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Democracy and openDemocracy

About the authors

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

The end of the cold war in 1989 opened the way for the extension of democratic government to many countries around the world. Now, terrorism, fundamentalism and the imposition of the neo-liberal form of globalisation threaten to halt and even reverse this process. Democracy is under attack from without, and, even more insidiously, from within.

These three forces, separately and in combination, are weakening democratic governments and discrediting democracy as a political aspiration in the eyes of those who do not yet live in democratic states.

Democracy remains the foundation of human freedom, human security and even human survival in the 21st century. But if this is to continue to be true, these new challenges require a new response: to strengthen the principles and values of democracy newly relevant so that they may engage with the changes taking place across the world.

Terrorism, and how not to fight it

Terrorism is barbaric, immoral and indefensible. But in itself it is rarely a threat to the continued existence of a democracy unless that democracy connives in the damage. Terrorists can frighten, maim and kill our citizens. But they cannot change our political systems. That is something we do to ourselves. It is terrorism and the response to terrorism that threatens democracy.

The threat of terrorism must be kept in proportion. Horrific though the attacks were on Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, New York and Washington, Bali and Casablanca, Jakarta and Riyadh, Istanbul and Moscow, Madrid and London, they did not directly threaten the state, the government or the way of life of Kenya or Tanzania, the United States or Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or Russia, Turkey or Morocco, Spain or Britain.

Indonesia, for example, held its first free presidential election after Bali was bombed. The attacks in Madrid evoked a massive civic response and a renewed commitment to a peaceful election. Turkey continued to improve its human rights significantly after the Istanbul attacks. To acknowledge this in no way diminishes the pain and grief suffered by the victims or their families. To fail to acknowledge it is to exploit those victims in a squalid political game.

We must not inflate the capacities of the terrorist. The point of terror for a terrorist is exactly that – to terrorise: to spread fear and to panic peoples and their governments into behaviour that furthers the aims of the terrorist. The more democracies play along, the better it is for the terrorist.

(When the president of the United States invaded a country that was not linked directly to terrorist attacks upon America, and used the rhetoric of perpetual war to a people who lacked the information to contradict him, Osama bin Laden, on the eve of the November 2004 presidential election, sent him a thank-you note.)

Democracies must hold on to their moral advantage in the face of terror. Most people in the world, given the opportunity, prefer to live under a government of their choosing, buttressed by the rule of law, run by men and women whom they trust and who conduct themselves transparently, honestly and with integrity. This choice is presently denied to many people and, even where it theoretically exists, the results are not always as good as they might be. It remains true, nevertheless, that people of most cultures and political persuasions tend to prefer democracy to tyranny.

Those who pursue another agenda must therefore discredit democracy in order to win recruits. The challenge for democracies is to demonstrate that they are indeed morally based forms of government, true to their principles. This will not impress diehard fanatics or true believers in another cause, but they are lost in any case. It will hold the attention of the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens and that is what counts. Failure to keep to our democratic principles enables extremists to persuade their recruits that democracies are hypocritical, disguising a lack of principle beneath empty rhetoric.

Leaders who undermine the central attributes of their own democracies – especially its foundation, the rule of law and equal access to justice – and who conspire to permit the use of torture, extraordinary rendition, arbitrary detention, detention without trial and extra-judicial murder, are themselves acting as recruiting-sergeants for terrorist organisations.

Fundamentalism, and what it teaches

The suicide and other terror attacks that began a generation ago in Lebanon and Sri Lanka and continued in Palestine have now spread across the middle east, from Israel and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. They are linked to the direct threat of fundamentalism – a political programme of authoritarian rule in religious form, which has, in some contexts, been able to garner significant popular support. Fundamentalism, a wider current of thought and action than the terrorism which is one of its adjuncts, does threaten the state, the government and the way of life of societies in the region.

The challenge of fundamentalism makes it all the more important to distinguish the open politics of democracy and human rights from a narrow definition of voting and a majority rule which may lead to majority tyranny.

