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Opinionista

Inclusion versus exclusion – democracy and national identity in the future

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Saliem Fakir is Executive Director of the African Climate Change Foundation

As our elections are close, it is a good time to think about the state of democracy in the world.

Democracy in the good Greek sense of the word meant direct election of representatives onto the system of political governance. The first pilot was said to be in Athens probably around 600BC or so. But, the idea may have been cooked up long before. The records are sketchy on this account.

In other words, democracy is a form of political representation decided by the people and in the ancient world, politics was done in an open space, like the Agora, in Greece. Of, course this simplistic idea of democracy is more complicated than a town hall exercise today.

Nonetheless, the value of the idea of democracy is that it fostered many other virtues: tolerance, reasonableness and mutual appreciation that comes with civility. In a sum: reason and the rigour of arguments must prevail over passion and violence. It led to a blossoming of ideas, the flourish of enterprise and innovation.

Back then in Athens the right to participate in the election of representatives and to have a voice excluded slaves, women, the non-propertied class and foreigners.

When Alexis de Tocqueville trounced around America writing Democracy in America he drew great admiration for the virtues of democracy and the social change it brought about. But, democracies were never full-proof bullets against dictators, idiots nor the election of the unwise. And, in many countries democracies started with exclusions before they opened up to the rest of the inhabitants.

Today we understand democracy as a more inclusive practice and the proposition here is that we may be returning to the age of exclusion. Exclusion of the unwanted should not be dismissed simply because we do not see it coming or believe our old patterns of thinking as a good judge of the future.

The flags of xenophobia and racialising the character of our citizenship and democracy are flying high in this beloved country – we could have seen worse if the ANC elective congress in 2017 went the wrong way.

The very De Tocqueville while lauding the virtues of democracy warned also of its flip side: the occurrence of “soft despotism” or the tyranny of the majority. We have a had a spate of politicians elected around the world that point to the unvirtuous side of democracy and why it is a double-edged sword

De Tocqueville will have a field day with the cast of characters such as Trump, Duterte, Orban, Bolsonaro and anybody that ordinary citizens are saying give us something different as we cannot trust the traditional parties and politicians.

Perhaps we are moving out of the age of the post-modern to the age of proto-tradition. There was no better symbol of this than the recent debate between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson. Not that the debate could be regarded as worth your seeing and hearing – it was dismal in so far as content went.

Peterson could not have said what he says today if he said things, the way he does, in the age of political correctness. The fact he can tells us how much the world has shifted and the shift is ongoing. And, if Peterson stood for elections in Canada he may have a chance to get voted in. These are not incidents of trivia but silent waves of change that cause out of this world turn of events to happen in our continued hope that democracy will always turn up with the good character.

If, democracy establishes the right of people to vote – and we accept this as the rule of the game – then it may be that our ideas of inclusivity can be booted out by the popular vote and we will have to contend with ideas that harken back to a bygone era as they impose upon us a new national spirit and seek to change the rules of the game. That after all is the Faustian bargain we have struck with the idea of a popular vote and democracy.

We cannot always have it our way. We know that from our experiences here in South Africa – the Mandela era is slowly giving way to something else. But perhaps our problem lay also in the facile predilections for the personality cult as a sufficient quality for a robust democracy. In South Africa, this phenomenon is all the rave with Ramaphoria despite the fact that the party he represents continues to be a vessel filled with dubious characters.

Those seeking to change the rules and turn their back on inclusivity invigorate their questions with not what we should become as one people, but who are “we” and who are “they”. Exclusionary practices have been around for a long time even in places of fertile cosmopolitanism and long histories of democracy.

This idea of an acceptable citizen and unacceptable one is not just a production of authoritarian figures or states but its flickers are everywhere even in places with strong traditions of human rights and democracy. Walls of exclusion can be both visible and invisible – which just need to look and we will find them.

We can easily deflect from the illiberal within our own midst by pointing to China’s model of statecraft and its systematic use of the social credit system to classify you as a good or bad citizen aided by advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and biometrics.

As China thrives to be a global power it will seek to build a like-minded coalition of states and shape a new form of techno-intensive and surveillance state.

Others are watching and want to follow. AI companies in liberal democracies are even aiding and abetting the Chinese dragon as profit trumps human rights and democratic virtues.

As the former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt once noted that the Chinese are already building a cyber-system that has low connectivity to the rest of the world. China is moving into a closed cyber-walled world that is both self-contained and with a two citizen system that will define different freedoms and forms of access based on your loyalty and obedience to the Chinese system. States concerned with national security above individual security have something to emulate.

Russia is going the same route.

Nonetheless, fear, insecurity, and the immigration scare are eating away at the holy cows of cosmopolitanism in liberal democracies. Each day they commit us on this slippery slope of giving up rights and freedoms in exchange for more latitude in surveillance and control over our lives.

Several convergent factors will push us into more exclusionary modes of existence whether democratic or non-democratic.

The first is that the unhappy state of inequality and economic exclusion favours populism, rejection of outsiders and asserting the home base as more important than the global space.

Second, this question of who shall democracy belong to and for whom will boil down to which national identity and tradition gain ascendency.

Third, the power of money has had a noticeable corrupting influence on politics and democratic outcomes. It has led to a greater distance between the political establishment and the populace.

And, finally, shifts in global geopolitics especially Russia’s model of Eurasianism and China’s Xi Xinping thought – with their big emphasis on identity politics and nationalism- is undoubtedly contributing to the deliberalisation process already on the go in the liberal world. National interests will take centre stage with increased great power rivalry.

The whole idea of two classes of citizens makes it possible to turn open democracy into a closed democracy.

This is why the left and right patterns of thinking do not fully explain the brewing of an emergent form of democratic practice. In some countries, inclusivity will sustain itself and in other countries, exclusivity may dominate. Today, these stark contrasts are more visible than before because voices of exclusivity have been emboldened and are getting the sort of media and the public attention they never had before.

But, perhaps a silver lining may be on offer as inclusivity battles exclusivity that inclusivity will wake from its slumber as exclusivity gains ascendency. There is nothing better to sharpen the mind and pen than a good crisis. Perhaps Ramaphoria is one of those turns we are making here while the rest of the world goes in the opposite direction.

Nothing in this world lasts forever. We must be wary of our comfort with the status quo. The complexity theorist Yaneer Bar Yam once quipped that “better fences make better neighbours”. It may well be the look of the future as political competition within democracies boil down to whether we put up more fences or remove them. DM

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