Whatever happened to the springtime for democracy?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 18th 2018

Three decades ago democracy was the future and carrying all before it. The Soviet bloc was collapsing, the South African apartheid regime was crumbling – and all across South America brutal dictatorships were being replaced by democracies (however imperfect) symbolised by the fall of the Pinochet junta.

Today the state of the world could not look more different and feel less optimistic. There are still many more democracies than there even a decade ago, but somehow the springtime for people power promised three decades ago has got lost, and the promise of democracy seems to be in retreat, with authoritarian leaders and the appeal of populism on the rise.

The reasons for this are many and oft-cited: the failure to reform capitalism after the bankers crash, the decade-long stagnation in living standards across the West, the retreat of welfare states and idea of social solidarity, the inability of centre-left parties to tame turbo capitalism (or in many cases even try), and the lack of imagination in the political classes in dealing with these and other problems. All of this and more has led to Trump, Erdogan and Orban – and of course Brexit.

What is less examined is what is meant by the word and idea of democracy and what ‘we’ – the people, voters and collective commons – want from it. This however is the timely subject of a new film by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor – ‘What is Democracy?’ – which recently premiered at the Take One Action! film festival in Edinburgh.

There are many positives in Taylor’s film. It could have come over as a dry, academic set of well-meaning liberal lectures but is animated, reflective, and filled with warmth. It has a long historical lens from ancient times to now, while understanding the many challenges of what passes for modern democracy, as although it seems everywhere in some form, many of us feel our lack of collective power.

The film starts with the well-worn trope that the Greeks invented democracy. We now know they didn’t – they gave us the word from which democracy originates, but just like philosophy, they did not invent the idea. Humanity invented the idea of democracy, just as football was not created by the English and Scots, but belongs to all mankind. Democratic theorists have now found evidence of democratic practices in traditional Chinese villages, African tribal roots, ancient Indian republics, and native American society. Some of these are contested, but it is widely accepted that Europeans did not exclusively create democracy.

With that caveat, ‘What is Democracy?’ takes us on a tour de force exploration of democracy’s progress and non-progress. It focuses on the scholarly debates of ancient Greece and then transposes them to modern Greece, and its humiliation by the European Union and Germany.

Many in Scotland have become passionate about Catalonia’s independence referendum in October 2017 and the repression by Spanish authorities, but much more serious, as an affront to democracy, was what happened to Greece. Faced with brutal EU imposed austerity, the left-wing Syriza Government went to the country in a July 2015 referendum, which emphatically rejected the EU terms by 61% to 39%. Within days, the Greeks were told by the EU they had no option but to accept Berlin-Brussels austerity, and their government crumbled.

As moving is the story of what happened to the hope of the US civil rights movement, and how Martin Luther King’s work to educate, agitate, organise – and to encourage voter registration and then to use that vote – has been blocked. Fifty years ago, American blacks were disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws which tripped people up on literacy tests or identification. Today’s Republicans use a host of more subtle, but equally racist-inspired practices to drive black voters and other ethnic minorities off the register.

Tactics used today include any kind of felony, no matter how small, being used to disqualify the right to voting. In some states, traffic offences have been used to strike off Democratic voting groups. Many of these activities are based on flawed information. Arkansas, for example, bars felons serving their sentences from voting, but a list of voters purged in June 2016 included more than 4,000 people who had merely come into contact with the court system, because of divorces and minor misdemeanours. This is now so widespread that civil rights activists are beginning to realise that they never really won.

One of many moving moments in the film comes when a young black woman who had been involved in the civil rights campaign, reflects from today that mass incarceration and voter suppression have changed the terms. ‘They have locked the door fifty times over. We thought the vote was the key’, she says, and it turned out not to be so.

Another poignant scene is when Taylor asks groups of Americans on park benches four key questions – ‘Do you live in a democracy?’, ‘Do you trust the government?’, ‘Do you vote? – and ‘If there is one issue which undermines our democracy what is it?’ The answers are fascinating and shocking, with one young white woman (who is clearly from an affluent family) happy to pontificate on how wrong it is for government to give more support to those who have less, and that this is discriminatory against people like her, and that helping those who are poor is ‘bullcrap’.

One refreshing aspect of the film is that the spectre of Donald Trump is rarely mentioned, with instead, the perilous state of democracy in the US and elsewhere seen as much more deep-rooted and alarming. Cornel West, the eminent philosopher, offers the radical view that we are not free and that even more fundamentally, ‘most people fear being free’; Angela Davis, the civil rights campaigner, goes further, stating that the US ‘never abolished slavery.’

An uplifting strand in Taylor’s film is that nearly all the examples used have both a particular location and an universal relevance. The undertone of the film, never said with too much polemical preaching, is this is the US or Greece, or the fate of Syrian refugees trying to enter the EU today. And that this could be you and your country tomorrow if we don’t do something.

Nowhere in the Western world is democracy in great health. That is clearly true of the UK and a contributory factor in Brexit. It is also true of Scotland, which is not immune from these global trends of discontent and disillusion with mainstream politics, or the decline in trust and deference: a point we need to remember four years after the democratic explosion which was the independence referendum.

All of this is a live issue for how we govern ourselves, make collective decisions, and shape future direction of our societies. Democracy is always constantly moving, and at the moment is in retreat, being daily humiliated and trashed by the likes of Trump, Putin and Erdogan.

The weakest aspect of the film, and this is part understandable, is where after nearly two hours of a powerful rollercoaster ride, it reaches its conclusion. Its resting place is in the time-honoured socialist and feminist battle cry to democratise democracy and expand it out from the public sphere into the private home and the personal relationships between the sexes and of reproduction.

For many of us this is a worthwhile and noble politics, but one which seems at odds and not up to the task of challenges we have just seen. If we take a longer historical frame, which the film invites, humanity has barely got started with democracy and democratic process: the experience of one person one vote being of recent experience in most societies. The first examples of women gaining the vote are the province of Friesland in the Netherlands in 1689 and some Swedish women in 1718, but it took until the start of the 20th century to really catch on, while Switzerland only enfranchised women in 1971.

The UK, which does love telling everyone that it is the home of democracy and liberty, only introduced one person one vote in 1948 when the Attlee Government abolished the business vote and university constituencies. This had meant some middle class people had three votes: the practice being known by the euphemism ‘plural voting’.

Political democracy despite having ancient and universal roots has only in recent times become something which involves most of society. And even then we still practice rigid restraints keeping to the political realm, and having only barely begun to explore ideas of economic democracy.

If that were not enough, there are even bigger issues coming down the line. Crony capitalism, the rise of technocratic elites, and the self-interest and arrogance of the new tech and social media companies, poses a huge challenge to how we conduct and think of democracy. Beyond this sits the disruptive power of immense data harvesting technology and information systems, and the prospect they have for an algorithm authoritarianism where the machines take over from us humans how we decide to organise our societies.

Democracy is at its very roots about who are as a ‘we’ and ‘us’, about how we define part of our very humanity by coming together collectively. And this fundamental right is being undermined by the so-called new populists using very old tricks, by elites, and the march of technology.

We need to wake up and recognise that a power which until now we have only imperfectly exercised, is being stripped of its power and meaning, and in some cases, taken away from us. Democracy has to be remade and rewon everyday, both here and across the world.