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20 August 2017 21:13 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mark Heywood

Beware the dusk of democracy

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

Democracy is under threat around the globe when just a few years ago it looked as if it would dominate the world. Predators from ultra capitalists and fundamentalists to ruthless politicians are winning. It’s time for action from more than just a few dedicated activists to seize back the power.

Democracy has always been a tenuous affair.

While watching Sky News several weeks ago and witnessing reportage of the ‘coming-out’ sermon given by Islamic State (IS) cleric Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi in Mosul, Iraq, I was suddenly struck by a fearful thought. Those of us who spend all our waking (and sleeping) hours campaigning for democracy, rule of law and social justice are blowing in the wind. There are much more powerful forces than us out there and we are losing.

In our moral self-righteousness we fool ourselves that even while only a minority of people actually get off their backsides and fight for social justice, equality and people’s dignity, these remain powerful rallying ideas; powerful enough to propel millions to demand and fight for change.

But they are not. Millions of people have lost belief in social justice, equality and dignity. These ideas are increasingly a minority preoccupation.

I repeat: We are losing.

We are losing to arms dealers; we are losing to fundamentalist charlatans who have made religion even more dangerous than it ever was; we are losing to ultra-capitalists whose names we don’t know (although it should be our duty to know them) but who own and control vast private empires that transcend states and span the globe. We are losing to the politicians, like recently elected Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who are in their pockets and we are losing to politicians who prostitute political access and in return, gain access to their private treasuries, using their wealth to entice millions of people to vote for their own insecurity and dispossession.

In this context, it seems paradoxical that the relatively recent dawn that has seen democracy rise in many parts of the world may be in danger of being linked to its demise as a historical idea.

Yes, democracy is an ancient idea. Almost as old as God! It took a long time coming. Despite theories of democracy crossing the centuries from ancient Athens, despite the lyrical writings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle it was not a powerful enough idea to take root until the slaves had enough material and social power to challenge minorities of one brand, form or another.

We tend to assume democracy is deeply rooted, a part of being. But it is important to understand that although democracy may be an ancient idea, its spread across the globe is a relatively recent phenomenon.

On the face of our aging orb it is only several hundred years old.

English philosopher Terry Eagleton has pointed out that, like it or not, Karl Marx was right on many things. One of the things on which he was right was that in the 19th and 20h centuries the momentum for democracy came from the struggles of the sans-culottes and the newly industrialised working classes. From Luddites to Tolpuddle martyrs to socialists, the call for all people’s participation in political processes was intended as the means to alter inequalities, eradicate harsh living and working conditions and assert control over the wealth and resources that they themselves usually created. It was the means to end the injustice so great that it marked the first half of 20th century.

Then, as the century progressed, along came more people with the impertinence to demand equal political rights: women, black people, and then the oppressed populations of the colonies. But be they suffragette or Black Panther, the heart of the democracy that was demanded was political participation as a key to a more equitable sharing of resources.

Democracy was never meant to be about status quo. It was always intended as a means for the reallocation of power away from unaccountable minorities. Democracy was always meant to be about participation and majority rule – even though we know through painful experience that majorities can be just as dangerous as minorities. (This is a danger our wonderful Constitution with its Bill of Rights, seeks to insulate us from, though increasingly unsuccessfully.)

People like Lenin may sometimes have described democracy as the most stable and preferred form of capitalist minority rule but it also always contained within it an inherent danger that people would take it too seriously. Democracy always had to be constrained, preferably by democratic means (as contradictory as it may sound), through persuading people that their lives were better than they really were or could be.

For a long time in ‘the first world’ democracy often came at colonial people’s expense, with the riches of Western ‘civilisation’ often coming from theft and labour exploitation of the colonies. Ghost enemies were created and exaggerated to such grotesque sizes that it was possible to block empathy with the ordinary mortals who were hidden behind them.

And for a long time, this illusion held.

However, recently research and just plain living has begun to expose this sham. It is clear now that in most countries of the world elites have hijacked democracy – maintaining its form but stealing its substance. On the surface democracy seems boisterous, loud, full of sound and fury. But behind the front of the theatre, shady people and institutions carry on their business unconcerned and mostly unbothered by the noise upstage.

This is acknowledged even by august journals like The Economist, which in a special essay titled ‘What’s gone wrong with Democracy?’ understates the problem when it writes, “Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife. Yet just a few years ago democracy looked as though it would dominate the world.”

