Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Arab Spring: democracy (a very brief note)

Ask people what they want and they'll either shrug and ignore you or tell you. What they tell you might not be what you would prefer them to tell you. They might tell you they want public hangings or stonings, blindings, strict sexual segregation, burning of Catholics (or Protestants), institutionalised corruption based on terror, and endless re-runs of the X-Factor. If you promise them these things they are more likely to vote for you.

In what we call advanced democracies you present people with a programme they know, and you know, you won't deliver, not entirely. This is not so much a plan of action as a way of telling them who you are. Then, once you are elected, you set about what you want to do, or that part of it which is possible to do, and launch on a programme of education to persuade them that they want it too. They don't, not really, but they never thought they were going to get it anyway. They'll vote for you because of who you say you are and who they think you are. That is what an advanced democracy is. It is, in this way, tolerant and humane because it behaves the way most tolerant and humane human beings behave. Every so often you can pretend to be scandalised, and may well feel scandalised (being scandalised is a great feeling, just like being wronged) and it satisfies the need for what you yourself recognise is a personal psychodrama. If you don't recognise it you are an obsessive or, possibly, a Guardian contributor to Comment is Free.

It won't be much use expecting the less advanaced democracies to behave like you. They haven't internalised scepticism the way you have - they haven't had the chance - and, as a result, are less tolerant of other people's scepticism. You think democracy is a nice easy-going tolerant system where everyone gets to watch a hundred TV channels, shop on e-Bay and talk about justice in a properly sceptical way. The non-advanced democracies are more likely to say: more of us want executions than those who don't therefore we want executions. Executions lead to strong leaders who don't go for democracy in the way you do, or in fact any recognisable way at all.

We have to get over this and then consider our options. What to say to new democracies that are serious about fulfilling their properly elected absolute programmes? What does it mean to have aspirations to democracy?


panther said...

Ah yes, the non-internalization of scepticism ! I came across this, of course, George, when i first went to Hungary to teach (August 1990). Everything was possible since Communism had collapsed. A new world was being created, and it was all going to be magnificent. All politicians would be honest, integrity shining through their every word and action. It was stirring stuff but I could see (merely on account of being a scepticism-possessing Westerner) that sooner or later, people were going to have to learn that democracy is difficult. No politician can give everyone everything they want, however decent the politician, however reasonable the desires of the electorate. Partly because there is never enough money to do everything. Partly because not all the desires of the electorate ARE reasonable. (Anti-semitism was becoming more common. I should say, more obvious. That's just one example.) And even if some people's demands are reasonable, those demands might be incompatible with some other people's reasonable demands.

No doubt about it : it is easier to run a dictatorship. There are no boundaries on a dictatorship. If a problem develops that you (the leader, the politburo) don't like, you can always send people off to gulags. Or shoot them. Easy-peasy, as we used to say at school.

Coirí Filíochta said...

The straightest human-level account I have read of all the various Arab world hotspots, come from the poetic pen of Iraqi Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul Ahad, who's been writing for them since June 2004. Reporting in flawless and eloquent English. first from Iraq and then from various war zones around the Muslim world, Abdul Ahad reports the most realistically of all the journalists I've read who report from these places.

He gets past the bullshit mainstream media parroting and to the human heart of what's really going on. he's been beaten, imprisoned, shot at and tortured in the line of his reporting duties, and won awards for the uniquely apolitical and human way he has of getting it across that human beings the world over are all pretty much the same. It's the 'leaders' fronting and putting in place the plans and wishes of a minute monied class of anonymous others in shade, spinning war, death and murder in the pursuit of pecuniary gain, who pervert our understanding of fellow human beings, with their ignoble cause and call for Democracy and Freedom, as long as it suits a few white western men who'd start world war if they have to.

And all in the name of 'us'.

Yeah, you should read this fellow, reporting now from Syria.

Anonymous said...

Well wikileaks also bypasses the usual media parroting. Just thought they needed a mention in anything connected to the Arab Spring. Information and access to it has been key in motivating people to protest and probably wouldn't have happened even 10 years ago. The unlooked for transparency achieved by global communication allows for knowledge of corruption, suppression, torture of children, human rights abuses and the list goes on. In amongst this brutal landscape I noticed that in Saudi Arabia a woman had been arrested for driving a car (I am almost rendered speechless with how ridiculousness this is). The woman2drive has now become a political movement with its own nifty little logo and has encouraged more saudi women to be arrested for trying to teach themselves to drive cars in car parks.
When you shake things up it is interesting what rises to the surface, of course it is and isn't about driving, but it gives a great focal point for highlighting the gender rights issue in Saudi.

Phil Simmons said...

