(Translated by: Alex Elgnady) | Leer en Español
Politics are instrumental in the creation of coexistence agreements. Democracy guarantees freedom but today is once more under attack. Will democracy manage to endure?
To the memory of Kyal Sin (2002-2021)
All human communities contain differences—of tiers, ideas, and values—and inequalities—of resources, rights, and power—between those that form them. Their embers coexist under the permanent risk of conflict, between the privileged that want to preserve the status quo and the persecuted that want to change it. This resulting tension generates the pursuit to regulate these conflicts, because every society harbors a longing for security, prosperity, and power, that manifests through politics.
Politics is that sphere of human action, oriented towards the social handling of conflicts. It operates by implementing binding decisions—conforming to rules—capable of being imposed—by force, if necessary—on the members of the community. The frontiers of politics have expanded with time, to regulate the conflicts of class, gender, creed and race, among others. Its binding character differentiates political action from family links, —founded in blood ties— social cooperation—based in mutual help—and rationale—mercantile, transactional—of the economy. The politics is not normative—good or bad. Instead, under its mantle converge domination and emancipation, conflict and consensus, in the governance of man and the administration of things.
Human history has been, in good measure, a tale of autocratic politics. It has been based in the predominance of chieftains and oligarchies, of different founding dogmas, over their populations. Nevertheless, with variable and increasing strength, the democratic alternative became globally accepted in the last two centuries. In other words, the idea that those from the bottom can exercise collective auto-governance, electing their authorities, and expressing one’s voice and rights in the public space, has become more popular.
The fundamental documents of the Organization of the United Nations, 76 years ago, pick up that fragile but universal democratic consensus. It was accepted, at least formally, by liberal and traditional regimes. It was received with hope despite difficult times experienced by many decolonized nations in the Third World at the time. However, that agreement—never fully achieved—confronts a new threat today.
The Autocratic Threat: Two Readings, One Problem
Last year, under the combined weight of the pandemic, the resulting economic crises, and conflicts of all types, democracy suffered new losses in its global competition against autocracy. As signaled by a study published last week by Freedom House (2) , the civic losses in sites like Hong Kong, Venezuela, Thailand, Turkey, India and Brazil, combined with the relative losses of advanced democracies, took a serious toll. According to the report, 2020 was the fifteenth consecutive year of liberal decline globally. The countries that experienced some deterioration exceed, in number, those that registered improvements. Democratic recession is deepening.
The decline has become increasingly global, affecting both the populations that suffer cruel tyrannies and the citizens of open societies. Almost 75% of the world population lived, in the past year, according to Freedom House, in a country that suffered some modality of democratic deterioration. The most dramatic cases consist of those nations where the status of politics has qualitatively deteriorated. These countries have experience an abolishment, in a strict sense, of the possibility to influence those that govern, in those where the citizenry has been reduced to the role of employees, consumers or habitants.
For its part, the last study of the V-Dem Institute of the University of Gothenburg, focused on the international mediation of the quantity and quality of democracies, also signaled the deterioration of governments based in popular auto-governance, the validity of the rule of law and the respect for civil liberties. Autocratization, it tells us, has gone viral (3).
According to the report, this global democratic decline—the process that we call autocratization—has continued in an accelerated manner this last decade, especially in Asia, Africa, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe and Latin America. The level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 fell to levels only last found around 1990. Electoral autocracy continues being, followed by electoral democracies, the most common regime.
In 2010, 48% of the global population lived in autocracies, which were either partial (electoral) or complete (closed). In 2020 the number rose to 68%. India, the world’s second most populous country, went from being a liberal democracy to an electoral autocracy. In total, there are 87 countries with autocratic regimes: 63 electoral autocracies and 24 closed. The nations in transition to democracy went from 32 in 2010 to 16 this last year. In 2010 there were 41 fully liberal democracies; now 32 exist, mainly in Western Europe and North America.
This autocratization was produced in a way akin to (micro)biological processes, which explains the term viralize used by the V-Dem report. Like viruses and bacteria, the agents of autocratization (populist leaders, religious fundamentalisms, extremist movements of a distinct ideological sign) grow inside of a democratic political organism, taking advantage of its tissues and organs, until popular sovereignty collapses. It is not, as once before, about external harms, inflicted by aggressors—invasions—or sudden seizures—coups—that affect the democracy’s body and health.
The scenario opened by COVID19 exacerbated that tendency. The V-Dem report signaled that the number of countries where liberty of expression was threatened went from 19 in 2017 to 32 in 2020. The majority of polyarchies responsibly managed the consequences of the sanitary crisis, however, in 9 there were grave violations of their citizen’s rights, also found in another 23 moderate democracies. Contrastingly, in 55 autocratic regimes they detected major or moderate violations within the context of the pandemic.
Concerning the media, a certain consensus emerged, unexpectedly, between democratic and autocratic regimes: two thirds of all countries studies by V-Dem restricted, in some way, the work of journalists. Civil society was also greatly affected by the unholy matrimony between COVID and autocracy: the legal restrictions, police sieges and financial closure on the work of organizations and civic activists increased. This affected governments of all continents, ideological orientations and levels of socioeconomic development.
Alea Jacta est?
We witness, on all continents, a sinister tendency towards the abolition of democratic politics, in the form we recognize—imperfect but real—we have known for a century. Ancient “voluntary servitude” and “new despotisms” are peering, threateningly, over our civil horizon. So far, we lack imagination, will and resolve to prevent it. I want to believe that we still have time to succeed.
