With the world’s apparent disengagement from politics-as-usual, it is tempting to think that traditional politics is dying and there is something new happening. Broadly, there is, but it may not be quite what we think.
In 2011, a movement called Occupy was born. It was a grassroots political movement –inspired by the Spanish “Indignados” and the so-called “Arab Spring” – which decided to occupy major public spaces to protest at the lack of “social and economic equality” in twenty-first century society. Two years on, it seems that traditional politics has rarely been so out of favour.
This is not just evidenced by such examples of “direct action” politics. It is backed up by voter turnout nosediving at recent elections and a long-term decline in the membership of political parties across the developed world.
Young people, not surprisingly, often prefer to be inspired by exciting mass movements with broad, if rather fuzzy, objectives. It beats sitting in stuffy party meetings, or knocking on doors to ask residents if they are happy that their bins have been emptied on time.
On the other hand while we should be glad that the world’s youth seems to be turning towards some kind of political participation rather than apathy – if of a less traditional sort – this form can also sometime seem a little directionless. One has to ask oneself exactly what has Occupy achieved to date? It has “raised awareness” about “issues”? So what?
Although one might agree that the “Indignados” had a point about the unappealing state of Spanish politics, Spain is at least a pretty free and democratic state. Seen from outside, these things are surely relative.
One imagines that people in, say, a number of despotic African states would look on such things and smile a wry smile; that such manifestations are the tantrums of young, privileged people who do not really appreciate what they have. As do, I am sure, older generations of Europeans who lived through a world war. Democracy, as Churchill observed, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
Furthermore, while it is easy for the Occupy, and others, to argue that traditional politics is somehow reaching the end of its natural life and is about to be replaced by something else, no-one is really quite sure what. More importantly, it is a conclusion for which history shows little support.
Representative democracy, when accompanied by a state where citizens’ freedom is valued, has shown itself historically to be surprisingly robust. Longstanding democracies such as the UK or Switzerland have found their democracies to be remarkably stable over recent centuries. And most others have only found their democracies, once established, disturbed only by outside threats to their way of life, like the US Civil War, or by massive economic shocks, such as those present in Europe in the 1930s.
Indeed, one of the remarkable and largely unsung advances of the 20th century was the spread of democracy in the post-war world, a trend of which the Arab Spring is only the most recent example. Countries all over Asia, Europe and South America converted themselves to the democratic way. For example, with the democratisation of India in 1947, what now constitutes a sixth of the world’s population moved to democracy overnight. And if China ever does, well, that will surely sound the death-knell for truly totalitarian states.
And the disengagement from politics in the developed world, as shown by reduced voter turnout, is clear: but it also tends to be a cyclical phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, people are more likely to protest by not voting, or taking to the streets, in times of economic downturn; just look at the the 1980s, or the 1960s.
In short, there are good historical reasons for us to be optimistic about the future of representative politics. However, there are also a couple of negatives of which we would be wise to take note.
One major phenomenon which has risen in recent years is the advent of the “pseudo-democracy” – democracies with poor regard for freedom and human rights, or where there are strong suspicions that elections are not entirely free. It is not hard to create a pseudo-democracy by limiting free speech, threats, coercion, torture and so on. Elections can also be “fiddled”: not just by tampering with the voting mechanisms and electoral reporting, as countries such as Venezuela are strongly suspected of, but by electoral bribes, intimidation, non-secret ballot and unequal access to media.
The point is that a vote, as with a country’s free speech, is either free or it is not. There are no in-betweens. The minute you make either one uneven between one individual and the next, you are no longer a proper democracy. And the worst thing about a pseudo-democracy is that it is always in danger of slipping back into authoritarianism, as is happening in Venezuela, Turkey and Russia; and which already happened in Iran a long time ago. There is now going on a vital battle between democratic and nondemocratic elements in all these countries and, in most, the non-democratic elements currently have the upper hand.
The other negative we might take into account is that while democracy has been found to be a remarkably hardy plant over the long-term, it is also subject to interludes of non-democracy. The current generations in Western Europe, the US and many other countries are the first to not have known a major war. It is easy for us to forget that something might yet happen in our lifetimes which changes that extraordinarily fortunate, historically unusual state.
So, we might risk making a few predictions for the future. The first is that enthusiasm for traditional democracy in developed countries is likely to recover as their economies do; people will obviously take to the streets less when their pockets and bellies are full.
The second is that in the very long term, such democracy is still rather likely to gradually take hold in all countries. However in the long term, as economist John Maynard Keynes wisely noted, we are all dead.
And the third is that pseudo-democracy is likely to continue and perhaps extend, although this will be a negative trend, where certainly a number of such countries will stop being anything more than token democracies. Chinese citizens, after all, get to vote: the crashing irony is that there is only one party.
In short: in some less enlightened parts of the world, there is already a politics 2.0, which is a rather unpleasant and disturbing phenomenon. A half-democracy, in reality, is no democracy at all. But for most of us, politics 2.0 could in the end, perhaps surprisingly, turn out to look suspiciously like politics 1.0. And perhaps that is no bad thing.
This post first published at Subterraneans, a new magazine available for download here