For various reasons, a growing number of people are beginning to wonder whether Democracy is just a fading daydream. The long-predicted effects of climate change are one by one starting to unfold and are shaking our faith in the future. Meanwhile, the spectacular cognitive contortions of many politicians and their followers have seemed beyond belief and have generated distrust in our governments. Finally, people like Bolsonaro, el-Sisi, Duterte, Trump, MBS, Netanyahu (Apartheid politician), Erdogan, Putin, and Burmese generals … to mention just a few, do not inspire hope for the human race, far less for Democracy.
But I put to you that in spite of all this, Democracy is not an illusion, not make-belief, not a silly fantasy!
There is nothing wrong with the concept of Democracy as outlined, however roughly
by the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Democracy is a system of government in which laws, policies, leadership, and major undertakings of a state or other polity are directly or indirectly decided by the “people,” a group historically constituted by only a minority of the population (e.g., all free adult males in ancient Athens or all sufficiently propertied adult males in 19th-century Britain) but generally understood since the mid-20th century to include all (or nearly all) adult citizens.
and recommended by the United Nations:
When the founders of the United Nations drafted the United Nations Charter, they did not mention the word democracy. In 1945, many of the UN Member States did not endorse democracy as a system, or didn’t practice it. Yet, the opening words of the Charter, “We the Peoples”, reflect the fundamental principle of democracy – that the will of the people is the source of legitimacy of sovereign states and, therefore, of the United Nations as a whole.
The problem we are facing these days is not that the concept Democracy is any more fantastical than it ever was, but that the word Democracy has been high-jacked by the United States – where it has been married to an economic (and governmental) system, commonly referred to by detractors as Neoliberalism – and where it has failed ignominiously to curb ubiquitous economic and racial injustice.
Since time immemorial there have been, here and there, patches of what could be called Democratic societies: A model example is that of the San [quote from Wikipedia]:
Traditionally, the San were an egalitarian society. Although they had hereditary chiefs, their authority was limited. The San made decisions among themselves by consensus, with women treated as relative equals. San economy was a gift economy, based on giving each other gifts regularly rather than on trading or purchasing goods and services.
True the San may not have exercised “separation of powers” (legislative, executive and judiciary) and a transparent system of checks and balances, without which I cannot conceive of a modern Democratic society. On the other hand, they managed something no “modern” society would: to survive in the Kalahari Desert.
With or without separation of powers, one thing is certain in the Kalahari Desert as in a post-modern society: Democracy is contingent on informed choices, and that is what has been missing in so many so-called democracies all over the world. The San People will not have known about quantum physics, but what knowledge they had, they shared and without shared knowledge, there is no Democracy.
Again I quote Encyclopedia Britannica:
The hallmark of democracy is that it permits citizens to participate in making laws and public policies by regularly choosing their leaders and by voting in assemblies or referenda. If their participation is to be meaningful and effective—if the democracy is to be real and not a sham—citizens must understand their own interests, know the relevant facts, and have the ability to critically evaluate political arguments. Each of those things presupposes education.
Education, then, is key!
But who gets to decide what goes onto the curriculum? A bellowing bull in Ankara (who is at this very moment clamping down on his countries’ universities)? Or a Christian fundamentalist? Well, that’s where the free press comes into the picture, isn’t it, because if either one or the other fiddles with the curriculum, the press pounces on them, unless…
Unless what? Well, the press isn’t entirely free, is it. The press has powerful owners and/or backers; military dictators, autocrats, Savonarolas, billionaires, cranks, Qanonites and nut cases who will apply every trick in the book to gain and retain control, including the tricks of editing curriculum and controlling the press.
So Democracy is not something that just falls into our laps and stays there. We have to work for it, and we have to defend it. Mind you, this is not new. Since time immemorial, the world has been hectored by power freaks, and has survived. But one thing has changed: change itself, or rather, the speed of change.
Like it or not, change happens and will continue to happen at a breath-taking speed.
Change brings us pandemics, but also improved vaccination technology. Change brings us affordable audio-visual communication across continents, but also the means to whip up insurrections through social media.
More than ever before, education – good education – is needed so that we all can contribute, each in our different ways and to the extent of our capacity – by asking questions, answering questions, squabbling about the answers; by conducting research and questioning results. Like the San, we must share available knowledge about what lies ahead so that we all can take part in deciding how to deal with it.