The institutional and legal principles of democracy are universal:

  • the rule of law and equal access to justice
  • guarantees of human and civil rights that are upheld and independently monitored
  • free and fair elections involving a genuine competition of ideas, permitting consensual, non-violent changes of government
  • freedom of speech, press and media
  • healthy, autonomous civil society institutions and networks, independent of the state
  • accountability of authority and transparency of decisions
  • entrenched property and economic rights
  • social justice and basic security
  • an ethos of dialogue, questioning, trust, and moral awareness
  • widespread, free access to the information needed to discuss, scrutinize, make choices about and uphold all these components of a democratic society

Behind these are the core values of democracy:

  • the political equality of all citizens
  • open deliberation before decision-making so that all can voice their interests and concerns
  • a high degree of citizen participation in the processes of democracy, that respects and encourages the different views of others
  • a pluralism of institutions and the independence of critical voices that maintain the long-term health and openness of democratic societies.

The form these aspirations take may change: to be universal is not to be beyond history. To thrive, democracy requires a community that experiences itself as such – still most commonly the nation-state; and each nation-state will find its own democratic voice and personality. The way each society embraces the democratic virtues of disagreement and tolerance will differ, but all must be rooted in reason, humanity and imagination, and all demand dialogue and ideas to come alive.

Democracy is a form of anti-fundamentalism; its wisdom and openness resist monolithic certitudes. In times of rapid and hurtful change, growing inequality and the erosion of national authority by global powers, the appeal of fundamentalist doctrines demands a steady refusal not to reply in kind. When sanctions and force have to be used, their application should be limited and their character must be one of policing not conquest. A human security approach is needed to respond to the grim realities of genocide and tyrannical repression. Violence must be a last resort, used only within a clear legal and accountable framework.

Globalisation, and the clarity it needs

The way in which globalisation has undermined peoples’ belief in democratic self-government is familiar. This is the age of democracy, yet the democratic claim of universal equality of worth is mocked by the intensification of global inequalities that marked the end of the 20th century.

The reach of multinational corporations; the influence of a few powerful states and of opaque international financial institutions; the weakness of the United Nations as a force for positive government; the remoteness of the governance of the European Union; the mendacity, cynicism and populism of the global media; the awesome threats of climate change – all combine to undermine the citizens’ faith in the efficacy of democratic government.

Globalisation as part of the everyday experience of life has been part of human history since the16th century, when the marketplace that was the Netherlands stretched to the Spice Islands of what we now call southeast Asia. Historically it has sharpened differences rather than creating homogeneity. The development of markets across the world and the separation of law from the state permitted hideous exploitation under colonial empires, but also laid the groundwork for independence and national democratic constitutions.

Today, there is confusion about the meaning of globalisation. Its most ardent advocates in the past two decades have tended to conflate two quite separate ideas: globalisation as the extension of communications and relationships around the world, assisted by technology; and globalisation as the ultimate victory of neo-liberal economics, a process that, its advocates argue, will diminish the importance of local politics and culture and lead to a world in which the major decisions are left to the market.

These are separate ideas. Whilst it would be foolish to argue against the first, the second is very much open to question. Much that is positive flows from global trade and development but the history and experience of globalisation suggests that, far from diminishing the importance of local politics and cultures, globalisation stimulates them. Nation-states do not disappear and local cultures react strongly to the perceived imposition of one model. The challenge for democrats is to learn to use the first model of globalisation as a tool for developing new forms of democracy and improving the ones we have.

Information technology is one aspect of globalisation that is giving citizens everywhere an unparalleled capacity to do just this: to communicate, to witness and to exchange ideas and experience. The global justice movement is as much a product of our time as the World Trade Organisation.

As Tom Nairn puts it, a “democratic warming” can be felt, growing outside the established institutions and old regimes of top-down democracy.

That fundamentalism and the terrorism it inspires are part of the anti-democratic response to globalisation was vividly illustrated in July 2005. The G8 summit brought together the world’s most powerful statesmen in Gleneagles (Scotland), accompanied by leaders from the larger developing countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, India and China. The British hosts had put two items high on the agenda: climate change and aid to alleviate extreme poverty in Africa.

