Democracy in the West can survive without democrats. Not here, though, says Azmi Bishara
In the heat of the debate over democracy as a function of the domestic-foreign dialectic we sometimes lose sight of the essential distinction between the process of building democracy and the process of its self-regeneration once it has taken root and begun to flourish.
One of the factors that work to blur this distinction is that democracy has reached us after several centuries of evolution. This has led some to imagine that democratisation no longer entails the labour of laying the necessary groundwork for the political infrastructures and economic mechanisms necessary for its daily reproduction, as though democracy is a question of switching to the latest government software programme and all you have to do is pick it off the shelf, take it home and press "install".
On the other hand, the fact that democracy has reached us in its current stage of evolution rules out the possibility of returning to square one, restricting the right to vote to a narrow elite and then gradually expanding the franchise to all adult citizens, as occurred in Western democracies. It is impossible to contemplate democracy today without universal suffrage extended even to the non-democratically minded and with rights and civil liberties enjoyed even by anti-liberal forces.
But while not acting as though democracy were the latest consumer craze, we should simultaneously not pretend that we have no previous store of experience to build on. The era of Arab liberalism between the two world wars was not all corruption and collusion with colonialism. Nor was the radical Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s a complete series of blunders. Those non-democratic regimes did have some democratic facets: the masses were brought on board the political process, they were given access to public education and they were led to believe in and aspire to equality and social justice.
In fact, the non-fulfilment of the latter expectation led to the rise of non-democratic movements; indeed, to anti-modernist fundamentalism, often in conjunction with the ruralisation of cities incapable of absorbing the vast influx of migrants into urban mass culture.
But even if frustrated, the aspirations raised by the populist movements of the 1950s and 1960s have become ingrained in mass culture, and today's advocates of democracy can draw on this and, simultaneously, draw inspiration from the fact that those pioneering freedom fighters were at least sincere in their belief in freedom, equality and the power of the people.
Certainly, the more repugnant manifestations of the way in which universal suffrage in the West has blended with mass communications and mass culture have driven many of today's youth to despair of politics and seek meaning for their lives in other domains. Politics in democratic societies has become associated with images of political party intrigue, dirty tricks and backstabbing, rabid opportunism, shifting political positions before and after the elections and before and after entering coalitions.
Electoral campaigns have turned into carnivals and parliament into a circus; spectacle, showmanship and hogging the camera are unchecked by any moral constraints; indeed, it seems now virtually imperative to have one's moral backbone extracted before entering the world of politics, a world divorced from morals and ethics and a world in which private morals are divorced from public morals.
Such are the blights that plague any parliamentarian who has retained a modicum of sensitivity, and they are more than apparent to any objective observer of the pornographic collusion between the commercial media and politics.
These are the manifestations of a modern democracy that can perpetuate itself without democrats because it has established traditions and institutions capable of embracing the pettiest political panderers and posers, capable of accommodating pragmatism and opportunism beneath the euphemism of utilitarianism, and capable of enduring the politics of expedience, which is to say the willingness to tread on corpses (both material and spiritual) without batting an eyelid in the pursuit of one's ends and the mindset that considers all this a virtue.
The foregoing were not the moral outlook nor even a passing phase of democracy's founding fathers of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Georges Jacques Danton, Giuseppe Mazzini, Louis Auguste Blanqui, Karl Marx, the leaders of the Chartist movement and other radical democrats who forged the path for modern democracy as a mode of government based on majority rule. Nor were they the morals of the first liberals who were less concerned with the principle of majority rule than they were with the values of liberty and private property, even if these had to be safeguarded through a restricted franchise.
This is not to deny that these were human beings prone to err, that many of the values to which they subscribed appear to us today conservative if not downright reactionary, and that, as many studies have shone, many aspects of their personal lives were at odds with the principles they preached.
However, they were all proponents of new and radical idealisms whose constituent values were not derived from local or global balances of powers and whose appeal for democracy was not a banner to be waved when it suited the demands of national interest. These were people for whom political reform was an essential component of their zeal for a just and fair society. In effect, they were revolutionary visionaries and as remote as can be in moral temperament from politicians who cynically spout democratic platitudes without for a moment believing in equality and the quest for a more just and rational society.
