Putting power back in the hands of the people

With a crisis of representation, tottering democracies can be brought to life with the crucial role of referendum or direct democracy

September 27, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 12:16 am IST

‘There may be a new, very threatening world order emerging, which seeks to abrogate all individual rights and divide us along the extremist polarities that we thought had been neutralised’

‘There may be a new, very threatening world order emerging, which seeks to abrogate all individual rights and divide us along the extremist polarities that we thought had been neutralised’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

A world bereft of an inclusive global community of trust is upon us. Racial genocides through history, blatant fascist leanings of the so-called “democracies”, and escalating hunger and disease in Africa and other parts of the under-developed world give enough evidence that democracy faces serious issues of populism, growing economic discrimination, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. Misgivings about moral progress, about mutual understanding, exacerbate the dismal situation that faces humanity.

Emerging voices

And though there is a lot of rage to go around, we also share hope for a better world and a commitment to bringing it into existence through those who dream and work and think deeply to subvert any kind of state repression underpinned by violence and the manufacturing of fear. Aware that the odds are pulling us fast towards a cataclysm, these “dreamers” are ready to act against the increasing injustices of democracies gone astray. Their voices have already begun to resound and reinforce each other in unison of emancipatory struggle for the reinvention of democracy and its beleaguered institutions. As Slavoj Zizek, the European philosopher, argues, their watchword is: “We are the ones we are waiting for”, which apparently does not have connotations of “agents predestined by fate to perform the task” but that there is “no big Other to rely upon”. What alone can prevent the inexorable march of history towards the “apocalypse”, writes Zizek, is “pure voluntarism”.

The motivation is to oppose the tyranny of the state through the understanding of the workings of unilateral majoritarian power and control. In this context, people must believe in the fact that though demonstrations and strikes have always been put down, they nevertheless advance the cause of progressive movements. The Congress party in India, for instance, has nothing much to write home about, but the Bharat Jodo Yatra initiated by Rahul Gandhi is a way of reaching out to the people to make them see the grim reality facing the nation.

The pressure on the Government already exists, but it needs to grow. At a public gathering in honour of Gauri Lankesh, Arundhati Roy spoke on the death of democracy and argued: “The question we have to ask ourselves is, what is it that brought us to a situation where people who are oppressed, people who have no employment, people who are suffering deeply, are voting for further hellishness upon themselves. What has made people believe in propaganda more than the reality of their experience…” in and outside their homes? Understandably, democracy is more in crisis than ever before, with the onset of centralisation of power, with a foreign policy defying public opinion, with the media centralised, and with corporate control of the economy tighter than ever. It is our responsibility to publicise the anti-democratic actions of the state as much as we can because the political leaders will not do it.

There may be a new, threatening world order emerging, which seeks to abrogate all individual rights and divide us along the extremist polarities that we thought had been neutralised. We move into this new stage of conflict carrying the risk of a nuclear tragedy, further exacerbated by the collective buttressing of a global crisis of the novel coronavirus pandemic, uncontrollable ecological disasters, and food and water deficiency. With the crisis of representation before us, tottering democracies across the globe can be brought to life with the crucial role of referendum or direct democracy, thereby defusing social, economic and political tensions and putting power back in the hands of the people. Alternatively, the peoples of the world have to be led by wise and informed leaders. Or else the human race shall go extinct.

Paradoxically, the brighter side of totalitarian politics, according to Zizek, is the apparent provocation of great intellectual outrage by thinkers who examine history from the perspective of the overwhelming anti-human or repressive movements. Undeniably, it is a daring effort close to the ferocious thought of Hannah Arendt in its reconciliation with the true nature of ‘evil’ and its genealogical underpinnings that draw us towards inherent positive motivations. One such motivation has been the “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement” — signed recently by the G7 and four invited guests — conscious of the decline in the institution of democracy. The idea behind the document is to tell the errant democracies of the world to “guard the freedom of expression and opinion, an affirmation of commitment to the very idea of democracy and a move towards opposing oppression and violence”. Our ability to build a global self-governing ideal or what Tennyson dreamt of, “the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World” can rekindle a new energy at every step that we fail. It is here that democratic institutions will facilitate the defence of our fundamental rights and the promotion of a civil society.

On rights for all

Clearly, we have hit a bottleneck in the efforts to achieve rights for all. Theoretically, it may seem to be the right step to prioritise universal legal and moral norms through public dishonouring of the guilty, but in fact, rights prevail only when they become relevant to the needs of the local communities especially through addressing important concerns such as impunity for atrocities, predicaments of free speech in the age of social media, ingrained exploitations of women’s rights, and violence against the marginalised. As B.R. Ambedkar in 1949 explained, “…political democracy cannot last unless it lies at the base of its social democracy…. in politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality... We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment....”

Global transformist thought in the areas of social justice, universal human rights, rule of law, global anti-war movements and transnational amity remains an aspiration and a motivating dynamism behind all liberatory movements. The ruling elite must come to grips with the notion that “true ideas are imperishable and come back to life particularly at moments of their demise”, something that is so apparent, for example, in the birth of ‘radicality’ at the juncture of the demise of Marxism.

And if our dreams fail, others must take their place. We as humans at the mercy of human and natural disasters can only individually respond to bringing meaning to senselessness, or reason to madness. As Howard Zinn says, “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.” It is the power of the people to act directly, stand up collectively before the state apparatus in the hope that they would overcome the challenges facing humanity. History indeed is unpredictable and sometimes manifestly volatile to take our destiny in an entirely another direction from the veniality and brutality of governments.

Shelley Walia has taught Cultural Theory at Panjab University

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