In the world, today humanity is facing a choice between democracy with libertarian values and an open tendency to annihilate democracy. Political leaders like Putin, Xi Jinping and Taliban are annihilators of the possibility of statecraft, built on logic, social justice and tolerance towards dissent
By Sankar Ray
- Today Humanity is confronting a threat to the value, the feasibility, and the prospects of democracy
- The Russian supremo wants to rewrite the history of World War II, ‘arguing that the conflict resulted from Nazi aggression and Western timidity
- Xi Jinping is enshrining ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the constitution and creating his own cult of personality
- The big buzz of the past two centuries has been the compatibility of democracy with private property and with social & economic inequality
DEMOCRACY today is about to be reduced into an etymological platitude. One is reminded of Rosa Luxemburg’s essay, The Crisis in German Social Democracy – better known as ‘The Junius Pamphlet’, which she wrote under a pseudonym in 2015. Rosa triggered a debate with a caption, ‘socialism or barbarism’. Today humanity faces a choice between democracy with libertarian values and an open tendency to annihilate democracy. The leading annihilators are the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, President of Peoples’ Republic China, Xi Jinping and the like. They are essentially annihilators of the possibility of a statecraft, built on logic, social justice and tolerance towards dissent.
Luxemburg remembered Friedrich Engels, one of the founders of ‘Scientific Socialism’: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ … Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness.” When she wrote this, the existence of human civilization was endangered by the First World War and her article was an anti-war pamphlet too. One hundred and seven years thereafter, the menace is afloat with nightmarish consequences. The word – ‘socialism’ is replaced by democracy (socio-economic libertarianism) or barbarism (unabashedly inhuman). Socialism remains in the perspective but democracy is in the agenda.
Thinkers across the political spectrum, from Karl Marx to Thomas Macaulay, believed that if the poor were to gain the right of suffrage, they would use this right to confiscate property
EMERGENCE OF DISCONTENT
Humanity confronts a threat to the value, the feasibility, and the prospects of democracy. Under threat is the functioning of democracies in different ways generating intense discontent among their citizens. The obvious impact is a widespread dissatisfaction that ‘democracy has been unable to generate socioeconomic equality, to make people feel that their political participation is effective, to ensure that governments do what they are supposed to do and not what they have no mandate to do, and to balance public order with noninterference in private lives’.
The destroyers at the helm of states cash in on such inadequacies. Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnel in an essay on post-communist societies in 1993 coloured the democratic grass from green all the way to brown. He lamented that democracy ‘turned out to be compatible with inequality, irrationality, injustice, particularistic enforcement of laws, lies and obfuscation, a technocratic policy style, and even a fair dose of arbitrary violence. The everyday life of democratic politics is not a spectacle that inspires awe: an endless squabble among petty ambitions, rhetoric designed to hide and mislead, shady connections between power and money, laws that make no pretence of justice, policies that reinforce privilege. ’
Indeed the various laments, emanating from all parts of the ideological spectrum, pertaining to the decay of democracy in countries like Russia, China and several Latin American countries reflect the visible and apparently increasing gap between formal rules and behaviour of all sorts of political actors. The concern of political scientists, the overwhelming majority of whom the world over are fierce defenders of democracy and liberty.
Guillermo, a highly revered theoretician of democracy, demonstrated the particularities of the uneven democracies that face limitations that traditional definitions had for it. The challenges that emerged from it are theoretically for the development of emerging democracies: from the macro to the micro, from the first to the second transition from the regime to the democratic state. But dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping are determined to nip such possibilities in the bud.
Crony Capitalism Thrives on Dictatorships
Dictatorships are relatively unconstrained by formal political institutions and can use their unchecked authority to prey on others or renege on prior commitments
ARMANDO RAZO of Department of Political Science, Indiana University Network Science Institute, states in a paper, published in 2015, “Political Economy of Crony Capitalism: Credible Commitments without Democratic Institutions”, “dictatorships are relatively unconstrained by formal political institutions and can use their unchecked authority to prey on others or renege on prior commitments without incurring major consequences. This potential abuse of authority highlights the core problem in the literature on institutions and economic growth (the political economy of development): whereas strong governments are deemed necessary to guarantee the security of property rights and to enforce contracts, they can also withdraw protection or otherwise engage in predatory acts, so with greater political strength comes less credibility”.
