Friday, 30 March 2018

Democracy in Decline: The Tyranny of Self-Interest

"He proved his supreme ability for organizing the masses into total domination by assuming that most people are neither bohemians, fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots, nor social failures, but first and foremost job holders and good family men.

The philistine's retirement into private life, his single-minded devotion to matters of family and career was the last, and already degenerated, product of the bourgeoisie's belief in the primacy of private interest. The philistine is the bourgeois isolated from his own class, the atomized individual who is produced by the breakdown of the bourgeois class itself. []

The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything - belief, honor, dignity - on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives."

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, [line space inserted]  

A Democracy Lost in Translation

The 1990s were a difficult time in South Africa. In the transition to democracy the country was on a knife edge. Many expected that civil war would break out. The 1980s had been turbulent; and it all seemed to come to a head in the years leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994. Nobody was sure of what would happen when the new era dawned. Fear and paranoia ran rampant, especially among the white populace; some people stock-piled food, others kept their guns at the ready.

But fears soon transformed into a sense of purpose. A new vision permeated the national psyche. We began to enjoy the hope of a new future; one in which we became an exception to the rule, an inspiration to the world. We became acutely aware of our moment, and its place in history. Pride replaced fear in our estimation of ourselves, even though the fear did not entirely leave us. Our history, after all, was resident deep within us, and between us, and had made its place in the world. There was an immutable intransience to it. It was resilient, enduring even if it was moved into the shadows, for however long. Our history, it would prove, was unending.

Yet we still tried to outrun it. We tried to be ‘normal’. And so we joined with a vision of ourselves that matched what we imagined normal was like. And all we had was our desperation to be part of the ‘outside world’, as we knew it then. Two decades of television shows governed our understanding of what democratic life – freedom – was like. From Dallas to the Cosby Show, we were caught up with the possibility of a life outside of our existence; one that seemed simple and actualisable because it was fiction.

“Work hard, live well and prosper!” became our reason for existence. It quickly replaced all our former aspirations for a new society, a new way of life, a pathway to a greater future. We understood the meaning of life as the well-being of all of us derived through work and play. Our reason for existing was no longer the hope of a new future for our children and theirs. It was now the simple actualisation of success through material gain.

Materialism and ‘security’ became the purpose of everyday life. Securing employment, acquiring property, and starting a family became the hallmarks of a life well lived, and the more abundance one enjoyed the better. People put a lot of time into imagining what the cars they drove and what the clothes they wore said about them. It was a fantasy of life that closely mirrored what we already had, and so we failed to detect what we were diverging from. And we were not to know the magnitude of this divergence until we had been wholly caught up in it, too far down the line to beat a quick retreat.

We became what we had never imagined we would be. We evolved into a caricature of a society, fuelled by lives lived in dislocation. Communities became less important than the individual. Individual existence came to dictate what was important, and that was simply looking out for oneself. “What’s in it for me?” and conversely, “What will it cost me?” came to dictate the terms of individual existence more than it ever had before. And in truth what was there to stop it? We no longer lived for each other, or for a future that we could mutually enjoy; we lived for the day to day, and it seduced us into an endless lull. It self-replicated ad nauseam, and that suited us just fine, for it rendered no need to reconcile the present with the overwhelming past that stuck to us like a late afternoon shadow on a sun-drenched day. There was no escape from it but to pretend it wasn’t there, or to seek shelter from it.

And it went on for a remarkably long time. Just enough so that most would forget, and be so caught up in the now as to be unable to effectively recall the past. That past which was most recent was even more obscured by the present, precisely because it was so close to it. The distant past receded, and was banished into latency, where it settled restlessly, churning away in the background of affairs like a subdued, unfinished brawl.

Time flowed quickly, and much water passed under the bridge. A new century arrived, and we became entrenched in what we had unwittingly absorbed and uncritically embraced. The new materialism dug its roots in deep, and flowered conspicuously.