This is an interesting and timely reminder of some of the pitfalls arising from the freedom of speech and organisation which is the sine qua non of democracy. I think you’re right that most of us who have benefited historically from this kind of polity have internalised a certain scepticism about the motives of our representatives. By extension, those who engage actively in political life might be said to be involved in a process of attempting to 'firm up' the emphasis which their parties place on particular aspects of usually very generalised manifestos. Hence the existence of 'wings', caucuses, interest-groups, etc. However, I think we should be cautious in assuming that this phenomenon is universal in advanced democracies. There’s a strain of ideological puritanism which is as much a product of free speech as the tendency to reason and compromise, and it should not be forgotten that the right to be unreasonable and unreflective is as much a freedom as that to be tolerant and open to discussion.

I was reminded by your post, George, of a recent attempt I made at online correspondence with a right-wing Republican in the USA, a man much given to posting articles from Libertarian journals unfamiliar to me on his Facebook page, along with other more mainstream accounts of, for example, US domestic policy which he claimed as ‘proof’ that Pres. Obama and the Democratic Party were up to ‘socialist’ mischief. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard this stuff before, but I’d never had the chance to find out first-hand from someone promoting it exactly what his reasoning was. The trouble was, I couldn’t get him to tell me. Although he was apparently literate, well-versed in the US Constitution, and claimed exhaustive reading in political science, every time I asked for clarification of a point I was told in no uncertain terms that this was irrelevant, and condemned as a ‘Marxist’ or a ‘liberal’ for pressing the query. This is a personal anecdote, of course, and in all likelihood the individual was unhinged, but I came away from the exchange troubled at the totalitarianism it had apparently revealed in someone prepared to speak the language of constitutional democracy. It reminded me, in fact, of the position of the very Marxists my correspondent purported to set himself against – that there is some overriding, ideological truth or imperative embedded in history, of which all critical examination is ‘objectively’ to be taken as a manifestation of hostility by opposing historical forces.

I’ve no idea how widespread this kind of ideological elision actually is in the US, but even if the likes of Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann don’t expect to be taken literally by their electorate it’s worrying to find it anywhere in what must by anyone’s standards count as an advanced democracy. At present in the UK I discern it only in fringe parties like the BNP - and I’m glad to say I don’t know any of its supporters to ask about their scepticism. But I do remember that when Margaret Thatcher came to power I was not alone in thinking that she’d never really try to destroy post-WW2 consensus politics, or dismantle manufacturing industry, or marginalise the trade unions, or ignore mass unemployment. But she did, and she won three elections on it. Even in established democracies, where everyone supposedly knows the unwritten rules, we need to be careful of our scepticism. There are those that would see it as weakness and lack of rigour.

George S said...

Thank you for the link, Coiri. He is all you say. I am not so concerned with the evil white men in the west who talk about Democracy and Freedom (I imagine you are suggesting they don't mean it, or they mean it how they mean it at the time, which would be closer to my understanding) as with the nature of the democracy we practice and imagine. So when we cheer for democracy - and I think we genuinely do - we are making certain assumptions about what it is like and how it works.

In other words it is not so much the word as the actual being in it that I am searching to define, also the half-conscious assumption that democracy 'elsewhere' is likely to resemble democracy 'here'.

In what key ways do they differ, in what ways are they alike? How circumscribed is our democracy, in what fashion, and for what social reasons?

George S said...

Hello panther - I like a bit of scepticism in my gruel and tend to recommend it. It is, I think, a necessary part of a liberal society. Septicism kept the people going in Easter Europe to the extent that it became a major art form. Nevertheless, I myself was enthusiastic in 1989 (when we were there for nine months) imagining that a change would be an improvement.

Now we can argue about that, and I can see arguments on both sides while still being convinced that the change was for the better - or would be in the longer run.

The deep question is how far capitalism and social liberalism are bound together. I have no faith in centralised states whether socialist or fascist. I prefer open societies to closed ones (to use Popper's terms) and, like (now) the late Christopher Hitchens think totalitarianism is the biggest enemy.

There are anarcho-socialist alternatives that I would always want to keep open because they allow for hope in human potential. I've yet to see one that works long term, but we may be heading that way.

An Arab Sping democratic electoral choice in favour fundamentalist Islamism with clerics as totalitarians seems to surprise some western readers. That is where the scepticism comes in. A healthy dose, as they say.

George S said...

I think we should be cautious in assuming that this phenomenon is universal in advanced democracies. There’s a strain of ideological puritanism which is as much a product of free speech as the tendency to reason and compromise, and it should not be forgotten that the right to be unreasonable and unreflective is as much a freedom as that to be tolerant and open to discussion.

Yes, and fair enough Phil, that too exists and is part of the spectrum, and has to be. We have cognitive dissonance here as everywhere else. Quite often it works as a game, like supporting a football team. We boo and cheer not because we are utterly convinced by this or that argument but because the terms of the game demand it.

