Civil society and the fault lines of global democracy

Fayyaz Baqir

Context: the social landscape of democratic societies

Democracy has emerged as the dominant form of government in the past half century. The number of people living under democratic rule increased from 12 percent of the global population in 1900 to 63 percent in 2000. However, democracy is more than just putting in place an elected government. Democratic order must also encompass economic and social democracy. It builds on democratic values and a broad array of citizens’ voluntary associations. It also calls for erasing the boundaries between national and international “democracy” meaning that the idea of one person one vote should be part of a global practice. It cannot be reduced to majority rule and the arbitrary power of the majority. Democracy also means equality and accountability outside the seat of government, anchored in equitable relationships across the boundaries of class, caste, gender, race, and faith, in civic life, at the workplace and in neighborhoods, increasing the range of choices people have in their daily lives (Sen 1999). The normative legitimacy of democracy is based on the premise that anyone who is affected by a decision should also be a part of making that decision. Diversity creates new challenges for democratic politics because a majority decision cannot provide an answer to the deprivations caused by the structural foundations of discrimination. The perpetual existence ofsuch discrimination has created disillusionment with democracies and has led to calls for democratizing democracies. In transitional democracies persistence of these exclusionist structures has been accompanied by electoral violence, dynasty politics and a culture of patronage (Swain, Amer and Ojendal 2009).

The events which unfolded after the death of handcuffed Black citizen George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the hands of a white police officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes such that he could no longer breathe brought the numerous fault lines of the global democratic order under the public gaze. The wave of protests starting in Minneapolis spread like a wildfire across the globe. The protestors demanded not only the end to police brutality but the legacy of slavery and racism, economic discrimination, and social injustice. It was ironic to note that the global protests found resonance everywhere except Palestine. The reason was that such brutalities were a daily affair in Palestine and world conscience has been silent on this “new normal.” This shows that a deep division exists not only between oppressive structures and vulnerable groups but between vulnerable people themselves. These protests led to dismantling of statues of Gandhi, Belgian King Leopold who massacred 1.5 million Africans in Congo, American President Andrew Jackson, and many other slave masters. These protests clearly emphasized the existence of deep structural divides in leading democracies.

Another earth-shaking event preceding the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests was the spread of COVID 19 across the global. This event brought to public attention the interdependence of all the sections of the global community on the one hand, and the segregated healthcare systems across the globe on the other. Many leading democracies like the USA, UK and India were caught completely unprepared to deal with this disaster and miserably failed to protect the health, security, and safety of their citizens especially the weakest, poor and most vulnerable. Some of the so called “undemocratic” regimes like China and Vietnam handled the crisis much more effectively and with a much lower loss of life. The pandemic also highlighted the fissures in the global governance system, depicted for example by the withdrawal of US support for World Health Organization (WHO). Despite the collective nature of the threat many people in the political and business class saw the pandemic as an opportunity to make profits by calling for commercial solutions. The pandemic also revealed the fractured relationship of the global community with nature. In-depth review of the pandemic revealed that continued human encroachment of natural habitat in the name of development has created the dynamic of recurrent emergence and spread of such viruses. This brought to public attention the issue of climate change in a forceful way and revealed the well-entrenched conflict between scientific truth and commercial interests in the neoliberal order.

COVID 19 and BLM invite us to go beyond the unilateral concept of democracy as election of representatives to the pluralist concept of creating a world where many worlds can exist in harmony (Escobar 2019). Pluralism implies a system for making citizens a part of power structure to go beyond majority vote and identity based power structures, and find ways to create a world where many worlds can exist simultaneously. This concept of democracy follows the principal of a globalization- based on pluralism not the hegemony of rentier capital. It affirms globalization based on fraternity of sovereign local economies as part of the tapestry of the global economy (Escobar 2019). A true deep-rooted democratic system can be established if we can move from the concept of representative to participatory democracy (UN 2004). It is also important to note here that true democracy’s function is to make peace (Iber 2018). But this peace cannot last without justice. Social justice has emerged as a key issue in traditional democracies, democracies in transition and in countries without multiparty electoral frameworks. In the case of the latter, China agreed to the continuation of the justice system and civil liberties in Hong Kong for a period of 50 years after the end of British rule under its proclamation “One Country Two Systems” but started tracking back by introducing legislation for the extradition of dissenters to the mainland in 2019 leading to mass protests (The New York Times 2019). In Xinjiang province, the Chinese government started separating school children from their families, faith and language in the name of “Centralised Care” and “Thought Education” by sending them to giant boarding schools and held adults in detention camps for “vocational training” to fight extremism (BBC 2019). On the other hand, the question of social justice gains critical significance in traditional democracies because social injustice is in conflict with the norms upheld in the name of free market and democratic politics.

It seems that what electoral democracies have given people with one hand has been taken away by the other even under glorious democratic regimes. Democracy in communities, democracy in social life, democracy for minorities and the vulnerable, democracy at the workplace have all been questioned in Western democracies. Workplaces in the West are seen by many as private governments which function as despotic entities. For example, non-unionized workers have no recourse in the case of abuse, even if it is illegal like sex abuse or wage theft, other than quitting their jobs. Wage theft by corporate employers exceeds the sum total of all other thefts in the U.S. The majority of workers are forced to sign agreements for mandatory arbitration which deprives them of the right to be heard by a neutral judge. This control also extends to workers private lives. A Coke worker, for example, was fired for drinking Pepsi at lunch. Thousands of slaughterhouse workers cannot use the bathroom during work hours. They are told to wear diapers to work. Such abuses are legitimized in the name of “freedom of contract,” meaning that workers can leave jobs if they do not like the workplace. While workers in the gig economy are called independent contractors, they are denied the benefits offered to workers doing similar jobs and are regulated as much as the regular employees in a firm (Anderson 2017). Corporations and elites have undermined government’s capacity to respond to citizens’ concerns by finding legal ways to defy human rights at the workplace (Reich 2009; Sachs 2011). The key questions we need to ask are: is the game is rigged and how can we create a level playing field?

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