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The failed promise of liberal democracy

A demonstrator holds a placard during an anti-government rally in Algiers, Algeria December 31, 2019. REUTERS/Ramzi Boudina

Lately it feels like the world is constantly on fire. Every time you switch on the television, radio or log on to the internet there is a new protest, another latent revolution, another explosive expression of civil discontent. On one hand, it’s a thoroughly depressing comment on the sheer numbers of people who are unhappy with the status quo. On the other, you could argue that protest is the most complete expression of democracy in the world, and what we are entering is a new era of reclaiming citizen participation from an increasingly hegemonic vision of global governance.

I like the latter formulation, perhaps because I am fundamentally a hopeful person, but also because I think that gives us a thread that unites anti-government protests in Chile with mass mobilizations in Iraq, uniting citizen movements in Sudan and Algeria on the way. The end of the Cold War brought a version of global governance that made a lot of big promises but has stuttered in delivering on them. Underpinning much of the socio-political infrastructure of today – the United Nations and other international organizations, the premises of humanitarian and military intervention – is the idea that liberal democracy is the best option for governance for the largest group of people. Engendering compliance with this model through both persuasive and coercive means has been presented as the march towards progress for many.

I should point out here that I strongly believe in the broader democratic project. Building representative and inclusive societies that respond coherently to the demands of citizens is a noble goal. The idea of human rights as a framework for protecting lives is critical to the survival of the species; the alternative is survival predicated on how much money and power one has access to. And the idea of some kind of order for states with divergent histories, contemporary politics and cultural practices is one that allows us to share the planet.

What I think people are now struggling with is that the promises of the liberal order seem increasingly hollow and even dangerous as they consolidate wealth and power in a global oligarchic class that will go to all lengths to ensure its own survival. This is not a novel critique of power – people like Frantz Fanon and Thomas Sankara have eloquently made this argument before me.

My contribution is to observe that the digital age has brought the reality closer to the vast majority of the world’s population. Billions of people now have instant access to information through their smartphones – and there is a growing sense that most of us are getting a raw deal. The promise that participation would lead to prosperity for all increasingly looks like permitting the oligarchy to consume rapaciously. Every day we are confronted with narratives of the destruction that the so-called liberal order wreaks on our societies, and people are increasingly unwilling to be complacent participants.

We are aware that this system cannot sustain itself, particularly given the rate at which the natural environment is being destroyed, and we are not afraid to let the world know. This global structure cannot survive in its current form or it will destroy us all. The question is whether the stalwarts of the so-called liberal democratic order have the ears to listen to the cries of a discontented world.

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