Democracy has suffered recently from the failings of its strongest advocates. I will argue here that its future hope lies in rescuing democracy from faux democrats by strengthening the institutional infrastructure for a populism based on participation, accountability, responsiveness and transparency.
Recently, The Economist has published an essay on the decline of democracy. I generally do not agree with their ideological stance, which usually manifests itself in support of neoliberal economic and neocon foreign policies of the western (NA-UK-EU) alliance. But I do agree with their acknowledgement that democracy has been subverted by the rise of corporate power, and its capture of what is supposedly a democratic state; and by US interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine in the name of promoting democracy; and finally by the growing internal legitimacy of authoritarian capitalist states like China and Russia. Democracy has also been subverted in the EU, where referendums have been rejected when they went against the rule of the EU Commissioners, and elected politicians have been replaced by unelected austerity commissioners when the financial elite demanded it (e.g., Italy, Greece). The Economist essay, to its credit, acknowledges a general disillusionment with democratic politics in many countries which are still regarded - with diminishing conviction - as strong democracies. Yet at the same time, there are strong democratic impulses present in countries such as India, where many regard it as having already failed.
Take a closer look at what is happening in the US, which has appointed itself the global guardian of democracy, and arrogates to itself the right to spread democracy and freedom, even if delivered through cruise missiles, cluster bombs, drones, or through the sword of a beheading jihadist, under the pretext of the R2P (Right to Protect) doctrine whose latest exponent is Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN. Their serial involvement in catastrophic wars all over the world are giving rise to a state focused on "national security"in the name of fighting "terrorism". This is creating enormous economic and political pressures within the country, to which most people seem blind or indifferent or apathetic, and about whose main trends there is no agreement even among the politically savvy. As far as I as can tell - and I'm certainly not the only one - the US is turning into a plutocratic oligarchy, run by and for corporations and banks. The legislature is by and large bought up by them. What economists call "regulatory capture" (aka the "revolving door" between regulators and industry) has made it impossible to deter widespread criminality, as the cases of HSBC and JP Morgan Chase demonstrate. Ordinary people are getting shafted, the police are increasingly outrageous in their dealing with the public who pay their salaries, and the prisons are already housing the largest proportion of the population in the world. The state is spying on everybody on a scale that would have made the Stasi in East Germany envious. The same is true of the UK, though perhaps to a lesser extent. How can democracy flourish in such a climate, when the two prime examples – even if self-declared ones – are so far in practice from practicing the democracy they preach unceasingly to the rest of the world?
In India, we have an elite full of admiration for "development" with fascist tendencies, while the masses are the only force likely to keep the country from turning fascist. Despite all the corruption, injustice and horrendous inequalities of power and privilege, the people who believe most in the power of the ballot are the "uneducated" masses, whereas the disillusionment with democracy is greatest among the English-speaking, Twittering, Facebook-crazy elite of "educated" engineers, MBA'd business executives, doctors, lawyers and media professionals, who openly express admiration for the next great sectarian and fascist politician to hit India - Narendra Modi, our next Prime Minister.
Another example of an elite-dominated democracy is Turkey. It was long believed that only a westernised technocratically "educated" elite can save the country from chaos. That clearly didn't help, since the westernised educated secular elite was also unable to entirely shed the authoritarianism inherited from its Ottoman past, and failed to hear the voice of common people. It's common to hear them express contempt for the "uneducated". The AKP - having spread the welfare among the previously disenfranchised masses resistant to a secular, westernised version of modernity, and having used the process of membership (now all but abandoned) in a more democratic EU to remove the power of the military - have now given voice to a Muslim bourgeoisie which wants to redefine what it means to be modern. But the political culture of Turkey has not entirely shed its Ottoman roots, and the authoritarianism of the secular military elite has now been replaced by that of the AKP. This has begun to alienate the people who initially benefited economically from AKP policies, and were aspiring to having a greater voice. The Gezi protests and events since then demonstrate that It's still very easy for powerful figures like Erdogan to revert to what I call Ottoman authoritarianism (not Paşa this time, but Büyük Usta), because the culture of anti-authoritarian populism remains weak and unsupported by institutions and laws.
On the other hand, state-controlled capitalist societies like China and Russia are far from democratic, but seem to have achieved a high degree of internal legitimacy by sharing the national wealth with the public, even if they are run by unaccountable and powerful technocratic elites. This has not prevented the rise of a plutocracy, and internal pressures and possibilities of conflict remain, and these do erupt from time to time. It remains to be seen whether this alternative formation (the authoritarian capitalist state) is historically viable in the long run.
With the decay of Anglo-American models of liberal capitalism, and the flourishing of authoritarian but apparently prosperous forms of state capitalism in Eurasia and west Asia at the same time, people are drawing what I believe is the wrong lesson - it's time to ditch democracy.
