Michalis Lianos’ Direct Democracy: The Change Towards Holistic Politics (2022) defines itself as a social manifesto to confront the transformation of the nature of political power, public institutions, and the tradition of political representation inherited from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This is something that Michalis Lianos – one of the most interesting sociologists of social control of his generation – had already alluded to in his writing during the cycle of revolts of the Yellow Vests in France . In more than one way, Direct Democracy: The Change Towards Holistic Politics (2022) is an expansion of this intuition; although, unlike most manifestos, the book does not take up the tone of denunciation and rupture, but rather of extreme prudence to construct and adequate itself to the complexity of our contemporary societies to a new regime of power distribution and individual empowerment. The total political alienation from public deliberation and participation is, according to Lianos, what stands in the way of people’s common interests. Institutions, political parties, the formalist separation of powers, and the legislative bodies (now in the hands of administrative agencies and corporate firms) have been radically disconnected from people’s lives to the point of becoming endogamic in its practices of decision making and public governance.
No one today can doubt the univocal distrust on all things political (a sentiment dating back to the Romantic age if we are to believe Carl Schmitt) which reminds us that the most interesting social insurrections in recent times have been against the democratic neutralization of the specific metropolitan and capital organization of administrative power. In the face of this schism, Lianos proposes a move towards direct democracy that can short circuit these institutional actors and partisan interests in order to revitalize people’s empowerment. The realization of direct democracy presupposes – and this Lianos’ propositional reinvention of the unity of politics – what he terms a new ‘Holistic Politics”, which he understands as a new civic attitude and a culture between citizens in a “holistic away, as a whole” (Lianos 2022, 2). The aim is to empower and lower public and private decision making at the scale of people’s life consistent with “social trust as the key for a happy collective life” (Lianos 2022, 3). The operative notion of Holistic Politics is, then, both a model of institutional design through the problem of scale; and, at the same time, a reassessment of the epistemological grounds of social action. In other words, for Lianos Holistic Politics should not be oriented towards putting the right answers in any social project, but rather to “ask society the right questions each time” (Lianos 2022, 9). We presume that what is “right” in the “right questions” point to an existential need of the whole, since given the plasticity of Holistic Politics, it cannot appeal directly to neither social facts (since these are always changing) nor a stable legislative agenda of higher representatives (there are inexistent for direct democracy). Regardless of these specificities, Holistic Politics does impose a need that the direct democracy will demand a greatest individual and community participation on fundamental issues raised by the social assembly list of objectives as raised by anyone in the community.
Lianos defines the problem of mitigating social issues within the framework of Holistic Politics in this way: “Holistic Politics recognizes that the most basic political process is the equal right of anyone to put forward issues for discussion and decision. So it is constantly vigilant to ensure, with specific measures that wherever exercises power is required to give answers as to the issues and priorities raised but never to ask the questions or influence how they are put. Issues are raised and ranked in order by the citizens themselves” (Lianos 2022, 15). Lianos is aware that every form of established institutional behavior ends up becoming a social habit (it has what some political scientists called, at least years back, “institutional stickiness”) , and this is why rules for immersion in social interaction must change on a regular basis (Lianos 2022, 17). It is true that rules are the infrastructure to limit social actions (this is, in fact, its unlimited possibilities); although, it begs to ask to what extent the regular change of social rules do not become in itself a habit within the very logic of exchange that defines structurally the social. To put it in different terms, it is insufficient to think, as Lianos does, that capitalism is a concentration of all entities into money form; rather, it is because there is an anterior civil form of exchange that the problem of value always emerges as an indirect force against the unit of the political (Lianos 2022, 21). If one changes the lens from strict capitalist exchange to the problem of value, then it becomes clear that what first appears as an alteration of rules in social facts could, potentially, constitute itself as an aleatory imposition of values, where the “happy life” of some could amount to the valorized “hellish life” of others. Holistic Politics in the same way that it does not say anything about values, it remains silent about the problem of institutions, even though institutions are far from being part of the stagnation of representative democracy that Lianos wants to surpass.
