Democracy is taking a beating as right-wing forces consolidate their grip on power

People hold Recep Tayyip Erdogan's picture during a demonstration in support to the Turkish President at the Sarachane park in Istanbul. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

People hold Recep Tayyip Erdogan's picture during a demonstration in support to the Turkish President at the Sarachane park in Istanbul. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

The news has become a tightening cycle of horror. A truck smashes through a holiday crowd in Nice. Teenage soldiers are beaten to death on the streets of Istanbul. There’s a massacre in Kashmir. The police are perpetually murdering a black man in the United States. And beyond the headlines there’s the Congo, Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and Syria. The wretched of the sea sink into the Mediterranean. The sun rises over another woman’s body in the desert just south of the Rio Grande.

For most of us this is not a time when confidence in our leaders makes much sense. Boris Johnson, the new British foreign secretary, is a racist buffoon. Donald Trump, another racist buffoon, is the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India and Vladimir Putin in Russia are all authoritarian nationalists. Modi is often described as a fascist. Here at home we are asked to vote for Jacob Zuma, a venal and ruthless man who is rapidly turning the state into an instrument of containment and predation, to “defend the revolution” and “build people’s power”.

At the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama, an American academic, announced “the end of history” – the “universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. But liberalism, from its inception, had always asserted the freedom of some at the cost of the freedom of others.

“Despotism,” John Stuart Mill wrote, “is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians”. Despotism wasn’t solely a matter of exclusion and control; it was also about exploitation and accumulation. Social progress for some people, in some parts of the world, was funded by the same economic and political process that resulted in devastation for other people, in other parts of the world.

Unsurprisingly, the liberalism globalised at the end of the Cold War offered a rapacious form of economics in the name of freedom. It was largely modelled on the market fundamentalism imposed on Chile after the US-backed coup against an elected socialist government in 1973. But the ruthless subordination of Chilean society to capital was achieved under a military dictatorship.

By the 1980s, the American elite was well aware that their support for authoritarian regimes, such as those led by PW Botha in South Africa, Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, had generated powerful popular movements demanding economic as well as political change.

The solution, as William Robinson has shown, was to offer a limited form of democracy that could avoid the whip of dictatorship while still making it possible for society to be subordinated to capital.

Some of the key features of this limited form of democracy included a technocratic approach to policymaking and the substitution of “civil society” – usually, in practice, donorbacked nongovernmental organisations – for popular participation in governance. Where possible, consent was preferred to coercion.

But from the beginning it was clear that old horrors would endure in places such as Palestine and Kashmir. It was equally clear that, when despotism was functional to Euro-American power, as in Saudi Arabia, it would not be pressed to reform.

When it was not, as in Iraq in 1990, Euro-American power, calling itself “the international community”, sought to bomb it into submission. When despotic power was as formidable as the Chinese state, it would be left to make its own decisions about its own future.

In 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic former Catholic priest committed to liberation theology, came to power in Haiti by means of the sustained mobilisation of a movement of impoverished people. Within months he was removed from office by a US-backed military coup.

It was clear that, for Haitians, the freedoms available in what George Bush Snr had announced as “the new world order” did not extend to voting for a candidate not approved by an alliance of local elites and American imperialism. Not even a moderate left-wing experiment, with overwhelming popular support, would be tolerated.

In Algeria there was a very different challenge to the new order. In 1992, the government suspended a scheduled election when it became clear that a radical religious party would defeat the former national liberation movement that had, at great cost, won independence from France. The country descended into war. For a decade a murderous assault was waged against the intelligentsia.

On New Year’s Day in 1994, an armed radical movement, the Zapatistas, announced their presence in the mountains in southern Mexico. There was a real commitment to rethinking the radical project after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But although the end of apartheid in the same year followed the official script for transition to democracy closely, the simultaneous genocide in Rwanda made it clear that the end of the Cold War was not going to open an easy road ahead in Central Africa. The war that began in the Congo in 1996 would cost millions of lives.

From late 1999 until April the following year, there was mass protest against water privatisation in Bolivia. The road blockade emerged as a central tactic and the urban poor as key actors in a drama that mounted a real challenge to the power of capital over society as well as the enduringly colonial logic of power relations in Bolivia.

In 2002, a US-sanctioned coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was defeated, in part, by the support of the urban poor. Chávez responded by moving to the left.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003, carried out despite mass protests around the world, resulted in catastrophe across a large part of the Middle East, a tragedy that is still unfolding.

But with the election of Lula da Silva in Brazil the following year, and Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2006, there was a general shift to the left in Latin America. In the same year that Morales won the presidency in Bolivia a broad response to a police attack on striking teachers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca led to mass protests, horizontally organised.

There was a sense of a developing prospect for a democratic left in Latin America that could impose some sort of social discipline on capital by developing new forms of popular power that could, at least in part, subordinate the state to society.

With the financial crisis in 2008, and then again in 2011, significant opposition to the status quo began to emerge in parts of Europe and in the US. In 2011, the Arab Spring brought thousands into the streets against dictators, there were riots in England and the Occupy movement incited a serious discussion about inequality in the US. Significant dissent also appeared in Southern Europe.

The Arab Spring was largely contained but in 2013 the attainment of de facto Kurdish autonomy in Rojavo, formally committed to democratic and feminist ideals, opened up a new site of political possibility.

The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US in the same year was a powerful challenge to the entrenched racism of that society that continues to have global repercussions, including, of course, here in South Africa.

But in Greece “No” came to nought. The attempt to build a progressive electoral project around Bernie Sanders

didn’t succeed in the US. In Spain the party that emerged out of the popular movements began to become distant from those movements and to lose support.

At the same time, the left lost much of its ground in Latin America. In Venezuela much of the damage was self-inflicted. In Brazil the old white elites were able to manipulate their hold on the media to re-establish their authority without having to seek a mandate from the electorate.

Today there’s no doubt that the new world order announced by George Bush after the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait has fractured beyond any possibility of repair. The consensus about a new era of democracy, peace and prosperity that once seemed so assured in some parts of the world has lost its credibility. The status quo is not sustainable. The question, the urgent question, is what comes next.

In some countries both left-and-right wing forms of populism have stormed in from the margins to stake a claim at the centre of political life. But Modi, Putin and Erdogan are entrenched. It was Trump and not Sanders who made it on to the ballot paper. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn is still in the game but the racism unleashed by the Brexit campaign is now a poisonous presence in British politics.

Here at home, Zuma, sometimes under the cloak of radical rhetoric, is trying to move towards a more authoritarian mode of nationalist politics.

The political energies that have emerged in recent years to demand more democratic and more equal societies, and to put an end to the racialisation of citizenship, may well mutate into new forms in the months and years to come.

Protests, occupations, blockades, riots and electoral experiments could cohere in unexpected ways. It’s not impossible that movements that aim to radicalise democracy, oppose the politics of chauvinism and subordinate capital to society could begin to turn the tide.

But at the moment the news is a horror show. It’s the forces of the right – the forces that seek to respond to inequality and escalating economic crisis with authoritarianism and chauvinism – that are staking the most effective claim to the next world order.

  Richard Pithouse’s new book, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy, is published by Jacana

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