They had mobilised popular support for this agenda and the Live8 series of pop concerts gave musical expression around the world to the idea that there is a shared humanitarian responsibility for others, wherever they are. The celebrity-led engagement of popular feeling was accompanied by the protests of the alliance of non-governmental (NGO) and civil-society organisations campaigning to “make poverty history”.

Both Live8 and Make Poverty History were positive expressions of an emerging democratic globalisation. But their impact was blown away by a quite different spectacle – four coordinated bombs in London on 7 July, the morning of the summit’s main day. The leaders who attended responded by saying that they would not be intimidated, but none commented that the suicide bombers attacked not only the summit and its host, prime minister Tony Blair, but also the long prepared and peacefully expressed democratic protest.

Terrorists appropriate global injustice to justify their actions. But there can hardly be a clearer illustration of the way terrorism strengthens the forces that create injustice and undermines the development of a democratic, civic response.

Democracy, and expansion as the best defence

The best way to defend democracy against terrorism and fundamentalism is to hold firm to the principles and values already established and to apply them in practice.

The best way to win the argument against these forces is to help the advance of democracy in countries that do not enjoy it and to apply the relevant democratic principles enumerated above – including transparency, accountability and participation – to global institutions. Democrats must be seen to live by the principles we espouse.

The best way to respond to the disenchantment with existing democracy is to encourage new forms of direct participation that open up democracy itself:

  • democratic principles need to be extended to all countries and peoples
  • relevant democratic principles need to be applied to the institutions of globalisation, from the United Nations to corporations, NGOs, the media and the European Union
  • democracy needs to be opened up to citizens in new ways so they can engage with and participate in public affairs.

These three democratic responses are linked and mutually reinforcing, but they are not identical.

All three can be assisted by the web, with its capacity to be open and inventive, to give expression to new voices, and to expose lies and manipulation. Like the globalisation of which it is both product and instrument, the internet is double-edged: capable of isolating people and encouraging panic and manipulation, but also an ideal medium to assist debate, learning and co-creation and indeed new forms of direct democracy.

If the basis for democracy is deliberation, we have to ask: who hosts the conversation? If the answer is the corporate media, then discussion will be limited and access to debate controlled. The internet provides a new means of democratising debate, but only if its users maintain quality, accuracy and clarity, and include global participation. This is our ambition at openDemocracy

Such a strategy is not the same as “e-democracy”, if this means the application of electronic communication to existing activities (such as voting). The potential of the web to create active, self-governing communities points the way to genuinely influential discussions which are neither populist nor confined to political elites: the democracy of “citizenship” rather than “the people”.

Beyond the web, democratic institutions must be revitalised, voters re-engaged and citizens remotivated. The web can play its part in this by being a forum for ideas and debate, a space in which a civil society distinct from the politics of the state and the interests of the market can come into being. Here, human values that are not guided by power, violence or greed may have a chance to build a sustainable world – and a democratic one.

Behind its principles and values, the challenge of democracy is how to achieve the second part of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg definition: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

As we have emphasised, populist forms of people-power all too easily turn sour and criminal: democracy is a rule-based culture not a despotism of the majority. But both within nations and globally, democracy calls for regular people having a say over how they are governed: which means empowering the powerless and checking the powerful. This is a great ambition. The calling of openDemocracy is to give it every support we can with our modest means – with truthful reporting, honest, lively argument and full use of the creativity of the web. For you can’t have democracy without an independent media.

Are people ready for open-minded, democratic citizenship? One answer came on 15 February 2003 when millions demonstrated against the proposed invasion of Iraq supported by majorities in many countries. This widespread anti-war sentiment was not the craven appeasement of a dictator whose downfall was welcomed. It was not (on the whole) a celebration of populist simplicities by the unwashed.

It was a wise, well-judged refusal of a war of choice and its likely consequences. The leaders of Anglo-Saxon power who had led the world since 1945 proved less far-sighted than their citizens. This moment should be seen as historic. For it was an argument over a coming use of power: it involved a judgement over future consequences. Leaders in Washington, London, Canberra and Madrid, thought they knew better. Instead, citizens around the world proved themselves to be, on balance, wiser. We need the good sense and open-mindedness to build on this, to defy the threats and pressures of fundamentalisms whatever their source.




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