Anti-intellectual trends and sectarian politics unfolding in nations ruled by elected Governments no less can push the world into a bottomless pit of cultural and civilisational decadence
Democracies across the globe are fighting a battle of survival today. India, one of the largest democracies in the world, is facing an existential threat from internal forces motivated by vested interests and narrow political gains. The ongoing attack on democracy and the resulting authoritarian regulations on people’s right to choose a Government of their choice, freedom of expression, Constitutional validity and suppression of liberal voice will take the country back to the primitive times. Signs of such a trend are already looming large on the horizon with secularism and pluralistic worldview coming under constant attack. An annual report by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), published in 2018, titled, “Democracy Facing Global Challenges” said that “autocratisation is now manifesting in a number of countries, including Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey and the US. Autocratisation affects one-third of the world’s population, or some 2.5 billion people. This represents a massive reduction in the global protection of rights and freedoms.”
Democratic discussions and debates have been greatly undermined in recent times, attacks on minority groups have seen a rise and religion has almost taken the centre-stage in all political discourses. Anti-democratic symptoms, such as attacks on certain sections of society based on their food habits, curtailing of freedom of individuals and organisation and interference with Government institutions for political gains, are challenging Indian democracy. In his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker said that “a good democratic Government allows people to pursue their lives in safety, protected from the violence of anarchy and in freedom, protected from the violence of tyranny. For that reason alone, democracy is a major contributor to human flourishing.”
Currently, there are 103 democracies in the world with nearly 56 per cent of the global populations residing in them. But recent developments in the global political landscape are giving rise to authoritarianism. The rise of an alternative form of democracy, like theodicy in the Muslim world and authoritarian capitalism in China, is the primary reason for the declining popularity of democracy. Stephen Pinker, however, says that “democracies themselves are blacklisting into authoritarianism with populist victories in Poland and Hungary and the power grabs by Recep Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia.” It is true that democracies across the globe have come under a major threat as elected leaders at times refuse to vacate the office and, thus, cripple the democratic functions of the Government as mandated by the people. Similar trends are also being witnessed in the US and the UK. A Government, which functions without heeding to the needs of the very people that elected it, tends to become authoritarian sooner or later. The trends indicating a gradual but deliberate attempt to strangle and replace democracy are not only seen in India but across the globe.
The Varieties of Democracy report further adds that “aspects of democracy that make elections truly meaningful are on the decline. Media autonomy, freedom of expression and alternative sources of information and the rule of law have undergone the greatest decline among democracy metrics in recent years. This trend affects both autocracies and democracies.”
Besides, the dramatic rise in protectionist trends, deglobalisation, hyper-nationalism and divisive politics will only worsen the current state of affairs. This is more evident during election campaigns, where propaganda is skillfully employed to spread misinformation and instill fear in the minds of the people about possible threats to their religious, cultural and ethnic identities from external forces.
Elections are, thus, won and public opinion is held captive in manners never thought possible before. This not only has a regressive impact on civilisations that evolved and matured over thousands of years, but also threatens the ideals of unity, harmony and mutual tolerance. Samuel Huntington, noted American political scientist, in his article titled, “Clash of Civilisations” says that the “Great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.”
Authoritarian regimes have always resorted to extreme measures to silence public opinion, eliminate adversary groups and create an environment of fear. Democracy was an exception that allowed and promoted free speech, dissent and peaceful protests. However, democracy today is crackling under excessive pressure from politicians, Governments and individuals with vested interests. In the words of Stephen Pinker, such trends were first witnessed in “the first decade of the 21st century with the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of enlightenment — liberty, progress, Constitutional Government and fraternity. Today, they are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.”
What can save democracy from a premature death? Democracy, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is “A Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Its very foundation, therefore, rests on its people, their belief and the desire to be ruled by a leader who is capable of ensuring their safety and overall well-being. Huntington, in his book, The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century, talks about three waves of democratisations, the challenges each of them faced and the democratic transitions that took place cross the globe. However, today, we need a fourth wave that would not necessitate any democratic transitions but protect the existing democracies. But this would require what Immanuel Kant calls “enlightenment” or dare to know (sapere aude).
Enlightenment, as Kant describes it, is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. “This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in the lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance.”
Enlightenment or the age of reason, which began in the 14th century and ended in the 17th century, marked a new chapter in European history that was previously plagued by ignorance, blind faith and supremacy of the Church. It was, perhaps, the enlightened wisdom that laid the foundation of modern Europe with a different worldview guided by reason and logic. A revisit of the same would usher in a new era of positive change, characterised by greater reliance on reason, logic and human intelligence.
The enlightenment values are relevant even today, particularly as the world remains highly susceptible to religious fundamentalism, strong ideological adherence to divisive politics and increasing anti-democratic trends. Further, the anti-intellectual trends and sectarian politics unfolding today in countries ruled by democratic Governments could potentially push the world into a bottomless pit of cultural and civilisational decadence.
However, active participation of people, unbiased reporting by the media and a fair judicial system can play a crucial role in upholding the sanctity and ensuring the long life of democracy. New ideologies, innovative thinking and above all, criticism, should be welcomed in the best interest of the common good and the well-being of the nation and its people. Like 14th century Europe, which experienced a revival in its thinking, political and intellectual views, enlightenment could trigger a new wave of thinking and an awakening in us to guard our Constitutional rights and a democratic life.
(Writer: Nithin Augustine; Courtesy: The Pioneer)