Democracy Under Siege

Our guest author today, Mac Maharaj, is a former African National Congress (ANC) leader, friend and prison mate of Nelson Mandela’s, who smuggled the first draft of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of Robben Island. Over the past 50 years, he has been an anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner, exile, underground commander, negotiator, bank director, professor and a cabinet minister in South Africa's first democratic government. This post was adapted from his remarks to the ASI’s recent Crisis of Democracy conference.

I come from the generation that negotiated South Africa’s transition from race rule to a constitutional democracy that has been acclaimed throughout the world. We put together a constitution founded on an entrenched Bill of Rights, with a separation of powers, bolstered by a set of independent institutions. Having entrenched freedoms, such as that of expression, the media and assembly, and having secured the protection of the individual from arbitrary arrest, we believed that we had established a system that would enable the mediation of conflicts of interest that are immanent in society—evading the civil strife that degenerates into violence and preventing any group from having to go to war.

But our democracy is only a little over two decades old, and there are already growing concerns that our system has not delivered and is under threat.

I come from a continent struggling to come out of the hopelessness of poverty. On the positive side, there has been an increase in the number of countries holding multi-party elections and in instances of the transfer of power from one party leader to another. At the same time, there has been an increase in political repression and economic inequality. There is sense that democracy has failed us.

The same concerns apply to the new democracies born in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied East European states. There are also deep concerns about the future of the older democracies.

In his inaugural address, Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, rubbished the Washington elite and exploited the feelings of marginalization and alienation, as well as anti-establishment sentiments. He brushed aside the premise of freedom and democracy, encapsulated in a statement made by Nelson Mandela after the attainment of democracy: Mandela cautioned us then that “the truth is that we are not yet free; we have achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed … [But] to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Instead of seeing that this statement applies to individuals, as much as it does to nations; instead of looking outwards, Trump appeals to our selfish instincts and cajoles Americans to turn inwards. His calls to “America First” and “Make America Great Again” resonate with the champions of Brexit, who urged Britain to regain the sovereignty that had allegedly had been purloined by the European Union. In South Africa, we have even had some mimic Trump and launch a “South Africa First” Party.

Make no mistake, the “Me First” and “My Country First” fixation is a recipe for a world at war with itself.

The sense of powerlessness was growing within our democracies, even before Brexit or Trump entered the scene. It was there in the London riots. It was wished away under the label of mob rule and lawlessness. It was evident in “Occupy Wall Street,” but got consigned to our peripheral vision. When Greece faltered and helplessly grappled with mismanagement and mis-governance, we explained it away as a senseless revolt against the need for austerity. As we shielded our eyes to the rising tide of migrants and of refugees, we retreated into building walls of resentment.

We pay homage to Mandela, but ignore his caution that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

The nature of the crisis

So that we may better understand the nature of the crisis facing democracies, we must grapple with the challenge of separating symptoms from causes. In this regard, a number of phenomena that significantly affect the crisis need to be taken into account.

The first of these is globalization. The world economy is able to produce adequate quantities of goods and services to ensure every man, woman and child is fed, clothed and housed. In other words, poverty is not a capacity problem. We share the sentiments expressed by Mandela when he said that “overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Globalization has come with deepening inequality. In our failure to hitch the imperative of regulation to globalization, in order to contain the inexorable drive to deepening inequality, we acquiesced to the continuation of the old economic order which locked out the majority of economies and the people of the world.

Cross-border economic exchanges and inter-linkages have weakened the ability of nations to manage their economies. And the shift towards deeper integration of the economies has been at the expense of democratic representation. Increasingly, generating incomes and creating jobs has been managed through uncontested and unaccountable private institutions and market structures. But the answer does not lie with a retreat into “economic nationalism.” Far from it; overcoming democracy’s challenges requires a stable global environment premised on inclusive and sustainable growth.

