Translated and edited by Riad Alarian. This article first appeared in the pan-Arab newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, on May 13, 2017.
The recent victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential election, although significant, cannot cloak the fact that there is a crisis afflicting the core of democracy today. While liberal democracy may have been the hope of an entire global generation, and an ideal so alluring that Francis Fukuyama “ended history” at its doorstep, it now faces exceptional challenges. This is perhaps most obvious through the ascension of Donald Trump in the United States.
As much as Trump epitomizes this crisis, however, he is hardly its only symptom (let alone its most severe). Clearer evidence of the crisis has long been visible in the stagnation of democratic progress around the world, and the perseverance of authoritarianism in countries like China, Russia, and Iran. This includes the rise of political despotism in Turkey, the enduring presence of phony “liberalism” in Eastern Europe, and the renewed emergence of tyranny in the Arab world. What unites these various societies is a defeated and politically weak citizenry, and an increasingly robust segment of powerful, wealthy, and domineering elites.
Indeed, the world today appears to be robbed of its true democratic potential, and lacks the sort of universal spirit needed to impel positive political change. While the West—which has been the “center of the world” for nearly two and a half centuries—continues to bask in its power and prosperity, it is in a state of political and intellectual disarray, as it retreats into an anti-progressive sphere of conservatism and isolationism. In other words, the West appears unable to confidently manage its own destiny, and cannot, therefore, serve as a constructive model for other societies around the world.
Even though Marine Le Pen’s bigoted far-right movement did not best Macron, for example, the battle for democracy in France is visibly proceeding on a defensive footing. Similarly, in the Netherlands there was victory against Geert Wilders’ far-right movement, but this was in no way a conclusive victory for liberal democracy—neither locally, regionally, nor globally.
While winning these battles in the short-term is certainly important, the prospect of using these victories to build a more global and momentous democratic movement in the longer-term seems dubious. The fact remains that “the people” in Western, “democratic” societies are politically frail, disenfranchised, and increasingly complacent about the fact that “democracy” has effectively been reduced to a process of periodic elections that merely ensure peaceful transitions of power within narrow, elite circles. Worse yet, there is no guarantee that the right-wing bigots who lost in recent elections will be prevented from rising again and succeeding in the future. This is because the societies most susceptible to this possibility are doing very little to address the fundamental problems—social, economic, and political—that threaten to undo whatever remains of democracy.
No Hope in Democracy
As more and more societies lose hope in the international political order (i.e. the “liberal-democratic model”), believing it will not change for the better (at least, not in a way that will ensure greater justice for, and be more inclusive of, the marginalized and disadvantaged), the demand for change will likely plummet. But, for any kind of real, positive, democratic improvements to occur, there must be a demand for it. This is because governments across the world are not agents of revolutionary change, nor is the international system, itself, self-correcting.
In his book, Post-Democracy, Sociologist Colin Crouch discusses a “post-democratic” reality, in which the masses no longer determine their destiny (either through social mobilization or forms of political opposition), but are rather influenced by so-called “experts” and “elites.” We are currently at risk of entering this dystopian realm, especially since current social and political conditions invite the rise of far-right bigots. If left unabated, these reactionaries will surely curry favor with the largely apathetic, directionless masses seeking immediate answers to the enduring economic and security problems that perturb them.
While the liberal-democratic model may have been attractive to the masses as early as a decade ago, many are now disabused of the illusion that it possesses “endless horizons” and new possibilities for social and political improvement. Indeed, this model now seems defunct, both for individuals accustomed to living in democratic societies, as well as for those who hoped to build democracies in the future. This is why many are now willing to throw their hopes behind non-democratic, even authoritarian, figures and institutions.
The current “refugee crisis” is a pertinent, if not curious, case in point. While this crisis could have been a passing one, and perhaps even an opportunity for liberal-democracy to prove its mettle in the face of a humanitarian crisis, it has, instead, elicited a hostile, reactionary response and left an entire generation feeling hopeless. Indeed, the “refugee crisis” was a large factor in the rise of the far-right (consider the fact that over a decade ago in France, the corrupt Jacques Chirac won 82% of the vote against Jean-Marie Le Pen, while today the non-corrupt Macron won less than two-thirds of the votes against Marine Le Pen), and has forced Europe to admit to the fact that it cannot seriously address the political roots of this humanitarian disaster.
On top of all this, the current international order seems inhospitable to even the slightest possibility of reviving true democracy outside the Western context. Influential international powers—especially the United States—like to control the “processes of change” in the world and have effectively prevented the emergence of effervescent social forces seeking true democratic evolution. This is perhaps most evident in Syria, where the revolution was essentially aborted by U.S. President Barack Obama’s “leading from behind” approach to the conflict. By prioritizing the lack of an alternative, and aggrandizing the fear of an “Islamist takeover,” the United States effectively revealed its willingness to suffocate the uprising in Syria, and ultimately dispossessed Syrians of the right to determine their own political destiny.
Revolutionary change is an uncertain process with no guarantees. The history of the United States, France, and other democracies speaks to this fact. The desire to control or thwart change often occurs from fear of the unknown, and desire for stability. As banal an explanation as this may be, conservative, anti-revolutionary forces do harbor an obvious fear of change, as it is a risk to “safety.”
