October 20, 2011

Decolonizing Democracy


The Egyptian Democratic Academy in Cairo is one of the local organizations that made the Jasmine Revolution possible, educating Egyptians about alternatives to dictatorships and military rule under Mubarak. A recent story in The Nation describes one of the teachers at the Academy, a 25-year-old woman, Esraa Nouh, whose father was imprisoned under Mubarak for many years. Nouh believes in liberalism and John Stuart Mill, and teaches the history of liberalism beginning with the Greek origins (more on them in a moment) and John Locke, drawing a thread connecting that history to recent Egyptian political trends.

The irony is that J.S. Mill’s views on politics and economics were dominant in Britain and other countries at the height of the colonization of Egypt. In fact, John Locke was as strongly supportive of slavery as the Egyptian pharaohs were, which makes him even less of a pretender to democracy than Mubarak was. Locke’s profits from his investments in English slave trade ships led him to support private property as a central right in democratic representational governance.


Back to the Greeks and the Greek claim of being fathers of democracy; that claim is tainted by their well-documented commitment to building an empire (as the Egyptians of Alexandria certainly remember). In Colonial Desire, Robert Young writes about the racist science underpinning colonizing practices in the “democracies” of northern Europe.

So. Those who practice (D)emocracy in the colonized world may wish to find ways to decolonize European applications of democratic ideals. Certain of Mill’s arguments (that principles of liberty can protect from the tyranny of political rulers, his arguments for women’s equality and the importance of economics in producing equality) are useful for Egyptians in the Arab Spring. It is extremely important, however, to note that the universalist liberal arguments of the nineteenth century were also flexible enough to wreak havoc with exploitative and abusive policies not just in the British protectorate of Egypt, but also pretty much everywhere else in the world where a Union Jack was planted.

One central question is whether democratic political processes might be possible without the supporting economic practices of capitalism. Some have argued that the successes at building early democratic systems in England and France were the successes not of all classes of people but of the emerging middle classes. Given that capitalist exploitation was central to the European founding fathers of democracy, including individuals such as Locke and Mill, what could democracy look like if it supported other economic modes of social relations and vice versa?

None of this history is news to the students at the Egyptian Democratic Academy. But linking the darker details to considerations of Locke and Mill suggests new ways of thinking about how concrete practices of democracy might play out in future democracies to come. Inegalitarian practices imposed under various guises of “democracy” for centuries may become the target of careful political strategizing in Egypt and Tunisia, New York City and Rome. Those who have received the brunt of the inequality and violence carried out in such democracies are often excellent sources for ideas and practices to help decolonize democracy. For example, in recent history women, communities of color, indigenous groups, and queers, have all developed important decolonizing methods and strategies.

A case in point comes from the spokesman for the indigenous autonomy movement of southern Mexico, known as Subcommandante Marcos. Marcos tells a story about the performance of democracy in Mexico, titled “A Play that Says What It Says (Ha!),” where the political class receive makeup from consultants brandishing “the latest fashion, democratizing powder.” All the political class is allergic to the powder, but they wear it when performing at electoral events because how else will they get elected? The audience for their performance does not respond to their shenanigans, so audiotapes must play raucous applause in their stead, like the laugh track on a bad television show, until the end of the second act. At the moment that the political class thinks it has completed its electoral performance, the audience refuses to leave, and instead get up on the stage. Calling for another act, they won’t let the curtain fall and begin their own performance of democracy.

Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak’s long essay, Who Sings the Nation-state? suggests that democracy is performed in the United States not by voters or the administrators of legality and citizenship, but by immigrants. In the massive May Day marches of 2006, over one million immigrants in Los Angeles, California, defied the nation-state that would imprison and deport them as racially or legally unfit for full citizenship. They stood up for democracy by singing in Spanish the U.S. national anthem, thereby claiming that those who are not recognized by the nation-state as having rights still claim the right to assembly and the right to free speech through their own performativity. In this approach to democracy, for which difference and translation are irreducible, the presumptive claims of European thinking that dominate democracies of the global north and south alike can be displaced. Critical thinking and careful experimentation on the ground in Cairo, London, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, and Los Angeles, could one day successfully decolonize the never-ending fight for a type of governance that leads to equality in practice and not just in theory.

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