The nature of this problem is such that no country, on its own, can fashion a viable and effective response. What is needed is an open dialogue committed to a structural transformation that is supported by international trade, financial and production relations, such that we are able to close the gap between the richer countries and the newly industrializing economies. The way ahead requires closer cooperation between countries as well as between the public and private sectors. Rather than a “Me First,” it needs a “We are in this together” approach. A world without want, a world without hunger is possible, but only if we work together and make the eradication of poverty a common enterprise. Nor is it sustainable to practice democracy at home and unaccountability on the world stage.

The second defining phenomenon is the fourth industrial revolution, characterized by accelerating technological innovation generated by the fusing of the physical, biological and digital worlds. It is evolving at an exponential rate, such that change and disruption to systems of production, management and governance are becoming constants. It bears with it perils that we have to confront: the unequal division of the spoils of technological advances and the threat of mass unemployment; the erosion of governance; the potential abuse of robotics, genetic engineering and cyber weapons, to name but a few.

Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum maintains that we are “on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another.” Faced with these challenges some have begun to look into developing tools, thinking and social science on how to navigate the future.

But, according to one of them, Andrew Maynard of Arizona State University, the gap between our technological capabilities and our ability to manage them responsibly has continued to widen. Closing the gap, he says, “will require new approaches from governments, business and others. But it will also depend on new partnerships being forged between experts and organisations that have insight into the complex dynamic between society and technology, and those that call the shots.”

Maynard adds that “it will also depend on ordinary people — those who stand to bear the brunt or reap the rewards of the coming revolution — being included in defining and helping determine how this next industrial revolution plays out.”

The third phenomenon — climate change — underscores that simple truth of the interdependence of the peoples and countries of this world. Globalization, the fourth industrial revolution, and climate change—the effects of each are pervasive and substantially man-made.

It is in our power, in the decisions we make on a daily basis, to influence how these phenomena evolve. We can shape them and guide their effects towards a future that reflects humankind’s common objectives, and not some narrowly defined selfish interests. This requires conversations and actions on the domestic and global stage, conversations that will enable us to develop comprehensive and shared views about how globalisation, climate change and technology are affecting our lives and reconfiguring the world in which we live. This has to be a shared view so that we accept responsibility for the actions we take to shape the future. Shared ownership is a pre-condition for shared responsibility.

What kind of future beckons?

A better future is possible.

“If technology is to serve society rather than dominate it,” says Maynard, “everyone involved, from businesses, governments, academics to ordinary people, needs to proactively work together to make it so.”

Success in exploiting the opportunities and mitigating the perils of globalization, climate change and the technological revolution depends on the combined efforts of organizations, citizens and governments.

Schwab maintains that technological advances “will increasingly enable citizens to engage with governments, voice their opinions, coordinate their efforts, and even circumvent the supervision of public authorities. Simultaneously, governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure. On the whole, however, governments will increasingly face pressure to change their current approach to public engagement and policymaking, as their central role of conducting policy diminishes owing to new sources of competition and the redistribution and decentralization of power that new technologies make possible.”

Change and disruption spawn fears and concerns. Discontent is the playground of demagogues. The capacity of those who seek to exploit people’s fears is being extraordinarily enhanced by digital technologies and the dynamics of information on social media. These fears relate to the real consequences of globalization and innovation, and this renders them all the more inflammable in the hands of those who seek to play on people’s emotions.

I see some major similarities between my country and other democracies, particularly the U.S., with regard to the environment in which we are functioning.

South Africa has had a history in which white minority rule justified the exclusion of the overwhelming black majority from power, on the grounds that the history and culture of the European population could be threatened by the black majority. This fear was manufactured and played upon in order to inculcate the idea of the superiority of the white “race”. Along this path, apartheid came to enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of the white community, including businessmen and workers, ordinary men and women, men of the cloth, academics, scientists and intellectuals. It was used to justify the dispossession of the African people of their land and establish a privileged way of life for the minority white population. Two critical psychological elements were deployed—fear of and hostility towards black people.

