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The politics of disillusionment: can democracy survive?

Disquiet and disaffection, like a fast-moving swarm of sticky locusts, are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Look around, beyond the borders in which you’re living. Public disenchantment with politicians and official “politics” is on the rise everywhere, stirred up by factional infighting and mischief-making populists.

Ask the citizens of Greece, or Hungary or Ireland what they think about democracy: a clear majority say that it’s a fine ideal that now feels corrupted and practically broken. Significant minorities of citizens in democracies otherwise as different as Spain and Chile, Italy, Japan and India, say much the same thing.

Some so-called democracies, Israel and Ukraine among them, are breeding active disillusionment with democratic ideals. And in the United States, a 2010 poll conducted by Opinion Dynamics for Fox News found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (62% with a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points) think that their own imperial democracy is in decline. The figures haven’t since changed. And now these same citizens ask: has democracy come to Iraq, or to Afghanistan? Will it come to Syria?

Answers to such questions seem redundant. Little wonder that the doubters of democracy are feeling encouraged. “The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over”, says Slavoj Žižek, the self-styled Lenin of our age. “Democracy equals monetary abstraction equals an organised death wish”, writes his French philosopher friend Alain Badiou. “The West has become very conceited”, says Fu Ying, China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. “At the end of the day, democracy alone cannot put food on the table. That’s the reality.”

Sensing that political tides are flowing in their favour, she and other critics play up the crumbling social foundations of democracy. Here they have a point. Among the prime political lessons of the great Atlantic stagnation caused by a burst banking bubble is the deep structural dependence of democratic ways of handling power upon markets. Market failures have bred democracy failures, with painful social consequences. Hourglass-shaped societies are taking shape. Gini coefficients and wealth inequalities are widening.

In more than a few democracies, the rich are now hyper-rich. Middle class anxieties are spreading; a new precarious class of semi-employed or permanently unemployed people has been born; xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise; and with jobless figures high and rising among young people (30% in Italy, 50% in Spain, 5.5 million in the EU alone) many young citizens feel excluded from the democratic game.

Who can blame them? Young citizens look around and see few intelligent political leaders who speak their language, represent their interests and are able to change things. Obama stands for broken promises. For them, electoral democracy is phantom democracy. It resembles a game played by rich and powerful men. Political parties are unattractive. Politicians breed nausea.

Parliaments are, well, worse than talk shops. Especially worrying, many young people say, is the present-day dramatic jump in the use of executive powers. In a whole range of matters, from drones and nuclear weapons to imposed fiscal austerity and environmental protection, decisions of basic importance to the lives of millions of people are being decided (or blocked) arbitrarily, often behind closed doors in remote cross-border settings.

It’s possible that the complaints of the young generation are early warning signals, sirens announcing worse things to come. Nobody knows, but the parallels with the great crisis that brought democracy to its knees during the 1920s and 1930s seem palpable.

It’s true that web-based public scrutiny of power is flourishing; that the universal franchise is widely thought to be a settled issue; and, at least on paper, that there are record numbers of “free and fair” electoral democracies (at least 25 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, double the number since 1945). And, yes, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito are conspicuous by their absence; instead there are quiet figures, Mario Monti, Angela Merkel and Yoshihiko Noda among them.

The differences must be borne in mind. Yet the fact is that we are living in times when parliamentary democracy is suffering arteriosclerosis. Big money disproportionately wins votes. Surrounded by lobbyists, legislative committees outsource vital political decisions, politicians are consequently mistrusted and parliamentary mechanisms often seem toothless. The rhythms of representative government are out of whack with environmental catastrophes such as Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. Parliamentary democracy seems unhinged, reactive, dragged down by its inability to address large domestic and cross-border issues…and effectively to solve them, fairly and squarely.

It’s these trends that demand unorthodox political thinking, a new sense of urgency about democracy’s strengths and weaknesses, its past, present and future global fortunes. We must try to jump over our own shadows, set aside givens, make room for new challenges, such as whether and how the right of democratic representation can be extended to our biosphere, or examining whether the Asia and Pacific region holds the keys to the future of democracy, or whether new justifications of its superiority can go beyond the Winston Churchill cliché that it’s the least worst form of government. But fresh democratic thinking, new democratic imaginaries as the political philosophers say, require different methods of saying things, of articulating what cannot easily be said, of exposing silences and taken-for-granted presumptions.