“I’m rich bee-yach!!” went Dave Chappelle’s penultimate jingle of the Chappelle Show; the very last thing you heard after each show. Being rich became all important. It became even more important than power. Materialism entrenched itself so deeply, that everyone, whoever they were, and whatever their station, was caught up in it. We began to express our identities through our consumer choices; it gave us status, located us within the social hierarchy. Even charity became a status activity.

Families and family life became commodified. Conspicuous consumption extended to the whole family; what cars they drove; what schools their children went to, where they went on holiday, what gym memberships they had. As the world outside became more uncertain and fast changing, the more we retreated into the private realm of families, jobs and credit-fuelled extravaganza’s of spending.

This was the end of history in South Africa. Never before had such a profound rejection of and suspicion of the public realm existed, even under Apartheid. It was not simply apathy. Rather, the public realm was viewed as an intrusion into the comfort of the private realm. Fighting for the public good became increasingly viewed as an activity fuelled by an immaturity, and an idealism that bore no resemblance to the prevailing realities of the new worldview that had taken hold.

‘Homo-economicus’, the rationally self-interested, atomised and individuated everyman became the standard bearer for the new society. It was natural then that apathy in the public realm was justified as being a responsible job-holder or parent. It was natural that the very forces that negate the sustainability of community and society were elevated, and began to do their work. Introversion into the private realm served to escalate the disintegration in the public realm. And it was thus in many different parts of the world, as societies everywhere struggled to absorb and accommodate the tacit values and beliefs that underpinned the project of ‘globalisation’.

A Troubled Era: The Erosion of Democracy and the Public Realm

"The principles of monarchy and despotism - namely what keeps them going - are respectively honor and fear. What keeps democracy going is the far more demanding matter of 'a constant preference of public to private interest .... [it] limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens ... a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful'. This is one of the main reasons why democracy does not work, Montesquieu is suggesting, because people are not that selfless."

A.C. Grayling, Democracy and Its Crisis

We now live in an era where democracy and democratic rule itself has come under scrutiny. “Democracy is not the panacea for our social and developmental ills that we thought it would be” many exclaim in frustration in the developing world. “It is failing us, just as it is failing the developed world!” they conclude.

“Look at how well China has developed itself! And it did it without democracy. Centralisation and ‘moderate’ authoritarian rule yields better outcomes that simply adopting democratic rule. It was over-sold, a lie, and we are suffering as a result of it!” 

In my travels across the African continent I have heard many versions of this theory being advanced. And to be sure, neoliberal democracies have indeed failed in many developing world countries, like my own. South Africa wholly adopted the neoliberal prescriptions after its transition to democratic rule and now boasts the ignominious honour of being the most unequal country in the world. This inequality is a social and political force for extreme polarisation, and the further we have ventured into our relatively young democracy, the more fractious and divided the once hailed ‘rainbow nation’ has become.

And so, our African counterparts regard us as a cautionary tale of sorts. Even though we unquestionably have the most advanced economy, institutions and democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have replicated the very conditions that the struggle for freedom from Apartheid rule sought to achieve. We have entrenched spatial, racial and class inequality and it is tearing the nation apart. So much so, that we have no room for anybody else in our society.

My colleagues across the continent see us as a postcolonial ‘baby’, in a sense, who has yet to learn the lessons that freedom and the responsibilities that come with it, incur. “Oh we went through that too ...” I often hear, before being educated about the history of this particular country or that on the continent. Most often I am ignorant of their histories. All I know is our own. I am not uncommon in this. South Africa is a self-obsessed, self-referential nation; it was cut off from the continent for too long to truly comprehend its sense of belonging within it.

We struggle with our African identity despite our professed Pan-Africanism. We are a contradiction. We stand both with and against our African kin; we are simultaneously of Africa and apart from it. We desperately want to be a part of it, but we do not want it to be part of us. We are the prodigal nation of Africa, and while it celebrated our return to it, we bore menace upon those who came across the borders to settle with us; we hacked them to pieces, burnt and stabbed them to death, plundering and raping without pause for thought.

Our Afro-phobia is inescapable; we do not kill Europeans and Americans, we kill those who mirror us the most. Their dark skins, their desperate escapes from tyranny and war, their poverty and suffering do not move us. What is missing in us that we turn to violence against those who we should be longing to rejoin with? Where did the struggle die, and our freedom become cause for a viciousness and callousness that our conquerors once wielded over us? Where did we go wrong?

