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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Religion Does Not Mean Peace

Deepak Tripathi

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” — The Bible

“O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace.” — The Qur’an

“Delusion is born in anger.” — The Bhagvad Gita

“Hatred will not cease by hatred, but love alone. This is the ancient law.” — The Dalai Lama

All religions have a message of peace and tolerance. So why are there conflicts involving followers of God? Maybe conflicts have little or nothing to do with religion, and violence by one against the other has another motive. What might it be?

Conflicts may seem driven by religious zealotry, or hatred against the other. Hatred based on one’s belief in cultural superiority over the other. Against minorities perceived to have amassed wealth. Or because one group thinks the other enjoys too much protection. It is often about privilege and wealth. However, wealth is frequently derived from privilege, so it is wealth in the end. Conflicts which are depicted as religious are actually about who controls how much in society.

Edward Said’s 1978 classic Orientalism is an overarching critique of the Christian West’s historical, cultural and political depiction of Islamic societies of the East. According to Said, Orientalism provides ways to rationalize interference by evoking self-serving history by portraying the targeted community as inferior and dangerous. Conflicts that acquire religious overtones often have economic objectives.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is about land and property; partition of British India in 1947 and Hindu-Muslim riots; Buddhist Sinhalese-led burning and looting of Muslim and Hindu Tamil businesses in the capital, Colombo, in 1983 that triggered a 26-year civil war. Lynching of Muslims by extremist Hindu vigilantes in India, ostensibly to protect cows from slaughter and to force a ban on eating meat.

Worse is happening in India’s eastern neighborhood. Since August 25, 2017, more than six hundred thousand mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Their flight has halved the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and quadrupled the number of refugees in Bangladesh within two months.

The United Nations has described this as a crisis on a catastrophic scale. Women, children, old and infirm have given numerous accounts of murder, torture, rape and destruction of Rohingya villages by Myanmar’s military. Thousands, who are stranded, cannot escape. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have said this is ethnic cleansing.

Rohingyas maintain that their indigenous heritage in Myanmar is over a thousand years old, bringing in Arab, Mughal and Portuguese influence. Despite this, they have suffered harsh persecution, first by Myanmar’s military junta, and now under a military-civilian ruling coalition under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

Under the 1982 Burmese nationality law, Rohingyas are denied citizenship, because they are not recognized as one of eight “national races.” Aung San Suu Kyi’s government even refuses to allow the use of the term “Rohingya” and calls them illegal immigrants.

UN investigations have found evidence of incitement of hatred by ultra-nationalist Buddhists against Rohingyas. According to the United Nations special investigator on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the country wants to expel the entire Rohingya population.

Amid a chorus of international criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has very little to say. When she feels compelled to break her silence, she denies there being any refugee problem. She demands that human rights and refugee organizations not use the term “Rohingya” in their reports. In occasional conversations with foreign leaders, she has insisted that the aim of military operations in the country is to clear out terrorists. And she has claimed that the crisis is being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation.

Her remarks point to government claims that a Rohingya rebel group killed a number of border guards and policemen in August. Details of those encounters are sketchy, but very different from the humanitarian crisis in the region, and the price Aung San Suu Kyi is having to pay in lost reputation.

Among those who have pleaded with Suu Kyi to intervene to stop the atrocities, or at least speak out against them, are fellow Nobel laureates, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi remains in alliance with the military which kept her in detention for fifteen years, and Buddhist ultra-nationalist groups.

Sigmund Freud had a point when he said that religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

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Bye bye Thatcherism

In one of the most perceptive commentaries on the outcome of the recent general election in the United Kingdom, Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy) describes it as marking the end of Thatcherism.

After defeating the tired Conservative government, which itself had been in power for 18 years, Tony Blair’s New Labour continued the Thatcherite policies for 13 more years after the 1997 election. Blair was an admirer of the ‘Iron Lady’. Labour’s economic policies, presided over by Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, contributed to a widening gap between rich and poor, despite an array of stealth taxation and the much publicized objective of reducing the gap. The defeat of Brown brings the New Labour project to an end.

