Arepublic, if you can keep it,” replied Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the USA, when asked by a group of citizens what sort of government had been created by the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The same is true of democracy. You may adopt democracy. But you don’t become one. You become a democracy if you can keep it. Democracy requires institutional architecture, institutional gardening and institutional plumbing. Someone has to work out where something gets stuck to get it unstuck. And in working that out, democracy has to become quite inventive.
With politics becoming dangerously fractious, broken and dysfunctional, the democratic world faces a new level of political vulnerability. The guardrails of democracy are crumbling. The romance of democracy is going sour even in established democracies. What is worse, with the networks of gatekeepers ~ learned societies, free press and independent think tanks ~ becoming increasingly powerless, what we have is the barbarians at the gates. Democracy today faces multiple challenges. It has become a timocracy. To some, it has become ‘electoral autocracy.”
Belgian cultural historian David Van Reybrouck has gone so far as to say that elections are “bad for democracy.” Reybrouck wonders if we have become “electoral fundamentalists,” taking a dangerous road by reducing democracy to elections. The firewall against tyrants created by the separation of powers has started collapsing. Democracy is suffering from institutional amnesia. Plato was prophetic when he said that tyranny will spring from democracy. Why are the bad guys winning? Anne Applebaum provides a cogent answer. She says that autocracies are run “not by one bad guy” but by “networks composed of kleptocratic financial structures, security services and professional propagandists.”
Electoral autocracy has created its own “enchanted, self-contained world,” and its own apparatchiks. A spectre is haunting the democratic world. Technototalitarianism is no longer the exclusive preserve of China. Elected autocrats have exploited democracy’s inherent vulnerabilities by becoming strategic and sophisticated. As British writer George Manbiot says, power has been “sucked out of democratic structures and relocated to a place where it can scarcely be challenged.” Donald Trump lost because of his own incompetence.
Perhaps Bolsonaro will meet his doomsday for the same reason. But there are some who have begun to change the rules of the game. They are hard to dislodge. There is another reason for democracy’s growing vulnerabilities. While inherent structural infirmities have weakened democracy, anti-democratic elitism and the rise of mega-corporations, fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, have helped the autocrats to consolidate their hold on power. Many liberal democracies from India, Brazil to Hungary and Turkey have undermined minority rights and throttled democratic and oversight institutions. Many have used the pandemic to grab more powers which they may be reluctant to give up once the pandemic eases off. However, it is the behaviour of elites that has aggravated political vulnerability. American political scientist Jack A Goldstone and anthropologist Peter Turchin argue that the elites have committed three cardinal sins.
First, they have grabbed a larger portion of economic gains for themselves. Second, as they face greater competition for elite wealth and status, they have narrowed others’ path to mobility. Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits. Alongside new variants of the virus there has been a new variant of global capitalism.
The ‘age of Amazon’ has helped the big corporates like Jeff Bezos to amass fortunes, while small business has taken a decisive hit across a wide range of sectors. Bezos has developed a corporate culture of relentless ambition and secrecy that has never been cracked. The streaming entertainment industry dominated by Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney and online giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter are the other big beneficiaries of the pandemic.
The state has staged a comeback like a tsunami. “Let us never forget that government is ourself,” so said Franklin Roosevelt. Today, the governments have become what one analyst says “the untrustworthy other.” The government is no longer what Ronald Reagan called “the problem,” for many elected autocrats, government is the solution. The widening rich-poor divide in the world is alarming. Together the world’s millionaires hold $80 trillion in wealth.
According to Oxfam, the net worth of the world’s top 10 billionaires has more than doubled during the pandemic to $1.5tn. Bezos’s net wealth rose 67 per cent to $203 billion, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth doubled to $118 billion, while the wealth of Bill Gates increased by 31% to $137 billion. Indeed, an age of Amazon! India is experiencing the same with billionaires multiplying.
According to the World Inequality report, the top one per cent Indians owns more than one-fifth of total national income and the bottom half earns just 13 per cent of it. Economic reforms have benefited the top 1 per cent. As inequality grows, the infrastructure frays and the politics become more poisonous. History shows such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. The French, the 1848, the Bolshevik and the Chinese revolutions were the outcomes of unsustainable elitism.
Political parties are among the least trusted institutions in society. Parties are expanding their presence but shrinking their tent. The periphery remains neglected. Ruling parties believe they have a divine right to rule. In the US, one of the two major political parties is bent on not just disenfranchising people of colour, but to disenfranchise people who might vote against them. It has become the party of voter suppression. Democracy is being eroded by the entry of dark money in politics. Digital skulduggery is eroding trust in democracy.
Science is being misused to serve “the gods of profit and production.” Techno-optimism has turned into techno-scepticism. In this age of hyper-partisan identities, no one is working to bring “us” and “them” together. In 1968, Pablo Picasso denounced computers as useless as “they can only give you answers.” The same perception is growing about elections. They only produce outcomes. Nations and societies need a new imagination of democracy and to reinvent popular rule for the 21st century where people have agency, and their voices are heard.
The existing paradigm of democracy is too elitist and is incapable of democratic aspirations of the people. Electoral autocrats are trying to sell us platinum when all they have is steel. They are trying to win dazzled admiration through newfangled P R stunts. Thomas Paine said, “we have it within our power to begin the world over again.” Will political scientists and philosophers take the lead and begin democracy all over again?
(The writer is director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi)