At the same time, our society has enormous economic inequality. As a result, there is extreme voter dissatisfaction. And this expresses itself in protests around the country happening on a daily basis. Furthermore, this has been going on for some time.
This not just a ‘big picture’ issue. In our suburb Onderpapegaaiberg, there was a public meeting in September 2018. However, this turned out to be a most undemocratic event.
Acknowledgement: Randy Colas on Unsplash free stock photos
But a democratic society is supposed to be a system that represents the freedom and interests of the people. So why is there all this dissatisfaction? To anser that question we need to clarify what we mean by ‘democracy’.
Our polity is a multi-party, representative system. But we lack equal opportunity to become representatives of the people. This is because ‘big money’ influences elections. This means that between elections we can’t hold our representatives accountable. But participatory democracy requires that citizens engage in ruling between elections. For example, citizens should have power to recall elected representatives.
To progress this discussion we need historical examples. In this regard, there are pre-modern examples of participatory, or direct democracy from Africa. Also there are examples of direct democracy in “living customary law” of contemporary South Africa. However, I am not au fait with traditional African antecedents of direct democracy. Clearly, we need to study and learn from these.
But I read Sheldon Wolin’s “Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism”. Wolin, a political scientist, criticises US democracy. I think his analysis is useful for clarifying the meaning of our ‘democracy’. He first explores two historical examples. Athenian democracy. And what he calls ‘fugitive democracy’, in the period following the 17th Century.
Athenian Democratic systems
Athenian enfranchised citizens (14 % of population) excluded slaves and women. Therefore, this example of direct democracy was very limited. Nevertheless, it had useful examples of direct rule by citizens. Of relevance is that Wolin takes the principles of the male citizens and applies them to ‘the people’.
Acknowledgement: Danielle Smit, through Unsplash free stock photos
Small farmers, artisans and merchants struggled against nobles, the wealthy and ‘better’ educated. They elected officials by lot, and had accountability, popular jury courts and assembly. In other words, they constituted the demos. The demos took democracy, it was not bestowed by a lawgiver, conqueror or Founder. (Page 243). There were tensions in Athenian democracy. Between the people, who demanded equal power. And an elite that claimed the competency, and thus the right, to rule.
Fugitive democratic systems
For almost 2000 years after Athens democracy did not exist in Europe. In these cases the Few ruled the Many in the name of a Higher Principle. However, by the middle of the 17th Century the Many woke up. Because of their long inaction, they had to relearn how to be a political ‘people’, a ‘demos‘. (page 249). They did this through mass movements that powered the achievement of political citizenship through representation in legislatures. But theirs was an ‘incomplete demos‘. Beyond representation they were unable to take over the legal and political institutions. And to democratise them. Thus, they gained a foothold rather than control of the system. Ever since there have been tensions. Between demotic claims for political equality. And an elite defending political inequality as a natural reflection of economic inequality. (page 250). This sounds like our system instituted in 1994.
These two examples helped me to visualize demotic politics, i.e. politics of the demos. This involves a citizenry engaged in rational debate and political practices. The aim of which is to change their circumstances. And through this to impact on broader societal change. I have been trying to do this in my own small way in Onderpapegaaiberg. And also through some of the Stellenbosch Transparency projects reported on this website.
Democratic systems and empire
This Vision of a democratic system isn’t realised in and of itself. It has to inspire enough people. And then they have to practice it. Often in a struggle against other people who contest this Vision.
Athen’s limited direct democratic system thrived while it remained a city state. But Athens became an imperial power – today the US is the world’s Superpower. Wolin draws analogies between the decline of Athenian and US democracy. As Athens conquered and oppressed other peoples, its Empire undercut its own direct democratic system. By furthering inequalities amongst its citizens. This is very much the trend in the US over the past 30 years. (pages 244 – 245). As Superpower the US imposed it’s idea of democracy on us.
What is an accurate picture of US democracy? What does this imply about our democracy as practised in Stellenbosch and in our suburb?
