Friday, 20 January 2017

46. Sometimes democracy hurts

It is interesting reading or listening to political commentators using phrases "how didn't we see it coming". The question here is "who is we?", who is included in this selected group and who is excluded?

'Democracy is not working' is being suggested by 'the losing side', in Brexit, US elections or any other electoral contest of these days. The blame is on: Russia, the FBI, Fake news and fake news sites, Facebook, Wikileaks, the uneducated, the baby boomers, etc, etc.

And then, 'the winners', seem to believe that a tight electoral result grants them the right to impose some sort of 'tyranny of the winner', where the other side should stay silent and let them do what they want, let them get on with stuff as all actions are somehow validated by a result that does not even represent the majority.

'Democracy does not seem to be giving the "right" answer'. It is too unpredictable or uncontrollable for some. "People are looking in too much", "they are looking around, looking at their reality", so "we need an external enemy", "which is one of the easiest way to engineer consensus".

Who is the enemy?

Historically speaking, the neighbour (the neighbouring town, city, country, empire) has been the perfect enemy. The neighbour marks the limit of what's not mine, the place where I don't have sovereignty. His house is not mine. He is not me. The neighbour is a "no". And so most of wars were between neighbouring countries or empires and ended up redrawing limits.

During the cold war, US and URSS were neighbours, who diligently fenced their claimed territories and kept fighting in disputed lands. With the fall of the Berlin wall, and then the iron curtain, the end of history was declared. US prevailed. There was no longer a neighbour to fight against.

So the enemy became internal. The collective solution failed so it is all about the individual struggle. The negativity we felt was now the enemy holding ourselves back, there was no alternative system to compare. So self-help books emerged, positive thinking. We also fought cancer and AIDS -an internal enemy- and terrorism became the political enemy, destructive cells that can covertly attack us inside our territory or hack our immune/defence systems so it does not detect the invasor is there.

Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his article "How Neoliberalism prepared the way for Donald Trump" a reflection on Umberto Eco's essay Making an enemy.

Shortly before his death, the great Umberto Eco drew in his brilliant essay Making an Enemy the following sad conclusion from his numerous studies of the matter: “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth”. In other words: we need an enemy to know who we are and who we are not; knowing this is indispensable for our self-approval and self-esteem. And he adds: “So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one”. A codicil: “Enemies are different from us and observe customs that are not our own. The epitome of difference is the foreigner”.

Well, the trouble with a foreigner is that all too often he is indeed foreign – not just in the sense of obeying alien habits, but also – and most importantly – in that of residing beyond the realm of our sovereignty and so also beyond our reach and control. It is not fully up to us to make of such people enemies and put our enmity in practice (unless, of course, they cross boundaries with the intention of settling in our midst). If sovereignty consists in the “decisionist” capacity of acting solely on one’s own will, then many a foreigner is unfit to perform the role of a proper enemy according to Eco. In many cases (or perhaps in all?) it is better to seek, find or invent an enemy closer to home and above all inside the gate. An enemy within sight and touch is for many reasons more proficient (and above all easier to control and manipulate) than the seldom seen or heard member of an imagined totality. Already in the Middle Ages the function of the enemy in case of Christian states was perfectly performed by heretics, Saracens and Jews – all residing inside the realms of dynasties and churches by which they had been appointed. Today, in the era that favours exclusion over inclusion while the first (but not the second) is fast becoming a routine measure to which well-nigh mechanically to resort, internal choices assume yet more attraction and facility.

Today is the inauguration day, and America is torn in front of the choice of enemy. Terrorism with all its relevance, is losing its edge in terms of driving people's fears.
Where is the limit of what we are not? For some, it is the president-elect himself, a property developer, salesman and expert hacker of our attention system. For others, immigrants and the fussy entity that conforms the establishment. Some are dangerously pushing for the come back of the golden enemy, Russia, or probably some small "nasty" country that appears as a more legitimate target (North Korea?). Some of those will be driven by interest in the business of a new arms race and making Europe the new disputed territory, but the public is probably more driven by denial that the same America that fantasises through Hollywood with heroic Presidents, wise and impeccable, addressing the world, fighting for freedom and defending "our way of living"... that same America... well, voted for Trump. "Russia is the one that hacked us", somehow surgically impacting the outcome of the election of the swing states (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote). "It was not us, it was fake news" even though scientific predictive models that take into consideration the relative strength of a candidate in the primaries pointed out at Trump as the most likely winner, against what polls were saying. Polls which also offered certainty in Brexit and the Colombian referendum, somehow making an impact on many indecisive voters who decided then not to bother.

Trump's preference -at the moment at least- seems to be China, but it is a not new idea as the encircling of China with 400 military bases has been going on for years, as John Pilger denounces in "The coming war on China". It is the third largest economy after US and the EU. China has an expansionist agenda, but less military than others. They've been investing in Latin America and Africa in infrastructure, trains, energy projects, etc. It's the biggest trading nation and developed a manufacturing sector with low wages and almost no rights whilst US needs to face the consequences of Nafta, the erosion of the manufacturing sector and a fake distribution of wealth through access to credit. US is tempted by the promise of protectionism while we now hear the Chinese communist President Xi Jinping speaking in Davos in the World Economic Forum in defence of globalisation. This is definitely a curious change.

Hacking is about obtaining unauthorised access, but it is also about opening up short cuts, looking at system's vulnerabilities. And one of our vulnerabilities is not looking at the vulnerable. We are easily distracted by celebrities, outrageous statements and with the idea of the external enemy. An enemy is useful in rhetoric terms, it keeps us clean. It is not time for self-doubt in front of an enemy. Easily accepting a narrative that increases military tensions between nuclear powers is dangerous and should be closely scrutinised. There were real political reasons behind the break on the Democrat's administration and forgetting about those would be a distraction. Today we watch a Hollywood version of Les Miserables on TV and can deeply emphatise with their struggle. We can see, from the distance that those miserables were subjected to a system of structural injustice, when there were dreams that could not be and that we could not force a narrative of meritocracy when listening to Fantine's lament:

But are we really paying attention to Les Miserables of our time? Are we able to emphatise with their situation and their struggle?

Plurality means that sometimes we are not right, or that sometimes we are on the losing side even if we are right (of course, we are), we are forced to look at the other side of the argument and rescue whatever truth lies there.
This US presidential election as well as the Brexit vote, some say, gave the wrong answer and the seed of doubt is planted: doubting the system, doubting democracy. Rather than saying that is not working, I'd say 'it's complicated' or even that sometimes 'democracy hurts'. But we should not let this pain blind us to the reality that keeps on moving and is trying to distract us from very important tasks (such as strengthening democratic values and institutions, overseeing all now open trade agreements that will define how work will be distributed and how capital will flow globally) by preparing a menu of enemies,


PS: the 2016 Davos, predicted that Trump would lose and this year they seem to be discussing inequality more seriously...

No comments:

Post a Comment