The professional journal article, littered with political science jargon published a year after submission and acceptance by anonymous peer readers, then studied by a few handfuls of the same, isn’t right for capturing the moment. Books and chapters in books still have their place, but their publication lead time means they risk obsolescence at the hands of fast-moving novelties. Random op-ed pieces come and go, but are readily forgotten. So what’s required is something that’s both more immediate and more durable: fresh ways of writing, perhaps mixed with other media, vivid ways of capturing heterodox ideas, the long-term significance of events, the immediacy of characters, setbacks, political scandals, breakdowns and breakthroughs.

Notebooks are a medium for doing these things. Not to be confused with the tear-jerker film by that title, or with wafer-thin laptops, they’re a democratic form of writing. Made up of broken and interrupted fragments, they refuse cock-sure certainty. They grip the ground but don’t suppose they own it. Notebooks refuse to indulge the bad habits of traditional intellectuals and politicians proud of their ability to defend and advance large abstractions. Notebooks expose perplexities. They pose question marks. Wherever possible, they add semi-colons, blanks and margin notes to the grandiose bluff and bluster of democracy apologists like Samuel Huntington Jr. and Francis Fukuyama, or anti-democracy ideologists such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.

Modesty is the most striking quality of notebooks. They keep conversations going. As Tocqueville first showed during his jottings from the United States in the early 1830s, democracy notebooks capture particulars. They strive for accuracy, but they make no pretence to “truth”. They have a strong sense of the contingency of things and in this respect they express one of the most important unique features of democracy as a lived political form: the way it calls on citizens and their representatives to live openly as equals with the stresses and strains of political uncertainty.

Arundhati Roy, speaking at the University of Westminster, London, June 2011

Jottings on democracy word-pressed into web-based notebooks, written for unknown readers in unknown lands: not a straightforward task, as you’ll see during the coming days, weeks and months. It’s a testing strange art with few guidelines, but two standing examples spring to mind. One of them is Arundhati Roy’s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy (2009).The famous Indian novelist and Booker prize-winning political activist and citizen of the world asks a string of disturbing questions: is there life after democracy? What happens once democracy has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning, when its institutions have metastasized into something useless, or dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?

Roy says that what we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. She asks: can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?

For my taste, Roy’s field notes suffer from carping self-importance. Short on irony, they leave out all the remarkable rough-and-tumble counter-trends of India’s “banyan democracy”. Dialectics is not among her favourite words. Thorns never come with roses. That’s to say her jottings are one-eyed and one-sided; untrue to their own modest literary form, they capture certain troubling trends in Indian democracy (the military occupation of Kashmir and the Naxalite uprising, for instance) but not significant others, such as the freedom of the powerless publicly to organise trade unions, or to protest and vote against big-time corruption.

Roy’s account of the prevailing “working model” at the global level, “Western liberal democracy”, rests on similar misrepresentations. Her jottings amount to a “feral howl”. They’re her chosen words and they squarely depend throughout upon a vague but never-defined vision of “genuine democracy”. Is she nostalgic for Gandhi’s vision of self-governing village republics? Or is she perhaps a fan of Greek assembly democracy? She doesn’t say.

The ambiguity brings me to H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. It’s different fare. Published in 1926 and written by the American writer who’s today called the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken’s notes denounce democracy as an organised form of political ignorance. Prone to rigidity, they read like Nietzsche against the New Deal, and (less stridently) against fascism. With democracies such as Italy, Poland and the Weimar Republic tottering on the edge of self-extinction, or democide, Mencken’s notes were determined to give the whole idea of democracy a push, over the cliff, into the abyss.

If Roy is tediously un-ironic, Mencken was savagely sarcastic. Heaping scorn on representative democracy from every angle, there’s never a dull note. Anecdotal, witty and irreverent, democracy is “incomparably idiotic”, an ill-conceived and unworkable system in which inferior men dominate their superiors. Democracy is the beatification of mediocrity. It unleashes ignorant mob rule by demagogues. Elections resemble vast geysers of hormones. “Government under democracy is thus government by orgy, almost by orgasm”.

You get the picture. Faced with a choice between Arundhati Roy and H.L. Mencken, both of them hanging judges issuing warped verdicts on the false ambitions and hypocrisies of democracy, it’s time to progress. Join me in the field notebook adventure. But remember: there are no known maps, timetabled destinations or guaranteed safe passages.