The West’s missionary promotion of its own socio-political ideology all over the world rings hollow when it is not able to sustain it successfully at home.

 

Once again, as occurs every few years, France is largely paralysed by wide-ranging strikes intended to force the government to back down on a series of unpopular reforms of the pension, public services and healthcare systems: Once again the results of presidential and parliamentary elections are likely to be overruled by street (and trade union) power that does not accept the mandate of the government to carry out its programme. Pointing at Emmanuel Macron’s personal victory and at the majority secured by his party in the National Assembly also raises in response the objection that he was elected mostly by default as most people were afraid of the only alternative represented by the Eurosceptical National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, which comprises some far-right wing factions along with many disgruntled recruits from the old Centre-Right and Left.

That reality exposes the weakness of many contemporary democratic dispensations which are usually brought to power by slender majorities of disappointed voters not on their own merits but rather to keep scarecrows out of office: Such tepid support vanishes fast and soon after the polls, in the present French case mass calls began to be heard for Macron’s resignation. Comparable situations exist in much of Europe and we can all witness the circus show unfolding in the US between those increasingly fed up with Donald Trump’s erratic and immature behaviour and those who support him, come what may in the theological belief that he is “the Chosen One”, mandated to bring America back to God and capitalist glory by crushing the satanic liberals.

To this crisis of the democratic system’s validity, which is being exposed with much greater violence in the fragile polities of Latin America and Africa, we must add the increasing malaise and controversy surrounding the loosely defined notion of secularism, especially in its radical French version of “laicité” which is perceived by many as a virus that saps the strength of national cultures and identities. This form of secularism ends up in practice as promoting minoritarianism at the expense of the majority. For instance, in order to avoid affirming any religious connotation to the social order, all religious symbols are in principle restricted to the private sphere to the extent that even tiny emblems such as crosses are not to be worn by public servants or displayed in public spaces. Catholic nuns, for example, should not be allowed to wear their insignia when they perform a social task outside their own institutions. However, it is much harder to enforce similar restrictions on minority religious signs such as the Muslim burqa, the chador or the Jewish kippa, as such policies are quickly equated with intolerance and oppression of cultural diversity. Some Muslim and Jewish spokespersons join the arch-secularists in expressing satisfaction at such strict or blanket interpretations of state neutrality (or perhaps rather intolerance) in matters of faith, but only because they curb the demographic and cultural dominance of the native creeds and cultures. Naturally, this is resented by many of the religiously minded “children of the soil”, who feel that their freedoms are being curtailed to pander to certain minority groups, whether ethnic, religious or sexual. The private sphere is increasingly invading the public one when more and more groupings demand special status and consideration such as the right for instance to hold “gay pride parades” in the commons, not to say special laws to guarantee their freedom of choice even when it should not be the concern of the wider population. Thus the nature of democracy and the meaning of secularism become bones of contention to the extent that both the basic concepts are being questioned or even rejected by many as inadequate to meet the genuine needs of society. By nature people in general react more to the personal character of leadership and the results it achieves than to institutions and the theoretical virtues they enshrine.

In France, the usual refrain intoned by those who feel that the system is in trouble but who are more or less committed to it is that Republican values are the Alpha and Omega of the dispensation and that taking recourse to them is the only solution to the problem: However many people give different meanings to those rather hazy republican values. After all, the first French Republic rapidly turned into a dictatorship that promulgated a regime of terror on her own citizens, resorted to mock trials and mass executions and waged war on all her neighbours before falling into disarray and anarchy and finding refuge in Napoleon Bonaparte’s autocratic rule. The Second and Third Republics in France likewise gave way to dictatorial regimes. Republican values can thus also be invoked against the very principles upheld, at least in principle by modern democracies, including, in Europe the rejection of violence and a ban on the death penalty. Yet current criminal cases evince the fact that the abolition of capital punishment often seems to lead to the inability to serve justice on particularly heinous criminals, such as mass rapists and murderers of children and women, whose rights are being scrupulously respected to the point of arousing the envy of less serious offenders and making the relatives of the victims feel that no adequate retribution has been meted out by an enfeebled system trammelled by its subservience to political correctness imposed by some professional activists.

Conversely, a state which is supposed to ensure universal equality before the law and to make no distinctions of race or gender is now increasingly facing calls to provide special rights and safeguards for all sorts of minorities that are seen as threatened by mounting public intolerance. To come back to the case of France, synagogues and mosques are now seen as needing armed police protection and so are homosexuals (who along with transgenders are becoming an obsessive concern of the powers-that-be in the media and in public policy making).

