Words Worth: Of democracy & dissent

Celebrated journalists Anne Applebaum and Edward Luce at a session on ‘The Many Lives of Democracy’ with Suhasini Haidar at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival

Epitaphs for democracy, if I may modify the words of Felix Frankfurter, have become fashionable once more. And, the phenomenon is not unique to India, where democracy has been pronounced dead — or, at best, in critical shape and worsening. Indeed, most political commentators view the Indian case as a symptom of a global malady: a near-universal turn to authoritarianism. The many embodiments of this phenomenon, from Viktor Orbán to Recep Erdogan to Donald Trump, are cited with disturbing frequency.

It was unavoidable, then, that democracy be a prominent theme at this year’s edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Literature, after all, is the language of the present, and anxiety regarding the state and fate of democracy has been a mainstay of contemporary writing.

Over the nine days of the fest, many aspects of democratic life were touched upon, trends of political behaviour dissected, and threats to democratic success discussed. But, the core concern animating JLF’s phenomenally inter-textual programming was this: How did liberal democracy, the revered political model that launched a thousand revolutions, become so frail in only three decades since its ascendancy was thought to mark the end of history?

The usual suspects were all repeatedly invoked — weak institutions, globalisation and its discontents, increasing inequality, neoliberalism, rampant misinformation, decreasing social capital, and populist nationalism. The truly exciting intellectual foray, however, came early on in the festival, with celebrated journalists Anne Applebaum and Edward Luce forwarding the notion of democracy’s inherent imperfections.

Applebaum drew on her ring-side reflections on the ideological fractures that have shaped Western politics, compiled in Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. She contended that the idea of a natural progression toward democracy is rather new, dating only as far back as the fall of communism. Historically, democracies have neither been inevitable nor necessarily durable, and the kinds of perversion of democracy that we experience today are not without precedent. Luce, author, most recently, of The Retreat of Western Liberalism, echoed the sentiment. For him, there are many alternatives to democracy, all of them worse, but many of them, frighteningly, quite plausible. And, an autocratic state is only the most notorious bogeyman.

As early as 1997, journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria was already writing of the rise of illiberal democracies. He used the term to describe a global phenomenon in which popularly elected — often re-elected — governments habitually exercised power in excess of their constitutional mandate, and at the expense of the rights and freedoms of citizens. Zakaria argued that while electoral democracy flourished in the late 20th century, constitutional liberalism waned.

At the time Zakaria was writing, the Emergency had already distorted liberal democracy in India, in a manner that was to become a terrible and unsurpassed example for decades to come. But, Tripurdaman Singh points out that the seeds for the monstrosity of the mid-1970s had been laid as far back as 1951. Discussing his book Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India, he argued that the roots of the tension between individual rights and social reform are almost inescapably old. Unfortunately, in India, even that venerated champion of democracy, Jawaharlal Nehru, favoured the latter over the former, revealing his tenuous relationship with liberal values when he restricted free speech.

Dissecting the decline of liberalism with journalist John Micklethwait, writer and essayist Adam Gopnik noted that it is the permanent condition of liberalism to be constantly on its deathbed. The Left and the Right have always attacked liberalism, primarily for reasons of inefficiency or incompetence. Gopnik’s own book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism stands against the charge of liberal failure. He argues that what we see as the disease of liberalism are, in fact, symptoms of affluence, a tendency to take for granted those things which liberalism provides — for instance, civil rights to sexual minorities, which only liberal democracies guarantee — and to deprecate those which it fails to provide.

Micklethwait, who recently co-authored The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic has Exposed the Weakness of the West and How to Fix it, concurred. The view that authoritarianism is part of the solution is, in his opinion, a mistaken one. In the context of handling Covid-19, Micklethwait argued that the countries with the best performance have been liberal democracies, China and USA being outliers.

The hard challenge for liberalism, according to Micklethwait, is to reform state economic policy. In its modern avatar, the social and economic aspects of classical liberalism have split, raising, on the one hand, the spectre of big state, and on the other, of unbridled neoliberalism. At JLF, the latter was the greater cause of concern.