Your encounter with the Republican shows it is possible to delay acknowledging cognitive dissonance, or to suppress it once we immerse ourselves in the spirit of our group.

It may be that contemporary conditions encourage this kind of behaviour. Scepticism is born out of doubt even about our most powerful feelings, even those regarding the history that we feel has made us what we are. But when we lose history as we are beginning to lose it in the education system here, then the tension between scepticism and the desire to believe the unproven may be too demanding - so we cut off them off from each other, prepared to believe something wholeheartedly (or acting as if we did) while retaining a scepticism more absolute than we have known so far.

Forgive the obscurity of thought. It has been preying on my mind but I am rather grasping at the sense of it, not just in this sphere but in others too.

Coirí Filíochta said...

I only stumbled across the Iraqi journalist earlier this year, and voraciously trawled through his travels and reports from a human position no western journalist bussed in and embedded with the 'good' guys of 'us' could ever occupy. A find, as they say, the same as Scott Hamilton, a New Zealand archaeologist, sociologist and poet I stumbled onto yesterday after reading one of his poems on Jacket 2, that made itself instantly felt. Memorable because the experience is so rare. One of few contemporary poems to do so. The latest post on his blog Reading The Maps is up there with the best of the west's.


I've been following the GOP primary debates, and now after so many something of the real flavors are bleeding out. Ron Paul is the only one I would vote for. He has gone from being ignored by a media attempting to frame the main debate as when to go to war with Iran over a theoretical nuclear weapon; to the most transparently honest politician on the platform.

The hypocrisy of Gingrich is depressing. A serial cheat who went after Clinton for the very crimes against morality that he himself was practicing. Romney's mister nice guy, all round good fella is slipping and now he's the same as all the hucksters saying anything to get a vote. Bacman the Stepford zombie, Perry the angry arrogant hair dying freind and facilitator of the Militeary Industrial Complex, same as all the rest.

Paul is the only one speaking sense and not in the pocket of the war machine men in shade whose idea of business is the expansion of war hand in hand with privatizing it. What Eisenhower famously warned America about in his farewell speech.

Watching last night's final debate in Iowa, it was clear that the lunatics calling for the bombing of Iran on bullshit, made up and invented nonsense, were speaking from the same script, that was clearly written by others in the shadows, the 1% warmonging billionaire custodians of 'us' a poor deluded sheeple swallowing their Fox fake news, propoganda for the faceless few old men who don't mind the killing and dying. As Paul pointed out in his take-down of Gingrich, when he (Paul) was drafted in Vietnam, Gingrich kept himself out with several deferments, arguing one person aint gonna make much difference, and yet now he is happy to send other people's kids to war and is repeating the fictions and lies, spin of dangerous nonsense, that in a world with thousands of nuclear weapons, America should go to war over one not yet made.

As Paul argues, America has thousands of nuclear weapons, chooses to ignore Israel's covert nuclear weapons programme and targets a country without them without proof they are working towards them, and it's the clamor, the unthinking people who'll sell out and say anything for money from the corporations who spread lies about anything and use any shady practice to keep the business of war and oil running.


Yeah, a free flow extemprization, nothing considered but thoughts that've been percolating up over the last while..

bedul is the word verification

panther said...

George, you're quite right : scepticism about Communism did indeed keep people in Eastern Europe going. But i feel that what I saw (and a lot of us saw it then, didn't we ? in 1989) was how once Communism had been thrown off, there seemed to be a belief that scepticism was no longer required. Politicians now, in the post-Communist world, were all going to be honest, and full of integrity, people who would never be swayed by anything as dispiriting as corruption, or personal interest, or just good old-fashioned foolishness. . .

IMHO, scepticism is ALWAYS required ? The most dangerous people are the ones who have no doubts.

George S said...

I agree, Panther, that scepticism is always required. I don't think the Hungarians were as naive as that after 1989. There is a moment in all revolutions when idealism and hope rule, but it doesn't last at all long. They need to rule for the revolution to happen at all. Disillusion came very fast - within months in Hungary. Still, even now, I don't think people would want to return to the world of the Warsaw Pact, Comecon and so forth.

I think the distinction I am trying to draw is between scepticism and cynicism. Hungary moved from scepticism to cynicism in less than a year after the change. The intervening period of naive hope lasted a few months, then, once the first election campaign started the tensions rose as they were bound to.

There was no well-used, flexible framework. No humour or scepticism, only - once the libels, slanders and hate campaigns started - cynicism. And the beginnings of general anti-Semitism, xenophobia, rhetorical excess and empty posturing.

panther said...

I felt a big difference between my first stint (ending June 1991) and my second (ending the year after.) Things for a very short while were going to be grand. Then they were, almost immediately, rubbish. A sort of political and social bipolar, perhaps, with not much of a moderate phase between.

But hadn't anti-Semitism, xenophobia and Gipsy-hatred been merely sleeping ?