Democracy’s failures filling the streets

 17 Jul 2013 - 5:05

What the protests are defining is the appeal of political community in old and new democracies.

 

By Pankaj Mishra

Historians examining our era will marvel at the proliferation of street protests around the world. Blessed with hindsight, they will probably not struggle as much as we do to grasp their broader meaning — one that goes beyond specific provocations in each case (an increase in bus fares in Brazil, or the destruction of a landmark in Turkey).

On the face of it, protests against the creeping authoritarianism of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have next to nothing in common with demonstrations in India, where a quasi-Gandhian activist proclaimed a “second freedom struggle,” or Egypt’s Tahrir Square, site of a “second revolution” against the elected government of Mohammed Mursi.

The Turks appear to have even less in common with the tens of thousands of Israelis calling for “social justice” in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, or the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who, after the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, turned out, in their country’s biggest demonstrations since the late 1960s, to protest against an incompetent and mendacious government.

Local grievances and socioeconomic variations must not be suppressed in our eagerness to find broad patterns. Protesters in Greece and Spain live in nations that are being steadily impoverished. Those in India, Israel and Turkey belong to countries that have enjoyed high economic growth in recent years.

The multiparty political systems and regular elections passed off as democracy have failed to mollify the restless millions — most vividly in Egypt. Indeed, if there is anything that binds protesters in different socioeconomic contexts, it is their shared frustration at being inadequately represented by elected governments.

For too long, merely formal and procedural aspects of democracy — elections, legislatures — have been confused with the thing itself. Not surprisingly, these fail to satisfy increasingly politicised peoples who have come to identify their governments in recent years with business elites, and with “business-friendly” policies rather than public services.

Their governments, too, are helpless to a certain degree. Incessantly mobile labour and capital have eroded the power of national governments to devise policies aimed at creating an equitable society. Their frantic courting of investors and businessmen helps create the popular conviction that, according to a contributor to the well-known socialist tool Forbes, “the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class.”

This belief became widespread at the end of a long cycle of high growth when a few people grew very rich and public services — education, health, security — were privatised to an unusual degree. For a while, the gated community in large parts of India seemed like a new political unit after the city-state, the nation and the empire. The secessionists or sovereign individuals inside them seemed to have attained the highest stage of liberal democracy: emancipation from politics. But even the denizens of gated republics, it turns out, need the state to build and maintain roads and airports, supply power, and control rising crime rates.

As for the rest, who have yet to benefit from global capitalism, the chances of stable employment, or even affordable education, look even more remote against the background of a severe economic crisis. Hence, the classless quality of the protests where the rich and the poor commingle: their rage comes from a shared feeling of being cheated.

That said, the protesters phrase their grievances narrowly. Indian activists denouncing corruption or police brutality cannot risk any fellow-feeling for Kashmiris living under a military occupation; the ideals of justice invoked in Tel Aviv do not accommodate the Palestinians; the Turks in Taksim Square are far from pressing for Kurdish autonomy; and the protesting rich are not exactly proposing to share the fruits of capitalism with the poor.

The protesters are not even united domestically. That they could enter a new era of transnational “solidarity,” as the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek hopes, looks like a pipe dream at best. Capital and labor have been successfully globalised; dissenters must settle for being globally televised. But what the protests are defining is the appeal of political community in both old and new democracies — the underrated satisfaction of exercising one’s faculties of speech and action, and of communicating with other people’s experiences.

What we witness today are citizens revolting against their own previous apathy. It remains to be seen what this fresh infusion of the masses into political life amounts to. But we have already made some progress when democracy begins to mean something more than routine elections and the retreat from political life. WP-BLOOMBERG

What the protests are defining is the appeal of political community in old and new democracies.

 

By Pankaj Mishra

Historians examining our era will marvel at the proliferation of street protests around the world. Blessed with hindsight, they will probably not struggle as much as we do to grasp their broader meaning — one that goes beyond specific provocations in each case (an increase in bus fares in Brazil, or the destruction of a landmark in Turkey).

On the face of it, protests against the creeping authoritarianism of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have next to nothing in common with demonstrations in India, where a quasi-Gandhian activist proclaimed a “second freedom struggle,” or Egypt’s Tahrir Square, site of a “second revolution” against the elected government of Mohammed Mursi.

The Turks appear to have even less in common with the tens of thousands of Israelis calling for “social justice” in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, or the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who, after the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, turned out, in their country’s biggest demonstrations since the late 1960s, to protest against an incompetent and mendacious government.

Local grievances and socioeconomic variations must not be suppressed in our eagerness to find broad patterns. Protesters in Greece and Spain live in nations that are being steadily impoverished. Those in India, Israel and Turkey belong to countries that have enjoyed high economic growth in recent years.

The multiparty political systems and regular elections passed off as democracy have failed to mollify the restless millions — most vividly in Egypt. Indeed, if there is anything that binds protesters in different socioeconomic contexts, it is their shared frustration at being inadequately represented by elected governments.

For too long, merely formal and procedural aspects of democracy — elections, legislatures — have been confused with the thing itself. Not surprisingly, these fail to satisfy increasingly politicised peoples who have come to identify their governments in recent years with business elites, and with “business-friendly” policies rather than public services.

Their governments, too, are helpless to a certain degree. Incessantly mobile labour and capital have eroded the power of national governments to devise policies aimed at creating an equitable society. Their frantic courting of investors and businessmen helps create the popular conviction that, according to a contributor to the well-known socialist tool Forbes, “the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class.”

This belief became widespread at the end of a long cycle of high growth when a few people grew very rich and public services — education, health, security — were privatised to an unusual degree. For a while, the gated community in large parts of India seemed like a new political unit after the city-state, the nation and the empire. The secessionists or sovereign individuals inside them seemed to have attained the highest stage of liberal democracy: emancipation from politics. But even the denizens of gated republics, it turns out, need the state to build and maintain roads and airports, supply power, and control rising crime rates.

As for the rest, who have yet to benefit from global capitalism, the chances of stable employment, or even affordable education, look even more remote against the background of a severe economic crisis. Hence, the classless quality of the protests where the rich and the poor commingle: their rage comes from a shared feeling of being cheated.

That said, the protesters phrase their grievances narrowly. Indian activists denouncing corruption or police brutality cannot risk any fellow-feeling for Kashmiris living under a military occupation; the ideals of justice invoked in Tel Aviv do not accommodate the Palestinians; the Turks in Taksim Square are far from pressing for Kurdish autonomy; and the protesting rich are not exactly proposing to share the fruits of capitalism with the poor.

The protesters are not even united domestically. That they could enter a new era of transnational “solidarity,” as the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek hopes, looks like a pipe dream at best. Capital and labor have been successfully globalised; dissenters must settle for being globally televised. But what the protests are defining is the appeal of political community in both old and new democracies — the underrated satisfaction of exercising one’s faculties of speech and action, and of communicating with other people’s experiences.

What we witness today are citizens revolting against their own previous apathy. It remains to be seen what this fresh infusion of the masses into political life amounts to. But we have already made some progress when democracy begins to mean something more than routine elections and the retreat from political life. WP-BLOOMBERG