Perhaps we should have slowed it all down further than we did. Perhaps we should have transferred power to a socialist government who would have taken care of all, and gradually migrated society to a greater equality. Perhaps we should have done as China did. Perhaps we should have kept our heads down and plotted a more gradual, sensible way forward ... and forced the system to yield a more equitable and fair society. Perhaps then we would not be so resentful of our African brothers and sisters living amongst us, who spend their time eking out a living, staying below the radar of the increasingly paranoid and xenophobic South African state. Perhaps, perhaps not ... who knows? We are here now.

We are adrift in the new democratic dispensation. We have scarcely an understanding of what it means to act in accordance with democratic principles. Neither do we comprehend what changes need to be made in our society and its institutions in order to actualise democratic governance and order.

To be sure we are not alone in this. Many countries around the world are suffering the same ignorance and despair at their democratic conditions. Yet what is particularly disturbing is that our democracy is premised on one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Surely our democratic project deserves more than just polarising rhetoric, populist promises, un-principled power-brokers acting as though they are above the law, and dumb silence where clear violations of ethics, principles and the law are identified?

We are now reaping what we sowed early on in our democracy. The ‘honeymoon’ period – and the euphoria of new freedoms – blinded us to the future we were making. Our aspirations to modernity left us hankering after a kind of life we had only witnessed on television screens and in the movies. We had no idea what we were ushering in to our society. And we have lost the fundamental threads that held us together as a society as a result. Trust has evaporated, and we have no social contract left to speak of, except that which services our own self-interest.

Without a healthy society democracy becomes very difficult to enact faithfully. Democracy becomes a house without foundations, devoid of principles, ethics and accountability. It becomes mere bureaucracy at best, or it becomes ochlocracy (mob rule) or oligarchy (elite rule) at worst; where Machiavellian power dominates societal and political activity, further eroding the very basis of democratic leadership and governance. Real-politik, it its worst, serves more to undermine democracy than to uphold it. It breeds distrust, provokes intrigue and in reality promotes duplicity, where what is professed goes contrary to how one acts.

When hypocrisy reigns in the public realm, you can be sure that the private realm becomes a safe-haven for many. Yet it is precisely this retreat into the private realm that catalyses the rise of the superficial in the public realm. Without genuine engagement in the public realm, without real transparency and accountability, what hope is there for a public realm that can effectively regulate power, politicians and elites?    

Awakening Democracy: Enacting Freedoms

So what is left to us? It is rather simple. It is to actively engage in the public realm with whatever is at our disposal to do so with. It is to enact our freedoms. As Hannah Arendt puts it,

“Men are free - as distinguished from their possessing the gift for freedom - as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom? Between Past and Future

Whether on a large scale or a small scale we can all make our voices heard, and make our contributions to ensuring a healthy society. We can all endeavour to service our social contracts; simple things like keeping our word, servicing our obligations and agreements, helping out where we can, and raising our voices when clear wrongs are committed. We can also organise ourselves into small groups, even large groups, to raise our voices up loudly and clearly so that the powerful cannot ignore us.

We can also stand with and by those who are wronged. We can get out in our numbers and make our support unequivocal and difficult to ignore. We can make a stand against those who sweep things under the carpet and hold them to account. We can give of our time and money in service of good causes that enhance society’s capacity to absorb social ills and turn them around. We can find a way to look beyond our personal lives and securities, and act within society itself to safeguard it against abuses of power.

If this is too much for us to do, then we must reconcile ourselves to being effectively powerless in the face of the myriad abuses of power that our absence from the public realm creates room for. There is no way around this central reality. It is not just the price we pay for a healthy democracy; it is the right and privilege – or entitlement – that democracy affords us. It gives us the power to engage, take action and change the things we are unhappy with. In short, our engagement in the public realm entitles us to power, and what greater freedom do we enjoy than the exercise of power, especially in light of how long and hard the fight for it was?

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