The Syrian revolution has been a unique victim of this fear. The dominant political forces of the world, which are themselves rigidly resistant to social and political progress (often due to the incorrect assumption that they are themselves “perfect”), have attempted to control the revolutionary process in Syria and oppose new avenues for positive change, by engineering a war to maintain the status quo.
Positive, democratic change in Syria was never guaranteed, but, at the beginning of the uprising (and for at least the first two years of the armed struggle), it had a fighting chance. When the revolution became fragmented and dominated by forces seeking to suppress the very possibility of change, however, any alternative to the status quo (namely, of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime) was virtually abolished. Indeed, the war being waged in Syria is an affirmation of the regressive, “anti-change” zeitgeist of the day.
If the Syrian calamity is a “civil war,” then it is surely not a “Syrian civil war.” So long as the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Turkey, and various sectarian “Sunni” and “Shiite” forces dominate the scene, then it is, paradoxically, a “global civil war.” Syria, on its own, may not be important to the broader issue at hand, but it is a prime example of the manner in which revolutionary change is being stifled at the hands of regional and global powers. Revolutionary change is, however, the only force which can “save democracy,” and while it may be a taxing and often tragic process, it is the only hope we have.
For this reason, we must begin to conceive of the demand for change in Syria (and elsewhere) as intricately linked to a global desire to unify the world in a struggle for true democracy. Indeed, this underlying impulse toward democracy is precisely why Syrians were motivated to rise up for social and political change in their country, and it is also why, after the collapse of the peaceful uprising, many sought asylum in other democratic countries (especially in Europe).
Although the rise of the far-right has been a decisive challenge to democracy, the world is increasingly connected by the need for true internationalism. The current political order is not, however, conducive to the actualization of this ambition. If anything, it is an order that is increasingly ineffective and irrelevant to the democratic aspirations of this generation, and is being led and defended by countries that are themselves struggling to preserve what remains of their own democracy.
Thus, democratic emancipation is unlikely to emerge through the liberal democratic model, which involves the masses less and less. Real democracy can only come from a worldwide effort, in which humans work collectively to determine their own destinies and that of the planet. This is democracy in its purest form—which we now lack—and is what initially sparked (and still motivates) socialist criticisms against capitalism, imperialism, and the modern political order.
Simply, our challenge is to democratize the world, before it falls to the nationalistic, chauvinistic, right-wing bigots who are on the rise today. This requires that those of us who are still “outside the system”—the pariahs, the émigrés, the revolutionaries—gain entry, so that we may change it for the better. Contrary to what many might believe, we are neither “terrorists,” nor a threat to the world. In fact, the democratic potential for our world cannot be revived without us.
This is precisely why we cannot allow ourselves to join those in the international community who have become complacent onlookers to the calamities unfolding in Syria, under the misguided belief the conflict is somehow detached from the broader, global struggle for freedom and democracy. Unlike them, we must realize the Syrian revolution is both the product and victim of the global crisis facing liberal democracy. This crisis is not evident merely in the destruction of Syria, but also in the fact that very few intellectual voices of political dissent have risen up to address this reality, especially in the West.
The decisive destruction of Syria’s democratic potential, in the name of traditional liberal norms (as well as those of “anti-imperialism” and “pro-secularism”), demonstrate perfectly why this approach toward revolution is as fruitless as it is intellectually constraining. It obfuscates, and does not illuminate, the social and political problems that are most pertinent to the world today.
Many Syrians are themselves suffering from the rigid “conservatism” of these “transcendental norms,” for they have no clear ideas about the future of the country post-Assad, beyond what was discussed in the late 1970s and the years of the Damascus Spring in the early 2000s. They merely regurgitate banalities about the need for political pluralism, the rule of law, and equal citizenship. This is perhaps why the traditional secular opposition in Syria has failed itself. Those issues, which effectively remain outside the discussion, include ethnic and religious problems and rights, feminist politics, administrative and organizational problems, the question of decentralized political rule, and above all social justice.
A New World
The crisis of liberal democracy is deeply reflected in the fact that a broad segment of the global left (who are supposed to be foremost champions of democracy) are openly supporting the Assad regime. These individuals, particularly in the West, are unable to truly campaign for global emancipation, and are stuck woefully in the past—unwilling to be part of a promising future.
Partly for this reason, the best course of action today is to accept that the opportunity for liberal democratic change in Syria is “permanently” lost, and, instead, to build a bold, new, political outlook on the basis of this grim reality. In other words, we must intertwine our cause with the greater struggle for global change. We must insist that a Free Syria requires reimagining the intellectual and moral foundations upon which ideas like revolution, freedom, democracy, and internationalism rest. This does not mean we Syrians should abandon our current aspirations and goals, but that we should better integrate the global desire for freedom, equality, social justice, human dignity, as well as the dream of living in a unified world we can all feel proud of defending.
The global crisis we are currently experiencing is widespread and encompassing. The way out must be too. We may be unable to predict the future, but it does not require clairvoyance to see that the present is inauspicious and requires change.