Democracy as opposed to what?

There, it’s been said: democracy is to blame. In an op-ed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung this week, the novelist Thomas Brussig has voiced what many are probably thinking, namely that an entire form of government is failing on an epic scale right now in these pandemic times. “Mehr Diktatur wagen” (dare more dictatorship) is the title of Brussig’s article, an allusion to Willy Brandt’s famous 60s quote “Mehr Demokratie wagen“. According to Brussig, democracies are proving incapable of getting a grip on the pandemic, which is why we should, in his opinion, “throw overboard convictions that prevent us from doing what is necessary. If we were up to that, Covid-19 would be long behind us. The recipes are well known.”

Assuming that Brussig wants to be taken seriously in the first place and does not just intend his text as a (certainly successful) attempt to troll Querdenker libertarians, there is plenty to find amiss in his argument, which has already been criticised extensively in the social media as well as in the Süddeutsche itself. But one has to give to him this: He did contribute, albeit with insufficient means, to the revival of a genre that seemed almost extinct after years and decades of TINA politics: political systemic criticism.

In Germany in particular, there is a long tradition of viewing democracy as a system acceptable on probation only, so to speak.  The Reich, the Nazis, communism – for most of the time during the last 100 years, there was always a tangible counter-system nearby. Anyone who was dissatisfied with the services of the democratic constitutional state could seek relief in sighing: oh dear, this wouldn’t have happened with the Kaiser/Adolf/Erich. We sure like democracy well enough for now. As long as it delivers. If it doesn’t, we’ll know where to look for an alternative supplier.

This cut both ways. A clear and obvious answer to the question “as opposed to what?” can be good for democracy, too: It gains an edge, and a face. Kennedy as opposed to Khrushchev, Ebert as opposed to Hitler and Hindenburg, the SPD as opposed to the KPD, Adenauer as opposed to Ulbricht. Also, it can be a healthy thing to be measured against its own demarcations vis-à-vis its counter-system. An old friend of my father’s used to tell a story of his army days at the end of the 1950s, when all he and his fellow recruits had to say to make his superiors instantaneously behave with utter correctness was: damn it, this place sucks, I guess I’ll go over to the GDR after all.

Since the year of 1989 (around which, by the way, Brussig’s literary work largely revolves), this kind of opposition no longer exists at all any more. Most countries describe themselves democracies in one way or another, and those who don’t are mostly no good as alternatives to begin with. Including China. I have yet to meet anyone who seriously argues, beyond a noncommittal wink at authoritarianism, that the Chinese system of government has anything in store for the Federal Republic of Germany to learn from. (The reverse is more likely.)

I can see how this creates for many a feeling of lack, a vacuum. A pull. There has to be an outside to this inside somewhere, a point from which you can see the system as a whole, an Archimedean point of view to criticise the system from. In normal times one can bear it, this negative pressure. In a crisis, less so. The pull becomes too strong, you give way: and, bang, there it is, the magical Ausnahmezustand (state of exception). Finally being able to step out of the normal, out of the norm, out of the system! To be sovereign! To be redeemed!

In a situation like that, it happens that one loses sight of what exactly one needs the exception for in the first place. What, indeed? A hard lockdown, perhaps? Zero covid? Radical isolation of infection outbreaks? Why, all this could be done under the current rule already? Oh no! That won’t do at all! Away with all those concerns and procedures and rules and standards! We want to see action! Dare more dictatorship!

It goes without saying that there are of course many good reasons to harshly criticise the Corona policy of the German and many other democratic governments. I also find it perfectly legitimate to argue that the current constitutional and fundamental rights norms stand in the way of effectively combating the plague. That can be amended, if need be, there are procedures for that. Including, if necessary, the Basic Law.

But only in a democracy.

But if you want to see what an actual systemic alternative to democracy looks like nowadays, just look to the USA. There’s one standing trial in the Senate right now.