In the recent past, the only scholarly consensus on the definition of neoliberalism seems to have been built around its capaciousness. However, the struggle to define has not impeded recognition of its modus operandi: neoliberalism refashions citizens into consumers, and democracy into a market experience. In the meritocracy of the market, then, inequality becomes a virtue.

In practice, neoliberalism’s language of efficiency and deserved gains and losses has meant, celebrated linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky pointed out, a transfer of nearly $50 trillion from the lower 90% of the American population to its top 1% over the last 40 years. Inequality and populist authoritarianism, for Chomsky, are inextricably linked. Nor does the impunity neoliberalism affords to money spell good news for electoral practices. In a separate session on elections, Navin B Chawla and Neel Kantha Uprety, former chief election commissioners of India and Nepal, respectively, highlighted opacity and corruption in campaign funding as one of the biggest challenges facing South Asian democracies.

The impoverishment of the middle classes even as the world becomes richer — and the phenomenon is a truly global one — has also meant, for philosopher Michael Sandel, a corrosion of the common good, empathy, social capital, and well-being. In The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? he explores this dark side of meritocracy which precludes from the realm of worthwhile and dignified contributions to society anything that is not tangible in monetary terms.

Sandel’s, then, is a plea to change the terms of our politics, to reaffirm dignity of work, and emphasise democratic citizenship building.

Chomsky’s prescription for that democratic effort is hearteningly old-fashioned — educational programmes, organisation, and activism. In an atmosphere where the country’s youth are encouraged to quit activism in favour of economic productivity, parading a dangerously false binary, among other lies, a call to exercise that first democratic right of free speech and assembly can be bracing.

The activist impulse also found resonance among a panel of jurists. Justice Albie Sachs, former judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and Justice Madan Lokur, former judge of the Supreme Court of India, were both unequivocal in their support for judicial activism as a means to keep democratic constitutions alive and evolving. Justice Sachs noted, for instance, that the appellation of an activist seems to be reserved for those who employ legal mechanisms to further the cause of the disempowered, while those using the same means to favour the propertied elite are thought of as being neutral. Legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar, too, emphasised the existence of a disciplined process by which unwritten constitutions, hidden between the lines of the written one, can go behind, beneath, and beyond the latter without unravelling them.

If the streets and the courts were the most popular sites of popular protest and social activism in the 20th and early 21st century, today, it is social media. Avijit Michael, founder and executive director of Jhatkaa.org, and Nida Hasan, country director of Change.Org, attest to the upsurge in digital activism. For Michael, digital campaigns allows for greater engagement with decision makers, especially in the context of shrinking democratic space. Technology might have made protesting easier, but it hasn’t, in Hasan’s view, taken away from the effectiveness of digital campaigns. Virtual gheraos can be as effectual as physical ones.

Critical theorist Homi K Bhabha, however, took issue with the unqualified categorisation of social media as a democratic platform. It may be so in terms of access but not necessarily in fully in its ethics, equity, and morality. Nearing the close of the literary and political extravaganza, then, Bhabha turned the focus once more on the confluence of liberalism and democracy. Democratic procedures, he reiterated, are necessary but not sufficient for democracy to survive its fragility, what is needed is a commitment to democratic values.

Zakaria’s illiberal democracy might be an analytical category of some value, but one must ask oneself if it is not a contradiction in terms.

Indeed, if the Vladimir Putins of the world are right and liberalism has outlived its purpose, one may even ask oneself if democracy — specifically, the Indian democratic experiment, with its noble promises of equality, freedom, and justice — too has become redundant.

On the face of it, things may look dire. But, if free speech appears to be vanishing, one need only turn one’s attention to the setting in which the restraints on free speech are being criticised. If one fears the ways in which technology can maul the truth, one need only be reminded of the medium on which ‘the greatest literary show on Earth’ was held.

Pessimism, in Applebaum’s opinion, is irresponsible. Liberal democracy may not now be that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth, but that it survives yet is proof of that which abides — the inherent instinct to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Suvanshkriti Singh is a freelancer

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