Self-determined agency as foundation of justice and peace*

Self-determined agency as foundation of justice and peace*

To the beginning of the year

by Professor Dr phil Dr hc Dr hc Hans Köchler**

I will divide my paper into three parts. As the title already suggests, the presentation focuses on principles. Accordingly, I will not deal with details of the current political constellation.
I shall begin with a brief philosophical-anthropological introduction regarding the concept of “self-determination.” The second part of my presentation is dedicated to political-legal implications of self-determination. Finally, I will plead for a reconsideration of democracy or – in other words – argue for more terminological honesty as far as the use of the term “democracy” and the respective political discourses are concerned.

Self-determination – essential philosophical-anthropological aspects

(1) The topic as it is presented to me here relates to the essence and foundations of democracy, which may be described as follows: Only in freedom and equality are human beings capable to comprehend the true meaning of community, namely as realization of their individual self in interaction – indeed synergy – with the members of the group. Nobody is able to realise his potential, and achieve his identity, as isolated individual. “Self-determination” – or rather “self-determinedness” (Selbst­bestimmtheit) as characteristic of collective behavior – describes the state of the community, which results from this process. Primarily, however, this is about the basic attitudes of the individual human being. Self-determinedness does not mean self-creation – this would be the illusion of self-apotheosis, but the development of each individual’s potential in co-operation with others regarded as equals. In this context, every individual defines the priorities himself, informed by his own convictions. Everybody is himself accountable for the realization of these priorities. In my analysis, this is also the deeper meaning of freedom – not in the sense of arbitrary action that depends on the twists of mood or the spur of the moment, but as expression of “essential freedom” (Wesensfreiheit) in the meaning of German idealistic philosophy.
It is in this context that we understand the importance of education for self-determined agency: its task is to develop the capacity of reason, innate in every human being, to maturity – without ideological indoctrination, offering, so to speak, help for self-help on the individual’s road to the state of a self-determined citizen. Maturity in this philosophical sense, i.e. as agency informed by logos (which is more than functional rationality), is the essence of citizenship in a polity (community of citizens) guided by reason rather than irrationality and emotions. Understood in that way, it is indispensable for democracy.

Self-determination – political-legal aspects

(2) This brings me to the question as to the political and legal implications of self-determinedness: How is a political system to be organized in order to enable every individual to a self-determined existence in the above-described meaning? If self-determinedness of each human being as citizen is indeed taken seriously, i.e. if the citizen is perceived as member of a community from which his identity and existence cannot be abstractly separated, the answer will lie in the conception of a polity according to the classical Athenian ideal of direct democracy.
On the one hand, only this way of organising the common will is compatible with the status of the human being as a subject, or – in Kantian terminology – the “autonomy” of the citizen. On the other hand, it is only this organization of the political will that guarantees the rule of law and a policy directed towards peace at the domestic as well as international level. The structural connection with justice and peace can be described as follows:

Justice implies the absence of arbitrariness

Law – namely constitutional legality (Rechtsstaatlichkeit), first and foremost requires the absence of arbitrariness. Accordingly, any legitimate legal system depends on the co-operation of citizens on the basis of freedom and equality of all, both of which require a self-determined citizen. As regards peace as a political goal, this needs respect, i.e. mutual acceptance, be it domestically between individuals or internationally between collectives. Again, this is only achievable if every citizen acts independently rather than – unwittingly – serving the interests of others, being manipulated by more or less well-organized pressure groups.It is certainly no coincidence that, since the 1980s, several empirical studies have been able to identify correlations between the nature of the organization of polities – democratic or authoritarian – and their inclination towards war. Of special relevance in this regard is a paper by Aaron Wildavsky, published as early as 1985 in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy under the title “No War without Dictatorship, no Peace without Democracy.” This addresses exactly the structural link, which I could only briefly outline here.

Plea to reconsider democracy

(3) This leads me to the earlier mentioned plea to reconsider democracy and for more terminological honesty in the use of the term. In view of the current crisis of our political systems, both at the domestic and international level, it seems to be of special importance to make use of the anthropological, political and legal evaluation of “self-determinedness” to question the prevalent paradigm of democracy in the global discourse shaped by the Western hegemonic power. One may speak here, without false pretense, of the need for a critique of the very ideology of democracy (Ideologiekritik). This also was my intention, more than three decades ago, at a round-table conference here in Switzerland, in Geneva, on the crisis of representative democracy (The Crisis of Representative Democracy. Frankfurt am Main/Bern/New York: Peter Lang AG, 1985).

Democracy is not equal to “representative democracy”

In the meantime, since the end of the Cold War, the issue has become even more poignant. In scholarly as well as general political discourse, democracy is understood as so-called “representative democracy,” a position, which, in most cases, is stated without further reflection. Strictly speaking, however, the connection of the noun “democracy” with the adjective “representative” constitutes a contradiction in itself. In the literal sense, “re-presentation” means the again-making-present (“Wieder-gegenwärtig-Machen”) of something that is absent. The modern doctrine of representation presupposes that the, at first invisible, totality of the people has to be made present, or visible, before it can articulate itself in the political and legal realm. Carl Schmitt, among others, argues in his “Verfassungslehre” that representation always requires an individual to whom this capacity, or competence, of “representation” is attributed. This may be a head of state, who decides on his own authority, but also a member of a legislative body (parliament) – and subsequently of course also a collective comprised of all these persons. The crucial point here is that individuals are supposed to be entitled to decide on behalf of all citizens. A specific doctrine – that resorts to ontological assumptions – serves to justify this attribution of power to individual office-holders according to which those privileged persons are capable to represent – “make present” – the totality of the people. Gerhard Leibholz’s “Das Wesen der Repräsentation” (“The Essence of Representation,” 1929, with several re-editions in post-war Germany) is a classical example of this theory of state. For the sake of terminological precision, however, we must again state that rule of the people cannot conceptually be equated with rule over or on behalf of the people.

