The Arab Spring and After

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What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. —François de La Rochefoucauld

A few years back, people of Pakistan were fighting for democracy. I thought that Pervez Musharraf, their dictator, was the best they could get. But fashionable women were protesting and burning his effigy. The educated wanted democracy. They got democracy. Now, women cannot protest. And educated people have disappeared from the demonstration scene. The case with Nepal is similar. Since the end of monarchy, it has become a basketcase. How many people can remember places called East Timor and South Sudan? Not too long back the Western world was on the streets fighting for the social movements in these countries without a clue about the social or cultural contexts there.

 The Arab Spring brought a huge amount of excitement in the Gulf countries. The Western world had very romantic views about the protests in Egypt and Libya. Now it will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for what has been happening, rationalizing its initial support as good intentions. Or perhaps it will blame the military for the coup of July 3, 2013 that removed the democratically elected President, who soon after his election had catapulted into an autocrat. Is Egypt rapidly heading toward massive civil unrests and disintegration similar to that of Algeria in 1991? Only time will tell, but a few years down the road, one may well look at Egypt under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak with nostalgia. 

India has had massive protests against social ills and corruption.

If you are not supporting the protestors you are seen to be against democracy, liberty, hope, and change. The phenomenon is being repeated in Turkey and Bulgaria, where I have just spent two months. In both these countries, protests seem — from my rather limited outsider’s perspective but verified by my Turkish friends — to have developed for wrong reasons. More than listening to what the protestors say, one must delve more deeply into what they really want, for language is often a tool for deception and self-deception.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it.

Turkey and Bulgaria have progressed significantly over the past two decades. They are very significantly freer. The military in Turkey has increasingly taken a back seat. The mafia in Bulgaria is still a big problem, but a tourist, if he is not totally gullible, can move around safe and unmolested.

But what change is sweeping the developing world? Those with wishful thinking might suggest that it is, according to a survey, libertarians who are protesting in Turkey. They are completely wrong. Alas, even in the United States most people until not too long back did not really know what “libertarian” meant. A Turk explained to me that in the survey done in the Turkish language respondents had chosen what could be translated as “freedom-loving.” The newspaper that reported it decided to translate the word to “libertarian.” And we all know that the world is almost 100% freedom-loving. The question is what the people mean by “freedom.”

The very possibility of joining the masses makes me cringe. Not only do those who protest make jackasses of themselves, but there can hardly be any specific collective aims, for people have different motivations that are often in conflict with one another. Mostly even an individual’s protest is based on sound-bites rather than a coherent philosophy. Even when such groups have a coherent aim, they are often in opposition to some other, less vociferous group. And those who have nothing to do with any of the protests must suffer, for protestors disrupt the public space, aggressing against the uninvolved. While I do understand that it might make sense to protest publicly when the issues are of grave and immediate significance — the likelihood of a nuclear war, for example — it is generally true that only voluntary interactions among people have principled value.

So, if not for liberty, what underpins these protests — in Arab countries, Turkey, Bulgaria, and now in Brazil?

They are a result of several issues, all centred on democracy.

The weed of democracy has spread and rooted itself deeply in the psyche of people almost everywhere in the world. It is no longer seen as a new-age Western religion, which is what it is. When I was a kid in India, it was common for people to discuss why democracy — aka mob-rule — does not work. You would be called too simplistic and blamed for blindly following the West if you talked in favour of democracy. They would make fun of you for trying to look westernized. The winds have changed. I have not heard anyone saying anything against “democracy” for more than a decade now.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it. These people no longer have to show their fangs. They no longer have to show that they are ruthless exploiters, trying to steal a cut from wealth producers. Democracy has given them a garb of acceptance and the look of doing good. Psychopaths can now openly work their way up to rule others.

Given that democracy is in the DNA of today’s societies, there is no resistance to increasing its size. The size of the state — its power to tax, regulate, and control — has grown everywhere. It is the one-size-fits-all democratic institution in most parts of the world. Given its lack of connection with the underlying culture in many parts of the world, it cannot accommodate changes in society, including the fact that people are now more informed and much more mobile. The state had depended on a stable populace. But by encouraging people to get involved in democracy, it has opened a can of worms.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it.

Democracy is a much worse virus than dictatorship or monarchy. In those systems of mafia organizations called the state, people see themselves in opposition; they retain the ability to see the state for what it is: a group of people who cannot take responsibly for their own lives but believe that they can, through threats of violence, tell others how to live, meanwhile skimming off a large portion of wealth generated by the people. Democracy has made the state an inherent part of the society. The chains are no longer visible ones, but the ones within people’s minds. Those are the worst chains.

My Russian friend tells me that after the breakup of the USSR, people had no interest in standing up to sing hymns at a piece of their cloth or salute it. In Canada, until the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there were hardly any displays of nationalism. Now, flags fly everywhere in Vancouver. In India, when I was a kid, people used to walk away or ignore it when the national anthem was sung. But recently movie theaters have started running the national anthem. On a recent visit, everyone — except me — stood up. I could even see their glutes tightened — muscles that their personal trainers had failed to help them isolate — while they stood in complete discipline. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how much the State has become a part of society’s DNA.

