A very democratic decline: troubles of liberalism and end of times

Democracy is being contested.

It didn't take too long for history not to end. Thirty years tops and the democratic euphoria is all gone. It's no longer an export product - Chinese made authoritarianism trumped it completely! It's even having trouble on its home turf, in Britain, United States and, in its promissory version, in India.

Theories abound where it went wrong, blaming bad men and globalization in equal measure. There is a cutely optimistic streak in some of this analysis, a kind of nostalgia for the lost times and a loveable leap of faith that the pretenders will all be exposed and democracy will triumph. Everything will be alright at the end; if it's not alright, it's not the end - as they say in Marigold Hotel!

Indeed, that's cute and loveable and entirely wrong.

Democracy ascended not as a gradual revelation of any ultimate truth nor as gift of the benevolent, but rather as a compromise between those who had too much vested in the disappearing absolute monarchs and those who wanted to protect property from the whims of the royal grab. The slackening grasp of religiosity, which aided the former as they traded misery on earth for the promise of salvation, was replaced by the possibility of voice, as the workingmen had to be won over for the cause of property. It was not an ultimate truth but a negotiated settlement, held in place by that ultimate idea of ownership - the nation - and with the assumption that this inclusion will steal the wind from the sails of various anti-property ideologies. Democracy was never to be taken for granted as an established condition, but rather was a delicate balance, to be negotiated continuously.

Besides, democracy, in the form it came to be, was not about rights and participation, but about institutions. That was the lynchpin of the balance, the great safeguard for property if ever the rabble turned rogue. The liberal genius was to craft a patriarchy of undemocratic institutions, courts, committees and constitutions, outside the viccitudes of public mood and the grasp of the demos. Those enshrined the settlement and protected the concessions: that far and no further!

This arrangement worked well - so well, in fact, that we forgot that this was not a self-evident truth. Therefore, when the economic needs of the safeguard disappeared - a service economy where production is automated and warfare mechanized came into being - and external restraints loosened with the emergence of an unipolar world, we let the balance go. Democracy was the frog who sat in the gradually warming water, to be boiled alive!

In this decline, the hallowed institutional protection is of no avail. The institutions were easy to take over. They were outside democracy's purview and fed by the sorting mechanism of the elitist and increasingly privatised education system. The current assault on democracy is not, as it's decried to be, the first step in gradual weakening of the institutions, but rather quite the final stage of a political revolution after the institutions have already been taken over.

And, this is not a 'populist' revolution, of the kind which swept the world in 1920s and 30s, but rather a full-fledged revolt of the elites. And, it's not conservatism that's defining the agenda here: Instead, it's a new kind of radicalism at play, one that looks at creating a minority of well-endowed closed-circle elite and everyone else as underclass. The minorities are now being sliced apart and set off against one another; and in stage two, all the majoritarian middle class men indulging in the spectacle will face the same.

In summary, democracy's decline is  not a temporary aberration but a terminal condition. And, liberal model of institutional safeguard isn't going to save democracy; most institutions have already turned rogue. And, yet, the idea of democracy is still worth fighting for, as that still provides the maximum opportunity for maximum number of people. And, this battle long term, must be fought in two ways: First, by rebooting our education, one classroom at a time, one teacher at a time. We must go back to first principles: Prosperity without freedom is fragile, and that voice in a political community hold the greatest guarantee to personal dignity. And, second, we must rediscover our sources of power: In the automated world of production and warfare, neither the socialist strategy of withdrawal of labour nor the Gandhian tactic of appeal to human sympathies are sufficient by themselves. Rather, in the consumer society, it's our needs and desires, of which we have lost control of, give us the greatest power. Our vote is often in our wallet these days - and there is a material way of staring down the despots.


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