Democracy at risk

John Kampfner, of Index on Censorship, Eric Kaufmann, from Birkbeck College, London, and Dominique Moisi, a founder of the French Institute of International Relation debated the global future of democracy in a particularly lively event in Jewish Book Week 2010. Ann Jungman was there
Ann Jungmann
23 April 2010

It was never going to be a jolly evening, but the discussion of the future of democracy on a global scale held as part of Jewish Book Week, provided three very different angles on the future. 

All three ‘public intellectuals’ have recently published their thoughts. Eric Kaufmann believes that the future will be decided by a population explosion among fundamentalists of all the Abrahamic religions. He predicts  that the secular direction of society in the west will not survive both the reduction in population by the religiously indifferent majority and the tendency of the religious to have large families. Many of the religious groups will have come from poor backgrounds, where religion has traditionally had more influence. The populations in the West and East Asia may remain stable but in Africa and other parts of Asia, he said, they will explode, leading to massive immigration to the more affluent and less populous areas. While more moderate religious groups will tend to have two children in most secular societies, religious groups may become a major religious force by the middle of the twenty first century and gain in confidence, combining to prevent UN birth control projects and other legislation which does not suit their agenda. 

John Kampfner, meanwhile, has been travelling widely around the world, asking himself,  “Why are people trading their liberty for prosperity?” Pondering what he saw as people’s greater concern about their private freedoms than their public ones, Kampfner felt that we are obsessed with security and are happy to make a trade of liberty for safety. For him Singapore, where there is prosperity and safety, seemed to be the spectre of the future. There the educated willingly give up their freedoms and see the desire to enter the public realm as likely to cause them trouble. He warned that what so many middle class people want now are the freedoms to follow their own sexuality, to educate their children as they please, to live where they want, and to travel as they please. To achieve these goals they tend to turn their backs on hard won, traditional public freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and even freedom of religion.   

Kampfner sees no prospect of a solid march forwards to democracy taking place. The assumption in the west that countries such as Russia and China are likely to progress into more sophisticated and democratic systems may well be fallacious – he can see no reason why they may not stay just as they are. Russia has singularly failed to provide for personal safety, which is one of the main demands of the educated class, but there is no sign of an overthrow of the system. However, he thought that the semi-authoritarian regimes in China and Russia and elsewhere will have to find a mechanism to protect private freedoms or risk becoming truly totalitarian.

Summing up, Kampfner saw an amazing passivity all over the world in response to the banking crisis and the irresponsible behaviour of the bankers. Generally, populations seem to be anaesthetised. People don’t bother to vote and while the west is busy trying to export democracy, often in unsuitable and hopeless contexts, western nations are not “minding the shop” at home. Most people seem dangerously indifferent to the increasing pace of attacks on our liberties and freedoms. But there is an urgent need to mobilise populations to protect these public freedoms.

Dominique Moisi focused on the realm of the emotions, feeling after his own extensive travels that “confidence is the most important word of all. Some have it, some are losing it, and some people have none. This is the basis for the modern division of the world.” To huge applause he stated, “Fear, hope and humiliation define our planet and all three relate to confidence… In Asia there is hope, in the west there is fear, in the Muslim/Arab world only humiliation.”  

For him the west is agitated by being back where it was in the mid-eighteenth century, prior to colonisation and having to learn again how “ to live equally with ‘the other’”. Moisi pointed out, “Europe will only be 6% of humanity and the west only 12% of the world’s population by 2050, whereas they were 68% in the 1950s.”   This, he said, scares the west, used to domination for centuries. He quoted the Prime Minister of Singapore, “The danger comes not from Al Quaeda or China, but from western lightness and superficiality.”

Asia with its expanding economies, rapid modernisation, more educated populations and the formidable rise out of poverty for many people was now more powerful and so, full of confidence.

But humiliation has become the prevailing emotion in the Muslim world since the end of their period of cultural domination in the seventeenth century. This is very dangerous. Israel, on the other hand, felt plenty of fear and a good portion of hope, and a huge resentment, based both on the horrors of Jewish history and the failure of much of the world to see the Israeli/Palestinian struggle from its perspective. Most of Israel’s controversial policies, he said, hail from the very strong resentful feelings. The humiliation on the one side and the resentment on the other make for a noxious brew.

However, he saw signs of hope. The green revolution will enable the planet to feed the projected population of the world as the birth rate will start to fall after 2050. The basis of this optimism is Moisi’s conviction that “knowledge is the answer to intolerance.”

Watch the entire discussion here

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