Reverting to type

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyib ErdoganDemocracy is dying – and it’s startling how few people are worried | Paul Mason | Opinion | The Guardian

This was in today’s Guardian, and uses a few examples of democracies turning back into dictatorships to support a contention that “democracy is dying”: Erdogan holding show trials for journalists and purging dissenting academics (or those suspected of it) in Turkey, Putin banning virtual private networks (VPNs) in Russia, Apple withdrawing VPN apps on the Chinese app store, Venezuela’s Marxist government setting up an assembly to rewrite the constitution, Trump’s shenanigans in the USA. The fact is that it’s not, and these examples aren’t evidence that it is.

Most of them are age-old dictatorships reverting to type. Russia has never known democracy except for brief flirtations with it in the late 19th and late 20th centuries. Apart from that, all it has known is tsars, the communist one-party state and Putin’s version of “guided democracy”. Turkey was not a democracy under the Ottomans and it hasn’t been as a republic either; it was dominated by secularists who used their control over the courts, civil service and military not only to suppress Islamism but also to suppress the expression and teaching of Islam in Turkish society. They changed the language so much that people could not even understand the language of their grandparents, or (ironically) that of Mustafa Kemal himself. Erdogan’s behaviour now is shocking, but it is only how his enemies would behave if they were in power.

Eastern Europe’s democracies are only 25 years old; Venezuela’s, although it has lasted a lot longer (including through the 60s and 70s when much of South America fell under dictatorship), it had a history of serving the white elite and neglecting the poor majority. Other parts of South America which emerged from those dictatorships in the 80s and 90s show no sign of returning to dictatorship. The United States is not turning into a fascist dictatorship or the Republic of GIlead; it’s in for at least a term of conservative Republican rule, most likely under Mike Pence once Trump resigns or is impeached, but it survived that under George W Bush and will survive it under Pence. Lawlessness, in the form of racist violence from the White Right, is a bigger threat than anyone trying to bring down the constitution itself.

Mason observes that “that the ‘enemies of the people’ meme is doing the rounds”, and offers Hungary, China and Trump’s America. But the People’s Republic of China has used that kind of justification for as long as it’s existed. He then links it to the rise of neoliberalism which judges everything according to its economic outcome; yet the undermining of democracy by Maduro in Venezuela is against neo-liberalism, not in support of it. It has always been the pro-American elites in South America that support stripping away subsidies, cutting welfare, health and education spending and deregulating industry to allow foreign (e.g. American) ownership.

Samuel Huntingdon proposed a theory that there had been a series of “waves” of democratisation, a first consisting of ‘revolutions’ such as in France and the American war o independence, a second after World War II and consisting of the emergence of strong democracies in western Europe and then de-colonisation, and a third at the end of the Cold War with the ending of Communist states and third world military dictatorships, especially in South America. After the first two there was a ‘backwash’: the emergence of fascism in the early 20th century, for example, then the imposition of Communism in eastern Europe and the slide of the newly independent countries in the former empires to dictatorship. There is much to criticise in this; France, for example, slid into dictatorship very quickly after the Revolution and later restored the monarchy for a while. So, the backsliding of Turkey and Hungary could be seen as a backwash to the post-Cold War democratic wave, except that Hungary, so far, remains a democracy. But business as usual in China and the reverting to type of places like Russia and Turkey do not mean that democracy is dying.

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