Whether at a later stage in their evolution democracies settle into solidly established self-reproducing institutions with a truly democratic elite that safeguards them from the deluge of anti-democratic mass culture, or whether they open themselves to self-serving cynics who thrive in a media jungle that has nothing whatsoever to do with democratic values, I do not believe that we can begin to build a democracy with that mentality that prevails in latter-day democracies. It is impossible to imagine the opportunists in the West, from Bush down to the to most insinificant campaign secretary or speechwriter, as capable of founding a democracy.
In Brazil's Hugo Chavez we find someone who is much closer in his moral makeup to the revolutionary spirit of democracy's founding fathers than all those Arab politicians whom the US wants to commission, or who are vying to be commissioned, with the task of building democracy in the "Greater Middle East" put together. There is a paucity of reform-minded democrats in the current scramble to respond to American pressures while keeping the same elites in power.
This is not a question of charisma. That too is lacking, but this is not the problem. The Arab world, like other parts of the Third World, has produced more than its share of colourful and eccentric leaders who have had journalists flocking to interview them, even though they have left nothing standing in their societies, not even the stones laid by the urban developers under colonialist rule.
No, we have little need for charismatic leaders of that calibre. But, what is existentially disturbing is the gaping vacuum in the realm of vision, the absence of the aspiration to a more just society, the lack of ideological passion that characterised the first proponents of democracy where none existed. In the "Greater Middle East" democracy to some means skipping the formative phase and jumping straight to the backroom deals of coalition politics that characterise postmodern democracies.
It is unacceptable as we lay the foundations for our own democracies simply to reach out and grab the predigested jargon of George Bush and his fundamentalist speechwriters. Democracy is not something you can pick up at a drive-by window like a coke or a hamburger, or even some ready-made item that requires the strain of comparison shopping in order to get the best deal.
What kind of democrat would advise the Palestinians to relinquish their rights? Certainly, not the kind capable of founding a democracy, because that is the kind that defends people's rights to his eyeteeth, the kind that is incensed by injustice, that rejects might as a substitute for rights and, indeed, sees a moral antithesis between right and might, as was the case with Hannah Arendt in her thesis on violence.
The democrat is not the manipulator who works the balance of power in a democratic government towards his personal advancement or the advancement of his party. Nor is he or she the one who, for example, supports the decisions approved by the Israeli democratic majority regarding the future of the Palestinians or the equal right of women to pilot planes that bomb Palestinian homes. That is democracy in form, but one that, in this case, sanctions the repression and occupation of another people and militaristic values that inherently entrench the inferiority of women.
The democrat is not the person who regards Sharon's refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories in accordance with UN resolutions a stand for democracy and his unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza a step forward when he has nothing positive to say about the prospect of the emergence of a sovereign state. The democrat in the formative phase is the person who subscribes to democratic values out of principle and not as a bargaining chip in dealings with the powers that be in today's world.
In his speech to the National Defense University at Fort Lesley McNair on 8 March, the American cowpoke turned champion of democracy hailed the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia as a step forward towards broader democratic participation (applause!) and the recent Palestinian elections as a step towards liberation from "the legacy of (Palestinian obviously) corruption and violence" rather than from the vice of the Israeli occupation (more applause!). He described the demonstrations by the Lebanese opposition against the Syrian presence in Lebanon as an uprising for democratic reforms and another sign of the successes of America's war against terrorism, which were perhaps too many to enumerate in his speech.
But did you notice, too, that in that same speech he referred to the attack against the marine bases in Beirut in 1983, mentioning it in the same breath as the attack of 11 September 17 years later and the bombings of the American embassies in Africa and the USS Cole? Now there's something to give you pause for thought.
For years we have been trying to call his attention to Lebanon, which he had never mentioned in any of his speeches, not even as an example of the possibilities of how democracy might blossom in the Arab world. Yet suddenly Bush gets it in his mind to pack in two references to Lebanon, one of which he squeezed into his list of Al-Qaeda-like operations and the other of which he depicted as a velvet revolution that we are to assume had taken its cue from America's trailblazing crusade for democracy. How deftly he took that dense intricate fabric of Lebanon with all its contradictions and contrasts and cut and trimmed it to suit the American image of the contest between good and evil.
