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Opinion: Democracy Draws its Final Breaths | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Demonstrators raise their fists during a demonstration on May 1, 2013. A strike stopped ferry services to the Greek islands and disrupted public transport in the capital Athens ahead of May Day protests Wednesday against Greece’s prolonged economic austerity policies. (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINI)

Nearly a century ago, Woodrow Wilson, one of the most famous US presidents in American history, signed a historic declaration which saw the United States entering World War I. To mark the occasion, he said: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” At the time, the concept of democracy was understood only by an elite minority.

One hundred years later, the concept of democracy remains vague and confusing: What is democracy precisely? There is no obvious answer to this question, particularly as western democracy has appeared in more than one guise. Stalin claimed to have been a proponent of democracy, yet he killed more than twenty million of his own people in his quest to convince the people of this. The Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy claimed that their regimes were democratic to the bone. Likewise, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi diminished the very concept of democracy when claiming that his country—where prisons outnumbered schools—was one. We also see the practice of democracy under threat in a country like Lebanon in light of the ever-changing rules, amended with each approaching election season. In Jordan, MPs found themselves embroiled in a number of scandals and controversies, as occurred in other Arab regimes. As for the Arab Spring, it continues to cherish hope that democracy will be implemented, yet the changes of this actually happening seem to be slipping away like gains of sand through ones fingers.

In a recent issue of “Foreign Affairs” magazine, that influences US and even international elites, the main headline read: “Capitalism and Inequality”. A similar headline could also be found in a recent copy of The Economist—the most popular newspaper in the west—which read: “Generation jobless”, in reference to the on-going unemployment crisis. The idea here is that democracy—even in its own backyard in the industrial west—has become an object of suspicion. This is because democracy has failed to achieve equality or offer solutions for the economic problems basically caused by politicians, particularly in light of the financial crises in a number of states which resulted in widespread unemployment, currency devaluation, and widespread crime. This has even had a manifestation in western European cities; from the “occupy” Wall Street movement to the clamorous demonstrations in Greece and Spain.

The claim that was promoted between 1970 and 2010 was that the West was seeking to spread democracy across the world to the point that in 1983 Washington allocated a huge amount of money towards this endeavor. This is something that Woodrow Wilson himself would not have dreamt of, namely to promote democracy across the world with the objective of helping the Western liberal democratic camp triumph over the socialist camp.

Today, one important question is being asked by senior western intellectuals: What gains to security and peace were achieved by promoting democracy? The answer: Almost none. Struggles and wars continue to erupt, even if these are being ignored on the international arena, they are having a clear impact regionally. In spite of the billions of dollars that were spent, and the huge loss of lives in both countries, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq became democratic.

It is clear that Western democracy, in its essence, ended up with minority rule whereby the elite are under the control of banks, large corporations, and pressure groups that fund political parties with the objective of control. It is also clear that the politicians who monopolize and dominate power—described by some as a mafia—are untrustworthy. This is because a number of those politicians have been rightly accused of tax evasion or of possessing secret “offshore” bank accounts, in spite of all the democracy and transparency, which has comprehensively failed to curb these politicians’ greed. This is not to mention their abject failure in managing a society that ultimately ended up suffering unemployment and debt.

Well-known French thinker Hervé Kempf is the writer of The Oligarchy, Long Live Democracy, in which he shows that democracies are nothing more than “puppet theaters”, where the elites are being controlled by a hidden hand. Another book about democracy was published following this, namely David Graeber’s The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. This book looked at the Occupy Wall Street movement from the inside, viewing this as the epitome of the failure of the American ruling elite. Over the past few months, there has been a wave of new books discussing the theme of the failure of western democracy.

Western democracy is in decline for two main reasons: First, its economic policies failed to offer security and food to the people; second, the successes notched up by the Chinese economy which is a cause of grave concern to the western economic and political elites. In this case China, which does not recognize democracy in its Western bourgeois concept—political pluralism and rivalry —has achieved the highest economic growth rate and will soon become the world’s biggest economy. China’s success has shaken the firmly established idea the West has long upheld, namely that western democracy is the best means of development. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, renowned western academic Francis Fukuyama dared to say that the spread of Western democracy will be the final form of human government and will mean the end of history. China’s success has brought this vision into doubt. The protestors in Wall Street chanting “Enough of minority rule” and “Where is democracy?” not to mention the screams of Greek demonstrators in Athens represent ample evidence of the failure of Fukuyama’s theory.

Another central idea that is being circulated in the West as a cause for the retreat of democracy is the corrosion of the middle classes. This class, that once advocated and championed liberal democracy via the ballot boxes, has completely changed, and is no longer interested in politics and elections after huge swathes of it suffered under debt and unemployment. Thus, democracy has granted nothing to the middle classes except a legacy of failure.

At the time when the West is reconsidering principles of liberal democracy as an option, Arabs are inclined—under deep hypnosis—towards the concept of liberal democracy as a mechanism, but without considering the objectives that must be fulfilled in this regard. In this endeavor, the Arabs do not seem to be interested in creating a large and stable middle class that can promote the principles of democracy in our Arab world. Some consider the mere presence of elections as democracy, even though the majority of the people are immersed in poverty and backwardness. In reality, anyone who goes to the polls under these conditions will most definitely be influenced by the lure of false worldly—or otherworldly—gains.

In the Arab world, or shall we economies where poverty, unemployment, and lack of education are widespread, and where national budgets rely on foreign aid and income relies on interest: how can democracy be achieved? The crux of democracy is achieving a safe environment and a productive economy that can preserve the dignity of the citizens’. Has this really been achieved in our region? The answer, of course, is no.

Finally, the acceptance that democracy does not mean equality even existed during the Greek civilization that gave us this concept. Aristotle himself maintained that democracy brings with it instability. Indeed, a number of Greek thinkers cast doubt about the wisdom of putting decisions to a vote, particularly as many of those voting are completely ignorant of what they are voting on.