The French Parliament recently introduced a hotly debated legal provision to monitor public expressions of “anti-Zionism”, which are seen as verging on anti-Semitism, an already stringently repressed and punished ideology: However many are those who point out that making anti-Zionism a ground for juridical sanctions opens the door to making it illegal or at least suspicious to express anti-communism or anti-capitalism, not to mention anti-Catholicism or anti-Islamism. Freedom of expression, the cornerstone of democracy, cannot but fall victim to such maladroit attempts to foster the concept of a consensual society that would in the end not be very different from the “harmonious order” promoted by the Chinese Communist leadership: Even if special measures are deemed necessary to protect threatened minorities, in effect such long term dispositions belie the claims of the Republic to ensure equality and security irrespective of religious and cultural distinctions which are supposed to be invisible under the seemingly unachievable fully secular state.

Likewise, national sovereignty, the touchstone of the Republican founding fathers, has already been partly sacrificed to the ideal of European federal unity, which is far from being espoused by the popular majority and which is not being pursued according to strictly democratic principles either: There is a growing perception that democracy at the national level is little more than a lightning rod for the citizen’s discontent, whereas real power lies above it in multilateral and global elitist, unelected and generally unaccountable institutions such as the European Commission, which claim to be guided by higher long term priorities, not unlike the theocratic monarchies of yore: According to the vision of those guiding bodies, governments are not tasked with implementing the will of the majority of citizens expressed (more or less) through elections, but rather mandated by “experts” to push and pull the said citizens, willy-nilly towards an inevitably better “progressive” future entailing the fusion of nations into ever larger administrative unions and the mixing of populations through massive migrations.

Renewed calls are being heard for direct popular democracy, expressed through referendums and other ad hoc electoral consultations, but there is no escaping the fact that there cannot be democracy on a large scale without representation so that referendums are no solution given that they can generate confusion and further conflicts. They often express the mood of a fickle temporary majority insufficiently informed about the matters at stake, as the 2016 referendum on Brexit and its intractable consequences eloquently have shown in the United Kingdom:

The gravity of the systemic crisis is sharpened by the fact that it is undermining the older, more stable and prosperous countries, expected to be largely immune to the travails and turmoil affecting most young and fragile nations of the South and East where western style democracy remains a foreign graft not easily accepted by the local body politic. It is obvious that the concept of a national democracy remains largely alien to societies which function according to tribal, feudal, linguistic and sectarian terms of reference and which are therefore democratic republics in name while they are in effect under the control of military, neocolonial or plutocratic oligarchies: The West’s missionary promotion of its own socio-political ideology all over the world rings hollow when it is not able to sustain it successfully at home; The incapacity of the still dominant Euro-American powers to preserve internal cohesion and consistency in their institutions leads their elites to enforce stifling standards of political correctness, which inevitably lead to attempts at policing the thoughts of citizens and muffling the voices of dissent in the name of supposedly self-evident truths that only suit specific vested interests.

Will western “liberal” democracy, still globally dominant, survive much longer in its present forms or will the new technologies and the rising environmental and social emergencies force its replacement by new systems of governance whose contours are still uncertain? The next few years should bring the answer which will be highly relevant to India, also at a crossroads of her socio-political evolution: it is a good time to look for indigenous sources of inspiration now that the old foreign models are reaching their limits.

Replies to “Crisis of democracy and secularism: Words in search of meaning”

  1. Words cannot do justice to describe how accurately this article portrays the current scenario world over. he author has missed two important players in this – UN and its myriad self-serving arms populated by biased bureaucrats and media. The appeasement policy, not new to South Asia, but new to Western Democracy, triggered by influx of immigrants and refugees as well as silos created by individual preferences, is creating havoc to their democracies. India’s democracy , which has cruised well so far on this appeasement rails, has started to crumble when the increasingly aware majority started to question. The street protest that we are witnessing today in India, spear headed by the Opposition that lost its vote against CAA in the parliament democratically, is a clear sign of where the democracy is heading – chaos. Unless the self-appointed guardians of democracy, namely the “liberal” center of left politicians, academics, and media pull back from their ideological precipice and support for siloing of people and their appeasement, we are headed in a unchartered direction.

  2. Excellent piece Come. The challenge mankind (India too) has faced and is still facing is how to work with history. Whether to forget it or to interact with past in present. How far in past to go? Not without reason Indic Societies cremate, have np tombs or traces of dead and never kept a written record of events. If remembered, history will always be a burden on future irrespective irrhow positive it seems in currency.

  3. I appreciate what you say and how you say it and I greatly miss the times we spent talking at the IIC which is the only thing I like about Delhi. We’ve shifted to Bhawarna in the summer and Goa in the winter and now I’ll be able to get The Guardian and you in both places. Could I get your email?

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