I can understand - but do not sympathise with - this weakening of faith in democracy, because as far as I can tell, democracy has mainly been understood as the political order that allows "free-market" capitalism to flourish. But as we are seeing, there is no such thing as a "free market". Real world markets are nearly always managed strategically by the players and regulated by the state. If the players "capture" the state ideologically and financially, then you get a market rigged in favour of the players, who will regard any attempt to curtail their irresponsible freedom to manage the markets as an attack on liberty. A democracy that is based on a notion of liberty that only recognises the freedom of the dominant players in markets, and leaves no room for other substantive freedoms and some basic forms of social justice for the rest, is bound to be fragile, and open to abuse by the dominant players. This chokes off freedom for all those who do not serve the interests of that closed circle. It results in what has come to be called crony capitalism. But genuine democracy can be designed to prevent it. The so-called Golden Age of capitalism in the so-called West post-WW2 was also a time when a healthy countervailing power prevailed at least domestically against the power of capital.
I don't think we should give up on democracy, but work towards creating the conditions for its flourishing. The essential feature of democracy is that ordinary individuals should have the power and the opportunity to make public decisions on matters that affect their private decisions, while respecting the dignity and integrity of all other individuals, including those who may be part of a minority on any public issue. In my view there are four essential conditions for this rather demanding feature to be realised. These are participation in public life for ordinary citizens beyond just voting once every now and then; accountability and responsiveness of those who have power to the people on whose behalf they exercise it; and transparency of processes through which power is exercised.
Now these four conditions require vigilance, hard work at understanding the issues and formulating good arguments, patience in taking seriously positions that one disagrees with, and above all, education, so perhaps they are not "realistic". The fact is that even though there are no perfectly democratic societies, some societies have come much closer to these ideals than others. And the process of moving towards greater substantive democracy (in my fourfold sense) rather than simply formal (electoral) democracy is long and messy.
A liberal capitalist order is like a well-designed garden without a gardener: eventually the freedom to flourish allows some plants to take over and choke the beautiful flowers and trees bearing nourishing fruit. The people using the garden need to understand that freedom to enjoy the garden and its products and beauty requires a gardener that can tend the garden and keep the weeds and other more useful but fast growing plants under control. The gardener too is a servant of those who employ him, and can't be allowed to get away with planting anything he pleases. If the gardener is to serve the people, rather than an unaccountable elite, then the people need to understand how the gardener works, and share some of his knowledge of gardening, and should even participate collectively in maintaining the garden.
The trouble with most capitalist democracies is that they have turned out to be too weak to prevent unaccountable and opaque but economically powerful institutions (mainly corporations) from usurping political power, to the point where even the media - which are supposed to inform the public and keep the state transparent and accountable - have basically become the hand-maidens of power. Ordinary people feel disenfranchised by their inability to influence the outcomes that affect them, and confused by the liberal rhetoric of politicians claiming mendaciously to be protecting the interests of their constituents. Meanwhile the financial and ancillary elites are seen to be immune from legal sanction for their crimes, and impervious to the suffering that their "freedom" has imposed on the rest.
Any substantive and meaningful democracy needs to have a strong element of populism, rather than reliance on formally democratic institutions dominated by elites. But the populism needs to be realised through institutions that create and nurture the four conditions outlined above - participation, accountability, responsiveness and transparency - along with the attendant conditions of education, and forums for public debate. Furthermore, the state needs to be seen as a servant and agent of all the citizens, rather than merely as the executive committee of the most powerful sections.
In Turkey, populism seems an unattractive option to the educated elite, who look to the west for its models in politics and economics and culture. Unfortunately for the Turkish elite, the west is largely failing to provide a viable model of democracy precisely at this time. Look at the mess the EU is now - especially after the economic ruin of austerity in PIIGS, and with a foreign policy supporting outright Nazis to come to power in Ukraine, and the Al Qaeda in Syria and Libya and elsewhere in Africa. The US government is the emperor whose nakedness is becoming apparent even as it becomes more brazen in its hypocrisy and its betrayals of the ideals it claims to espouse.
In India, the traditional political parties make grand populist gestures, but there are few attempts to build institutions that support a meaningful and constructive populism. The Aam Aadmi Party was an attempt to create a political movement based on a populist platform, but it has already floundered in the one state where it managed to capture pose. In the absence of an institutional infrastructure supporting the four elements I described earlier - participation, accountability, responsiveness and transparency - the expectations the AAP engendered had no prospect of fulfilment.
In the US, the Occupy movement was an attempt at building up a movement that could have laid the foundations of a principled populism. But the countervailing forces of the state were too strong, and the people who could have supported the movement were perhaps not adequately prepared ideologically or strategically.
Everywhere, the situation seems quite bleak, if not downright dangerous. The task for those who believe in democratic ideals and justice is to understand the nature of political power, and to work to build institutions that enable its exercise in the service of the all the people, rather than a narrow elite, or even only a majority. But unless the exercise of power is constrained by the four principles outlined above, it would be difficult to defend democracy against the growing countervailing onslaught of authoritarianism.