Rock Democracies, Paper Freedoms, Scissors Securities

Hernán Cortés briefly established his own auth...

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Democracias de piedra, Libertades de papel, seguridades de tijera

Rock Democracies, Paper Freedoms, Scissors Securities

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

Ten years ago, contradicting the postmodernist wave, we developed in Crítica de la pasión pura (Critique of Pure Passion) the idea of morality as a form of collective conscience.  In the same way that a school of fish or a swarm of bees acts and develops as one body, in the same way that James Lovelock understood Gaia – Planet Earth – as one living body, we could also understand Humanity as one conscience in development, with some common and basic values that transcend cultural differences.

These values are based, overwhelmingly, on the renunciation of the individual in favor of the group, on the conscience that supercedes the more primitive precept of the survival of the fittest, as mere individuals in competition.  That is how the representation of the hero and of any other positive figure emerges throughout history.

The problem, the betrayal, is produced when these values become myths at the service of classes and sects in power.  The worst thing that can happen to freedom is for it to be turned into a statue.  The “conflicts of interests,” normally presented as natural, from a broader perspective would represent a pathology.  A culture that supports and legitimizes this betrayal of the conscience of the species should be seen – to use the same metaphor – as a self-destructive phobia of that species conscience.

Probably a form of radical democracy will be the next step humanity is ready to take.  How will we know when this step is being produced?  We need signs.

One strong sign will be when the administration of meaning ceases to lie in the hands of elites, especially of political elites.  Representative democracy represents what is reactionary about our times.  But direct democracy will not come about through any brusque revolution, led by individuals, since it is, by definition, a cultural process where the majority begins to claim and share social power.  When this occurs, the parliaments of the world will be what the royals of England are today: an onerous adornment from the past, an illusion of continuity.

Every time “public opinion” changes brusquely after an official speech, after an electoral campaign, after a bombardment of advertising – power that always flows from the money of a minority – we must understand that that next step remains far from being consolidated.  When publics become independent of the speeches, when the speeches and social narrations no longer depend on the powerful minorities, we will be able to think about certain advance toward direct democracy.

Let’s look briefly at this problematic of the struggle over meaning.

There are words with scarce social interest and others that are disputed treasure, territory claimed by different antagonistic groups.  In the first category we can recognize words like umbrella, glycemia, fame, hurricane, nice, anxiety, etc.  In the second category we find terms like freedom, democracy and justice (we will call these ideolexicons).  Reality and normal are also highly conflictive terms, but generally they are restricted to philosophical speculation.  Unless they are instruments – like the definition of normal – they are not direct objectives of social power.

The eternal struggle for social power creates a partisan culture made visible by the so-called political parties.  In general, it is these same parties that make possible the continuity of a particular social power by creating the illusion of a possible change.  Because of this culture, we tend to adopt a position with respect to each social problem instead of a dispassionate analysis of it.  Ideological loyalty or self love should not be involved in these cases, but we cannot deny that they are fundamental pieces of the dialectical dispute and they weigh on us all.

All conflict is established in a present time but recurs obsessively to a prestigious, consolidated past.  Recurring to that same history, each antagonistic group, whether in Mexico or in the United States, will seek to conquer the semantic field with different narrations, each one of which will have as a requirement the unity and continuity of that narrative thread.  Rarely do the groups in dispute prove something; generally they narrate.  Like in a traditional novel, the narration does not depend so much on facts external to the story as on the internal coherence and verisimilitude possessed by that narration.  For that reason, when one of the actors in the dispute – a congressional representative, a president – recognizes an error, this becomes a greater crack in the story than if reality contradicted him every day.  Why?  Because the imagination is stronger than reality and the latter, generally speaking, cannot be observed except through a discourse, a narration.

The difference lies in which interests are moved by each narration.  A slave receiving lashes of the whip and giving thanks for the favor received is not the same as another version of the facts which questions that concept of justice.  Perhaps objectivity does not exist, but the presumption of reality and, therefore, of a possible truth will always exist.

One of the more common methods used to administer or dispute the meaning of each term, of each concept, is semantic association.  It is the same resource that allows advertising to freely associate a shaving cream with economic success or an automotive lubricant with sexual success.

When the value of racial integration found itself in dispute in the social discourse of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, various groups of southern whites marched through the streets carrying placards that declared: Race mixing is communism (Time, August 24, 1959).  The same placard in Poland would have been a declaration in favor of racial integration, but in the times of McCarthy it meant quite the contrary: the word communism had been consolidated as a negative ideolect.  The meaning was not disputed.  Anything that might be associated with that demon was condemned to death or at least to failure.

Recent history tells us that that association failed, at least in the collective narration about the value of “racial integration.”  So much so that today the banner of diversity is used as an inarguable axiom.  Which is why the new racists must integrate to their own purposes narratives of diversity as a positive value in order to develop a new narration against immigrants.

In other cases the mechanism is similar.  Recently, a U.S. legislator, criticized for calling Miami “third world,” declared that he is in favor of diversity as long as a single language and a single culture is imposed on the entire country, (World Net Daily, December 13) and there are no “extensive ethnic neighborhoods where English is not spoken and that are controlled by foreign cultures.” (Diario de las Américas, November 11)

All hegemonic power needs a moral legitimation and this is achieved by constructing a narration that integrates those ideolexicons that are not in dispute.  When Hernán Cortés or Pizarro cut off hands and heads they did it in the name of divine justice and by order of God.  Incipiently the idea of liberation began to emerge.  The messianic powers of the moment understood that by imposing their own religion and their own culture, almost always by force, they were liberating the primitive Americans from idolatry.