Popular sovereignty in the context of a representative constitution is a fictitious concept

If indeed the intention is to justify rule over the people, one should say so openly and use a different term to describe this power relation. I am not the only one to insist on terminological precision. In his treatise “Vom Wesen und Wert der Demokratie” (On the Essence and Value of Democracy, 1920), Hans Kelsen, eminent legal philosopher of the 20th century and “father” of the first constitution of the Austrian republic (after World War I), explained that, in the framework of a strictly representative constitution, the notion of popular sovereignty amounts to pure fiction. In order to legitimize the exercise of power in the eyes of the people, Kelsen argues, one tries to make the public believe that the people, i.e. every individual citizen, directly takes part in the decision-making while in actual fact it is one single office-holder or a group of such persons who decide in the name of all. More appropriate terms for this exercise of power would be monarchy or oligarchy, respectively. However, while it may be more honest to characterize a parliamentary system as “representative oligarchy,” this would admittedly have a more or less delegitimizing effect vis-à-vis public opinion.
The crucial point remains: in such a representative system, the individual person can not realise himself as citizen in full freedom and equality since, in actual fact, he is subjected to the will of others. All the citizen can do is to participate, through periodic elections, in the selection of those who will rule over him for a given period of time. In most cases, however, even this choice is rather weak and indirect since in many countries the right to vote for persons, rather than parties (“Persönlichkeitswahlrecht”), is poorly developed.
For self-determined agency to be taken seriously as foundation of democracy, one will have to insist on terminological accuracy. The dominant paradigm of the state must be precisely and accurately identified as rule of the few, based on the doctrine of representation. Realistically, however, one must acknowledge the need for a division of labor in our modern industrialized societies. At the end of the day, this means – as the Swiss have taught us – a hybrid state model, namely a kind of co-existence of representative and democratic forms of decision-making.

Direct democracy: corrective of rule by representation

In view of the arguments above, the term “direct democracy” is not a contradiction in itself but a pleonasm. If democracy is the rule of the people, it is already implied that every citizen decides directly. Accordingly, under the circumstances of advanced industrial societies, one will juxtapose decision-making by way of “representation” to decision-making by way of “democracy,” as has been successfully practiced in Switzerland for a long time. What matters, in that regard, is that “direct democracy,” if I may again use that pleonasm, serves as a kind of corrective to decisions made by representation. In principle, the people may take the initiative on any matter and at all levels – local, regional and national – and decide by referendum. If this possibility is dismissed in a given case or even explicitly excluded by the constitution (as is the case in the Federal Republic of Germany at the national level), the respective polity will be faced with a serious credibility issue in terms of democracy. (Emphasis by Current Concerns)

Decisions about war and peace belong into the hands of the people

Democracy in its original meaning – as authority directly exercised by the people – is particularly relevant at the global level when it comes to the avoidance of war, i.e. a policy aimed at sustainable peace. Such a policy is more than ad hoc conflict stabilization in terms of realpolitik. It is aimed at a world order based on mutual respect among the peoples according to the democratic ideals of freedom and equality. There is only hope for the permanent avoidance of war if decisions on war and peace, i.e. on the international use of violence, are put into the hands of those who must bear the consequences – the citizens. In a non-democratic context, wars are much more easily waged because those responsible – the “representatives” – in most cases will find ways to protect themselves from the risks to life and limb involved in their decisions.

Plea for the democratisation of international relations

Self-determined agency of every individual as a citizen is the only guarantee for a sustainable order of peace at the international level – what Immanuel Kant referred to as constellation of “perpetual peace.” This implies that the organization of relations between states – and between the institutions created by states for that purpose – has to be democratized. Gradual reform of the statutes of global institutions such as the United Nations should lead to a system where the citizens are not merely subjects of their states, i.e. where their rights are not completely “absorbed,” or “mediatized,” by the state as sovereign. Under the present circumstances, it makes no difference for decisions at the intergovernmental level whether a state consists of 10,000 or one billion citizens. Apart from the voting rules in international monetary organizations, every state entity has the same weight, so to speak – with the notable exception of the UN Security Council. In this body, due to the historical, albeit now obsolete, power constellation, five states enjoy special privileges that are not compatible with democracy in the above-described sense of equal and direct participation. With this plea for the democratisation of international relations – not to forget the procedures of regional organizations such as those, which we have created here in Europe and where the level of citizens’ participation says everything about their credibility – I conclude my remarks and thank you for your attention.    •
(Translation from German Current Concerns)

*    Lecture given on the September talks  of the European Working Group “Mut zur Ethik” from 2 – 4 September 2016

**    Hans Köchler has served as Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Innsbruck (Austria) from 1990 until 2008 and until 2014 he was University Professor of Philosophy at his University. From 1971 to 2014 he was Chairman of the Austrian Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Wissenschaft und Politik, (Working Group for Siences and Politics) Since 1972 Hans Köchler is the Founder and President of the International Progress Organization, an international non-governmental organization (NGO) in consultative status with the United Nations. He holds honorary doctor degrees from the Mindanao State University (Philippines) and from the Armenian State Pedagogical University, and an Honorary Professorship in Philosophy from Pamukkale University (Turkey). In 2004, he was appointed as Visiting Professorial Lecturer at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila. Following his election as Life Fellow in 2006, he was elected as Co-President of the International Academy for Philosophy in 2010.    Hans Köchler’s publication list contains more than 500 books, reports and scholarly articles in several languages (Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Slovak, Spanish, Thai, Turkish).

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