The European: Berlusconi dominated Italian politics for more than a decade. You opposed him from the beginning. Does oppositional work sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task?
Flores d’Arcais: Yes. But we should remember Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphos” conclusion: “We have to imagine Sisyphos to be a happy man”.
The European: What is the response from the Italian Left? Defiance in the face of that absurdi-ty or resignation?
Flores d’Arcais: The “official” Left is already on the path of resignation. The Democratic Party has ceased to be “Left” long ago; the same is true for smaller parties that call themselves communist but that have become mere tools of the privileged establishment of party politics. The only true opposition of the last ten years came out of civil society: People took to the streets, more than a million marched during the “girotondi” demonstrations, during campaigns against Berlusconi or student protests. The only true institution of the Left that engages in true oppositional work is the metal workers’ union FIOM.
The European: You close one of your recent articles about politics with the sentence: “If not now, when?” What is the role of urgency for politics?
Flores d’Arcais: It depends. Urgency becomes a crucial issue in times of crisis, when to let time pass by can mean to create the conditions for the collapse into a reactionary government. That is the situation in Italy today. Berlusconi was ruling the country like a postmodern fascist.
The European: One of the reasons I am asking is that 2011 has been marked by cries for par-ticipation around the world: in Egypt, in Spain, even on the streets of Athens. The people have demanded a voice. But it seems to me that urgency and deliberation are often at odds.
Flores d’Arcais: Why not? In principle, a democracy can be both authentic and timely. Pierre Mendes-France, whom I consider a role model for democratic politics, led France to peace with Vietnam in a few weeks.
The European: Roberto Unger advocates cumulative progress instead of revolution. Is that the task for the Left today?
Flores d’Arcais: I agree. The Left today must be reformist. Nobody knows what a “revolution” to over-come all forms of capitalism would look like, or what its consequences would be. But we have to agree on the meaning of “cumulative progress”. Progress can be, then must be, very radical: A global financial crisis produced by toxic assets must be addressed by imposing strict rules onto the banks, not by rewarding them. And as long as " capital’s rights" are globalized and recognized all over the world, re-formist politics should force to a worldwide recognition of union rights and progressive “welfare”. We must tax goods of the countries that fail to respect those principles. We must demand transparency; we must prohibit tax havens and devise alternative ways to combat money laundering.
The European: I would like to talk about the idea of parliamentary rule. What, to you, are the great achievements of parliamentary democracy?
Flores d’Arcais: For me, parliamentary democracy is a synonym for liberal democracy or constitutional democracy. The list of accomplishments is long, from the American revolution onwards. It would take whole books to do justice to the legacy of parliamentary democracy! But the question today is: How many of those accomplishments are in jeopardy? How democratic are today’s democracies?
The European: There have been arguments that see parliamentary rule at the core of today’s discontent: “It stifles creativity and experimentation”, it is said. “At its worst, parliamentary rule is the technocratization of democracy. It takes the life out of public discourse.”
Flores d’Arcais: I don’t think that there are only two models, parliamentary democracy on the one hand and direct democracy on the other hand. In a parliamentary democracy, which actually fulfills all the promises written down in the constitution when it is functioning properly, real people would have a real chance at participating in public discourse. The problem is that “actual” democracy governments too often trample – almost every day – on principles promised by constitutions.
The European: Do you think that politics has become too dominated by outrage and popu-lism?
Flores d’Arcais: Outrage has two meanings: outrage in the strict sense, for instance an insult by a power against human rights. Or a reaction of indignation – even if this is a second meaning in the dictionary – against injustice. Berlusconi does produce outrage (in the first sense) every day. Outrage against democracy and against the rule of law. Fortunately, that has been met with a form of counter-outrage by the citizens. I think this second form of “outrage” – as indignation that arises from the experience of being insulted – is primary to defending the essential values which are summed up in the motto of an Italian opposition group during antifascist Resistance: “Justice and liberty”.
The European: How do you reconcile the anarchic tendencies of many civil society organiza-tions with the strategic project of the electoral cycle?
Flores d’Arcais: The opposition movements should not seek fulfillment in opposition itself. We should go and vote – otherwise movements will shake the tree but others, when the fruits have ripened, will reap the benefits. But movements have to demand institutional reforms, like a maximum of two terms in office, after those a politician is compelled to go back to a profession in civil society. And we must take other steps that drastically reduce the privileges of professional politicians.
The European: You have written a lot on the importance of the public sphere. How much of politics is situated within that sphere? What is its significance?
