The truth is we are not in control. But that’s not the worst of it. We suspect, indeed we know, that no one is in control: no God, no glorious leader, no benevolent dictator, nothing and no one. There’s no wizard and no emperor. This is the source, I think, of the massive fear and anxiety that we experience on a daily basis.
Our fear is scattered and diffused. It doesn’t have a specific object. One moment, the object of fear could be a hurricane. It could be that your house is robbed, car stolen. You could be diagnosed with a fatal disease. We live with a generalized sense of fear, a feeling that we are not in control and that nothing and no one is in control either.
Why do we have this feeling of not being in control? Why can’t we pinpoint the source of our fear? Why do we have a general feeling of powerlessness?
One reason, not the only reason but one important reason, is the profound separation of politics and power.
Power is the ability to get things done. Politics is the means to get those things done. The location of power and politics was once understood to be the nation state. This was never the complete truth, particularly for colonized or subjugated peoples, and it was certainly never the full truth of our always interconnected economic life. But for a period of time, in many countries of the world — the countries that most of us are from — it was a reasonable expectation that the nation state was the epicenter of the unity of power and politics and that this was how we could get things done.
Democracy is the name for a political regime that believes that power lies with the people. Representative liberal democracy on the Western model (and there are other models, as the last year of Occupy has reminded us) is premised on the idea that we exercise political power through the vote and that these votes would be aggregated by parties, representatives would be elected, governments would be formed, and these governments would have power to get things done.
Our belief was that if we worked politically for a certain group, on the right or the left, then we could win an election, form a government, and have the power to change things.
The fact is that today politics and power have fallen apart in liberal democracy. They are separated, maybe even divorced. We know this. We feel this viscerally.
Democracy at this time in history, even representative liberal democracy, risks being no more than a word, a kind of ideological birdsong. Power has evaporated into supranational spaces. These are the spaces of finance and information platforms. But these supranational spaces are also those of drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal immigration, the many boats that cross the Mediterranean, and so on.
We know this. And yet power still feels local. We feel English or Greek or Tunisian, but power has migrated beyond local boundaries. Sovereignty lies elsewhere. It is certainly not people-centered. Politics does not have power. Politics serves power. Whereas power is global or supranational, politics is still local and there is a gap between the two.
So, what do we do?
Simon Critchley is an English philosopher currently teaching at the New School.