Home/ Opinion / Views/  Opinion | The endless winter that liberal democracy has been staring at

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favour fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

—Robert Frost, Fire And Ice

The year 2019 saw the highly popular TV serial Game Of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire, finally brought to forgotten sadness after several false stops. The last few years, however, have been disquieting at best, even depressing, for other reasons.

The year 2020 was a long-awaited marker of the 21st century. Several optimistic projections were made of what the world would be like in 2020. Beyond fantastic predictions—such as robot therapists, personal helicopters, tele-transportation and men on Mars—technological change, increased openness, and the spread of democracy were expected to deliver a global boom. Few anticipated that we could be staring at a dystopian future. As we finally enter 2020, the jury is still out on how this new challenge might end.

Dark clouds hover over the basic values of reason, humanism, and individual liberty—the decencies on which modern civilization rests, just as they did almost a century ago. Liberal democracy was the ultimate guarantor of these values then, as it is now. The earlier assault was along its fringes, in young democracies, and it ended in unprecedented human tragedy. This time, the challenge springs from the very cradle of modern enlightenment—Western Europe and the US—and isn’t limited to it either.

Is liberal democracy in retreat? The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci spoke of two kinds of political power, one evanescent and the other more permanent. The capture of state power by political parties was what he described as a war of manoeuvre as this could be lost any time. Real power lay in what he described as a war of position, involving a battle for the hegemony of ideas in civil society. Durable power required victory in both wars. Indeed, he saw the latter as more important, because if this were won, the former would, too, sooner or later.

Liberal democracy had won both wars in the West. Governments of the left, right and centre came and went, but these were all rooted in a liberal democratic consensus. The war of ideas was also being slowly won in newly rising powers, such as China and eastern Europe, even as progress in the war of manoeuvre remained precarious. Is the tide turning and is liberal democracy now losing the war of ideas? And to what, exactly?

Both classical philosophers, such as Plato, and modern political thinkers such as the founding fathers of the US, saw populism as the Achilles’ heel that could destroy democracy. By its very nature, it could throw up dictators with clarion calls that cynically polarize society along receding social fault lines embedded in underlying ethnic, religious, and exclusivist national identities. Societies based on reason and compassion can swiftly get fired up by bigotry and hate.

Thinkers are still debating the causes of what is arguably the second major counter-revolution of the modern era. Consider the inability to recover from the global financial crisis of 2008; rapid change that outpaces the human capacity to adjust; a democracy-aiding capitalism gone rogue as it starts feeding off the “middle" class that spawned it; widening inequality within nation states generating despair; a backlash against globalization; and, finally, inept intellectual and political leadership unable to come up with new solutions for today’s problems.

Bigoted ideas have gone mainstream not because civil society is turning bigoted, but because of the cacophony multiplier effect of social media. The numbers who subscribe to such ideas are far lower than what the increasingly automated noise online would suggest. Efforts to subvert true expressions of the popular will speak of the weakness, not strength, of those engaged in it. The big difference from the earlier inter-war counter-revolution is that a far larger proportion of civil society fell under the spell of demagogues in Europe, even as others were too afraid to speak up.

If this analysis is correct, we can look to the future with a sense of hope. Looking at the recent spontaneous ferment among the youth in faltering democracies and stable dictatorships across the world from Chile in the West to Hong Kong in the East, reminiscent of the late 1960s, one would like to think that would-be demagogues are caught in a time warp. The youth have moved on. Maybe, just maybe, we are finally seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The least we can do is lend a helping hand by fearlessly standing up for decent values, for what is righteous and good, and for what unites rather than separates us as human beings, so as to make the world the kind of place that was hoped for at the turn of the last century. Like the poet Shelley, we may well ask the west wind, which combines the destructive and regenerative energies of the Indian deities Shiva and Brahma, that if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

If 2020 is unlikely to usher in the long summer hoped for more than two decades ago, could it nevertheless be the harbinger of another spring?

Alok Sheel is RBI chair professor at ICRIER. These are his personal views

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Updated: 30 Dec 2019, 11:12 PM IST
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