Monday

27th Sep 2021

Column

Does democracy need troublemakers?

Nowadays, political crises and upheavals often seem to come from the periphery rather than the centre of power. Comedians, businessmen and other outsiders – think of Edward Snowden, Slawi Trifonow (the TV star who won the Bulgarian elections recently), or Donald Trump – try to disrupt power, pretending to expose political elites.

Thorns in the side of the establishment, some troublemakers manage to dominate the news and shake up the Western world like never before.

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  • 'Thorns in the side' of the establishment, some troublemakers manage to dominate the news and shake up the Western world like never before

Why is this happening? Is it a coincidence that troublemakers often disregard basic rules of democracy once they are voted into office? In response, do we need to make governmental institutions more resilient? Or could it be that we actually, to a certain extent, need outsiders to prevent our democracies from becoming too complacent?

With these questions in mind a German philosopher, Dieter Thomä, published a book in 2016 about the role of troublemakers in society and politics through the centuries, which was translated into English in 2019: Troublemakers; a Philosophy of Puer Robustus.

Thomä, a professor at the University of Sankt-Gallen, argues that every social and political system tends to produce troublemakers. Societies need to adapt to a world that is constantly changing.

But existing rules and established order cannot be adjusted so swiftly.

Therefore, it can be useful if peripheral figures enter the scene and start kicking around, asking questions others prefer to duck, forcing others to think about politics and society in useful new ways.

Thomä is certainly aware of the risks: troublemaker Trump and his supporters almost destroyed parliamentary democracy in the US, and it is too early to assess how lasting the damage will be.

But it does not necessarily have to end badly, he argues: some troublemakers can be agents of positive change. "Democracies need some rebellion from time to time to keep them from becoming complacent," he writes.

Using both fictional examples and real people from the 17th century to now, Thomä distinguishes five types of troublemakers.

As often with academic categorisation, reality has trouble fitting in - some modern troublemakers would fit into three categories at once. But as a rough guide, the different descriptions are useful.

Five types of troublemaker

The first type comes straight from Hobbes' Leviathan: the egocentric who does not care about anyone and feels the urge to cross lines out of pure self-interest. This is an adult child, irresponsible, often driven by greed and jealousy. This type, which Hobbes called 'puer robustus' (stout boy), includes warlords, oligarchs or profiteers from the financial crisis, such as Jérôme Kerviel. According to Thomä, Napoleon was also an ego tripper, caring more about family and friends than the country.

The second type is the political rebel, the rather sympathetic non-conformist who shakes up cushions for a while, then blends into mainstream politics. He is like yeast in the dough of society, letting it rise and changing its substance, but not out to enrich himself or grab power. French philosopher Denis Diderot portrayed him in his 1770 book Rameau's Nephew. Harlem Désir could fall in this category: a student leader during France's social unrest during the early 1980s, he later became a mainstream politician. Some student leaders in the Occupy Wallstreet movement would also qualify. This type also regularly stirs up the worlds of business and art.

As a third type, Thomä mentions the romantic revolutionary, à la Rousseau, the idealist outsider who wants to change the world and never compromises. Such a person was Wilhelm Tell, the legendary (and perhaps fictitious) early 14th century Swiss freedom fighter.

The fourth type, Thomä suggests, is Max Horkheimer's 'little savage' of the 1930s and 1940s: the fascist on the fringes of society who, lacking a "consistent independent ego", takes refuge in a group, hiding in unanimity and glorifying authority without any specific idea of the end which this authority is supposed to serve. The more he succeeds in rallying masses behind him, the more his destructive impact grows. This type includes some contemporary populists and Islamists – Nigel Farage comes to mind.

A fifth type - more of an 'extra' than a full-fledged type - is the loner holding up a mirror to others. Here, Edward Snowden comes to mind.

Thomä readily admits the distinction between the types is not always clear. Donald Trump, for example, fits in both the first and the fourth category, being both an egocentric and a little savage.

Globalisation and populism

Western societies currently produce many troublemakers.

Perhaps widespread confusion about the state of our democracies is a root of this. While our economies have globalised in recent decades, our democracies have remained national.

Globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty, but also created international problems such as climate change, tax-avoidance by multinationals, and cybercrime.

Therefore, some national decision-making has moved to a higher level: to the G20, or the Eurogroup, for example. Even if democratically elected governments take decisions there, their collective decision-making is not subject to democratic control, and many citizens resent this.

They feel power has been taken away from them, and want it back. Some experiments are being done with 'global democracy', but governments are reluctant to relinquish power (does the EU could qualify as a sixth category: the 'international troublemaker'?). The alternative – de-globalisation – is no realistic option either.

A lack of direction is the result: problems are not solved, causing anxiety among citizens and doubts about the future of our system. This is a perfect breeding ground for troublemakers. The egocentric and the 'little savage' are particularly thriving nowadays, the latter being the most dangerous: the fascist who also strongly emerged from the toxic mix of political discontent and economic malaise in the 1920s and 1930s.

John Stuart Mill once called those breaking rules for the common good "the salt of the earth".

One of the ideas behind a healthy democracy is to welcome troublemakers from the periphery of society, and let them explain themselves and be heard. This usually sets some changes in motion.

This is happening now with anti-vaxxers taking to the streets in many countries. Thus, an important function of democracy is to integrate troublemakers – but only to a certain extent.

In the US, troublemaker Trump managed to take over the Republican Party and become president. Brexit, which started as a fringe initiative, politically engulfed an entire country, because it fell on a fertile ground of ignorance and nationalism.

One of the tests of democracy in the coming years will be precisely its ability to successfully integrate troublemakers, or succumb to them.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of a column in De Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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