The indecisive result of the May 6th election, in which no party won an absolute majority, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (successor to Britain’s old Liberal Party) has formed a new government. Some progressives are lamenting a liberal force in British politics entering a marriage with the party associated with harsh economic policies in recent memory. They are warning that the Liberal Democrats will have to pay a high price for their decision. The prospect of being in power for the first time since 1945 was certainly very tempting for the Liberals.

But, as Anthony Barnett argues, what we have is a ‘distinctly more progressive government’ in the United Kingdom. Labour’s re-election under Brown would have meant a continuation of the same failed policies at a time of unprecedented economic and social problems. The British electorate could not make a clear decision about who should govern. But the people clearly did not want the old order to continue.  

The two coalition partners are having to compromise on policies. But the Liberal Democrats, despite their 57 seats out of a total of 650 seats in parliament, will have 5 cabinet ministers and nearly two dozen in junior posts. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is the new deputy prime minister, working with the Conservative prime minister David Cameron.

Liberal Democrats in the cabinet are: Nick Clegg (deputy prime minister), David Laws (treasury secretary, in effect deputy chancellor of the exchequer), Vince Cable (business), Chris Huhne (environment and climate change) and Danny Alexander (Scottish secretary).

The appointment of Kenneth Clarke, an old stalwart on the Conservative Party’s liberal wing, as justice secretary will be welcomed by many people across the country who have been highly critical of the erosion of civil liberties. And Baroness Warsi, the first Muslim cabinet minister, becomes the Conservative Party chairman. Her appointment is intended to assure Britain’s Muslim community.  

The new coalition government will be tougher on the bankers and more focused on helping the very poor with the promise to gradually raise the limit at which people begin to pay the income tax. It is committed to ending Labour’s assault on civil liberties, although, like President Obama, it will not investigate Britain’s use of torture since 9/11. Some kind of electoral reform re-enters the arena of constitutional debate. And the introduction of greener policies is in prospect.  

But the most pressing task for the new government is to deal with the economic crisis. Public expenditure must be cut drastically. The consequence will be many government workers losing jobs. It will add to the unemployment and social discontent. The Conservative-Liberal government says it is committed to governing Britain for the full five-year term of the current parliament. The road ahead is going to be rocky.

The Significance of India’s Election

Deepak Tripathi

(ZNet, May 23, 2009)

The results of the month-long general election in India are noteworthy in several respects. The political shift they represent and their possible effects for the domestic and foreign policies of one of the leading emerging powers in the world will be analyzed over the coming days and months. Here, it is worth looking at some notable aspects to emerge and what they mean. For they will be indicators of the likely conduct of India and what to expect from the country in the next few years.

The United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress Party, has retained power. Its performance has defied many predictions. With over two-hundred seats won by Congress alone, the alliance finished up just short of an absolute majority in the 543 contested seats for the lower house of parliament. Such a performance is enough to attract support from smaller parties. The governing alliance should have a safe passage through the next five years.

The Congress leadership will be relieved for two other reasons. First, the governing coalition will not have to depend on the Marxists as had been the case in the last parliament. Second, the Marxists themselves have suffered heavy reverses this time and their strength is much diminished. To a considerable degree, this outcome is of their own making. They turned on themselves as the 2009 election approached. Their gamble to confront the governing alliance over India’s relations with the West and over economic policy failed. More

Moral Crisis

Deepak Tripathi

(ZNet, May 13, 2009)

“The roots of violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principles.”  

                                                                                                                                                                  – Mahatma Gandhi

 

Rather like the state of the world today. We see violence in many forms, of which the latest is the scandal revealed of the ‘expenses bonanza’ of British MPs using public money to maintain their own lifestyle. This at a time when millions of their fellow citizens struggle to cope with the economic meltdown.

Ordinary people lose jobs, their homes, their possessions; children go to bed hungry, their education suffers. After a long period of posturing by the rulers and their clamor to punish ‘benefit cheats’, the day of reckoning has arrived. Britain’s political parties are on the defensive not seen in living memory.

Recent disclosures in the Daily Telegraph newspaper make clear that the ‘benefit regime’ for British MPs, under the rules which they themselves made, had been evolving for almost thirty years. Under the regime, large amounts of state money were claimed for gardening and for food; private homes were frequently bought and sold, in one case three times in a single year, pocketing the money gained and avoiding the capital gains tax; lavish furniture, clothes, pet food, bought at taxpayers’ expense. More