Book Review: How Democracy Ends

New York Journal of Books

Since the days of Athenian democracy two and a half millennia ago, the idea of “rule of the people” has acquired many versions. Under the extraordinary system of governance in the fifth to fourth century BCE, all male citizens of Athens had equal political rights, took part in direct democracy, lived by the decisions they themselves made, and by random selection were chosen to serve in the institutions that governed them.

Today, direct democracy is rare, replaced in most countries by a version of democracy whereby citizens, male and female, elect their representatives who govern on their behalf.

The collapse of Soviet communism heralded a new democratic spring in countries which had been under Moscow’s domination. But whereas democracy blossomed in Europe as the 20th century came to an end, the Arab Spring in the new century proved short-lived before it was crushed.

These examples inform us about the power as well as fragility of democracy.

Recent events in the United States, a number of European countries and India have raised serious doubts about the health of democracy even in the most advanced nations.

Potentially illegal data collection, targeting specific groups to influence them to vote in a certain way, and widespread suspicions of Russian interference in the American and European elections have poisoned the environment. Trust in public institutions and their ability to ensure free and fair elections has been a major casualty. Warnings are rife that democracy as a system of governance is under threat. Are we approaching the end of democracy? It is a question increasingly being asked.

How Democracy Ends

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, raises the same question in his new book How Democracy Ends (Basic Books, 2018). Since his PhD thesis, which came out as Pluralism and the Personality of the State (CUP, 1997), Runciman has published several books about plurality in political systems and the crisis of trust in democracies.

The publication of How Democracy Ends coincides with a particularly turbulent period for Western democracies. Runciman describes it as democracy’s midlife crisis. Various democratic societies are at different points in their lives. But there is compelling evidence that the future is going to be different.

The book, saturated with information, is a study of the decline of democracy after its most successful century. Runciman explores the factors that make the current crisis unlike those democracy has faced when it was younger.

First, he maintains that “political violence is not what it was for earlier generations, either in scale or character.” Western societies are “fundamentally peaceful societies, which means that our most destructive impulses manifest themselves in other ways.”

Second is the change in the threat of catastrophe. Whereas the prospect of disaster once tended to produce a “galvanizing effect” on people to take action, now the effect is “stultifying”—a condition in which it all seems futile.

Third, the information technology revolution has made us dependent on communication and information-sharing which we cannot control or understand.

With these suppositions, Runciman has organized his work around three themes endangering democracy: coup, catastrophe, and technological takeover. His insights into challenges that confront democracies today are compelling. His suggestion that the threat to them is not from outside, but from subversion and power grab within is intriguing.

That populism breeds in democratic societies when conditions of economic distress, technological change and growing inequality exist is evident, though the absence of war is among those conditions is questionable. Attrition and low-level conflict do afflict democracies. And democracies have shown a propensity to go and fight wars abroad.

Catastrophe can strike in one of many forms. Runciman writes that “modern civilization could destroy itself by weapons of mass destruction, by poisoning itself or it could allow itself to be infected by evil.” Climate change, artificial intelligence or technological advances resulting in extensive calamity if technology falls under the control of ruthless individuals—all threaten us.

That the power of computers by pressing a button could bring the end of democracy no longer belongs to science fiction. Robots could wreak havoc in our societies if they fell into the wrong hands. Humans might not be able to stop robots once such machines went on a destructive spree.

As Runciman puts it in the final section of his book, the appeal of modern democracy is that it offers dignity to its inhabitants with an expectation that their views will be taken seriously by politicians. And it delivers long-term benefits. But with rapid changes taking place in societies at different stages of development, what alternatives are there to twentieth century democratic systems?

The author presents three models in the end. First, Chinese-type pragmatic authoritarianism which offers personal benefits underwritten by the state, but at the cost of opportunities of self-expression. Second, epistocracy, the rule of the knowers, arguing that the right to take part in political decision-making depends on whether you know what you are doing. The model is directly opposed to democracy in which each citizen has equal rights.

Third, societies offering liberation by technology—societies in which some people, those who can afford, will try to buck death without any help from the state.

How Democracy Ends is a thorough study of democracy and its trials and tribulations on approaching midlife. Inhabitants have enjoyed its fruits: freedom, prosperity, and longevity. Democracy offers us opportunities to do exciting things.

But it also brings stability and boredom and as time passes, fear that it may not continue. If it is not going to continue, what will our future be? Runciman, in this book, has made sweeping observations about democracy in the past and present. He has raised intriguing questions about the future in imaginative ways. The book is highly recommended for general readers, undergraduates and professionals.

