In an address last year to UC Berkeley political science graduates of the university, California Governor Jerry Brown remarked on the term “fugitive democracy” to refer to the episodic nature of “the power of a people—democracy”. That power, he said, ebbs and flows, “but at key moments, bureaucratic and corporate power gives way to an aroused citizenry”.That certainly seems to be the case. And it is helpful to think about Democracy as a construct in this way, as something that has to be built and maintained, and which is represented not just by elections (which, we are learning, can be bought, manipulated, and influenced by money), but by the engagement and commitment of a citizenry.
It might also be helpful to think about Democracy—and I’m not going to try to define the term carefully—in historical terms. It’s a pretty recent phenomenon in the world. The Greeks, of course, had a version of it, but like the early American variety, it was subverted by the existence of massive slave classes. If we look at the attributes of a modern democracy—a nation state with power ostensibly in the hands of its citizens, wielded for the common good, its institutions accessible to all of its inhabitants—we will see that it is a form which is a blip on an historical timeline.
The U.S. declared its independence in 1776, but did not abolish slavery until the Civil War. It was not until 1920 that all women were permitted to vote, and while the franchise is certainly not the only metric of democracy, it is a very basic and foundational one, a precondition of sorts. In 1964, nearly two centuries after the U.S. won its independence from colonial rule, the country finally abolished discrimination in voting rules, and one year later it ended segregation in schools and workplaces.
In other countries, the experience has been roughly similar. In many European nations, women won the right to vote after the First or Second World War, when their work became more recognisable to the highly-patriarchal societies in which they had long laboured. In most former colonies, women won the vote as those countries became independent. There are some dramatic outliers—in the Pacific, the Middle East, and Switzerland—where women’s rights came later, and in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and the UAE where they are still largely absent.
By this count, the U.S. and much of the world has had around fifty years of basic democracy if we take that to mean nothing more than the right to participate in the most elementary expression of preference for political candidates, irrespective of whether people can actually have a hand in governing their countries. Perhaps less, if we consider that a few years ago, our Supreme Court decided to accord rights normally restricted to living, breathing human beings, to corporate interests.
Today, voting rights, public scrutiny of state institutions, rights to demonstrate and make demands of our leaders, and democratic control over the business sphere are all being eroded. Not just in the United States where many states are passing laws designed to restrict certain groups from voting, where our national security apparatus takes an adversarial approach to the citizenry, and where corporate power is taking increasing control over our political process and our political leaders.
A quick glance at the front page of the BBC news site reveals that this might very well be a global phenomenon.
Ukrainians just lost their right to protest.
Syria’s murderous president is refusing to step down even though he has violated the rights of his citizens and plunged his country into a bloodbath.
Following a coup, the Central African Republic is preparing to find an interim leader.
Russian President Vladimir Putin equated sexual preference with paedophilia, as his government rolls back their rights.
President Obama is dealing with a rogue intelligence agency which claims that the demands of security are more important than people’s democratic rights to know what their government is doing in their name.
Skim a little deeper and you’ll see more.
U.S. courts are trying to rein in efforts to enact voting laws which violate the Constitution.
Mexico’s government, long in hoc to or downright intimidated by drug cartels, is being supplanted as the guarantor of basic law and order in many parts of the country by vigilante groups.
Brazil is ramping up spending on a sporting event at a time when many of its citizens are feeling an economic crunch.
Egypt’s former president, deposed by the military, is facing a trial in uncertain circumstances.
Uganda’s president is weighing whether to continue blocking a bill which would make same sex relationships subject to imprisonment.
A Nigerian was subjected to brutal corporal punishment for his relationship with another man.
Chinese workers, labouring in unsafe and unregulated conditions, died in a factory fire.
Israel defended its right to practise colonialism against its critics in the European Union.
Employees of HSBC, a bank known for its money laundering and deals with drug cartels, are accused of manipulating currency markets.
This, of course, is all simply the news of a single day. There are common threads in these diverse events across the world. The power of those with a great deal of money—whether banks, cartels, or generals with substantial corporate links—are increasingly circumscribing what our economies, workforces, and social relationships should look like. As a result, states are shifting their priorities in a way that favours profiteering on behalf of those who are already wealthy, and the loss of economic security and political rights by those who are struggling. People are losing their civil rights, simultaneously to the demands of “security” and to the demands of corporate power. In unsettled times, governments are increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent—effective democratic dissent in particular.
Most of these stories concern events in discrete nation states—although also the extent to which corporate power transcends national boundaries. Nation states are the form of political organisation most associated with modern democracies, and it is equally worth considering how fleeting has been the dominance of nation states in the world.
Prior to the eighteenth century, most states were organised as kingdoms or religious principalities, or else smaller, regional formations. The first nation-states made participation in public life a highly-exclusive affair, and often operated in concert with what we would today refer to as multinationals—the British and Dutch East India Companies, to name but two examples, operated like sophisticated nations, possessed their own armies, and often exercised more of the functions we associate with “governments” than did their counterparts in the actual state! Until Europe withdrew from control over Asia and Africa, most of the world’s peoples lived as colonial subjects rather than as democratic citizens. And today increasing numbers of nations are being absorbed by supra-national economic groupings which are largely undemocratic and easily manipulated by financial and corporate interests to the detriment of the citizens whose voices are drowned out by the demands of neoliberal economic orthodoxy.We tend to think of “history” as something on a track towards some better place. But the “unfolding” of history is of course actually dependent on what we do now. There is no “moral arc of the universe”...there is only what we have the ability and courage to demand of our society and our institutions. It is frightening to contemplate, but it is not difficult to see how, perhaps many years from now, the period in which people elected their leaders and even participated in government in self-determined nation states will look like an anomaly. The idea of workers setting the terms of their labour and being served by the state might look like a quaint notion from a bygone era. In temporal terms, “democracy” barely registers on an historical scale, and if we are not careful, in the future it might seem like a very tragically fleeting phenomenon.