One of the two reasons The Economist attributes to the difficult time is the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Put another way, this laid bare who really ruled the world, how they are putting it in danger and how the system will rush to fix their problems, before it rushes to rescue people from Ebola or Aids or any of the other real threats that millions of people face. For example, everyone always suspected that it was not “we the people” who ran the United States but earlier this year empirical research of “key variables for 1,779 policy issues” was published that showed “economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

On the other side of the world, India with 814 million eligible voters, is by far the largest democracy in the world. The vast majority of these voters are dirt poor. Many might thus regard the election of Modi as prime minister as a powerful vindication of democratic practice. But others would ask why the people would do something as stupid as elect a leader a leader deeply implicated in pogroms and ethnic cleansing in Gujarat in 2002 as their PM.

But closer study reveals that money and its ability to work new technologies for mass communication (Modi unleashes a blitzkrieg never seen before in electoral history) played a significant role. In the words of Dilip Menom, an Indian academic based at Wits, people were fed up with “30 years of coalition governments characterised by vacillation, horse-trading and corruption” (sound familiar?). Menom points out how the election was “fought by the BJP in the American presidential campaign mode with orchestrated media exposure and hype” and that after his election, “the stock markets reacted exuberantly. Two industrialists Mukesh Ambani of Reliance India and Gautam Adani, known to be close to Modi, added $1-billion and$400-million to their wealth as the prices of their stocks soared”.

We South Africans are not immune from this trend. The ANC may have won the 2014 general election, but we will not know who filled its huge election coffers. In all probability large donations came from countries and individuals who are reluctant or anti-democrats. How much, for example, did the Chinese government, which conducts worldwide harassment of Dalai Lama, which daily arrests activists on the mainland and is so loathed in Hong Kong, give the ANC?

Pieter-Dirk Uys put it most succinctly in a piece for the Daily Maverick, “Democratically-elected governments worldwide are finding democratically-acceptable ways to destroy democracy.”

But oh, if only this were just an academic matter! It’s not. The hijack of democracy is creating a vicious cycle that increasingly eats away at the fabric of the idea itself. It is perpetuating political and social impasses that should have been solved. The resulting great global paralysis is creating a society-wide despair that if we don’t stop it could lead to the end of the age of democracy itself. Ironically, as we are already seeing, the people who most need democracy will lead the charge against it. They rally to wolves in democrats' clothing and think the sheep are the problem.

Look, admittedly there are still tens of millions of democrats left in the world. But we are simultaneously an overfed and emaciated lot. Obesity makes for malnutrition of the will. Generally, their habits are to lament to similarly minded friends, write books and academic articles that few read, and to fight amongst themselves on the finer points of philosophy and politics. They are good at political theatre, denunciation. But while they weep religions, corporations and rogue governments continue their plunder, placing the world in an ever more parlous place.

This might sound like alarmist scare-mongering but it is conceivable that we are approaching the end of the democratic epoch in world history. The harbingers are there. ‘Traditional’ inequalities have been inflated but are now joined by extreme environmental antagonisms, such as water and food shortages. Managing these will ‘justify’ harsher forms of minority rule. The brave fighter jets that now bomb people in Iraq and Syria, without first getting the permission of the people in the countries whose flags they carry, are proof of that. So is the vicious bombardment of Gaza.

At home, places like Dainfern and its spawning copycat settlements are our microcosm of the brave new world.

This might all sound pessimistic. It is. But the point I am trying to make is that we democrats cannot assume that the political system we have known, aspired to or fought for all our lives is safe, or has a free pass to the future.

We have to make it safe. We have to make sure it has a future.

How? As I have written before, despite this pessimistic picture – and here’s another paradox at this perilous moment people have more power than they have ever had in history. We are particularly fortunate in South Africa. We have a supreme law – not a supreme leader, or party, or a supreme religion – that prescribes that government must work to create equality. We have constitutionally entrenched bodies such as the Public Protector and the South African Human Rights Commission. We have courts and freedom of speech. This may not always be the case.

Yet it is left to small rogue bands of activists to fight for the rule of human rights law; civil society groups that are frequently vilified and starved of funds. It should not be that way. Democracy should be defended by all, not only by the people who are happy to devote their lives not to acquisition of success and wealth, but to humanity.

It is time for good people of the world to use the democracy that’s left to seize back the power. Leaving it in the hands of predators for much longer will render the dream of democracy back to just a dream. DM

  • Mark Heywood
    mark-heywood.jpg
    Mark Heywood

    Mark Heywood is Executive Director of SECTION27 and an Executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign.

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