July 31, 2021 4:07:17 am
How do democracies die?
The old question has a new urgency because global surveys are everywhere reporting dipping confidence in democracy and marked jumps in citizens’ frustrations with government corruption and incompetence. Young people are the least satisfied with democracy — much more disaffected than previous generations at the same age. Most worrying are the survey findings for India, which is fast developing a reputation as the world’s largest failing democracy. In its Democracy Report 2020, Sweden’s V-Dem Institute noted that India “has almost lost its status as a democracy”. It ranked India below Sierra Leone, Guatemala and Hungary.
Things are serious. Not since the 1920s and 1930s has democracy faced so much trouble. That period saw the destruction of most parliamentary democracies. Only 11 survived. Since then, political scientists have pointed out, democracies have wilted in two connected ways. Some have suffered sudden death, in puffs of smoke and rat-a-tat gunfire. But death by cuts is more common.
Democide is usually a slow-motion and messy process. Wild rumours and talk of conspiracies flourish. Street protests and outbreaks of uncontrolled violence happen. Fears of civil unrest spread. The armed forces grow agitated. Emergency rule is declared but things eventually come to the boil. As the government totters, the army moves from its barracks onto the streets to quell unrest and take control. Democracy is finally buried in a grave it slowly dug for itself.
During the past generation, around three-quarters of democracies met their end in these ways. The military coup d’états against the elected governments of Egypt (2013), Thailand (2014), Myanmar and Tunisia (2021) are obvious examples.
Less obvious is the way democracies are destroyed by social emergencies. Think of things this way: Democracy is much more than pressing a button or marking a box on a ballot paper. It goes beyond the mathematical certitude of election results and majority rule. It’s not reducible to lawful rule through independent courts or attending local public meetings and watching breaking news stories scrawled across a screen. Democracy is a whole way of life.
It is freedom from hunger, humiliation and violence. Democracy is public disgust for callous employers who mistreat workers paid a pittance for unblocking stinking sewers and scraping s**t from latrines. Democracy is saying no to every form of human and non-human indignity. It is respect for women, tenderness with children, and access to jobs that bring satisfaction and sufficient reward to live comfortably.
In a healthy democracy, citizens are not forced to travel in buses and trains like livestock, wade through dirty water from overrunning sewers, or breathe poisonous air. Democracy is public and private respect for different ways of living. It is humility: The willingness to admit that impermanence renders all life vulnerable, that in the end nobody is invincible, and that ordinary lives are never ordinary. Democracy is equal access to decent medical care and sympathy for those who have fallen behind. It’s the rejection of the dogma that things can’t be changed because they’re “naturally” fixed in stone. Democracy is thus insubordination: The refusal to put up with everyday forms of snobbery and toad-eating, idolatry and lying, bulls**t and bullying.
Fine principles, you may say, but what happens to a democracy when successive governments allow their social footings to be damaged, or destroyed? The shortest answer: Democracy suffers a slow-motion social death.
Especially when a constitution promises its citizens justice, liberty and equality, the splintering and shattering of social life induce a sense of legal powerlessness among citizens. The judiciary becomes vulnerable to cynicism, political meddling and state capture. Massive imbalances of wealth, chronic violence, famine and unevenly distributed life chances also make a mockery of the ethical principle that in a democracy people can live as citizen partners of equal social worth. If democracy is the self-government of social equals who freely choose their representatives, then large-scale social suffering renders the democratic principle utterly utopian. Or it turns into a grotesque farce.
Domestic violence, rotten health care, widespread feelings of social unhappiness, and daily shortages of food and housing destroy people’s dignity. Indignity is a form of generalised social violence. It kills the spirit and substance of democracy. When famished children cry themselves to sleep at night, when millions of women feel unsafe and multitudes of migrant workers living on slave wages are forced to flee for their lives in a medical emergency, the victims are unlikely to believe themselves worthy of rights, or capable as citizens of fighting for their own entitlements, or for the rights of others. Ground down by social indignity, the powerless are robbed of self-esteem.
No doubt, citizens’ ability to strike back, to deliver millions of mutinies against the rich and powerful, is in principle never to be underestimated in a democracy. But the brute fact is social indignity undermines citizens’ capacity to take an active interest in public affairs, and to check and humble and wallop the powerful. Citizens are forced to put up with state and corporate restrictions on basic public freedoms. They must get used to big money, surveillance, baton charges, preventive detentions, and police killings.
But the scandal doesn’t end there. For when millions of citizens are daily victimised by social indignities, the powerful are granted a licence to rule arbitrarily. Millions of humiliated people become sitting targets. Some at the bottom and many in the middle and upper classes turn their backs on public affairs. They bellyache in unison against politicians and politics. But the disaffected do nothing. Complacency and cynical indifference breed voluntary servitude. Or the disgruntled begin to yearn for political redeemers and steel-fisted government. The powerless and the privileged join hands to wish for a messiah who promises to defend the poor, protect the rich, drive out the demons of corruption and disorder, and purify the soul of “the people”.
When this happens, demagoguery comes into season. Citizen disempowerment encourages boasting and bluster among powerful leaders who stop caring about the niceties of public integrity and power-sharing. They grow convinced they can turn lead into gold. But their hubris has costs. When democratically elected governments cease to be held accountable by a society weakened by poor health, low morale, and joblessness, demagogues are prone to blindness and ineptitude. They make careless, foolish, and incompetent decisions that reinforce social inequities. They license big market and government players — poligarchs — to decide things. Those who exercise power in government ministries, corporations, and public/private projects aren’t subject to democratic rules of public accountability. Like weeds in an untended garden, corruption flourishes. Almost everybody must pay bribes to access basic public services. The powerful stop caring about the niceties of public integrity. Institutional democracy failure happens.
Finally, in the absence of redistributive public welfare policies that guarantee sufficient food, shelter, security, education, and health care to the downtrodden, democracy morphs into a mere façade. Elections still happen and there’s abundant talk of “the people”. But democracy begins to resemble a fancy mask worn by wealthy political predators. Self-government is killed. Strong-armed rule by rich and powerful poligarchs in the name of “the people” follows. Cheer-led by lapdog media, phantom democracy becomes a reality. Society is subordinated to the state. People are expected to behave as loyal subjects, or else suffer the consequences. A thoroughly 21st century type of top-down rule called despotism triumphs.
Might this be how democracy dies in India?
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2021 under the title ‘Phantom democracy’. John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and the WZB (Berlin). He is the co-author (with Debasish Roy Chowdhury) of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism (Oxford University Press, 2021)
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