Democratic Distortions Bite Back

When we try to analyze these events, including Brexit and the fanatical Trump MAGA supporters, standard divisions of left-right, liberal-conservative, democratic-autocratic, or traditional-modern are of no help.

Jan. 20, 2021, 4:04 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: VOL. 14 No. 11, January29, 2021 ( Magh 16, 2077) Publisher: Keshab Prasad Poudel Online Register Number: DOI 584/074-75

Those who have seen governments mobbed by "democratic crowds" in their countries through sponsored color-coded revolutions have expressed schadenfreude at the January 6 events that rocked Washington DC's Capitol. In an eerie parallel with Nepal's PM Oli, Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Russian parliament in October 1993 even though the constitution did not give him that power, claiming that it was hampering his ability to govern. In return, the parliament, with support from crowds in the street, impeached Yeltsin; and the impasse was only resolved when Yeltsin mobilized the Russian army, encircled the parliament, shelled its top floors and subsequently disbanded it. For the next seven years, Western powers got along famously with "democratic" Yeltsin and his drunken, corrupt looting of Russia in the name of privatization. However, the Russian nation did not forget or forgive, eventually paving the way for the rise of Putin to halt what the Russians call "national raspad" (disintegration). Glee would be an understatement to describe what the Russian media is expressing right now at January 6 events in Washington DC.

There was a similar repeat of the mob drama at the Hong Kong Legislative Council in July 2019 when hundreds of protesters stormed the building, ransacked and looted it. It happened on the 22nd anniversary of the return of the island by Britain to Chinese rule after the 99-year lease ran out, an occupation that the Chinese see as part of the "one hundred years of humiliation" they suffered at Western hands.That demeaning colonization was the culmination of the British use of military aggression (superior naval force) in its desire to profit from selling drugs (opium) to the Chinese, which the Qin dynasty had banned. Despite the handover, Western powers have spared no effort to split Hong Kong off from China as an independent entity, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi terming the ransacking of the Hong Kong legislature as "a beautiful sight". The Chinese, understandably, lost no time posting pictures of Pelosi's Congressional office being desecrated by Trump's rioters as "a beautiful sight".

When we try to analyze these events, including Brexit and the fanatical Trump MAGA supporters, standard divisions of left-right, liberal-conservative, democratic-autocratic, or traditional-modern are of no help. There is something deeper roiling these societies, including Nepal's, which are reacting back to events that destabilized it in the first place. To understand that, we have to go back five centuries, to the rise of capitalism as a new phenomenon in human history, and to incisive minds that have reflected on its churning impact on the way humans organize themselves into meaningful collectives. One was Marx, perhaps the best student of capitalism, whose thinking on this, when shorn of its Leninist (and subsequently Soviet Stalinist, Maoist, Pol Potian etc.) distortions, still provide us with clues to analyze and understand these horrific events of anarchy

The instances of governance breakdown we have witnessed or lived through in recent times are often mistakenly romanticized as revolutions similar to the one in France in 1789, two decades after the founding of the Nepali state by King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Edmund Burke was one of the earliest thinkers whose writings help wean us away from such romanticization of anarchy that not only weakens a country's social and economic infrastructure but inevitably consumes its acolytes. When one looks back at European history, or for that matter Japan's, one cannot help realize that those countries that opted not to go for obliterating the "ancien regime" but bringing about democracy with piecemeal engineering actually ended up with both stability and progress.

Another thinker, whose more recent and more relevant reflections than Marx's on the political economic origins of fascism that culminated in the Second World War and which many fear is in the early stages of its re-enactment, is Karl Polanyi. His famous "double movement" theory posits that a society organized around capitalism comes to a fork on the road in its evolution. One path is to opt for a welfare state that cares for its weakest and most vulnerable even as it uses the instruments of capitalism, and taxes it, to prosper with equity. Failing to do so inevitably leads to the other path – indeed to a major democratic distortion –of fascism where capitalism does not serve society but society is made to serve it through a coercive state and its militarization.

Polanyi's "double movement" posits that a vibrant and caring society reacts and pushes back against unbridled capitalism through it civic and religious bodies to uphold values important to society other than pure profit. It would enact policies that both Vulgar Marxists and neo-liberals would denounce as "regression". But such policies to protect its traditions, values and the most vulnerable from becoming mere grist to the "satanic mill" would save a society through this "double movement". It would not be put on the chopping block of unrestrained capitalism where citizens would be merely labour, families nuclearized to mere labour reproduction, and the vulnerable marginalized beyond the pale.

When one looks back at the Trump phenomenon, he was popularly elected by a frustrated populace that felt itself impoverished both economically and through the erosion of its cherished social values. Even as the US stock market grew bullishly, more and more Americans were being pushed to the edge of poverty and demeaned by liberal, urban political correctness. Strangely, it was democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders who were able to point precisely to the malaise, that all the prosperity from economic growth was being soaked up by the rich 1% pushing the 99% deeper into penury that even multiple jobs could notamend. Unfortunately for the US, Trump's fascism lite was more effective in capitalizing on the grievances of unbridled capitalism's victims than were the Bernistas with their (correct, in a Polanyi sense) message of democratic socialism!

And it does not look like Trumpism is going to go away anytime soon. Indeed, a horrified world used to seeing the US as the etalon of democratic values – and whose bedrock is peaceful transfer of power – is shocked to see Biden being sworn in as the new president with more US troops guarding Washington DC than are there in Iraq and Afghanistan! What the June 6 putsch is exposing is the grip that Trumpism holds in the minds of many especially slowly immiserizedWhite Americans, including those in the army and the police. Such is the Bidenista fears of possible Trumpista protests that one is reminded of the divisions brought out in Punjabi minds by Indira Gandhi's desecration of their Holy Gurdwara which eventually led her to being gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards!

The prevailing assumption among the Bidenistas is that Trumpism was a bad four-year nightmare which has happily ended, that everything will now revert back to Obama Part 2. The philosopher Heraclitus long warned that one cannot step into the same river twice, since the river itself will have changed. Seeing how polarized America has become (much more people voted for Trump this time than in 2016 despite knowing all about him and his doings!), Biden and US politics are going to be shacked for long by Trumpism well into his presidency, with him constantly having to look over his shoulders for its counter push via the frustrated 99%. Add to this the alienation of its old post-World War II European allies, the pushing of rising economic and military powers such as China and Russia towards a new Cold War hostility, the failure of the US to invest in manufacturing and relying on the weaponization of its financial power in a Covid-induced economy in recession – and one cannot miss all the ingredients of a perfect storm brewing.

What will it mean for Nepal and the rest of the world? They will essentially be caught in a nut-cracker of multi-polar great power rivalry. Old assumptions of the World Order as well as of global institutions such as the development agencies or even the United Nations and its SDGs or climate IPCC will no longer hold, even though Biden has made all the right, nice sounding noises about them. Old values of developmental professionalism will give way to the "realpolitik"of basic vested national interests and the great games that big powers will play. Countries with stable and strong polity will probably be able to benefit if they play their cards right. Countries such as Nepal with a dysfunctional dispensation, politicians both visionless and self-serving, and a disenchanted population that finds alleged "democracy" not serving their basic interests will find themselves caught helplessly in multiple nut-crackers not of their choosing. Indeed, the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times!", seems to be their foreseeable fate.

Dipak Gyawali.JPG

Dipak Gyawali

Gyawali is Pragya (Academician) of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and former minister of water resources.

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