When the democratic process isn’t enough

Rami G. Khouri writes: The fascinating, simultaneous demonstrations and challenges to democratically elected regimes in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil this month suggest that we need to look for an explanation for all this in something structural in newly democratized societies, rather than in cultural explanations. The silliest common cultural line of analysis asks about the compatibility between “Islam and democracy,” without our ever hearing an analogous discussion of, say, “Judaism and democracy” or “Christianity and democracy.”The mass demonstrations in these three countries are particularly intriguing because their leaderships are democratically elected, and therefore unquestionably legitimate. Also, all three countries were passing through moments of great hope and achievement; these included significant mass economic improvements in people’s well-being in Brazil and Turkey, and a democratic transition in Egypt that created a new global icon of the popular will for mass dignity and civil rights: Tahrir Square. Politically mummified Egypt set a new benchmark against which other political agitation around the world would be measured, whether in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2011 or in Turkey this month where analysts debated whether the Turkish people were about to create a new Tahrir Square.

The hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in Turkey and Brazil, and those millions in Egypt who promise to hold a mass national demonstration on June 30 to seek the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi on the first year anniversary of his arrival to power, raise reasonable questions that relate to several aspects of the two most compelling dimensions of governance: the policy and the style of the ruling incumbents. If the legitimacy of the leaderships in these three countries is not directly in question – after all, they were elected in free and fair democratic elections – then why have dissatisfied citizens taken to the streets to show their concerns?

I suspect that what we are witnessing is a dramatic expression of the weaknesses inherent in two simultaneous processes that are slowly expanding across the world: One is democratic rule based on majoritarianism, and the other is the continued diffusion of neoliberal capitalism, which turns citizens into consumers and gives corporations much greater power in the public realm than it does to the mass of ordinary citizens. The convergence and the initial globalization of these two forces can be traced to the early 1980s, under the leaderships of President Ronald Reagan in the United States and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “When the democratic process isn’t enough

  1. delia ruhe

    Democracy and capitalism were never easy bedfellows which is why, at the turn of the 20th century, the notion of liberalism — the centre of the political spectrum — as managing the tension between left and right became popular. It was called “welfare liberalism” to mark it as different from the purely Lockean kind, in which government’s only responsibility is “to protect the life, liberty, and property of the industrial class”. Today’s neoliberalism takes off from that Lockean view but adds “at the expense of everyone else.”

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