Democratic systems versus totalitarianism
Wolin characterised the US democratic system as ‘managed democracy’. A demos emerged in the years before and during the 1776 revolution. “New political actors appeared: artisans, workers, small farmers, shopkeepers, seamen, women, African slaves, and native Indians”. US elites (slaveholding colonists, leading the independence struggle) countered demos’ participation in ruling. (page 254). (Checks-and-balances of the US Constitution). The corporate sector fused with the US state since the 1980s (Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama). There is a risk that this managed democratic system descends into totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is capable of local variations. Thus, in the US, not classical totalitarianism. But ‘inverted totalitarianism’. Does the same risk face South African democracy?
Democratic systems and classical totalitarianism
Classical totalitarian regimes (Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler) controlled the state to reconstruct a total society. One was a race pure society (Nazism), the other, a classless society (Stalinism). They were personal dictatorships. (page xxi). These dictatorships were xenophobic. They glorified their native-born. These totalitarian systems denied occupied foreigners citizenship. (And in the case of Nazi Germany, exterminated many ‘foreign sub-humans’).
The role of the political police was key in terrorising the population. Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” describes the population as lonely, uprooted individuals, unable to debate, organise. (page 477).
What is the relevance of classical totalitarianism for contemporary South Africa? We were a police state under apartheid. But we became a democracy 25 years ago. Following Wolin I see the seed of a new form of totalitarianism in our ‘fugitive democracy’. This is what he calls inverted totalitarianism.
Democratic systems and inverted totalitarianism
In inverted totalitarianism the state has fused with corporate sector interests. Inverted and classical totalitarianism share important characteristics.
First, in each case society develops towards one total aim. In inverted totalitarianism there is ‘no alternative’ to a privatised, market economy.
Second, with both cases society divides into Us and Them (= Latinos, African Americans and Muslims, in the US).
Third, In the US, as an example of inverted totalitarianism, we find a society of fragmented and lonely
Fourth, another important characteristic of totalising societies is that they expand through undisguised wars of aggression.
And fifth, in totalitarian societies the State strips citizens of rights. It conducts warrantless surveillance. Legislatures introduces indefinite detention. This includes the detention of US citizens on US soil. And the militarisation of police forces accompanies this process.
Yet there are significant differences between classical and inverted totalitarianism.
First, in the inverted form, the state does not reconstruct society. Instead privatisation creeps in. The result is the popular following slogans: “Privatise all social space”. “Commodify public utilities”.
Second, under inverted totalitariansism there is a cutback in welfare payments. By contrast, classical totalitarianism provided welfare for its ‘national comrades’.
Third, the inverted system lacks a dictatorial leader. Therefore it is like a faceless corporation.
Fourth, in its inverted form the state doesn’t mobilise people. Like with classical totalitarianism, the citizenry is fearful, depoliticised, and demobilised. But it is ‘allowed’, in fact encouraged, to stay away from ‘dirty’ politics.
Finally, under the inverted form there is little if any overt police repression. This is because corporate marketing keeps public criticism in check. Therefore the system marginalises persistent oppositional voices. Yet, a militarised police is ready for effective, radical opposition. (The Occupy Movement. Boston suburbs occupation after Marathon bombing. Police shootings of African-Americans).
Acknowledgement: Nadine Shaabana through Unsplash free stock photos.
Representative democracy, where there are regular elections, multi-party organisational freedom and a separation of powers have always had a tension between economic elites who retain the power to rule between elections. We can call this a managed democratic system. Direct democracy however, involves the people also ruling between elections. Direct democratic systems have been a potential for people all over the world to struggle for. They have yet to emerge as full-blown systems.
In 1994 South Africa transformed from a police state into a managed democratic system. Under the influence of a single Superpower the system of managed democracy in the United States has developed symptoms of inverted totalitarianism. These symptoms are also visible in South Africa’s system of managed democracy. We will examine these in the next post in this series.
Paul Hendler, Onderpapegaaiberg, Stellenbosch, February 2019.