How pseudo-democracy fools us all

August 3, 2011 11:16 am

Ballot boxFreethinking with Rob Marchant

Democracy, as even that oft-pessimistic Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, noted in his rather good volume Age Of Extremes, is one of the great unsung advances of the twentieth century. The post-war period, especially, saw a huge increase in the proportion of the population living under democracies, a development for which we should all be thankful. Think about it: just India, Russia and South America account for around a quarter of the world’s population and, within the space of a mere half-century, all had flipped over to democracy.

But there is a caveat. Before all this, countries were largely either undemocratic (that is, totalitarian or feudal) or democratic. No messing about. It was the Allies versus the fascists, or the West versus the USSR and China. That’s not to say Britain wasn’t friendly to some awful regimes, but you knew that and accepted it as realpolitik. In the old days, you knew where you were. There were some foolish people who pretended the USSR was free, but they were just that – foolish.

Nowadays, in the media age, countries have a nasty habit of blurring the line between democratic and undemocratic. Why? Because it’s become in their interests to do so. And the phenomenon is on the increase. As respected CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria put it in a much-quoted 1997 essay(£) in Foreign Affairs:

“Democratically elected regimes, often ones which have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring limits on their power and depriving citizens of basic freedoms. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority…we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon…illiberal democracy.”

A democratic veneer can be used to great effect to get a toe-hold in an international community where you might otherwise be a pariah. More importantly, it also allows you to build support networks outside your country, as long as you pull the wool over the eyes of the international media, and your supporters, with sufficient aplomb.

And it’s not as hard as you might think: the former may be too blindly convinced of your case to notice; and the latter tend to have short attention span, resources and interest to pay too much attention to a far-flung country (although there is also a very special prize here for the Guardian, which will happily provide anyone with a platform no matter how indefensible their views, as this piece from yesterday nicely shows).

But all this avoids an important point: democracy is not a gradual continuum which swings smoothly between the authoritarian and the fully democratic. It is, if you like, more of a stretched rubber band. If it can be weakened in a few places, it will snap. And it may snap without you even being aware that it has: that your country will still look, to the casual observer, like a democracy. You can pay lip-service to it, and still be in the international clubs.

Now, let’s be sensible. Despite what the wild-eyed conspiracy theorists might tell you, we’re not talking about Western Europe or the US. They all have healthy democracies, with some occasional flaws. For example, Italy’s repeated re-election of Berlusconi is clearly as much about its perennially weak governments and the incompetence of the Italian left as it is about his unwelcome dominance of the media. Italy is not in danger.

No, pseudo-democracy is quite distinct. Look at those free and fair elections we had, the president will say (despite the documented irregularities). Look at our free press (even if it’s largely under my control, I’ll allow a few critics for form’s sake). We are the underdogs, humbly holding up our alternative model to the West (who will will always come up with some “useful idiot” to argue in our favour).

The current master of this game is surely Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who gets left-leaning Westerners to build him support and raise local funds, by posing as a paragon of alternative politics. Clearly the Castro brothers haven’t done badly either over the years, although perhaps now losing their touch a little. And although no longer a torch-bearer for the left, Putin’s oligarch state, with its tight media controls and odd constitutional changes, surely runs them close as a pseudo-democracy. Even Iran’s current, unpleasant regime is a nominal democracy and has its Western supporters. And let’s not even go into Labour’s recent, barely-reported attempts to link up with Palestinian terrorists in Gaza; a fledgling democracy has certainly been set up, but it’s clearly not a very nice one.

But there are also newcomers to the game in other places which have not known democracy long, either: the ex-Soviet republics, varying from the healthy democracy to the entirely despotic. And some even closer to home: right inside the EU, a suspicious new media law enacted by Hungary’s dubious government – to ensure “balanced coverage” – as well as some nasty flirtations with the far-right from other ex-Communist countries, shows that Europe is by no means immune from these developments.

The point is this: governments often need to engage with these countries, for reasons of realpolitik, even while holding their noses. Fair enough. And, even then, there are some regimes so awful that we do not even have diplomatic relations with them.

However, what is neither necessary nor desirable is for political parties and trade unions to support and organise for these non-democrats, as if they were beacons of a desirable, alternative way of life. We do not need backbenchers and union delegations cloaking them with a legitimacy they do not deserve.

And there’s one last development which is worth noting. Back in the Cold War days, the left-right balance in this respect was more equal. The Labour left would flirt with Communist regimes, the Tory right with unpleasant right-wing regimes like Chile or South Africa. We were equally wrong-headed. But the Tories, apart from the odd foolish mistake like their choice of group in the European Parliament, largely learned their lesson about the toxicity of association. Labour, with its laudable traditions of tolerance, apparently did not. That problem is now exacerbated by the relaxation of party discipline that goes with the early years of opposition, coupled with a modest leftward shift in trade union leadership (and, arguably, party membership). It’s a trap, and one that Tories would love us to fall into.

Pseudo-democrats are coming to a country near you, soon. Don’t be fooled: left and right are irrelevant here. They end up the same. And the thing to remember is that a half-democrat is really no democrat at all.

So, please: don’t give them your support, don’t give them your time and, most of all, don’t give them a free platform. You can rest assured you wouldn’t get one in their country.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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