He borrowed the idea from B R Weingast’s ‘The economic role of political institutions: Market-preserving federalism and economic development Journal of Law, Economics, and Organisation, published in 1995. Needless to stress, governance in non-democracies settings is ‘often characterised by its informal nature and apparent neglect of formal institutions’.
Dictators–as instances of very strong governments–have very little credibility when they make promises to promote investment. But several dictatorships have successfully promoted growth, President Ayyub Khan of Pakistan is one such exception, although at the cost of weakening the basic macro-economic structure.
The question, therefore, remains – under what conditions can dictators refrain from preying on investors or what are the enabling conditions for effective governance and policy credibility in dictatorships? “Non-democratic regimes are characterised by lack of widespread political competition and by concentration of political authority”, Razo pointed out. “Clearly, on the political side, the dictator and close allies have a privileged position: other actors have limited access, if any, to the political system”, he added.
Hal Brands, Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and co-author of ‘Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China’ in an article in Bloomberg more than a month of Putin’s aggression of Ukraine wrote: “History is a powerful weapon: Just ask Vladimir Putin, who is using it as part of his escalating campaign to undermine an independent Ukraine. And Putin isn’t the only leader who is invoking — and abusing — the past as a means of asserting global influence. Geopolitical authority often begins with historical revisionism, a pattern that is playing out across an unsettled international landscape today.” He referred to Putin’s aggressive mindset, reflected in the declaration in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union, a state responsible for murder and repression on a horrifying scale, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
The Russian supremo wants to rewrite the history of World War II, ‘arguing that the conflict resulted from Nazi aggression and Western timidity — conveniently bypassing the fact that Joseph Stalin’s the Soviet Union contributed mightily to that catastrophe by partnering with Hitler to carve up Europe between 1939 and 1941’.
To trigger nationalist sentiment, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has adumbrated restoration of a “Greater Hungary” based on its pre-World War I kingdom, including large parts of modern Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia. So is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan who cloaks his drive for autocratic power and regional primacy in nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire
The aggression of Ukraine is the derivative of this thinking. However, Brands skipped the instigating role of NATO, backed by the US state leadership in pushing Putin to war while granting the logic that the Russian President never inculcated any alternative among options. They rather use historical mythmaking to legitimise their imperialistic designs.
Xi Jinping, also wields history as a cudgel, argues Brands, having revived ‘much of the political centralization of the Mao Zedong era, by making himself ‘chairman of everything eliminating term limits, enshrining ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the constitution and creating his own cult of personality. In such a setting he has articulated a historical rationale for Chinese expansion. He announced that bringing Taiwan into the mainland’s grasp is a ‘historic mission’ and a matter of ‘ realising China’s complete reunification.’ That’s Beijing brand of communism which hasn’t even a distant resemblance of Marx’s socialism or communism – synonymous in Marx’s writings in contrast to Lenin’s hyphenation of socialism from communism. The parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Communist Party of India keep wooing the bumptious dictator as experimenting ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.
The US academic listed other destroyers of the age of democracy. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has minimised Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust and its decision to ally with Nazi Germany during World War II. To trigger nationalist sentiment, he has adumbrated restoration of a “Greater Hungary” based on its pre-World War I kingdom, including large parts of modern Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia. So is Turkey’s (now officially the Republic of Türkiye) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who cloaks his drive for autocratic power and regional primacy in nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire.
Elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 had been followed by the birth of “neo-liberalism” around the world – enforced by the US Treasury Department and the international financial institutions
The compulsion is for theoretical insights into the invasion against democracies. Polish political scientist and a professor at the New York University, Adam Przeworski in a paper, Democracy: A Never-Ending Quest, published in the Annual Review of Politics in 2016 deliberated on this conflictual issue. “The big puzzle during the past two centuries has been the compatibility of democracy with private property and with social and economic inequality. Beginning with the speech of Henry Ireton in the franchise debate at Putney in 1647, thinkers across the political spectrum, from Karl Marx to Thomas Macaulay, believed that if the poor were to gain the right of suffrage, they would use this right to confiscate property. (This belief continues today, as witnessed by the median voter model, that workhorse of political economists, which predicts that, short of dead-weight losses of taxation, the electoral mechanism should result in complete equality of post-tax and transfer incomes.)
