Notes on the End of the World

Bus graffiti, New York, May 9th, 2018

 

Faced with a general but inorganic unrest, democratic political systems are crumbling in many countries, resulting in authoritarian and improvised governments. The real change is taking place locally and will be enhanced by the macro-crises that are approaching.

Readers do not be afraid by the apocalyptic title. It refers to the end of one world—hopefully! As a tango by Gardel goes “her eyes closed and the world keeps moving.” In geopolitics, as in other fields, it is better to ask: whose eyes were closed? How does the world keep moving?

What could be applied to Spain in times of Antonio Machado, today applies to the whole world:

There is already a Spaniard that wants

To live and starts to live,

Between a Spain that dies

And another one that yawns.

Little Spaniard that comes

To the world may God care for you.

One of the two Spains

Will chill your heart.

 

The world that is ending is the political world we were accustomed to: republic, democracy, elections, political parties, representation system and alternation in power. These elements form an evolving complex under the broader concept of democracy, well described by Barrington Moore, Jr. “Democracy is a long and certainly incomplete struggle to achieve three closely related things: 1) to check arbitrary rulers, 2) to replace arbitrary rules with just and rational ones, and 3) to obtain a share for the underlying population in the making of rules[1].” A quick glance at the current world, on the East and West, on the North and South, shows how much we have moved away from the process outlined by such great sociologist and, even in those countries that had gone far along Moore’s path, how big is the setback.

In the current globalized world, we are witnessing the fall, sometimes sudden and resounding, of the entire bookcase—country-by-country, bloc-by-bloc, and region-by-region. In my previous article for Opinion Sur I made some reflections regarding the closing up of civic space in a large number of countries. In this article, I will refer to other parallel processes, either convergent or overlapped with the former, such as: the collapse of (traditional or non-traditional) political parties; representation crisis, prevalence of movement over organization; booming of expressive politics and correlative regression of instrumental politics, in fact, the proliferation of black holes in the political universe, or, in other words, the widespread emergence of power vacuums.

Let’s start with parties. Long time ago, a Western journalist asked Joseph Stalin with derision: “In the socialist paradise, is it true that the people eat caviar?” As bold as brass, Stalin answered: “yes, it does, but through its representatives.” Democratic or tyrannical, hypocritical or cynical, it was a quite stable and ordered world. In the current world, many people do not want to be represented, and even less by politicians from traditional parties. Everybody wants to eat caviar, and if there is not enough, then no one should eat it, starting with their conventional “representatives.” There is the temptation to “break everything.”

Let’s us go from the teaser metaphor to the objective analysis. In many sectors there is a rejection of representative democracy or even of delegative democracy[2], in favor of a plebiscitarian democracy. That is populism in its raw form. Technological advance in terms of communication networks, globalization, and the emergence of new forms of social relations tend to produce, on the one hand, apathy towards forms of traditional political participation and, on the other hand, rapid mobilizations around special issues or crises, and in particular instantaneous and mass protests. Movements such as “Arab Spring” in the Middle East and Northern Africa (Egypt), occupation movement in Wall Street, women mobilization immediately after 2016 presidential election in United States, the “Black Lives Matter” movement and the “#Me Too,” among others, are so fast and massive as they are short-lived. Despite being boosted in our electronic era, they have ancient and pre-industrial precedents, such as radical agrarian movements during English revolution of XVII century and, in that same century, the jacqueries and emotions[3]that periodically exploded in France and were forerunners of the following French Revolution.

Cases multiply and reproduce. The most recent one (but clearly not the final one) is the Armenian turmoil. As many other countries in the Russian periphery, when the Soviet empire collapsed, Armenia became an independent presidential republic. As a matter of fact, it was a satrapy with a democratic disguise. An authoritarian president assumed power as far as he could repeating mandates in accordance with the constitution. When the exhaustion of his last period as prime minister arrived, he simply changed the political system (with a loyal and majoritarian party), from a presidential to a parliamentary system, in order to perpetuate himself in power, this time as prime minister of a malleable and compliant congress. Faced with those tricks and in protest against prevailing corruption, a massive movement emerged, burst into public space, and made the ruler relinquish power. The leader of the movement (until recently unknown) assumes power, with or without the endorsement of parliament, with or without violence, with or without elections. It is a political tsunami that swept away the existing power arrangements and opened up a new uncertainty period: Will the new leader be able to govern? Will he turn into an authoritarian populist? Will there be a military intervention as the Egyptian type? How will Russia react? Etc.

In many countries, through different socioeconomic and political systems, and with a variety of cultures, religions, and ideologies, there is a common phenomenon: the disappearance of structured political parties, the upsurge of protest movements whose signs of the old distinction between left and right are blurred, the coming to power of improvised leaders on top of “bargain” coalitions based on protest, scant governability, fragility in command, and a strong authoritarian temptation in power management. Travelling through these tendencies there is a vast nihilist sense: desire of shaking and destroying and a dreadful silence in the proposals to build. Social change from the State—either reformist or radical—fails to become effective and convincing to an electorate or public opinion that acts more in terms of emotions than proposals. Social unrest if not spontaneous, is quite autonomous, but without much previous organization, that does not solve power vacuum. For the time being, there are two exceptions that despite their truculence I do not think are sustainable on the long run. These are the Russian autocracy in the figure of Putin that is confused with an old czar and the Chinese single party system that, despite having a superior organizational apparatus than the Russians, has led to the lifelong presidency of Xi, i. e., an emperor. In Turkey, Erdogan has established a new sultanate. In United States, Trump is on the way of establishing a dictatorship, but he is held back by strong civil society institutions, judges, press, and what is left of the division of powers, but there are no guaranties that autonomous institutions will not fall in front of a plebiscitarian presidential system. In sum: in the apex of political power, there is authoritarianism everywhere, moderated only by incompetence. An old German expression applied to the ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire is repeated: Autoritarismus gemildert durch Schlumperei (authoritarianism moderated by sloppiness).

Faced with this rather bleak picture, it is worth asking: where does change come from? Where is resistance forged? My impression  __it should be corroborated with an extensive field work—is that it will come from civil society, from micro-organizations at communal and neighborhood levels, from mutual associations and cooperatives that will organize in response to the system incapacity to tackle environmental, economic, and security challenges, that we are to expect in the present and future. All sorts of crises—some sudden and pretty serious—will force society to self-organize to survive. From this web of cooperative local organizations faced with the incapacity of elites and rulers to control the system that privileges them, a new civilization will emerge, one quite diverse but also with more solidarity. We are on the verge of a new medieval time, with more resources than the historical middle ages, which by the way were not as dark as we were told at school.

 

[1] . Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1966, p. 414.

[2] . See the last book published by the deceased political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell written 9 years ago: http://prometeoeditorial.com/libro/651/Democracia-delegativa

[3] . In both cases, there were popular unrest movements that made governments stumble, especially monarchies. In England and France, modern representative democracy (that today we associate with division of powers and peaceful gradualism in political participation) began with the decapitation of many kings and large popular turmoil. There is a curious parallelism with XXI century protest phenomena.

 

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