Democratic revolutions and democracies in crisis

Comments are flowing on the Arab and Iranian democratic revolutions, of which we see only the beginning. In a must read interview, Manuel Castells stated : “the popular uprisings in the Arab world perhaps constitute the most important Internet-led and facilitated change”. Beyond the direct role of the Internet and information technology in these movements, it is the anthropological and social transformations that make them possible that merit our attention. New types of individuals are born and grown up, wise, able to expose a political deceit, to coordinate, to speak to each other beyond social or cultural boundaries, to quickly adjust their behavior in face of previously unmet situations. In my opinion, the practices afforded by information technology and the Internet were key to the birth of these new capabilities, but their reach is not limited to where they were born. When one cuts the Internet, one does not stop (or at least not before a long time) the agency of those whom it empowered.

We knew all this, and nonetheless, our surprise is huge. We are faced with the contingency of movements whose scale we did not anticipate, and neither did their originators. Retrospectively, historians will recall their antecedents and they will one day appear as part of a logical process, but today, they are in the best sense, events that spring up unexpectedly. To pay tribute to them, and express the fragile support of my keyboard, I would like to explore the inspiration that can be drawn from them by those who try to regenerate established but presently in crisis democracies. Two precautions are needed. For once, it would be absurd to confuse the situations of our respective countries: it is by recognizing their differences that one can build a constructive exchange. Furthermore, “democracy in crisis” is a tautology. It is the essence of democracy, because citizens are permanent judges of the imperfection of its state, to be always in crisis, always imperfect, and, at best, being reinvented.

The present crisis of developed countries democracies is nonetheless deep and worrying. It surges from within themselves. Though we struggle to draw its full landscape, we identify its key symptoms:

  • an extreme increase in inequalities, in particular for wealth,
  • an oligarchic evolution of the political power, where a significantly sized class of very rich people, part of the State and political representative manage together the reproduction and extension of their privileges,
  • the weakening of the sense to commonly belong to a society, exemplified by the trend for social groups to reject or flee other social groups, who thus find themselves confined in derelict spaces,
  • the erosion of Constitutional protection for fundamental rights, due process, presumption of innocence, the prerogatives of the judiciary, all described as obstacles one can not afford in view of the search for absolute security,
  • an unsustainable use of natural resources of all types, and a failure to switch to other development models,
  • a strong cognitive dependency for those who still rest upon centralized media, in particular television, as the main source for forming a representation of the world.

This crisis must no hide other deep process, towards the emancipation and capability building of individuals, the creation of new forms of collective action and the renaissance of politics. Their common basis is the existence of critical, productive and cooperative individuals, contemporary of information technologies and the Internet1. Critical, that’s almost obvious and confirmed by the stubborn will of the Berlusconi, Sarkozy and others to gag or confine the public expression on the Internet. They know that each of their rhetorical artifices will be exposed and dismantled on the Internet and thanks to information technology. Their only hope is that the products of criticism will only reach a limited audience, or an audience already captivated by something else. The development of a new public sphere on the Internet is what justifies the parallels with 18th century revolutions 2 proposed by Robert Darnton and others. Productive of what? Of all: software, public expressions, knowledge, artistic productions, vegetable gardens, preferences regarding technology, lifestyles, ways of talking. Of everything the industrial era deprived individuals reduced to consumers. Cooperative for what? artistic movements, open local universities, local food production and distribution, open innovation and reparable objects, support to learning for disadvantaged children, solidarity with foreigners, book-crossing, etc.

So, is all for the better in our democracies in crisis? No: see two paragraphs before. The renaissance described in the previous paragraph is constrained. In particular, it fails to reach the political level, while it is needed to change the economic, regulatory, tax, technological, and financial conditions that limit the reach of decentralized initiatives. Why? Is it our lack of courage in comparison to the Tunisian, Egyptian or Lybian bloggers and demonstrators? Is it our (justified) reluctance to shake the democratic frame in order to regenerate it? We know democracy is precious, even when it is damaged, and we hesitate to challenge its forms.

Truly, there is a lot to learn if we can build less fragmentary exchanges with the democratic revolution players. For us, to find some paths to answer these questions, and for them, maybe, to prevent the baby blues that follows newly obtained freedoms, when one has to tackle the difficult construction of new social models.

This post is also available in: French

  1. By the way, they are not all young, some are 70 years old. []
  2. See Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society, MIT Press, 1998. []

One Comment

  • I enjoyed reading your blog and the Castells interview, both of which I found very perceptive. The internet phenomenon is what I have called “states of mind” for over a decade now; that is, the erosion of the geopolitical state and official culture and mores by virtual trans-border confederations of like-minded people. It is the substantive manifestation of social networks.

    I think that the reason that people in western democracies have not yet responded to the erosion of their economic, social, and political rights by the entrenched ruling elites and power structures is that the situation has not yet gotten bad enough. However, the internet is certain to become used when people are sufficiently squeezed, which may come quite soon. People in the OECD countries are much more connected than in the Arab world, so I think that direct action by a sufficiently incited populace is very likely when a tipping point comes. However, it may not be pretty and could generate a rise of radical and reactionary orthodoxies–either communist or, more likely, fascist–as the existing social contracts break because of fiscal mismanagement and lies of the kleptocrats.

    You insinuate as much with reference to Berlusconi and Sarkozy, but as you know we have a large corporate fascist movement in the US now and we are on the razor’s edge. Some of the fascist elements in my country are seeking to exploit Islamophobia and whip up fear and loathing for a new world war, while others are seeking to retreat into an isolationist hole.

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