It is inescapable that I should be keenly attuned to the claim some are making that history and culture are today under threat in the U.S. I could immediately identify that this formulation is coded language meaning that European culture and, logically therefore, white culture is under threat. And sadly, I am not surprised that rallies called under the name of free speech are characterized by white supremacist and neo-Nazi slogans.

Nor am I surprised that there are those who want to define the debate about culture and race in terms of economic nationalism. The South African experience, where race superiority was buttressed by economic privilege, was the critical glue that ensured the survival of the system of institutionalized racism for so long.

Donald Trump is more a symptom than the cause. His accession to the presidency was based on exploiting a deeply felt and widely held lack of faith in American democracy to represent ordinary Americans. His technique rests on getting us to separate emotion from reason. Facts become irrelevant; truth is no consequence; the one-liner and the tweet become potent vehicles to invoke fear, hostility and anger, which are the breeding ground for violence.

Lurking beneath this is a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions, or worse, a systematic undermining of people’s faith in democracy itself. He has attacked the integrity of voting; he has attacked members of the judiciary and its independence; he has attacked the integrity of government institutions to undermine public trust in them; he has attacked the press; and he has undermined the credibility of the presidency itself by his disregard for facts. The potency of such undermining is multiplied when we take into account the feeling that the system is rigged to serve the elite and not ordinary Americans and that politics is itself portrayed and seen to be ‘dirty’ business.

Democracy is the only system we have that allows for the mediation of conflicting interests that are extant and immanent in society, without such conflicts degenerating into civil strife and violence. The promise of democracy is not that such conflicting interests will be eliminated, but that they would addressed in such a way that it allows for society to move forward. It rests on the premise of dialogue and rational discussion and finding ways to advance one’s sectional interests in the context of ensuring that the larger interests of society as a whole are paramount.

Democratic systems are able to accommodate considerable degrees of stress. Some of these moments of stress may well lead to questions which necessitate changes in the architecture of a particular democracy. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. However, there are certain principles that should guide their determination.

When civil strife and violence enter the political space, the door is opened to authoritarianism. Authoritarian rule or anarchy, populism’s most extreme consequence, cannot be the way forward. The answer lies is addressing the systemic fault lines in representative democracy that create the space whereby substantial numbers of people begin to feel powerless and voiceless.

The gap between the representatives and the institutions of government, on the one hand, and the citizenry one the other, must be the prime focus of our attention.

What dominates the headlines today is the way authoritarian personalities and/or populists exploit the advances in technology. However, these very advances can become instruments of empowerment, making it possible for a more informed citizenry to be able to voice their opinions, coordinate their efforts and engage with their government representatives at every level.

The idea the democracy is government of the people, for the people, by the people suggests a direct relationship between the government and the people that can only be approximated by what are essentially various forms of representative government. The extent to which the relationship is not and can not be direct democracy is bridged by different forms and structural arrangements that enable representative democracy to be held accountable.

But accountability on its own, important as it is, is not and can not be sufficient to bridge the gap between representative government and the people, particularly with regard to the feelings of being powerless and voiceless. Rather than allow the crisis of democracy to descend into authoritarianism or anarchy, we need to deepen democracy. Given that decision-making is a process, there is enough room to experiment in making all, including those who feel powerless and voiceless, part of the process.

We need to nail to our mast the goal of a people-centered, people-oriented and participatory democracy. This should become the measuring rod against which we assess the ways in which we harness the opportunities arising in the world in which we live, while striving to mitigate and contain the ability of organizations and governments to manipulate and control the digital infrastructure.

Governments too will have to change the way in which they make policy and engage with the public. Again, the test when contemplating or making any change must be whether it empowers or diminishes the power of the citizen. The people are the first and the last line of defense for democracies. But they will only rise to this challenge if they feel a sense of ownership—that democracy is theirs and works for them.

Indeed, democracy is in crisis across the world and the specters of authoritarian rule and anarchy have reared heir heads inside the citadels of democracy. In the light of the challenges it faces, perhaps the more meaningful question is not whether democracy has failed us, but whether we have failed democracy. 

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