I was recently invited to reflect on President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit that took place in December 2021. As I was preparing my comments and trying to extrapolate what has been key deliverables from the Summit, I found myself keep circling back to the question: Is Democracy the Problem?
Perhaps it was my sub-conscious or intuitive perception that continually asked the quintessential question about whether the expectations that is associated with the interpretation of Democracy and the anticipation that it can ‘deliver us from evil and those that trespass against us’ has become the inflection point with the issue of whether Democracy is the Problem.
With this mind, the moderator of the discussion reminded panellists and participants that ‘democracy is an approximation of the ideal’ where its promotion is based on ‘participation, accountable governance and building resilient societies’. It was the latter point that caught my attention and got me thinking around whether the theoretical debates in respect of the ‘Third Wave of democratisation’ by Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis and their corresponding notions of the triumphalist notions of liberal democracy as the preponderant and hegemonic project has reached its own existential levels of introspection and validity.
The theory of change and recalibration of the 1989 context
The year 1989 is interpreted as a pivotal moment in the architecture of the Cold War. Some commentators would even go further to argue that that the turning point came with the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms of perestroika and glasnost that were pursued in 1987-1988. While a third set of analysts may identify the famous Sinatra Doctrine that repealed the Brezhnev Doctrine.
What was intriguing about the 1989 context was the ideational power and gravitational pull of triumphalism that portrayed not just a symbolic and political victory of the liberal democratic and economic system, but the optics it created of an utopianism for those living in the so-called rigid and dreary Soviet centric regimes that they were deprived off; a lifestyle akin to a supposedly nirvana, which epitomised Fukuyama’s view that “At the End of History ….. it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society”. Going further Fukuyama noted that: “What we are witnessing … is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
It was this branding of ‘missing out’ underlined by the all-encompassing philosophy of wanting the Western liberal democratic economic dream of Macdonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Apple, Dell, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Gucci, Formula One, Rolex, Cartier, and so forth that epitomised the underbelly of modernisation and cultural soft power.
Yet more than thirty years later the dream has fractured and not really benefited everyone in the system. What is starkly evident today is that the very dream that bore testimony to a lifestyle of glitz and glamour for all was actually a debt trap of deepening inequality and an obscene widening wealth gap between greed and glut. For the majority of the world’s population the reality remains a life of squalor, exclusion and weakening voice and agency. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the dream and the illusion of the model that claimed victory can no longer hold at the centre based on the current inherent contradictions and challenges underpinning the model of democratic liberalism and economic development.
But, more importantly, the model was in existential decline even before it got some delayed gratification in 1989. The austerity policies of Reagan and Thatcherite economic planning set in motion and play what Prof Guy Standing calls the emergence of the Precariat class, which he defines as a global transformative class. According to Prof Standing ‘during the past forty years, the global economy has been shaped by neoliberal economics, which, accentuated by the digital revolution, has generated two linked phenomena: global rentier capitalism and a global class structure in which the precariat is the new mass class. Rentier capitalism is making the hardships borne by the precariat much worse’.
Based on the above characterisation the Precariat class is present in every global society and represents a disruption to the status quo. It is this dilemma by the Precariat which should not only be viewed as just an uneducated class, that Standing categorises ‘in three dimensions: distinctive relations of production (patterns of labor and work), distinctive relations of distribution (sources of social income), and distinctive relations to the state (loss of citizenship rights). It is still a “class-in-the-making” in that it is internally divided by different senses of relative deprivation and consciousness’.
Herein lies the predicament and a tipping point for liberal democracy. The conformist attitude and reductionist approach creates unrealistic expectations of what democracy comes to represent. The conundrum is the tension between democratic gains versus development gains versus social transformation and inclusion. That is everyone has a mutual stake and benefit in the global system, though exclusivity underpins the framework.
Yet, if the sustenance of democracy is the strengthening of institutions that leads to resilience of people’s power, then somehow the power of democracy is diminished when it becomes more the harbinger for selectorial forms of what is considered as democratic values and norms and which countries constitute the credible and legitimate foundation to be labelled as a democracy. Add into this mix the issue of elitism and their interpretation of how democratic countries should behave exacerbates the intrinsic fault lines in determining how democracies should be conceptualised and the acceptable levels of adoption, application and adaptation without deviating of what is considered as the ‘one size fits all’ approach.
So what we have is selectorial forms of democracy based on elite power configurations, rhetoric and narrative of defending the democratic dispensation that is merely predicated on value propositions that are more theoretical in nature and devoid of meaningful appeal and substance. Defending your democratic rights has become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And in all of this the Precariat class is agitating for their ‘paradise’ as the ‘politics of inferno and rage’ deepens with little hope on the horizon.
Beyond the Tipping Point: The Grievance Democracy
Returning to the question raised at the beginning of this commentary the answer is that democracy is not the problem. It is the way it has been set up that makes the current democratic trajectory inflexible in its absorptive capacities when confronted by structural constraints and challenges to its operationalisation. The fact that electoral democracy acts as an interlocker in legitimising the gerrymandering of deceitful power hungry politicians and various iterations of vested elite interests supported by a litany of distributional coalitions suggests that democratic government for the people, of the people and by the people is now hallowing out.
In its place is the emergence of the grievance democracy where the global class mass of the Precariat can no longer be placated to remain calm, wait their turn or ask to continue to be resilient. The situation that is imploding in in Sri Lanka is instructive for every democratic dispensation that claims to represent the people. The ruling class must be take note that people’s power is pervasive.
Rather it is about having an honest conversation that democracy will only be viable and sustainable if is it about substantive change and not the vanity of self-enrichment, wielding power and egoism. The core base of the democratic system are the very people who have been left out and are now grappling with a democratic trust deficit. And to this end it is important to remind ourselves of the work and activism of Pan-Africanist, Tajudeen Abul-Raheem’s work on speaking truth to power, who eloquently noted of liberators ‘…. they are no longer changing the system because they are the system. The burden of change is now squarely on the shoulders of another generation. They are no longer part of the solution but very central to the problem’. But the same also applies to the pseudo defenders of democracy.
Indeed the time has come for the next wave of democratisation to be galvanised, though it cannot be tinkering of the current model which is losing its credibility.
Ms. Sanusha Naidu is a Senior Research Associate based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. The views expressed here are personal.