Today the ideolexicon democracy has been imposed in such a way that it is even used to name authoritarian and theocratic systems. Minority groups that decide every day the difference between life and death for thousands of people, if indeed in private they don’t devalue the old argument of salvation and divine justice, tend to prefer in public the less problematic banner of democracy and freedom.  Both ideolexicon are so positive that their imposition is justified even if it is intravenously.

Because they imposed a culture by force the Spanish conquistadors are remembered as barbaric.  Those who do the same today are motivated, this time for sure, by good reasons: democracy, freedom – our values, which are always the best.  But jast as the heroes of yesterday are today’s barbarians, the heroes of today will be the barbarians of tomorrow.

If morality and its most basic extracts represent the collective conscience of the species, it is probable that direct democracy will come to signify a form of collective thought.  Paradoxically, collective thinking is incompatible with uniform thinking.  This for reasons noted previously: uniform thinking can be the result of a sectarian interest, a class interest, a national interest.  In contrast, collective thinking is perfected in the diversity of all possibilities, acting in benefit of Humanity and not on behalf of minorities in conflict.

In a similar scenario, it is not difficult to imagine a new era with fewer sectarian conflicts and absurd wars that only benefit seven powerful riders, while entire nations die, fanatically or unwilling, in the name of order, freedom and justice.

February 2007

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Illegitimate Constitution

Montañas de la Sierra de Agalta, Olancho. Hond...

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Honduras IV: La constitución ilegítima

The Illegitimate Constitution

Jorge Majfud

The dialectical dispute over the legality of the violent process of removal from office and expulsion from the country of the president of Honduras has not reached closure. Months ago we explained our point of view, according to which there was no violation of the constitution on the part of president Zelaya at the moment of calling for a non-binding poll on the question of a constituent assembly. But at base this discussion is moot and rooted in a different problem: resistance by a social class and mentality that created the institutions of its own Banana Republic and seeks desperately to identify change of any kind with chaos, at the same time that it imposes repression on its people and on the communication media that oppose it.

The main argument of the authors of the coup in Honduras is rooted in the fact that the 1982 Constitution does not allow changes in its wording (articles 239 and 374) and establishes the removal from power of those who promote such changes. The Law of Citizen Participation of 2006, which promotes popular consultations, was never accused of being unconstitutional. On the contrary, popular participation is prescribed by the very same constitution (article 45). All of which reveals the scholastic spirit of its drafters, nuanced with a humanistic language.

No norm, no law can stand above a country’s constitution. Nonetheless, no modern constitution has been dictated by God, but by human beings for their own benefit. Which is to say, no constitution can stand above a natural law like a people’s freedom to change.

A constitution that establishes its own immutability is confusing its human and precarious origins with a divine origin; or it is attempting to establish the dictatorship of one generation over all generations to come.  If this principle of immutability made any sense, we would have to suppose that before the constitution of Honduras could be modified Honduras must first disappear as a country. Otherwise, for a thousand years that country would have to be ruled by the same wording.

The orthodox religious have tried to avoid changes in the Koran and in the Bible by counting the number of words. When societies and their values change but a sacred text cannot be altered, the text is salvaged by interpreting it in favor of the new values. This is clearly demonstrated by the proliferation of sects, isms and new religions that arise from the same text. But in a sacred text the prohibition against change, even though impossible, is more easily justified, since no man can ammend God’s word.

These pretensions of eternity and perfection were not rare in the Iberoamerican constitutions which in the 19th century attempted to invent republics, instead of allowing the people to invent their own republics and constitutions to their own measure and according to the pulse of history. If in the United States the constitution of 1787 is still in force, it is due to its great flexibility and its many amendments. Otherwise, this country would have today three fifths of a man in the presidency, a quasi-human. “That ignorant little black man,” as the now former de facto Honduran foreign minister Enrique Ortez Colindres called him. As if that weren’t enough, article I of the famous constitution of the United States originally prohibited any change in constitutional status with reference to slaves.

The result of a constitution like that of Honduras is none other that its own death, preceded sooner or later by the spilling of blood. Those who claim to defend it will have to do so with force of arms and with the narrow logic of a collection of norms that violate one of the most basic and undeniable natural rights.

For centuries, the philosophers who imagined and articulated the utopias that today are called Democracy, State and Human Rights said so explicitly: no law exists above these natural rights. And if such a thing were attempted, disobedience is justified. Violence does not originate from disobedience but from he who violates a fundamental right. Politics is for everything else. Negotiation is the concession of the weak. A convenient concession, inevitable, but in the long term always insufficient.

A mature democracy implies a culture and an institutional system that prevent breaks from the rules of the game. But at the same time, and for that same reason, a democracy is defined by allowing and facilitating the inevitable changes that come with a new generation, with the greater historical consciousness of a society.

A constitution that impedes change is illegitimate in the face of the inalienable right to freedom (to change) and equality (to determine change). It is paper, it is a fraudulent contract that one generation imposes upon another in the name of a nation that no longer exists.

Translated by Bruce Campbell