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The Making of the Egyptian People’s Revolution

Foreign Policy Journal (February 9, 2011)

These are days of reckoning for Hosni Mubarak and those associated with the Egyptian regime in and outside the country. Outpouring of a million or more people in Cairo, in Alexandria, Suez and across the country repeats a familiar lesson. Once people living under a suppressive regime have broken the fear barrier, the masses have realized their collective strength and resolved to end their long nightmare. We are witnessing a phenomenon that is irreversible.

People have lived through atrocities and pain, economic and political hardships without any obvious recourse, distrust of their rulers and pessimism about their future long enough. They have reflected on what they must endure if things remained unchanged, examined their own worth and concluded that the system cheats them in every way. Their rage has broken the threshold of tolerance. They have decided that the existence of permanent humiliation is not worthy of continuation. Then the point of inevitability of a people’s uprising has been reached.

The inevitability of a revolution, once the dynamic has reached that point, is not in doubt. However, exact prophecy is more tricky. Juan Cole warns against the temptation to compare Egypt’s popular uprising to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution (Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979, Informed Comment, February 2, 2011). A number of observers have made alarmist predictions that the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. radical Islamists) would take over power if Egypt’s military-dominated regime is swept away by popular revolt. What a betrayal of eighty million people?

The Muslim Brotherhood is neither a dominant entity in Egyptian polity nor is the movement in collaboration with the radical movements like the Islamic Jihad. There are secular, left-wing and right-wing parties, religious forces and labor activists in considerable numbers. Contrary to national elections and referendums to extend military-led rule under President Hosni Mubarak over three decades, the outcome of a free and fair election, if it were held, cannot be predetermined. However, with more than twenty parties, the scenario of a radical Islamist seizer of power looks unlikely.

Anti-Americanism in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, is a different matter. Political machination by the ruling elites in and outside Egypt to keep the established character of regime in place will only serve to reinforce the anti-American feeling. Egypt’s uprising has both differences from, and parallels with, earlier civil revolts elsewhere. The local context of the events in Egypt is different. However, it is important to recognize what these events mean for the United States, Israel and their strategic designs in the Middle East. They mean something akin to what the Iranian Revolution meant back in 1978-79.

In the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, a weak American president Jimmy Carter in a moment of fatal misjudgment, described Iran, under a brutal regime, as a “free country” and an “oasis of peace and stability.” As the current Egyptian uprising started two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the regime in Cairo was “stable.” That only days after Clinton was moved to acknowledge the region being battered by a “perfect storm” demonstrated a crisis in Washington’s understanding of the Middle East similar to the one three decades before. America’s misjudgment and confusion about how to deal with the crisis does not stop there. The way ahead is littered with political landmines.

President Obama’s soaring rhetoric proved much stronger than his leadership in office. Today he looks like a weak president in the mold of Jimmy Carter. In July 2009, he embarked on his Middle East political journey in Cairo with a celebrated speech seeking “a new beginning” with Muslims based on mutual interests and mutual respect, justice and tolerance. That rhetorical promise faces a severe test. Obama seems clueless while American policy is hijacked by hawkish secretaries of state and defense, and uniformed military top brass openly meddling in Egypt’s affairs; and voices from the United States and Israel declare utter disrespect for the Egyptian people and the reasons for their uprising. Obama demands that a transition “must be quick, must be peaceful and must start now.” President Mubarak refuses to resign, promises to go in September 2011 at the end of his current term (thirty year in all) and offers instead committees to discuss reforms and bribes in the form of pay rises.

On February 8 the biggest demonstrations take place since the protests began on January 25. The masses reject Mubarak’s “concessions.” Egypt’s emerging strongman Omar Suleiman, whose intelligence service for years tortured his own people and those the United States sent for “extraordinary rendition” during the “war on terror,” declares that Egypt is “not ready for democracy.” And Obama’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, pays fulsome compliments to the Egyptian military for showing extraordinary restraint.

No matter what comes out of Egypt’s tumultuous events, the U.S. Empire is collapsing. The Egyptian people have all but ensured the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the prospects of a Mubarak dynasty. However, this is only a partial victory. The real victory will be democracy. As machinations in Israel, the United States and its European allies continue, that real victory is not certain – yet. Is it to happen soon? Or the people’s will to be thwarted – again? The point of inevitability in the Egyptian uprising has arrived. Attempts to cheat them this time will leave a legacy of anger and bitterness could have consequences far more serious and long term than the events in Iran in 1979.

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