Democracy in Universal Decline?

MK Raghavendra

We are generally aware that political ideas that seem unimpeachable run their course and are rendered irrelevant by historical circumstances. As an instance, Marxist ideas ruled the world of ideas in the 1970s but became irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. Even in the 1990s there were those who insisted that Marxist thought could not be extinguished just because of the failure of the first attempt to create a Marxist utopia. This may well be true and Marxism still has merit as a system of analysis but one can no longer trust in an ideal society based on Marxist principles- since many of its notions like the solidarity of the working class have proved dubious. It is not enough to say that such solidarity is good for the workers; the workers themselves need to see that. Religion and ethnicity – which are irrational affinities – often draw marginalized people closer than class does. In the same way one is led to believe that the time for democracy is also over. There is virtually no nation that does not profess to be democratic but democracy means more than having periodic elections.

One need not name individual nations but regimes even acknowledged widely as non-authoritarian are growing fewer by the day. Some sort of coercive intolerance rules even the democracies of the West. If one regards debate between different viewpoints as essential to democracy – as John Rawls supposed –issuch debate allowed? Intolerance need not reveal itself as ‘intolerance’ and could take the guise of principles - as has happens with political correctness. Political correctness led to what is termed ‘cancel culture’ where the views of one group will not be heard by its adversaries. When a person labels another as racist, sexist, fascist or anti-national, what he or she is doing is preparing the ground for not hearing that other person. Even ‘liberal’ media platforms covertly practice cancel culture since the viewpoints they publish are aligned with whatever they already hold. Alongside is the social media that purveys fake opinion so effectively that ‘democratic opinion’ has lost credibility. With the print media losing out to the internet this has been exacerbated. Overall, the absence of reasoned debate between different viewpoints implies that most platforms are openly propagandist.

If one studies the arrival of these tendencies on finds that they strengthened in the new millennium when the social media grew in strength. Since market acceptability became the primary judge of worth in most fields, education went into in decline. Institutions woo students through means that have little to do with inculcating learning.With the weakening of learning academic platforms multiplied and also lost their authority. There was no longer such a thing as informed opinion when bloggers began airing opinions that attracted readers. ‘Eyeballs’ became coveted since they meant revenue through advertising. Information/misinformation and knowledge became indistinguishable and the term ‘post-truth’ became current when what were termed ‘facts’ became open to serious doubt.

I would propose that writing a widely accepted history of the 21st century would be an impossible task since there is no consensus on what the ‘facts’ are. If one takes an event like the history of the ISIS there is no way in which it can be reconstructed, which could still be done with the Iraq war in which there was a consensus of some sort. This phenomenon of ‘facts’ themselves being doubtful reduces the possibility of debate. Debate is an exchange of views that can only be fruitful if there is an agreement on the basic information underlying the argument taking place. One cannot ‘agree to disagree’ in a debate because the debate presumes a basic agreement on what the facts are and an argument has to follow logic - which can easily be spotted as right or fallacious by a disinterested onlooker.

Many of our debates are based on value systems and the idea of equality is itself held sacred. Regardless of the cherished idea of equality neither human beings nor nations are really equal although saying so on any platform might be taboo. If we take the Ukraine war for instance, an issue is whether a superpower can be treated in the same way as any other nation. The Western nations decided that Saddam Hussain threatened their existence and it was deemed right for them to act on that premise although that premise itself was subsequently found to be false. Using this logic, the issue in the Ukraine war is hence not only whether Ukraine had the inalienable right to join NATO but also whether Russia as a superpowermilitarily did not have legitimate security concerns that needed to be addressed.

Sanctions of Russia were essentially an attempt to ‘cancel’ it but can one choose such a candidate for ‘cancellation’? Cancellation is a strategy used by groups within a cohesive society governed by law and here is an attempt to extend it globally against nations! Russia has the fire power to destroy the world several times over; the Russian people are habituated to hardship and Putin does not need a consensus. One doubts that such animprudent step would have been taken if an exchange of concernshad been possible.

Russia, like many other major powers in the world, is not a democratic country but neither, I would argue, are the most powerful Western powers. The difference is that in a democratic country (one that holds fair elections) the public has to be manipulated and opinion manufactured through an elaborate process while in a dictatorship (which also holds ‘elections’) public opinion can simply be announced from the top; there is no dictator who does not claim to be carrying out the will of the public. While a democracy needs to ‘manufacture consent’ through rhetoric a dictatorial regime’s task is simpler.

With the technological advances in the purveying of (mis)information being irreversible one cannot imagine democracies returning to their golden period in the last century. We can no longer even describe this as a ‘crisis for democracy’ since a crisis is something that can be averted or which will eventually pass. The problem for a democracy today is that it may be turned by its own rhetoric even on the brink of catastrophe. The insistence of that rhetoric is itself inversely proportional to the debate it has fostered. Public debate thus could be a safe way to weigh the consequences of political decisions before they are actually taken.

October 2022