[This isn’t a repost but an original article for this blog, about time I guess]
I’ve been troubled by the remarks of Russian Senator Nikolai Ryzhkov, quoted in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. His words can be read on a number of levels. Regarding the political crisis in Ukraine, he said that Russia should be prepared for the west to “unleash their dogs on us”. “They ruined Yugoslavia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, all in the name of western democracy. It’s not even double standards, it’s political cynicism.”
As Germany and the United States continue to issue threats, events skitter between an unstable compromise over Crimea and outright war. Simply, his words are a statement of international defiance. Russia makes preparations to defend its political and economic interests in what it considers as one of its client states. It rejects any political or humanitarian criticism from the West in advance, by pointing to the destruction, war, and shambolic failure to establish political institutions that western intervention has brought elsewhere. Intervention, including intervening to prevent international scrutiny to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Palestine, does not appear so contradictory when economic motives, rather than ‘women’s rights’ or ‘fair elections’, are placed at its head. The name of western democracy is not a sincere one, if it signifies only the justification of international aggression against economically disobedient states.
It also reflects the declining relevance of the UN, another well-meaning post-WW2 institution that ‘western democracy’ has effectively eroded. The corrupt behaviour of elected representatives, election fraud, the devastating influence of lobbyists, and the collective feeling in the young that politics is a pre-rigged, worthless game are all unanswered verdicts on democracy in American and western European states.
More troubling is the meaning of democracy in these cases, which no English-speaking writer has yet to satisfy me on. To understand the problems in Ukraine based simply on a left-wing, pro-democracy (and somewhat pro-EU) ‘#Euromaidan’ protest movement, against a corrupt Russian-propped puppet government, is to give too much attention to Kiev over the wider country, where a significant amount of its eastern citizens are actively pro-Russian, and generally seem to demand its intervention. It also overlooks the importance of nationalist feelings (either pro-Ukrainian, or pro-Russian), which have motivated and maintained the strength and unity of both sides of the escalation, be it against riot police in Kiev, or seizing government buildings in the eastern and Crimean towns. Again, well-meaning commentators here continue to insincerely place hope that the desire for freedom will win over the people. But such a freedom is meaningless unless it is predicated on a collective political identity that demands it, and it is this which in Ukraine, and in many other western states, the Left has been unable to address.
To insist that nationalist identification is somehow an aberration of ideology, an effect of politically-enforced ignorance, as a merely ‘imagined community‘, as many western commentators do, will not help to explain what sustains so many political movements, including anti-colonial and communist struggles (of course, fascism and religious authoritarianism too). Deny a person their feeling that their origin and identity matters, or that the way they can identify with others is through the collective belonging and aspirations of a culturally and linguistically homogeneous identity, and you ignore much of the source of their political desire.
This feeling is what Ken Loach’s ‘The Spirit of ’45‘ film (2013) played on, the sacrifices of a national people for a better society (understanding ‘national’ in the sense regarded then, particularly in Commonwealth countries, as something beyond just the UK), though again no English-speaking writer recognised this. It does surprise me that no writer since George Orwell has recognised that the possibility of democratic socialism, based on equality, justice and liberty, could only be possible in England if it was persuasively attached to popular identity and traditions. And so when commentators worry over the declining influence of the Left after the Cold War, they ought to consider why the Left no longer starts its politics from popular identity, rather than supposing some veil of ideology from which a pure and unrefined reality exists. The belief in such a reality is the hallmark of prejudice.
Meanwhile, the meaning of immigration and anxieties over cultural identity, issues which continue to dominate surveys of voters’ concerns, are clumsily handled. Few are able to persuasively articulate why toleration and equality are more important to our cultural identity than what language your fellow-passenger speaks on a train.
