By Andonis Vassiliades
There is a crisis facing democracy but it is not new. For far too long, democratic governments have been consistently reneging on their promises and distancing themselves from their peoples. In turn, their peoples have been losing trust in their political leaders and their integrity. They have been deserting them in droves and turning to political apathy and political tribalism instead.
In the UK the populist support for the Conservative New Right (‘Thatcherism’) in the mid-1970s to early 1990s (later followed by New Labour – ‘Blairism’) led to the introduction of uncompromising politics, by uncompromising leaders with an uncompromising style of leadership which challenged the stability of the democratic government.
In my inaugural (professorial) lecture at the time, titled ‘the conservative years: the social problem of government’, I chose to draw attention to the problems facing democratic government; how government creates – instead of ameliorating – social problems; and how Thatcherism’s authoritarian style proved corrosive for social and political stability and undermined the principles of consensus and open society.
I argued that the rise of authoritarian politics undermined the very foundations of democratic society and brought governance in disrepute and at the crossroads. Also, that the very popular vote which brought the Iron Lady who ‘was not for turning’ in power were the same ‘ordinary’ people who suffered the most from the rampage of austerity, ruthless expenditure cutbacks, the assault on the welfare state, the dismemberment of social cohesion and the dereliction of the industrial and occupational landscape.
In that period of harsh times but well rooted populist ideological schemata together with the political and financial grip exerted on educational and other institutions, my argument for revisiting and rethinking democratic government and stopping the rot, fell on deaf ears.
Other than the usual ceremonial congratulations and ritualistic handshakes coupled with the classic phrase, “Very interesting”, the overall subjective message I received was, “How dare you!” It was left to an Italian colleague, Professor Vincenzo Ruggiero who was in attendance, to write later: “In this hard-hitting critique of the state and the shift to authoritarian politics, I could not avoid recalling the provocative question posed by distinguished [scholars] such as Alvin Gouldner and Howard S. Becker: ‘Whose side are we on?’ …In a growing climate of Europhobia and coming from across the Channel, he lectured to a mainly British audience on the failures of democratic government – [leading to] a culture which creates loss of faith, alienation, new underclasses and encourages abuse of power, secrecy and corruption.”
Admittedly, my treatise of democratic government and its contamination from toxic doses of authoritarianism was not so original. The seminal works by Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840, still provide an illuminating understanding of the make-up and emergence of what can be called populist ‘democratic authoritarianism’.
Alexis de Tocqueville, though embracing the marvels of democracy, alluded to the broader social and political risks to democracy emanating from within. Tocqueville forewarned that democracy generates social forces that can break and undo its own existence.
He could not find a way to describe his vision and what he understood of his concept of risk. But what he had in mind was that democracy could fall victim to something akin to tyranny. Again, he could not put a finger on what kind of tyranny but he implied thus: it is when government wants to control and run all business; attacks, regulates and restricts liberties; curtails the benefits of free press and free expression; becomes selective and creates friction between social groups; is overtaken by consumerism and corruption; allows inequalities; and discriminates against particular social groups instead of celebrating diversity.
If Tocqueville were alive today he would be gasping in horror at how close his prophetic words have come to haunt contemporary democracies. For the world is currently struggling to contain the growing surge of authoritarianism and political upheaval – from Donald Trump to Brexit to the emergence of the ‘alt-right’ and the global rise of political repression.
This political and social corrosiveness threatens to undo democratic ideals and to replace them with some other fake and populist version of democracy akin to despotic practices. This version survives on authoritarian populism which selectively attacks sections of the free media and judicial institutions, disrupts politics, markets and social relationships by skillfully distorting, misinforming and faking the message and presentation.
Authoritarian populism presents as though it is the guardian of democracy: that it is protecting, upholding and promoting democracy, physical and social borders, the national interest, individual freedoms and protecting the rights of the majority from the oppression of the minority. These are values, it claims, that liberals have allowed to wither away.
The message works. Authoritarian populists, not to mention the despotic politics in Russia, Ukraine, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and others, have now gained and secured legitimate powers within democratic governments across Europe and beyond: from Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, Israel, US and UK to the once secular state of Turkey.
So what do we do to stop the advance of authoritarianism? Many colleagues are utilising their scholarly skills as a way of addressing authoritarianism. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and On Tyranny; Larry Diamond et al.’s (eds.) Authoritarianism Goes Global; Cass R. Sunstein’s (ed.) Can it Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America; and Peter Baofu’s The Rise of Authoritarian Liberal Democracy are examples which critically evaluate democracy and authoritarianism. More are in the pipeline: for example, a forthcoming book by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism adds to the debate; and two forthcoming volumes, edited by Alan Waring, The New Authoritarianism, espouse the risks of the expanding ‘alt-right’ ideology. Also, defiant voices from journalists of the international, national and local press, like the voice of Sener Levent, add to the chorus against tyranny. It is a wake-up call.
At the moment, halting and reversing authoritarianism is an almost intractable task. Until there is a new turn of the socio-political wheel to another progressive political culture, the current rise of authoritarian politics will continue.
Until that turn occurs, three options are available. We sit and observe and go along with whatever authoritarian politics throws at us by ‘playing the game’; or we retreat by giving up and accepting our fate; or we resist. This resistance is not different to any struggle for liberty to preserve liberty. In overthrowing the shackles of political slavery and repression one needs to fight. Here the choice is not physical but intellectual. The colleagues and journalists who write or use the media to alert others about the risks and attempt, in their own way, to resist the spread of authoritarianism should be supported and encouraged to continue doing so.
The moment intellectual challenges dry up; or are curtailed by force and fear of intimidation; or intellectuals choose to turn a blind eye by closing their minds to the ensuing threat to freedoms; or by failing to recognise the risks and injustices that ensue from the rise of authoritarianism; or by simply ceasing to be critical, then that will be the moment when we all are under the boot of the dictator and the tyranny of authoritarianism.