Democracy is now in the DNA of individual people, too — a cultural meme that has found no competition. Even the ultra-religious in the Middle East must now give at least lip service to democracy, for they have failed to counter the ideological challenge. Democracy is seen as a given and a universal good, as if it were a first principle.

Democracy has encouraged herd instincts and lack of self-responsibility. Democracy has given equal participation to those who have no interest in social affairs, to those who are driven mostly by a 9-to-5 materialistic lifestyle, forever waiting for the next weekend.

Democracy has been propagandized as something that provides wealth as if by a magic. Young people in the developing world have grown up to think that democracy is a cure for all their problems. Somewhere in their minds, they have come to believe — as is the case even in the West today — that democracy creates something from nothing. They are on the streets asking for their share of this something.

Their protests have absolutely nothing to do with any libertarian mindset developing in the world. People around the world have come to depend more — emotionally and materially — on the state. They are not asking for a smaller state but for a more efficient state, which to them means a bigger and more influential one. Alas, given that democracy is a one-size-fits-all, alien institution for most societies, it has made the state less malleable than it would have been had those countries continued with the system of governance they had naturally evolved.

But even in the West the state has been increasing in size exactly at the time when the state, having hijacked emergency services and the maintenance of law and order, is very brittle and its structure completely unsuitable for the changing, mobile, and informed society. As Doug Casey would say, the State is on its way out.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it. Only time will show how this conflict — of the State falling apart while the people are becoming more dependent on it — will be resolved.




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Comments

Robert H Miller

A provocative preface to a fundamental subject. As Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner."

M.Linhart

Ok Jayant ,You have got to tell me what kind of psychic ability enables You not only to see what is on my mind but to also write it down word for word. Amazing :-)
Naturally unlike Jon I would not characterize your views as thought provoking but merely as a statements of facts and the only question is what is a libertarian to make out of it
However I think the problem is even deeper than the current worshiping of democracy. People have been projecting their hopes and frustrations on third parties since time immemoriam and asking their kings and gods (in full seriousness) to take care of their problems and aspirations, occasionally toppling them (both Kings and gods) as well. After all that is what religions are -at least partly - for.
So the question is more like how do we deal with 100 000 years of evolution.

David

This is a nicely written reminder of what we should all keep in mind. I especially like:

"Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it. "

and

"Given that democracy is in the DNA of today’s societies, there is no resistance to increasing its size."

These are both important and true.

However, what credible and attractive alternative do we have? As Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst possible system, except for all others."

Predators and parasites will always strive to take what they can from the producers, in any political system. This piece reminds us that democracy is not the solution to this problem, but neither is it the cause.

Agreed that the world is in need of an awareness of the inherently parasitic nature of the state. And the magical aura of "democracy" tends to blind people to this. But it doesn't have to be so, does it?

Johnimo

Churchill had it wrong. The best system is a constitutional republic. My freedom is not up for a vote, under any circumstance or emergency. It is a total failure of our educational system that most people speak of the US as a "democracy," when it was specifically designed not to be one.

The worlds failed socialist, unlimited governments are simply trying to con people into believing that, because they get to vote, everything will be swell and that all their worldly needs will be met. From high speed rail to universal healthcare, these leaders are making promises that cannot possibly be kept.

Jayant sees clearly what most of the world is blind to. It will be a bitter pill to swallow: the failure of democracy.

Jon Harrison

An excellent and very thought-provoking essay. I have been toying with the same subject along a slightly different line; this piece may push me into finally writing something about it.

I'm not sure I can agree with the blanket statement that democracy is a much worse virus than dictatorship or monarchy. Was Chile better off under Pinochet that it is today? Brazil in many ways illustrates the faults of the democratic state highlighted by Bhandari. But was Brazilian society a better place under military rule? I don't think so. Egypt may be a better example of what J.B. is telling us. But the Arab world is hopeless; it is sinking into an abyss from which it is unlikely ever to emerge.

We need to realize that the increasing brittleness of the state — which is a real phenomenon — is very much a double-edged sword. The idea of a world organized around voluntary associations is simply a libertarian pipe dream. The state is here to stay. No question, it needs to be reduced in size and scope. Admittedly, this is a very difficult task, given the imperatives of the state itself and the attitude of so many millions around the world who expect the state to solve all of their problems. But the alternative — brittleness leading to breakage and collapse — will not initiate a new dawn of freedom. Rather, the end of the state will open the floodgates to anarchy and the reign of a pure might is right philosophy. What we have is bad. But if it's simply swept away, what follows will be worse.

But I've used too much space to criticize. This is a provocative piece, and one I'm glad to see published in this space.

Fred Mangels

Very good points by Jon Harrison, as well.

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