Perhaps, going back to the Ukraine for a moment, a close parallel is Egypt. In 2011, a large and strategically well-organised set of protest movements arose, representing many interests and grievances, of which the dominant account presented (at least in our ‘western democracy’) were the political aspirations of a frustrated urban middle-class, liberal in outlook and university-educated, which managed to effectively challenge the legitimacy of the Mubarak government. This forced the state to unveil the basis of its power, its violent police who will rise up against any revolutionary uprising. The ability of protesters to resist them inspired other citizens that a fight could be won for a fairer government. However democratic elections in Egypt did not produce an ‘Arab Spring’ freedom fighter, but the leader of a popular Islamic party with great influence outside the capital. The political incompetence of this leader, along with his belligerent refusal to cooperate with others, led to another sovereign crisis in which the military intervened and are in the process of installing a more favourable leader. Authoritarian rule, founded on violence and fear of violence, has been restored.
The situation may seem different in Ukraine. There is a power-play between former cold war powers, and its country is more divided on national and cultural lines. But in both cases a small pro-democracy movement sparked a wider civil conflict in which it rapidly lost influence, unable to collectively offer a positive self-identity and agreed set of political proposals. Western analysis devoted great attention to this initial movement but lost interest in the less theoretically clear matter of what followed. What of populations who freely elect leaders that clearly intend to install repressive policies? Of where the people are each time united, and divided, on along national and religious identities that narratives like ‘democracy’ are unwilling to influence? How valid are the claims of western democracy, its internationalism and demand for global human rights, when this language is more often than not cynically purposed to justify military aggression? Where its own citizens cannot count on fair political representation, and who go without work, shelter, food, healthcare, or countless other social rights, as its leaders take turns to play Richard III on the international stage?
So far, my point: the name of western democracy quickly becomes a euphemism for a form of modern economic and political aggression by an association of nation-states, military forces, paramilitary forces, energy and resources companies, and slightly gullible INGOs.
Let me present the problem another way. Now, in the west, the form of democracy presented to us has become equally unpopular. Democracy as unpopular, what does this mean? Consider the real desertion of trust and interest in politicians and political affairs across Europe. I’ve heard well-meaning people claim that educating young people about politics will end their apathy. It’s always based on a misunderstanding, that they do not know much of this vague and unspecific term, politics. But it’s easily discovered that the ideals of equality, fairness, justice, freedom, toleration and so on are easily grasped and commonly defended by young and old. What they lack instead is trust that these barely-elected officials will do anything more than lie, brag, steal or jeer. But commentators still aren’t listening.
Last November, an article entitled “Western democracy: decline and…” appeared on OpenDemocracy. Its authors, Ernesto Gallo and Giovanni Biava, make a number of arguments against our contemporary form of democracy which may be familiar. They fear that globalisation and the rule of the market has now made democracy irrelevant. A people in a state no longer have the power to decide the economic direction of their country. In the Eurozone we have seen how local referenda in Ireland, or governments in Greece or Italy, have been effectively toppled or dismissed not so much by the will of the people there, but by international economic forces.
That’s fine in explaining part of the issue, but it does not account for the decline of interest in any politics. It leaves to many unanswered questions about how effective those ‘democratic’ institutions were which supposedly declined. We still need a modern day definition of democracy and democratic action. Consider the failure of the anti-austerity movement, and the recent incarnation of Peoples’ Assemblies, to seize the mainstream. In these cases I describe, there’s nothing to feel: no account to popular identity, or to pride, or to things that can be hoped for, that can be fought for and won. Some of our best minds, far more intelligent and politically active than I will ever be, give countless hours to debunking right-wing narratives, fighting fictions with facts, occasionally winning exposure in a highbrow newspaper or late-night TV news discussion. Good stuff, I think. But less time is spent in producing stories, scenes and beliefs that directly win through to popularity, that become popular. Too much time is lost on reaction, on rejection, on righteous indignation. These are insufficient emotional ties to bring more people together to live for, and hope for, a future democracy.
I don’t mean popular according to some common vision of the ‘people’ as self-seeking, reactionary, hoping only for a tax-cut, the ‘hard-working families’ Ed Milibot drips on about. Dismissals of ‘populism’ starts from the premise that either most people are stupid, or that when most people get together, they are dangerous. We might call the first a monarchical prejudice, and the second an aristocratic prejudice, though maybe that’s a bit too pretentious. Anyway, it’s easy enough to see what passive and active resistance any kind of patronising or condescending attitude creates: look at eruptions of frustration in public buildings or in the modern classroom where teachers are themselves taught that today’s young people only care about money, careers, and cannot focus for more than 2 minutes. I am very glad to say that, from recent teaching experience, most things I have been taught about young people in education are totally wrong.
