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Democracy and its discontents

  • Published at 04:35 pm January 5th, 2018
  • Last updated at 03:30 pm January 6th, 2018
Democracy and its discontents
It’s now quite widely accepted that the idea of liberal democracy has been going through one of the most difficult phases. The election of Trump, Brexit referendum, rise of the far-right in Europe, uncontested growth of Hindu nationalists in state power, entrenchment of one-party autocracy in China, the unholy mess in the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries, growth of social and political fundamentalism in Southeast Asia -- these and many other phenomena are not causes but symptoms of several grave ills afflicting the post-Cold War world order where liberal democracy reigned as the normative hegemon. What are the main causes for this global resurgence of anti-democracy? A lot of people point to economic causes, particularly the global neo-liberal economic order. The global economic recovery since the 2008 financial crisis only benefitted the top 1% to 5% income group, hollowed out the middle-class, and left the working poor with less means to get out of poverty. Within this global paradigm of growing inequality, different economic dynamics are playing out in the global north and global south. The middle and working class in the West are strongly reacting against the wave of economic and social migration from the south. The problem in the global south is little bit more complex. Path to prosperity In the minds of citizens of the Third World, democracy and liberalism have been equated with prosperous Western society. For them, democracy was a route to achieving Western-level social and economic prosperity, not a political principal to organise the society to limit individual and state coercive power. However, the aspired level of social prosperity and progress remained unattained for many Third World countries that instituted democracy as the political system. The gap between aspiration and attainment has soured attitude towards democracy for a great number of middle-class citizens of Third World countries. Many leaders in the Third World now openly say that the Beijing model of authoritarian regime-led development is the better path than liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics. However, many thinkers believe that the roots of problems afflicting democracy go beyond economics and belong to metaphysical needs of humans. Democracy is facing problems in Western countries that are doing both well and not so well, economically. In terms of absolute economic gains, the middle-class in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have made unparalleled progress in the last few decades. Rather than economic distress, the main cause may be human metaphysical reaction against a hegemonic liberal order that relentlessly grinds down all alternative views. Critics of liberalism accuse it for being individualising, atomising, soulless hyper-rationalising, unaccommodating towards differences etc. Undoubtedly, there are some truths in all these characterisations. However, the most powerful critic is that the liberal social and economic order do not give institutional space for different social, political ideologies. Far more than institutional delegitimisation, it is the moral ostracising that generates the strongest reactions. The liberal order has consciously or unconsciously tried to establish a single, linear, progressive arc of history and starve away traditional views to inconsequence. Different visions of humanity In the West, where liberal hegemony is widely and deeply entrenched, the main reactions have been increasing alienation, loss of faith in establishment and institutions, exaggeration of identity and other differences. When a society no longer has real contests over big ideas, small differences like identities are magnified. In the East, where traditional ways are still lived in experiences and liberal democracy is the great, looming threat against all the traditions, the resistance is fiercer. The traditionalists in the East seek nothing less than delegitimisation of liberal democracy and establishment of respective traditions as un-contestable.
The unique strength of liberal democracy is that it is not an end goal, it is a process; a process that is not afraid of criticism
At the heart of difference between democracy and traditional orders lie a different vision of humanity. The liberal democratic order envisions a future of universal human society, where group identities are trivial and individual fulfillment is highest value. Traditionalists believe that public virtue must be prioritised over individual rights and a good society can only be built organically based on a community bound together with religion or national identity. Islamists in the Middle East, Hindu-nationalists in India -- all these traditionalists are not deliberately seeking to be evil, they just have a different view of goodness. However, all these traditionalists start from a morally inferior position because their vision does not appeal to larger humanity, but to a smaller group circumscribed by birth or faith. They can only uplift a vision of society by defining, downgrading, and excluding the other. This morally limited view puts the traditionalists in a defensive position even within their society. The deep insecurity of nationalists and religionists always compel them to prohibit and censor all criticisms against them. They cannot get out of the vicious circle of defensiveness, prohibition, and further criticism. Human values adapt to the social, political systems, and lifestyles. The values that served us greatly during the nomadic, agricultural, rural phases of history, cannot play similar effective roles in a globalised society. However, liberal democracy cannot be certain that it has all the solutions either; it demonstratively has come up short for many. The unique strength of liberal democracy is that it is not an end goal, it is a process; a process that is not afraid of criticism and can incorporate substantive criticism. Because of the uncertainty about goals and strength of incorporating criticism, liberal democracies must give up hegemonic pretentions and hollow tolerance of different views. It should allow different views and lifestyles to co-exist within broadly defined parameters of human rights. A diverse and fermenting public space, rather than a homogeneous society, can provide better and more robust solutions to meet the challenges in a fast-changing global society. Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.