Capitalism and democracy, therefore, could not coexist. As Marx had it, either the poor would proceed from political to social emancipation or the rich would meet the economic threat with political restoration.”
Democracy having been a universalistic system is ‘a game with abstract, universalistic rules. But the resources different groups bring into this game are unequal. Now, imagine a basketball game played between people who are seven feet tall and people who are short like me. The outcome is clear. When groups compete for political influence, when money enters politics, economic power gets transformed into political power, and political power in turn becomes instrumental to economic power’, wrote Przeworski. However, when neoliberal finance capital calls the shots, access of money to politics is the scourge of democracy.
CONCERNS ABOUT DEMOCRACY
Democracies were endangered when class compromise worked successfully three decades after World War II. Increases of wage rates followed increases of productivity; functional distribution of income remained stable. But there was an in-built fragility which was systemic. The massive assault by the Right on public ownership, regulation, and the institution that sustained the class compromise, the unions are concomitant. Elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 had been followed by the birth of “neo-liberalism” around the world—enforced by the US Treasury Department and the international financial institutions, and promoted by a propaganda offensive by right-wing think tanks—any notion of compromise broke down.
To date citizens in democracies are unable to control public bureaucracies that are supposed to serve them, thus forcing participatory democracy is just a cemetery of failures
Now the sanguinary reality is that conflict, liberty, and peace do not coexist easily. ‘When one looks at world history in the perspective of centuries, democracy appears as no more than a speck. Throughout most of history, civil peace could be maintained only by force, by repression. In the end, the miracle of democracy is that conflicting political forces obey the results of voting. People who have guns obey those without them. Incumbents risk their control of governmental offices by holding elections. Losers wait for their chance to win office. Conflicts are regulated, processed according to rules, and thus limited. This is not consensus, yet not mayhem either, but limited conflict: conflict without killing. Ballots are ‘paper stones’, argued Przeworski.
Democracy is the only system that allows people to live in freedom and peace or one in which whatever conflicts emerge in a society are processed by periodic elections. Between elections, the losers wait to get their chance the next time around, or the one after that. Elections induce peace as they enable intertemporal horizons. Even if one thinks that people care about outcomes rather than procedures, the prospect that parties sympathetic to their interests may gain the reins of government generates hope and induces patience. But electoral democracies are sabotaged from within with an electronic voting system that has been introduced. Manipulation of Electronic Voting Machines and Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail is possible. Many experts in the academia – specifically in the sphere of information technology – believed that this had altered the actual results in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 in India.
There was a mismatch between all-round failures in performance of the government of National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the latter’s victory, surpassing the electoral victory of LS poll 2014. A former head of department of computer science in an IIT in an email message prior to the counting of votes of assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and four other states stated, “Certainly it can be manipulated in a very opaque manner, by bugging the firmware of the machines and it can evade the test runs. If the VVPATs are checked by the voter and all VVPATs are counted then it is as good as ballot paper voting.”
Democracy is perishing in Afghanistan. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Taliban, rulers have been detaining and torturing civilians who are accused of supporting an armed opposition group in the northern Panjshir Province. The HRW in a report revealed that Taliban officials forcibly displaced residents, including Shia Hazara and people associated with the former government, in several provinces as a form of collective punishment. Between 15 August 2021 and 15 February 2022 , over 1,153 civilian casualties, including more than 400 deaths, took place, recorded and documented by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The killings are extra-judicial. Arbitrary detentions, beatings and threats of previous Afghan government officials, former Afghan security personnel, political opponents, journalists, civil society activists and human rights defenders happen indiscriminately. Pushed to the wall, resistance grows defying Taliban guns and deadly weapons. One of such resistance bodies is the National Resistance Front (NRF) which vows to resist Taliban authority in the rugged Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul. It is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the famed late anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, and has thousands of seasoned fighters that include some who had served in the former Afghan National Security Forces.
Destruction of democracies is combatable by non-electoral ways – namely demand for participative democratic processes. But this remains on paper, with the growing power of neo-liberalism. To date citizens in democracies are unable to control public bureaucracies that are supposed to serve them, thus forcing participatory democracy is just a cemetery of failures. The entire field of political economy of development has hurled itself against a brick wall: cross-country regressions. This writer endorses Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s words in his The State and Revolution – “While the State exists, there can be no freedom. When there is freedom there will be no State.”