Are there no Arab democrats out there to remind him that, on the same day he stood before that military academy in Texas, a huge mass rally to counter the one he referred to in his speech took place in nearly the same vicinity in Beirut? It seems important to note that the fact that these demonstrators had assembled and disbanded just as peacefully as their predecessors, with no need for police intervention, indicates that a democratic culture had taken root in Lebanon long before Bush decided to mention that country in his speech, and in a manner so insidiously calculated to wreak dissension. I doubt very much that two opposing demonstrations of that scale would have passed without clashes, the firing of teargas canisters and a number of dead and wounded even in democratic Israel.
Democratic culture in Lebanon did not sprout from the American intervention in Iraq or from Bush's speech or from Resolution 1559. It had existed long before that, albeit with its flaws of denominational quotas, pseudo-dynastic influences, a relatively frail principle of citizenship in concept and practice, and a host of foreign intelligence agencies that found easy pickings in Lebanon's denominational and kinship patchwork and its not very democratic system for plurality in government.
The Lebanese opposition, therefore, benefited from existing democratic traditions; it did not establish these traditions as the opposition movements had in Prague, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. The same applies to the supporters of the resistance and alliance with Syria.
Naturally, Bush did not mention all of this for the simple reason that he is not a democrat, even if he has read Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, one of the sources from which he is cribbing lessons on democracy.
But, one would think it the duty of Arab democrats to draw Bush's attention to a few hard facts about Lebanon and the Lebanese democratic culture. One would also think that they would sense it their duty, if indeed, they are sincere in their desire for popular legitimacy and in their desire to help democratise the popular political culture. Unfortunately, the prevalent mindset of purported democrats has tuned itself in to Washington and its agenda for the region, without having any democratic agenda of their own, in the sense of a vision for attaining equality and justice.
Tehran can shout until it's blue in the face that it does not possess nuclear weapons and has no intention to, but the world will echo America's claims to the contrary. Korea's mad butcher Kim Jong Il can swear by all that is holy to him that he possesses nuclear weapons, but Australia on behalf of the US will swear that he is lying. Syria can protest as much as it likes that Resolution 1559 violates the UN Charter because it was not issued on the basis of a threat to world peace and security and none of the parties concerned had appealed to the Security Council to begin with, but no one wants to waste time discussing the matter. After all, life is unfair and international law is a farce in today's world, and, in all events, only the portion of the resolution that pertains to Syria will be applied.
Not that the US is about to commend all that pragmatism or realism or whatever you might call it. Nor is it about to give Syria a pat on the back for having taken "positive steps forward". Rather, Bush proclaims that he will not abide by Syria's partial solutions and manoeuvres and other such belligerent talk, for the simple reason that Israel has Syria in its crosshairs so Washington does too.
Meanwhile, Sharon, a renowned war criminal, can declare with impunity that he will never ever implement the UN resolutions pertaining to the Israeli occupation of Syrian territory and Washington will back him up in word and deed. Such is the dark side of the world of Martha Stuart who is all the craze in the US; the world of conspicuous media consumption, of George Bush, Rumsfeld, Condi and the rest of the thugs.
But should not nascent Arab democracy make itself heard in the midst of this wilderness as the voice of justice, as a voice that rejects the logic behind Resolution 1559? Instead, we get an Arab minister demanding that Syria should implement Resolution 1559 immediately and without delay, which is more than Kofi Annan has asked from Syria, because that is not what the resolution stipulates. The minister in question issued this demand from Tel Aviv, no less, which has yet to implement any of the resolutions pertaining to it and which immediately and without delay is annexing occupied territories, building a separating wall in violation of the ruling of the International Court of Justice, and tearing apart a land and its people, rather than unifying and safeguarding it, as Syria has done in Lebanon.
Where is the voice of Arab democracy that should be protesting these injustices? Or do Arab democrats intend to leave the opposition to sycophancy to Sharon's Israel and to the selective application of even the feeblest Security Council resolution? One would presume not, just as one would presume that a true democrat would treat other national causes and principles as more than banners to wave in front of the cameras, if he is sincere in building a truly democratic society from the grassroots up.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Democracy in the West can survive without democrats. Not here, though, says Azmi Bishara