True democracy is in full setback; sometimes in broad daylight, others almost without us realizing it. It is threatened from the top by despotic and corrupt governments (most of them elected) and from the bottom by a distracted and uninformed population. It is time to wake up and fight from civil society and from suitable institutions that are still standing.
I open my reflections with an updated version of Jorge Manrique’s stanzas on his father’s death (1947) and, for us, on civic space (2018):
O let the soul her slumbers break [by social media],
Let thought be quickened, and awake;
Awake to see
How soon this life is past and gone [in society],
And [freedom’s] death comes softly stealing on,
Swiftly our pleasures [of working and fighting together] glide away;
Our hearts recall the distant day,
The moments that are speeding fast
We heed not, but the past, -the past,
More highly prize.
Onward its course the present keeps,
Onward the constant current sweeps,
Till life is done;
And, did we judge of time aright,
The past and future in their flight.
Would be as one.
Let no one fondly dream again,
That Hope and all her shadowy train
Will not decay;
Fleeting as were the dreams of old,
Remembered like a tale that’s told
They pass away[He who fights is not dead]
Our lives are rivers, gliding free
To that unfathomed, boundless sea,
The silent grave!
Thither all earthly pomp and boast
Roll, to be swallowed up and lost
In one dark wave;
Thither the mighty torrents stray,
Thither the brook pursues its way,
And tinkling rill,
There all are equal; side by side
The poor man and the son of pride
Lie calm and still.[amen]
Civic space is the base of every authentic democracy. What is civic space? It is a tridimensional concept, that is, a combination of freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of peaceful assembly. The first dimension is the right to freely associate, join, or form a civil society organization or group. The second dimension is the freedom of presenting opinions and searching, receiving, and disseminating ideas and information without considering frontiers and by all possible means. The third dimension is the right of civil society to legally exercise dissent through peaceful forms of protest, as well as to organize meetings and celebrate demonstrations to promote matters of common interest and to be protected from undue interferences.
I do not intend to alarm the reader, but I must do so with a warning in large, colorful letters. According with Civicus organization, that measures and monitors the expansion or reduction of civic space in every country of the globe,
In 2018, 109 countries have closed, repressed, and hampered civic space:
In sum: In 82% of the countries, civic space and, thus, democracy are threatened. These countries have two thirds of the world population. In 45% of them, democracy is practically destroyed and in 51% is going backwards. Only 4% of the countries (i.e., 3% of world population) have a full and effective democracy.
The democratic setback
In a majority of countries, civic space is becoming more restrictive, as much in the East as in the West, in the North as in the South. Up until ten years ago, democracy’s setback was just limited to some countries, especially those that depended on the exploitation of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels. In some, the rapid growth of extractive industries atrophied the development of productive industries—a well-known and studied phenomenon that brought as main consequence the concentration of an arbitrary, prebendary, and corrupt power. Only those countries with a strong institutional structure (Norway) and a large tradition or serious redistribution and reinvestment policies managed to escape from the scourge of the so-called “Dutch disease.” But in the last decade, the democratic setback has become widespread with the emergence of popular-base reactionary movements, in response to the growing inequality in the globalization process.
In exploring the causes of such setback, I would like to risk the following explanation. The collapse of socialist systems led to an unbridled and unrestricted global capitalist expansion and the booming of financial speculation, together with a strong ideological and strategic onslaught promoted by the power centers we now know as neo-liberalism. The latter coupled the market ideology with the democratic liberal system, in a sweeping and unhealthy amalgam of democracy and accumulation—both considered as something automatic and unavoidable, with no alternatives.
Eventually, system contradictions led to a global financial-economic crisis that destroyed the complacency with representative institutions and human rights. These have not been considered as a counterbalance and corrective practice for the system excesses, but rather as mere justifying garnish taken for granted.
A review of diverse analyses regarding the years that followed the 2007-8 great crisis suggest that wrong (and self-serving) macroeconomic theories were used once and again during the so-called “exit” of the crisis. The result, in the economy, was low growth, loss of productive capacity, and significant misery for millions of people in the whole world. In politics, it resulted in popular and general disbelief in responsible parties and representative institutions.
Today, we are witnessing the collapse of such neoliberal bookshelf and the emergence of alleged alternatives, among which opportunism, demagogy, and political regression based on xenophobia, and the search for an authoritarian solution stand up. Many people do not want to see themselves represented by old parties and they prefer different leaders, that come from outside the traditional system and that favor the movement of opinion and feelings over the organization, strategy, and serious government platforms. Angry populations stirred-up by neoliberal injustice manage to put improvised leaders in power who, lacking proposals and solid organizations to back them up, are inclined to opt for authoritarian solutions and treat any dissent and opposition as subversive and illegitimate. Thus, it should not surprise us that these leaders try to close up civic space and promote elections with no rivals or with fictional or diminished rivals. Democracy no longer dies of a powerful blow but of starvation. The list of authoritarian leaders is large and growing. Among the main countries they govern there is United States, China, Filipinas, Hungry, Poland and a series of nations in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
How do those who want a better, more egalitarian, world with more social justice resist these dire tendencies? Identifying them is not easy. Among them, there are some age groups (young generations), employed or unemployed working groups, gender and different sexual orientation groups, migrants, refugees and old members of leftist organizations. But the world in which they move has changed. It would be very lengthy and strenuous to analyze the details of those changes. Here I will briefly stop at the electronic world of social media.
Under the allegedly democratic pretext of connecting everybody, these media—that is monopolistic, stingy, and vigilant—control users and, as canaries, let them freely sing without noticing the cage. They divide us in preference tribes to whom they allow to sell every type of interested commodities. They politically manipulate us by building preference profiles. And, finally, they spy on us unnoticed. Networks distract, mislead, and misinform us pretending to put us in contact, inform us, and make us freer and more intelligent. They produce rapid users with sleeping souls as the ones Manrique complained about. As in the first industrial era, factory workers gave the owner eight or ten hours of their work (in full freedom of hiring); today, we users of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. surrender all our time, our relationships, our friendships, our preferences and our journeys to those who provide us with their communication platforms. In summary, we are no longer just workers or consumers to be mere commodities as well. To what was described by Sarmiento: “barbarians, ideas are not killed,” we should add: “barbarians, ideas are not accumulated or trafficked.” From labor surplus we have gone to existential surplus. We need to be aware of the radical alienation to organize the resistance.
 . For definitions, methodology regarding measures, and results by region and variable, please consult: http://www.civicus.org/images/CM_Findings_7Oct_v1.pdf
 . It refers to the harmful consequences for a country’s economy and society produced by a significant increase in foreign currency (foreign currency that is widely accepted in international transactions) as result of exports of some natural resource (oil, gas, gold, coffee, copper, etc.). Holland suffered that disease with the sudden boom in oil in 1960s.
 . See Robert Skidelsky article in: https://us10.campaign-archive.com/?u=9116789a51839e0f88fa29b83&id=02c41241ab&e=cd3dc585bd
 . See Dani Rodrik’s opinion at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/left-timidity-after-neoliberal-failure-by-dani-rodrik-2018-04
 . See Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018.
 . Without serious thinking and previous organization, contemporary protest movements are somewhat similar to the river Río de la Plata: very wide but shallow. They vigorously burst, potentiated by social media, but soon they fade for lack of organization and institutional resilience. See the thoughtful analysis done by Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas. The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.
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