Emergent populism - a 'perverted' form of 'rule of the many'

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: July 04, 2019 20:44:21 | Updated: July 07, 2019 20:50:42

Just as neo-liberalism emerged victorious from the Cold War capitalism-socialism scrape, so too might authoritarianism edge out democracy over the long-haul as current patterns predict. The instinct behind both victors may be the same: self-help. Though democracy may be nobler among its contenders, it carries a bug: the same "laws of diminishing returns" of capitalism, that is, the greater the equality in rights and privileges, the more likely the survival-of-the-fittest instinct will guarantee detrimental outcomes. We have seen that unfold before our very eyes: more democratic countries of the 1990s turning into 21st century autocracies than autocrats turning into democrats. Most gripping is that this authoritarian turn is being legitimised at the popular level, that is, people voting in democratic elections expressing such a preference.

One emergent strand can be simply described as populism. It fits Aristotle's bill of a "perverted" form of "rule of the many." Typically a symptom of mature democracies, perversion exposes another weakness of democracy: political viability depending too much on economic viability, or competitiveness, of the country at stake. When the economic cutting-edge claim begins to wear out, or shifts to another country, the nationalism stoked can be diverted in many unhealthy directions, such as populism: as evident particularly in the United States, Hispanics have been paying a very heavy and unfair price for being different even though their low-wage input has been more crucial to retaining US economic competitiveness than many other inputs; and if they happen to be from Mexico, where population growth is shrinking alarmingly below the replacement level, that discrimination may virulently deepen cross-border hostilities.

Across the Atlantic, surging Syrian refugees and the perennial African boatload invasions also reveal how diminishing economic competitiveness is now being converted into an "us versus them" crusade, more ferociously now than, say, in the 1990s. May be these generalisations are not picture-perfect for specific cases, but they blatantly expose how democratic precepts face growing challenges because the economic spunk has sapped.

Another strand came in the name of Islam, explicitly gripping global attention with 9/11 events. It was less so for those events per se than the leadership structure they sprang from: when we reduce such a force to its very unit, we see the likes of Al Qaeda serving as the mouthpiece, not of society (the springboard of democracy), but of one man, Osama bin-Laden (or, perhaps, a few men). This was also true of Taleban in Mullah Omar, and fast-forwarding to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or IS (Islamic State), even Ab? Bakr al-Baghdadi hovering over all else. Whether these are outfits created and crafted in Tora Bora, Kabul, or the plot-fertile Euphrates-Tigris plains, or indeed in such meddlesome foreign capitals as Riyadh, Tel Aviv, or Washington, DC (as a growing number of contending explanations posit), the underlying command dynamic tells us much of the feeble structure of democracy attenuating further: pursuing orders of a few does not a democratic community make. Planting and cultivating democracy needs other seeds.

Pre-eminent Muslim countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia, show a third brand. For a religion that has more democratic claims than many others, the leading countries have shown the least ingredients of any democratic transformation: from the shahs to the ayatollahs, Iranians have been deprived of democratic actions and discourses to the extent of the Mohammad Mossadegh-era experiences of the early 1950s, or what the initial Khomeini movement of the late 1970s depicted. The result: the overall net effect of stirring the right juices to restore democratic claims has not emerged, and will not for as long as the status quo (of a fear-bug haunting citizens) remains unchanged. Saudi Arabia's case is even worse since no democratic experience can be found at all. Even though Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman has launched reforms for women, this seems to be too selective and more of a stage-show than an instrument of inclusion. Ultimately it becomes more damaging as a false alarm than a reflection of reality.

A fourth, perhaps critical, strand of a counter-democracy atmosphere may be the too powerful anti-democracy countries which cannot be ignored by less-weighty nascent democratic countries. Of course, China is the exemplar example. Not only does it symbolise that same post-World War II bug of communism today when we all thought communism had been crippled or killed with the Soviet Union collapse, but Chinese communism/authoritarianism also seems to be taking totalitarian forms. Explanations of accumulating democratic apathy as a stultifying force wane: any one-size-fits-all cloak, as democracy is in parts, not only imposes an inhibiting effect on certain kinds of innovative behaviours (though perhaps not on thinking), but also transfers culpability to other dynamics.

Without the "head-honchos" showing the way, other Muslim countries will find democracy either too steep a mountain to climb or too inappropriate to try (notwithstanding the habit of promoting it verbally to look palatable to the right, though selective, audience). Even the most strident Muslim democratic experiments, such as in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan, for example, stall under a Damoclean Islamicist sword. That endogenous Islamist forces have global connections ultimately haunts democracy cultivation. Should they utilise conventional madrasa educational institutions to extensively or intensively permeate any society with extremist explanations, democratic progress would be perpetually threatened. As previously alluded to, Islam carries more democratic credentials than many other religions: there are no class or caste distinctions, and even spiritual intellectuals are more rank-and-file rather than eclectic individuals. Eid prayers say it all: embracing peoples of all walks of life as the finale, a feature with no counterpart elsewhere, yet, so misleading, given the persistent autocratic mindset.

A final version of decaying democracy involves countries where democratically elected autocrats turn democracy on its head using democratic practices. This is not so much the Cambodia type, where election is completely rigged to buttress an authoritarian, but perhaps the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, or Thailand struggling between these two types: both exemplify the new breed dotting the developing world. Several countries in Africa and Latin America remain in the "too close to call" conditions characterising this type: one slip, and autocracy takes over; or a false democratic turn to evict an authoritarian reverts back to that authoritarian homeostasis for one reason or another.

As countries, we are not good at learning. Even worse is our individualism hijacking collective action. This may perhaps be the future killer: capitalism and democracy have bred so much of individualism that autocracy-mindedness can only remain around the corner, indeed, every corner, all the time.

Choppy seas getting choppier may become our 21st century fate, unfortunately. Unfortunately because we stood near the gates of the democratic temple in the 1990s: as close to its cosmopolitan end-point as ever, yet now so far away.


Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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