Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Politics 2.0?

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

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