Democracy Under Assault

Contributed by Hammad Raza

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The concept of democracy as a political notion of governance for the people and by the people has now become an instrumental tool by impersonal forces to control the general masses. Deep strains on democracy can be seen in the threatening fractures all over the world. These developments can be traced to three, closely-related, long-term trends that characterize our late-modern moment: the hollowing out of politics by neo-liberal forms of governance; the atomization and privatization of the social world in a consumer society; and the alienation from the public sphere and concomitant disillusionment with the political classes. The result is an apolitical notion of “politics” as either a zero-sum game between competing interests or a take-no-prisoners, antagonistic struggle founded on the friend/enemy distinction. The overall sequel of these developments is the emergence of new awkward political movements and leaders on the political plank. As the crisis is deepening an overwhelming neo-fascist tendency is taking root in the mindset of people which is mainly being espoused in the form of intolerance and rabid bigotry. This tendency is a reflection of dysfunctionality of democracy in an anti-political age resulted from an  inability to recognize politics as a collective activity of common constitution and coordination. Politics is the necessary condition of the inter-subjective relation between socially-situated selves who need each other to succeed and, inevitably, are not of a single mind. Even in this post-modern condition which has overwhelming superseded other forms of social existence, It requires mutual recognition and respect between citizens. What is more surprising in the context of democracy is the localization of democratic systems negating meta-narratives and posing new challenges to long held discourses on democratic modelling of political governance.  It is, precisely, what no longer seems possible given the degeneration of the social and politics in an increasingly fearful and narcissistic age.

The digital connectivity and arrival of network society was thought to be a windfall for democracy, but it has proved otherwise.

On economic front, prompt developments, like neo-liberal economic system, rise of developmental dictatorships (like China) and technological modes of production have seriously undermined the collective, socialist paradigm and egalitarian principles associated with democratic dispensation. The neo-liberal economic system has reduced the egalitarian role of the state to the maximum extent. States have become bystanders in their economic outlook. The labour unions, trade unions and syndicates are well nigh absent owing to the relegation of state from economic affairs and the domination of market over the laws of economics. Hence, the essentiality of democracy as an egalitarian order both vertically and horizontally has lost its vitality as it is being served under the neo-liberal economic system. The concept of economic growth and development has long been associated with democracy according to Noble Laureate, Amartya Sen. The economic growth and development of China under dictatorial regime has also posed problem for political theorists all over the world. In 1960s, many scholars like Huntington, were of the view that economic growth in developing states can be best ensured under dictatorships or strong states with one party rule. In contrast to this supposition, Barrington Moore and Samuel Finer contested this notion and dumped it. Hence, the crisis of democracy is undergoing two major shifts–neo-liberal economic system and dictatorships overcoming democratic inertia for the sole purpose of economic growth.

The second most glaring development in the realm of social is the atomization of individuals in the age of consumerism. Media–both new and old–are in the process of turning human beings into robotic consumers of products. The brand have taken superiority over morality and consumption over polity. Castells in his seminal work on internet society has argued that democracy is at risk with technological developments which are begetting consumers and not political and social actors. The effect of these developments is that the middle classes are becoming socially and politically conservatives and economically progressive. The narcissism of minor difference to which Freud refers has become the dominant attitude amongst the consumers which has developed apolitical demeanour in them. The corollary of these developments is rise of topsy-turvy political figures and movements both in the developed and the developing world. Donald Trump is a glaring example of this development.

Media–both new and old–are in the process of turning human beings into robotic consumers of products.

Apolitical attitude amongst people is shrinking their participation in the social and public sphere. This sphere is an essential arena for polity and society to contest for their rights and to demonstrate their obligations towards each other according to Habermas. In late modern times, the public sphere has been relegated to the back-burner and the vacuum has been captured by cyber-sphere. The digital connectivity and arrival of network society was thought to be a windfall for democracy, but it has proved otherwise. Impersonalization of relations betwixt social actors or individuals has resulted into depoliticised masses inherently hate filled with traditional political classes active on political front. They feel that all the ills of their lives are due to their political system. The recent Arab Spring was the prime example of this disillusionment.

These developments are so powerful that Pakistan could not escape their effects. Middle class settled in urbanized areas of Pakistan felt disillusioned and disgruntled with traditional political elite and their way of governance without realising the power of ‘iron-caged’ bureaucratic and administrative wing of the state. They have failed to rationalize that over-administered, post-colonial state are in the clutches of impersonal, vested interests. Moreover, the super-structure of political edifice is founded on weak foundations of leadership style in political parties. Every party has a leader, but in new parties, it is the leader who owns the party like PTI–a middle class and urbanised political party based on the personality cult of Imran Khan. This party is prototype example of political orientation of 21st century politics–agitative, neo-fascist and populist and conjuring up on hate sentiments of the middle classes. If Pakistan is to safeguard the democratic system, the onus is on political parties and their leadership. They have to improve their public profile, develop a framework for welfarism, ensure justice, deepen the roots of meritocracy and re-orient their political programmes according to social, economic and political developments in a globalised world. Their survival depends on the over-hauling of model of governance which ought to be people’s friendly and service oriented.

Contributed by Hammad Raza

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