Equally, if the people are not too stupid or dangerous, there’s another common fear that the people in such states are too misled, or incapable, of wresting power back anyway. It’s common to hear newspapers and TV news as brainwashing the people, preventing them from even being able to independently make an impartial political judgement. Even populism, appealing to political popularity, is deemed a dangerous and suspicious thing. There is a great deal of pessimism by people, especially on the left, about the apparently growing popularity of anti-immigration, right-wing parties in Europe, and their irrational appeal to traditional identities and populism. I find this strange, because as someone who has studied 20th century British history for some years, this anti-immigration party popularity has never been old or new, but a feature of societal division in most decades.
Some theorists now, like Jacques Ranciere or Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, call our era ‘post-political’. For them, political language is now empty of meaning, full of ‘spin’ and PR, where politicians speak only of consensus, which implies that we should all consent to their particular view, and where the power of the markets is the most reliable and impartial way of ordering a society. All of this concedes too much lost ground to unpopular and untrusted mainstream political parties and their powerful allies. Many people seem to have increasingly had enough of this kind of politics, sure, but that doesn’t discount a more general social and political awareness.
What’s missing in this genuinely popular politics is, to my mind, a vision of a better society, like that which motivated the often violent campaigns of the Suffragettes, of the early 20th century workers movements, or of the desire to a new democratic welfare state after the second world war in Britain. My point is not to confer some collective genius on the ‘people’: that is too abstract, insufficiently explained, and too commonly argued already. No. I mean that there has not yet been an adequately democratic expression of the majority. What I think we lack is an argument for equality, liberty and justice that starts from popular identity, and an argument for these things which doesn’t just expect that the majority will get it right in whichever context they are in. There can be no reasonable or secure democracy unless there are institutions in place, safeguards and constitutional checks, which turn a disorganised and contrary group of individuals into a genuinely popular government, a government by and for the majority of people. A multitude or people is not a democracy, unless it has executive, juridical and deliberative institutions in place, in the form of a proper constitution, civil law and set of civil rights, that guarantee that the welfare of the majority is placed as the overall end to which all political and economic activity operates for.
Similarly, the verbose quibbling over the names of things (like class, object, politics, being, praxis, theory, spatiality, materiality, radical, or will, and so on forever), repeats a problem of the universities several centuries ago. It attributes some underlying reality to the name of a thing beyond what it is immediately a sign of. It sees momentary class solidarity as pertaining to some eternal ‘classness’, or an action of popular political activity as pertaining to some abstract ‘will’. This leads to the absurd calls later for a rediscovery of class, or will, or anything else, along such abstract lines that only the author of such theory can authoritatively claim to know the ‘true path’. This leads to the empty warring of egos in whichever forum: publications, meeting halls, or on the stage of international news, over the true name of western democracy.
But philosophers that today are taught as classic fare were, in their own time, declaring war on university school-men and their empty disputations over abstract universals. Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza and others rightly criticised any confusion of a thing (a stone) with some abstract essence (stone-ness). With our question, they would understand democracy not as the ‘essence’ of people power, but as an occasion or set of institutions that effectively produces popular power. On which count, our modern-day democracies might be more correctly termed aristocracies.
Writing in the midst of civil war and looming international invasion, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza asked why people will fight for their slavery as if for their salvation. Spinoza’s solution, unfinished when he died, was a political programme that organised the institutions of democratic representation, justice, and infrastructure, with the collective desire of a united people at its centre. It might seem that in this thought-piece, I am just as guilty as those I criticise for reacting to and rejecting what exists, rather than articulating what I am for. I can only answer with an IOU, that this is my goal, and I will give more information on it when I can.
I am still troubled by Ryzhkov’s words, and I’m not wise enough to make predictions about the future. But turning our minds back to our own yards, until the believers of equality, liberty and justice can produce a credible and positive politics that begins from popular identity, engaging the people and populism on its own terms, our theories are little more than the barking of dogs.