Friday, September 16, 2016

The Democratic Turn



There are many possible ways of looking at history. One could be a pessimist or an optimist, see progress or decline, and believe in either preserving the past or reinventing the future. 

Indeed, the facts or truth, if there is such a thing, should perhaps be free of such ways of seeing, but then facts, without such interpretation, however subjective, may have no intrinsic value. History is most useful in shaping our ideas of the present and of our future, through these narratives or processes of making sense. And, the way we look at history makes all the difference.

And, besides, one could see progress either as a straight-line and a continuous story, or one of struggle - two steps forward and one step back - to make life better. And, which one you see depends on what side you want to be on: One could see progress as providence and destiny, or a gift from the great and the gifted, or a few hard-earned accomplishments through accidents and agitation. These are really ways of looking rearward, our attitudes towards today reflected on the process of history, projecting ourselves in the narrative and demonstrating that even when we agree on somethings, there are other things we may not agree on.

All this in mind, I feel less guilty for being subjective about my own time. There are people who had claimed that history has already ended, settled into a zone of continuity such that the narratives of the past became less relevant. This is an influential view, which, one could reasonably suspect, led to the rush to technology and business principles at the universities, and a decline of humanities and history in particular. And, yet, it is possible to see ourselves in the middle of a tectonic change - at one of those precise moments when the water reaches the boiling point and time for the frog to die - from which the closeness of time blinds us all. 

I speculate - with an intent to imagine! The gulf between the rich and the poor, the elite and the plebeian, the North and the South, the State and its enemies, indeed seem unassailable at this very moment, assuring continuity and making history redundant. The lessons of history, well learnt in policy, are used to maintain a coalition of the elites, and a cradle-to-grave system on instruction and warning that make us aware of the costs of incohesion among the powerful. So, what may actually go wrong for a fault line to appear and history to begin?

I think it is Democracy. The representative democracy was resurrected and implemented, partly as a reaction to the terror of French revolution and partly as a system of co-opting the new Middle classes everywhere. This was the great enabler of the Capitalist revolution - if I may call it that - the process of chipping away the powers of Absolute Monarchs and creating a system of commercial peace. It assumed a different importance with the resurrection of revolutionary terror in Soviet Russia, and then after the emergence of alternative ideas during the Cold War.  It was indeed never straightforward - democracy versus the other - as the Western powers often propped up dictators and replaced democratically elected leaders (Iran, Congo, Chile are some examples). But the excuse was always democracy - free elections, free speech, free trade was the ideal - and the other side did not own the term. 

So far, democracy was this big Anglo-Saxon thing that underpinned progress. Whatever the actions, all the Western leaders, guardians of human progress as they saw themselves as, agreed on the centrality of democracy as an idea. And, at the least, the most cynical among them, the imperialists, the robber-barons, the arms dealers, all saw democracy as a convenient piece of rhetoric, to be used effectively against the Left's dream of equality. And, as it turned out, there was something common-sense about it: As long as you voted for it, you could not complain if the world turned out to be unjust. 

This is now changing. There may be several reasons, but chief among them is the celebratory mood among the victors of the debate: The Soviet system crumbling under its own weight was taken as the surest sign of Capitalist system being the superior one, and sustainable without the political protection of democracy. The fear of revolution that kept the leaders of the states, captains of industries and agents of the secret services awake at night, has finally abated. It was a time of throwing away the shackles of inconvenient rhetoric of giving people voice.

And, of another reason, the conviction that when given a choice, people always choose poorly. It is surprising how many of the great and the good really think that way, but they do. After some democratic decisions going against them - like Britain's EU referendum or the rise of Trump, for example - leaders are all full of praise of a China-like system, which is an authoritarian capitalism rather than a popular democracy. Now, there are books and talks openly advocating a shift away from democracy, policies and institutions that operate outside the democratic process and new doctrines of propaganda that look beyond the democratic age.

And, this, very moment, may be ripe for a democratic turn in history. The other way to see what's happening to see democracy becoming redundant as an instrument of power, but at the same time, becoming most powerful. It is being discarded not because it is superfluous, but because it is inconvenient; it is not because people are not participating in it, but because they are. Democracy's role has suddenly flipped - from the maintainer to status quo to the engine of change - which it once was, and always could be.

 



 


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