January 23, 2017

Demagogues in Democracies

Demagogues have been a serious problem in democracies for millennia. Those who practice equal self-rule in rural settings have known for centuries that many party politicians do not fight for democracy but for their narrow party interests. So they keep their distance when political party hacks come to town right before elections. In ancient Athenian democracy, social elites like Plato and Aristotle feared democracy because it surely threatens the wealth and privilege of ruling elites (and their advisors, such as Aristotle). 

The ancient Greeks also feared demagogues. By not limiting their own ambitions for power and authority, the demagogue was criticized in Athenian democracy for hubris, the failure to limit their narrow, personal interests. The honest orator works to transform the will of the citizens to serve the best interests of the political body. The demagogue fails to regulate the self and serves only his own interests.

This problem in the U.S. did not begin with Donald Trump. Republican Party success in the early twenty-first century at limiting access to the ballot box undermined democratic ideals, such as equality and objective reason. In his award-winning analysis of methods used by demagogues in liberal democracies, How Propoganda Works (2016), Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley focuses on Republican success at appealing to voter fears despite the absence of voter fraud. Fear short circuits reason, and is a favorite weapon of demagogues.

This type of demagogue is particularly deceptive in electoral democracies. Liberal governments prohibit propaganda, and they do not train their citizens to track and reject demagoguery, so citizens generally do not recognize deceptive speech (or Twitter) as a threat that undermines democratic practices.

Using fear is not a partisan problem. Demagogues using fear in the War on Terror may be found in the both major political parties in the U.S. Both President Bush of the Republican Party and President Obama of the Democratic Party wielded fear in their campaigns against terrorism. Party leaders have done the same in England, France, Spain, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other electoral democracies that are actively involved in the War on Terror.

Fear itself is not a threat to democracy. The use of fear to weaken democratic practices is what threatens democracies, according to Stanley’s How Propoganda Works.

So wartime is particularly risky for democracies. War is when security may seem more important than democratic principles. In these times the balancing of security with basic rights, security with equality, security with open debate, and other balancing acts central to liberal democracy can easily collapse. And in The Forever War, as one senior official called it, means that the War on Terror will continue to be a long-term threat to liberal democracy.

The collapse of openness in democracy and the turn towards authoritarian rule is also a long-standing problem for democracies. Some have argued that the struggle between openness and authoritarianism, democracy’s Other, is the central conflict of democratic practices.  Others have argued that the battle of openness to difference against the closure of centralized authoritarianism is the central struggle for democracy for the United States in the twenty-first century.

There are many ways to defend democracy in an age of demagogues. As a long-established problem, much work has been devoted to fighting their deception, their power, and their speech. We can draw on these resources in the U.S. and other sites where democracy is overrun by demagogues. There is much work to do.

August 3, 2015

Gayatri Spivak on Democracy

               Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, like a number of other feminists from the global south, approaches democracy as subject to critique as part of the legacy of imperialism. From this perspective, democracy is not a simple solution to the needs and desires for the subaltern and other poor of the global south, but serves as a type of dystopia for subalterns, tribals, and other outcastes under decolonized India, the War on Terror, and postcolonial socio-political relations.

July 1, 2015

The Rule of Law and the Magna Carta

Critics of assumptions that we live under the rule of law have come into fashion suddenly, with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta this month. Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia called the myth of “an English-speaking people, freedom-loving people who’ve lived with a degree of liberty and under a rule of law for 800 years “a load of tripe,” among other pungent criticisms. But where were these commentators when the British and the U.S. unloaded the weapons of rendition on detainees in the War on Terror or detention without trial on immigrants? Why is this discussion of the history of the rule of law occurring with little or no reference to the current crisis of the rule of law?

September 28, 2013

Subaltern Democracies: Zapatista Practices

The Zapatista movement of southern Mexico introduced their democratic practices to the world in L@s Escuelit@s or “Little Schools” this past August.  The Escuelit@ attracted over one thousand interested folks from all over the world and more attended by webcast, an auspicious beginning to the newest phase of the twenty-year-old movement.

While the Zapatistas are well-known for taking democracy to be central among both their demands and their practices, until recently not much was known outside the mostly indigenous movement participants about what democracy meant for them. With the prospect of ongoing Zapatista Escuelit@s over the next several years, it seems that what was known will increase rapidly.

September 19, 2013

“Las Escuelitas” | Autonomy, Chiapas - California

About Raúl Zibechi

Zibechi’s comments below on the Zapatista movement’s newest phase builds on his extensive experience writing about and participating in Latin American social movements since the 1970s. After participating from 1969-1973 in the Uruguayan Revolutionary Student Front, he was forced into exile with many other activists in 1976. In the 1980s he began writing about Central American liberation movements for various newspapers in Argentina and Uruguay, and he now does political analysis for La Brecha (Uruguay), La Jornada (Mexico), and the America’s Program. He won the José Marti Journalism Award for his work as a journalist. He is also the author of several books, including two essay collections recently translated into English (Dispersing Power, 2010; and Territories in Resistance, 2012). 

The essay below was published shortly after Zibechi completed a program this past August 12-17 that the Zapatista’s call “Las Escuelitas” or “The Little Schools.” This program invited activists from all over the world to come to the Zapatista autonomously governed indigenous areas of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to observe and listen to the movement’s participants. Like much of Zibechi’s other writings, he combines penetrating observations of the ways movements of the poorest of the poor have been successful in resisting capitalist social exploitation and economic inequalities with precise use of sophisticated political theory to critique traditional social movement analysis. Woven into this short essay we find a recognition following Giorgio Agamben of the “concentration camp” character of modern life characterized by the attempted elimination of entire categories of citizens through permanent states of exception without failing to find room for liberated subjectivities in the renegotiation of Foucauldian power/knowledge relations in the classroom, the family, and political economy. Ultimately Zibechi argues as he has in his other writings (Territories, 204) for a rejection of the claim by Castells, Bourdieu and Wacquant, and Negri that the rural and urban poor excluded from capitalist social mobility lack social agency, instead making some very strong claims for major Zapatista innovations and successes in resisting the modern state, patriarchy, and neocolonial forms of knowledge. 

From The Schools From Below, originally published in In Motion Magazine:
There will be a before and an after the Zapatista school. A recent one and those that are to come. There will be a slow impact, diffuse, which will be felt in some years but which will impact the life of those below for decades. What we lived was a non-institutional education, where the community is the educating subject. Self-education face to face, learning with the heart and the body, as a poet would say.
It’s about a non-pedagogy inspired in the farming culture: select the best seeds, scatter them in the fertile ground and water the soil to produce the miracle of germination, that is uncertain and can never be planned.
The Zapatista schools, in which more than a thousand of us set foot in autonomous communities, was a different mode of learning and teaching, without classrooms or blackboards, without teachers or professors, without curriculum or grades. The real teaching begins with the creation of a climate of kinship among a multitude of subjects instead of dividing educators with power and knowledge from naïve students that need to be inculcated with knowledge. >> Read more