Beyond politics of the pandemic, there are diverse geopolitical factors, —Chinese ascension, Russian revenge, relative Western decline–technological factors—authoritarian use of electronic surveillance and disruption—and cultural factors—polarizations and fake-news in hyperconnected societies—that explain, together, present democratic deterioration. However, other elements also—from historical lessons of popular uprisings to present civic activism—offer clues on potential resistance to this democratic erosion. The end or triumph of democracy is not written in stone.
Democracy, distinct from other political and socioeconomic regimes, simultaneously expands instruments (institutions and rights) and objectives (individual participation, collective auto-governance) in the regulation of political coexistence. Its nucleus is a political order—regime—that institutionalizes the values, practices and rules that materialize participation, representation, deliberation, and the periodical renovation of incumbents. Democracy also combines a normative ideal, —that questions the asymmetries of hierarchy and power inside the social order—a social movement—that reunites actors, struggles and expansive democratizing claims of citizenship—and a socio-historic process—with phases, goals and horizons—of democratization.
In its modality, democracy today adopts the polyarchic form of the mass liberal republic, far from the radical criticism that simplifies it to be a mere oligarchic simulation. The institutionality of these regimes exceeds the classical liberal format—electoral, partisan, parliamentary—encompassing mechanisms of democratic innovation and new autonomous social movements. Inside of democracy the middle class and popular sectors have achieved benefits more enduring and protected (4) than under populism and autocracy of diverse ideologies, through a citizenship building process. This encompasses moments of social struggle, legal recognition, and incorporation of public politics. Additionally, if we consider that the mass liberal republics suffer corruption and oligarchization of power, —with minorities that abuse the rules of the game in order to perpetuate their privileges—experience tells us that these are resisted and reversed with the own mechanisms of mass liberal republics.
Let us also compare the situation of the Venezuelan workers, before and after Chavismo. Let us contrast rights of all kinds—societal, civil, political, economic, and cultural—that can be enjoyed and defended by the peoples of Costa Rica and Cuba. Let us evaluate the discourse of the protesters in Chile and Nicaragua of the last two years: in the first, the mobilization was channeled, through parliamentary deliberation and direct democratic exercise, towards a constitutional reconstruction. In Nicaragua all possibility of civic exercises and democratic resolution of conflict was squashed. The advantage of having a liberal republican regime—simultaneously containing institutions and rights for the exercise of institutionalized or street politics—results, for the peoples of those countries, to be decisive.
Moreover, we can take the discussion to a global level. Democracy—understood as a vocation to limit the all-embracing power of the rulers, and participate in collective self-government—is not privative to a culture or religion. Today it is practiced by populations of Confucius, Christian, Muslim and even agnostic legacies. In those places where we believed it to be culturally alien and absent,—from the Arab or African tribes to Latin and Asian regions—it have been invoked, again and again, throughout the last two centuries. (5) This has been the case despite the apparently unbeatable power of kings, chieftains and tyrants.
Democracy has resisted similar, and even worse declines to present erosion. Let us think of the period of wars, between 1918 and 1939, when many Western intellectuals, seduced by totalitarianism, predicted the end of sick liberalism and the triumph of the party state, or how during the Cold War the authoritarian regimes were finally overtaken by the political and economic designs of mass liberal republics. (6) The waves of democratization have always surged when they were unexpected: when the freedom fighters appeared condemned to silence, exile or detainment. Perhaps the mistake, after the epic triumph of 1989, was to expect that the boat of history would finally arrive on an epic and pleasant democratic port. However, like Alexander Herzen said, history is the autobiography of someone crazy. If everything were written out, the evolution of humanity would be mere meta-logic without margins for agency or unexpected events.
There is, also, a powerful anthropological reason for not accepting the idea of the end of democracy. Despite the value we assign to the famous (and debated) Maslow pyramid, people have different orders of needs and imperatives. To the demand for safety, shelter, and food, which an enlightened despot can provide, we add some basic, resilient, universal claims of agency and freedom, incapable of existing without the free participation of the people.
We have a legacy to review in our permanent struggle for democracy. The idea of Albert Einstein that every person should be respected, with no one being idolized as divine. Kantian’s liberal reflection on the capacity of man as a rational, peaceful, and autonomous being. Rosa Luxemburg’s courage in her socialist defense of the freedom to dissent and the repudiation of revolutionary bureaucracies. The rejection of Mandela and Nehru, along with their many supporters, of considering elections and parties as mere impositions of colonialism or Western fashions. The millions of men and women who today, around the world, promote assemblies, cooperatives, voting, raffles and referendums. The struggle that, in short, makes us discover the power to try, celebrate, err and rectify, together and with respect for diversity, our agency and human dignity. The libertarian chants in Minsk and Rangoon, in Portland and Moscow, in Havana and Budapest. The sum of all this, without insurance policy or death certificate, still draws the dim light of democracy on our horizon.
- Cuban/Mexican scholar. Bachelor of History and Masters in political science (Universidad de la Habana) and Doctorate in History and Regional Studies (Universidad Veracruzana). Country Expert for Varieties of Democracy, member of the Latin American Studies Association and Amnesty International, he´s specializes in the study of the process of democratization as well as relations between government and civil society in Latin America.
- See Freedom in the World 2021. Democracy under Siege https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege
- See Autocratization Turns Viral. Democracy report 2021en https://www.v-dem.net/files/25/DR%202021.pdf
- See D. Rueschemeyer, H.E. Stephens y J.D Stephen, J.D, Capitalist development y democracy, University Of Chicago Press, 1992.
- See John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy, Simon & Schuster, 2009.
- See David Runciman, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, Princeton University Press, 2015.