Uncovering Democratic Realities: Why Our Leaders Have Given Away Their Power

Aug 5, 2019 by

The structures that govern modern societies, affecting both the social as well as the biophysical realm, are invisible to humans most of the time. At a time in which the climate crisis is starting to show its full effect, it is crucial to examine the state of contemporary democracies. Once we become aware of our unknown unknowns, we can start identifying prevalent narratives in order to change the system we live in for the better.

A lecture on “Systemic Change” by Daniel Hausknost helped us identify our own unconscious assumptions on power of democracy. They take a “materialist social constructivism” stance to emphasize that while parts of our reality are socially constructed, humanity’s actions have biophysical implications. Since the Industrial Revolution, our energy consumption has increased significantly. Therefore, for the first time in history, we need to decrease our energy usage in order to attain a balanced and sustainable nature-society metabolism.

According to Dr. Hausknost, our democratic system has strong ties with our (fossil) energy use, to the point that the stability of modern democracy is dependent on our high use of energy. This is due to the fact that the liberal state developed in the time after the industrial revolution, which was largely defined by the expansion of energy use. Moreover, our political leaders’ need of creating legitimacy is deeply rooted in our current institutions. Back in the Middle Ages they derived legitimization from God and the King. However, the rise of democracy and de-coupling of Church and State led to a problem of representation. Due to the contradiction between citizens’ needs and state leaders’ inability to meet them (in addition to prioritizing their own agendas), there then was a need for a new omnipotent force of legitimization. It was at this point that markets were used as a new means of legitimacy. Once the power was outsourced, the disagreements between State and People could be blamed on this external force. This led to the circumstance that our elected leaders can only ever react to problems created by market forces, but never actively shape reality.

Another consequence of outsourcing power to markets is that political decisions are governed by underlying narratives supporting the capitalist economy. This makes it extremely difficult to realize ideas that do not fit in with prevalent narratives. Even when ideas are understandable and convincing, they may not be in the realm of political possibility. However, there are so-called tipping points which can quickly turn semi-possible ideas into possible ones. An example to illustrate this theory is the perception of same-sex marriage in Austria. In the public debate, many politicians as well as members of the civil society voiced their rejection of same-sex marriage. However, after the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that it was unconstitutional to prohibit same-sex marriage, several politicians reversed their stance. Dr. Hausknost argued that institutions set the sphere of the possible. To evoke the possibility for systemic change the boundary between the possible and impossible must become more permeable than it is now.

Reflecting on Prof. Hausknost’s input, a few points for discussion became evident. Their argument is founded on the idea that the way our democracy is today emerged out of increased energy usage. Yet, it remains unclear whether this implies a correlation or causation between these two processes. Another unsolved issue is that of desirability: When ideas can become possible more easily, ideas that are undesirable concerning issues such as the climate crisis may enter this realm as well.

In general, the lecture helped in clarifying that the economy is one of the most important players in our society, as it represents the place of power. Furthermore, politicians’ outsourcing of power to legitimize their decisions explains why present actors on the political sphere (just like large companies and individuals) often do not take accountability for their actions. Hence, what we learned for our own lives is that every one of us has to take responsibility and educate themselves on society’s current narratives to bring their own assumptions to light. Building on that we can take an active part in shaping our ideas and actions. In that way we might inspire others to do the same, thus making the impossible possible!


Written by: Charlotte Braat & Jana Pfrendl

Based on the lecture “Systemic Change” held by Daniel Hausknost during AEMS 2019.