speed of social and cultural changes make them appear as unbearable antiquities.

The blooming of multiple identities, boosted by social networks, is complemented by the dissolution of traditional ties in a context in which expectations are not being met. Not living better than the parents is evidence that exhausts the promises of the great media circus that politics has become. It has entered a phase of fatigue reflected in the discontent with the institutions and with democracy itself, as well as in the crisis of political representation in which the parties appear as the main culprits.

Surveys of public opinion give ample evidence of dissatisfaction and undervaluation. As a recent example, it is enough to recall, for the two countries monopolizing media attention these days, that 37% of Brazilians favor a coup d’état to remove Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from the presidency and that only 20% of Peruvians approve of Dina Boluarte’s administration, while 14% approve of the Congress of the Republic.

For its part, the intermediation function, key to the representative facet in which democracy really exists, has been disjointed. In itself, all intermediation today is absolutely upside down. Yet, in addition, the parties have lost all capacity for identification on the voter’s side. Today, it is easier to identify with individuals who are adored (or hated) and who come to define the political contest. In this sense, Gallup has just shown that 41% of young people in the United States identify themselves as independents, while in 1990 they were 33%, so there is a tie between Democrat and Republican affinities.

Thus, it is not strange to see a scenario that correlates societal fatigue with political fatigue. In medicine, asthenia is the state that follows fatigue when things are not getting better because the absence of air and the feeling of suffocation invades the sufferer. The question, therefore, is whether democracy in Latin American countries is on the verge of falling into this chronic situation that jeopardizes the undoubted progress that has taken place in most of them during the last four decades.

*Translated from Spanish by Camille Henry


Otros artículos del autor

Profesor Emérito de la Universidad de Salamanca y de la UPB (Medellín). Últimos libros publicados (2020): “El oficio de político” (2ª ed., Tecnos, Madrid) y coordinado con Mercedes García Montero y Asbel Bohigues (2024): “Elecciones en América Latina: de pandemia y de derrotas (2020-2023)”, (Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales. Madrid)


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