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Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Democracy in danger

Can globalization and the changing movement of capital explain why democracy is in retreat worldwide?

Pro-Erdogan supporters hold Turkish national flags and a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally against the military coup on Taksim square in Istanbul on July 23, 2016. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Turkey’s botched coup has prompted many to warn against its transformation from a secular democracy to an Islamized autocracy, especially with the Turkish government seemingly overreacting and going after not only putschists in the military, but also judges, university deans, education personnel and clerics.

 

It is too early to tell the direction in which Turkey is going. Suffice it to say that the country’s division looks more Islamist against Islamist than Islamist against secular.

 

Whatever the Turkish story is, the world has focused on Ankara as the apex of suppression. But by any measure, the Turkish government remains — by far — more representative than its peers around the region. 

 

Egypt has gotten away with a coup, and even received American military hardware as a reward. Iran and the Gulf states, except for Kuwait, do not even claim to be democratic. States of the Levant — Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — are failing, as are Libya, Somalia and Yemen. 

 

The Middle East is not the only region where government is teetering between autocracy and failure. Vladimir Putin has turned Russia into a kleptocracy under his rule and taken it back to the Soviet days, when the currency was worthless and shelves were empty. Meanwhile, with a slowing down economy and an ever tightening security grip, the “Chinese Miracle” seems to be coming to an end.

 

Democracy as animated by the principles of Enlightenment has yet to take root outside Western Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. Over the past 70 years since WWII, these nations — known collectively as the West — have strived, not only to protect democracy at home, but to spread it around the world.

 

The Western thinking has been that democracy — while not perfect — mitigates world conflicts and allows for capitalism to spread and nations to prosper. 

 

By the “end of history,” that is the year 2000 according to American scholar Francis Fukuyama, Western democracies had let down their guard and assumed that the world was heading toward integration and automatic democratization, as globalization was going at breakneck speed.

 

Globalization, however, failed to spread democracy. If anything, globalization — and the ensuing relocation of capital from developed nations to less developed ones — eroded Western prosperity and shook social stability.

 

Now instead of countries like the US and the UK leading the world by example of their democracies, democracy in these nations is in peril. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump are evidence that the West itself is suffering an imbalance that has prevented it from leading the rest of the world.

 

With a leaderless world, populist leaders like Putin prosper and rogue states like Iran rise. With a leaderless world, ISIS becomes a world phenomenon and containing it becomes a multi-pronged effort that requires military operations and assimilation for Muslims who might fall prey to ISIS’s criminal thought.

 

To understand why democracy is now failing in the West, one should review its rise. Europe’s Industrial Revolution gave capital more influence than kings and lords. To grow, capital required skilled labor. Thus, capital broke the rigid hierarchy and replaced it with individual workers. With wages came citizen independence, and with independence came the quest for equal rights.

 

Since at least the 17th century, capitalism has sponsored the growth of Western democracy as we know it. When capitalism failed, for cyclical reasons or because of imperial mercantile competition, the world plunged into disorder, like in WWI and WWII.

 

Over the past half century, investment in finance started yielding more profit than actual economic activity. The Neo-Liberal revolutions of America’s Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margret Thatcher unleashed the power of finance, which fueled decades of growth.

 

Yet unlike the Industrial Revolution, finance is virtual and does not require skilled workers. Capital around the world started receding from public life, and hence, Western populations found themselves falling through the cracks. Also, instead of investing in democracies where citizens have rights, capital relocated to autocracies where citizens without rights meant cheap labor. Hence China accumulated wealth even while its government tightened its grip.

 

Not only has capital left Western democracies, it has funded policies that further undermined these democracies by scrapping tax laws that spread wealth more equally, and by promoting hazardous concepts such as “sovereign citizens,” a slogan by gun makers who seek to arm more American citizens, even if such actions threaten the foundations of the state and its very sovereignty.

 

Over the past 50 years, capital has decoupled itself from democracies, and thus undermined them, threw them in debt and rendered them impotent on the world stage. In a leaderless world, chaos spreads. So before we analyze the turbulence in Turkey, we better keep looking at the worldwide picture, which unfortunately looks grim and unpromising.

Pro-Erdogan supporters hold Turkish national flags and a portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally against the military coup on Taksim square in Istanbul on July 23, 2016. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Instead of investing in democracies where citizens have rights, capital relocated to autocracies where citizens without rights meant cheap labor.