Flores d’Arcais: I do not separate the public sphere and the political sphere. Instead, I try to distinguish between political institutions that have become monopolized by the party system and professional politicians, and political participation of citizens through demonstrations, media coverage, strikes or solidarity with marginalized groups. Civil society must be understood in the sense of struggle to achieve equality and freedom.
The European: The original civil society is that of the ancient Polis. It was sustained by the fact that people really deliberate with each other. How does your conception of civil society differ from its ancient ancestor?
Flores d’Arcais: In Athens, the polis was constituted of thirty to forty thousand citizens, the rest were women, slaves or foreigners. Many officials were elected by lottery, not through votes. General assem-blies often included only ten percent of the city’s population. And Aristophanes has vividly documented the possible manipulations of the assembly in his writings. We should see Athens as the cradle of democracy but not try and extrapolate lessons for today’s politics. Our task is more demanding: We need much imagination to invent new political institutions that allow citizens to exercise – at least par-tially – their popular sovereignty. Today, that power has been usurped by the party system.
The European: One of the assumptions behind the idea of public discourse is that we are all essentially reasonable, that we will be able to deliberate because we want to deliberate. Yet at the same time we tend to avoid cognitive dissonance. We want to be reassured rather than challenged.
Flores d’Arcais: Very true. The philosophers of the past 2500 years say that they have a “passion for knowledge”, but they have often preferred consolation to truth. If we had a passion for truth instead, atheism would have been the dominant school of thoughts, and the postmodern rejection of enlight-enment would have never caught on. Our goal is to invent democratic institutions that make logic and what Hannah Arendt called “modest factual truth” matter more than irrational demagogy. In the space of an interview it is impossible to give the many institutional reform that could help in this direction, I tried it in my book “The Sovereign and the Dissident”.
The European: Can there be reason without doubt?
Flores d’Arcais: No.
The European: The question of doubt brings us to the question of religion. What does religion have to contribute to contemporary secular discourses?
Flores d’Arcais: Nothing.
The European: Jürgen Habermas makes two points that I find persuasive: Even non-believers like myself can learn something from the cross-confessional discussion of religion. And even modern secularism cannot be understood without reference to debates about religion from which it arose. To allow those discussions to flourish, we should allow for religious arguments to exist in a secular state. We must not secularize the public sphere. Why do you disagree?
Flores d’Arcais: Obviously, from a historical perspective, theological debates were crucial. The question is whether a religious argument as such is acceptable in a democratic political discussion, through which citizens and their representatives decide a law. I think it is not. Such an argument would be a “God-argument”, possible only among people who already believe, thus discriminating against atheists and skeptics. While Habermas is totally right in demanding that democracy be based on rational arguments, the only logic that can possibly be common to all citizens is a logic based on factual truth, logic, fundamental constitutional values.
The European: “Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement”, Wittgenstein wrote. Should we not acknowledge religious arguments as productive contributions to the public dis-course even if we disagree vehemently with their content?
Flores d’Arcais: No. Wittgenstein is wrong (only the second Wittgenstein, actually): Scientific knowledge is based on acknowledgment among scientists, but of a quite special kind: that an experiment has produced certain results – even though every systematic try to disprove them – and that its repetition will yield the same results. But other forms of recognitions – religious dogma, for example – are of op-posite nature. It would be misleading to use the term “acknowledgement” to describe them. If you present a faith-based argument, it is necessarily self-referential, almost autistic. It is not part of a public discourse.
The European: What makes religion distinct from other ideologies that issue claims to absolute historical, materialistic, or economic truths?
Flores d’Arcais: Appeal to transcendence, to the superstition of afterlife. But other forms of ideology might be dogmatic. The only truths are the ones of “hard” sciences – subject to doubt and revision – and of ascertained facts.
The European: With the idea of truth and of doubt we’re back to the politics of experimenta-tion. Should we be willing to risk more precisely because we cannot know for sure the effects of new policies or decisions? Or should we draw the contrary conclusions – and be more careful and more deliberate?
Flores d’Arcais: It depends on the topic. I believe that nuclear technology should be handled with extreme precaution, as a single disaster can destroy the planet. In the case of genetically engineered food, we can be more daring, as long as the consumer is fully informed of what he is buying. But when we talk about bioethics (abortion, euthanasia, an so on), we have to recognize that every individual has the right to full sovereignty over himself, except when it comes to the commodification of his body or corpse.