The central question for Holistic Politics is whether it can do the heavy lifting that it promises to accomplish. Can Holistic Politics really open up a way out of the current poverty of the species in the wake of social and civilizational collapse? Lianos seems to be aware of this question if only in passing, as he writes on the subdivision on “Foreigners”: “Holistic Politics is an approach for the entire human species at its present stage of development” (Lianos 2022, 41). This ‘present stage of development’ of the human species remains largely unqualified, and Lianos takes the route of geopolitics and the necessity to overcome the classical separation of powers. But to the extent that we are taking recourse to the human species, there is a fundamental topological and territorial dimension that we are sidestepping too quickly. At bottom the human species is a creature that steps on the Earth crust, and which today have been designated in relation (whether included or excluded) to the metropolitan regime of concentrated and amalgamated reserves for production and consumption . We can say that this is the last expression of civil nihilism: the capability of putting to work; or rather, of the power to put into energy certain elements in any given structure of exchange. And we are barely raising the question here that lingers from Lianos’ assumption. It suffices to say that the spatial composition of the human species today is erased from Lianos’ Holistic Politics, which is raises enormous doubts as to whether a social assembly, the rotation of social rules, and the redesigning of democratic voting can really do the heavy lifting for what is required for this “moment” of the human species. If this is so, then Lianos’s Direct Democracy has not moved past the Atlantic republicanist tradition that placed voting and participation at heart of the democratic polity (this is the heart of the Federalist, as Sanford Levison argued a few years ago). Holistic Politics in this outlook is probably the last residue of modern politics now grafted into the regime of social organization. But we would like to be as precise as possible about this affirmation.
Towards the end of the manifesto Michalis Lianos argues that Holistic Politics brings the individual and society face to face (Lianos 2022, 114). But if this is endgame of Holistic Politics it is also where we found ourselves in the gridlock of social denomination as an extensive (and intensive) regime of adaptation; of forever changing norms, of arbitrary rule making and rule erecting, and governing through contingent situation through the balancing of cost and benefit rationality of social cohesion. In this sense, the conception of the “overall point of view of the social experience” can describe the social composition, but it cannot transcend, as alteration and changing based on needs and values is already folded within it (Lianos 2022, 90). I take it that something analogous could be said of the problem of equity and proportionality in relation to adjudication and the rule of law in the paradigm of Holistic Politics, since what has triumphed in advanced societies of the West is not the fossilized conception of the separation of powers and the empire of judges and courts, but rather the expansion of equity and balancing of principles based on a cost & benefit rationalization to adjust and transform always already mutating social facts (Lianos 2022, 105).
Insofar as it is committed to the primacy of principles of equity and balancing, Holistic Politics does not breach the current framework of value distribution for specific ends of social reproduction (Lianos might say that his ends are better and stronger since he has done away with political representation, but we are also aware that there is an autonomy of value that can be operative on the borders of the political, in fact, it no longer depends on the political unit). There is an interesting discussion by Lianos on the question of failure and social expectations in Holistic Politics – to take up failure beyond the economic penalties and social mortification of the current neoliberal regime – that open up new possibilities only insofar as we move then from and against the infrastructure of the civil exchange principle for social action. Perhaps the realism that Direct Democracy (2022) appeals to has also something to tell us here, since the current collapse of the social regime is one in which failure is abundant, regularly optimized, and rendered productive through forms that accrue greater and intensive force of valorization. But can the irruption of failure in Holistic Politics be taken as a hole within the scheme of valorization? Perhaps it is in this schism where the question of the present stage of the human-species and a politics of experience can be posited against the grain of total social subsumption. The task of a different democratic imagination should depart from this void.
1. Michalis Lianos. “La política experiencial o los chalecos amarillos como pueblo”, traducción & introducción por Gerardo Muñoz, eldiario, Noviembre 2019: https://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/politica-experiencial-chalecos-amarillos-pueblo_132_1289123.html
2. Amadeo Bordiga. The Human Species and the Earth’s Crust (Pattern Books, 2020), 30-31.