#83: The Purpose of History, or, We Need to Explain Democracy Better

Francis Fukuyama has been much ridiculed for allegedly claiming that we had reached the “end of history” in the 1990s after the victory of democracy over socialism. His argument, however, was more complex, and consisted rather in an update of Hegel’s analysis of the consequences of the dual victory of Napoleonic France (and its proclaimed democratic ideas) over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Hegel’s definition of history – put very simply – is the process throughout time by which the ideal political system is discovered. The “end of history”– again, very simplified – thus happened in 1806 in above mentioned victories.

Napoleon’s aim was the restoration of the Roman Republic under a French banner, utilizing the rallying cry of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality, fraternity – for his success. He did end the institution of serfdom (a version of slavery widespread in Europe) wherever he triumphed. As he did not triumph in Russia, serfdom there ended later. In the end, Napoleon succumbed to the seduction of empire and cannot be understood as the bringer of democracy; but the ideas his armies transported were successful enough to scare the sclerotic Prussian state into reform. Already, democracy had taken root in the American colonies, just as British Parliament had become more important than the king. The signs of the times were clear: the old ways – or rather, the monarchic ways – were done. The very old ways – Roman Republicanism – were the way of the future.

This is what “the end of history” means: From now on, any government that does not draw their legitimacy from the people as the sovereign, will be seen as illegitimate and is doomed to fail eventually. This is the reason that even the worst dictatorship on the planet calls itself either a republic or democratic. Already in Hegel’s times, it was clear that the victory of democracy was merely rhetorical. Democracy in France did not succeed until 1871, and Prussia would not become democratic overnight, but it would take till 1918 for the first German democracy to come into being.

Communist-Socialist states called themselves “people’s republics”, National Socialism claimed to bring about true democracy, and some monarchs or autocrats routinely see themselves as the vehicle through which the people somehow rule. The terms “democracy” or “republic” are regularly used to hide non-democratic systems.

This is done frequently by the means of a major conceit: “Democracy” is reduced to the mere act of holding elections. This is a deliberate distortion aimed at limiting the threshold for respectability. Any dictator can hold elections; but the trick lies in how you set up the democratic field, what candidates you allow, how you count, and what count you publish.

Democracy is more than that. Elections do matter, but are meaningless without the reliable, equal and incorruptible rule of law. The rights of the individual are paramount to any democracy, and underlie the demand for human rights. Civil liberties, including absolute free speech, freedom of religion, and the absolute freedom of the press are paramount. Connected to that are property rights, and free enterprise (which does not exclude regulation ensuring a free and fair functioning of the market). Corruption has to be minimized. Minorities need to be protected, specifically political minorities. Democracy does not work if the winners in an election can punish the losers with abandon. There needs to be a separation of powers and a form of checks and balances. Changing the constitution should be difficult. Representative democracy will be necessary for any state larger than a single town. Federalism and strengthening local governments will help to undercut the danger of democratic deficits originating from representative democracy (republicanism).

As you can see, this is all much more complicated, but it is complicated for a reason. Dictatorships and dictatorial movements – even if the couch themselves in the language of democracy – have nothing but disdain for any of that. Sham elections and party-line courts guarantee that true democracy does not endanger the rule of autocrats or oligarchs.

Right now, it seems that democracy is under attack by a variety of forces. Some dictatorships have seemingly had successes in good governance and modernization. That is certainly not impossible in the short run, but problems will accumulate in the longue durée.

The argument for democracy, in the end, is about practicality: It is the only system that works for everyone over time. It is the only system that can self-correct and increase liberty, equality, and the values of shared humanity for all. It is also the only system that will be at peace with systems like itself. Functioning democracies do not wage war against each other – it has never happened in history. Wherever democracy succeeded, peace followed, and social peace and justice have been allowed to progress. History may not be over, but the path, the destination, the telos (meaning purposeful end) is clear.

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Clearly, this is a more complicated topic, and I will follow up on this in more detail in further posts. As they say, “stay tuned.”

#75: There are no “Internal Matters”

When criticized by others, some governments frequently claim that any disapproval from the outside world would be an unwelcome intrusion into “internal matters” that should be rejected out of hand. Furiously, foreign ministers, heads of state, state media and sometimes even religious leaders reject any attempt to condemn any attacks on human rights or territorial rights of others.

Such a reaction needs to be rejected out of hand. Everybody gets to criticize everybody else. Nothing and nobody should be sacrosanct. We live in a society, in community of others, whether we are in different countries or not. That is the point of human rights: they are valid everywhere, and their violation anywhere is the violation of everyone.

The excuse of “internal matters” is the childish attempt to seem unassailable and beyond criticism. It is bullying behavior that means to silence any critics. But that should not stop us. As much as we ourselves should always be open and welcoming of criticism, we should expect this of others as well. There is no bubble. You do not get to do what you want to your allegedly “own” people in your allegedly “own” country because this is one humanity, one planet, one universe (yes, let’s think that far ahead).

Borders are an artifact of history that may well be necessary for the administration of different regions. But borders should not limit the reach of human rights, and should definitely not limit the reach of criticism about their violation.

#69: No, American Democracy is Not Dead

The gloating of the assembled dictators of the world and their cronies had a certain unintended humor in it. After a few ragtag misfits decided to play the role of domestic terrorists and invade US congress, causing a half-day of mayhem and chaos, including four casualties, the premature glee and schadenfreude coming out of Iran, Russia, China and Venezuela heralded the end and decay of US democracy. This was predictable Soviet-style propaganda – I grew up with that, and it feels very familiar to me. It is the propaganda of those whose biggest fear is the victory of their own people over their corrupt and criminal governments.

Surely, the pictures were worrisome, embarrassing, sometimes shocking. But nowhere to be seen were police or paramilitary or military troops shooting on unarmed civilians. Nowhere to be seen was the mass arrest of protesters. Action was taken, eventually, against those who took up arms against the democratically elected representatives of the people. But the freedom of speech of those otherwise protesting peacefully was not harmed, even though they clearly voiced opinions from beyond the pale.

At the end of the day, Congress resumed the business that was so rudely and criminally interrupted. The election of Joe Biden was certified, Trump uttered a quasi-sincere message of peacefulness, Republicans discovered their backbone, and the nation – having stared into a small abyss for a few hours – came to their senses. Criminal behavior will be punished, peacefully uttered democratic dissent will not.

The lesson here is the opposite to what “concerned critics” are wanting to see: This nation has survived a more than imperfect founding, a Civil War, the seductions of both fascism and socialism, the Cold War, Watergate and 9/11. It will survive Trump. It will survive because of democracy, but it will need to address the conditions that brought up so much mass discontent. Whatever problems the US has, and it has quite a few, they pale in comparison to those countries mentioned above.

Predictably, there were also “concerned voices” coming from democratic allies like Germany. Ironically, Germany had witnessed a similar event rather recently – the storming of the Reichstag steps by a similar mix of people, including the harassment of parliamentarians in the building by known agitators brought in by the extremist party Alternative for Germany. Surely, what happened in DC looked more dramatic – but in all honesty, the scenes in Germany were more foreboding. Nazis on the steps of the Reichstag (and their cronies inside of it) still look more ominous than a guy in Viking dress together with his ragtag co-conspirators rummaging through the halls of Congress.

Today, Trump realized he lost the election, and announced a regular transition. He understood that what happened was much more damaging to himself and the cause of his supporters than to democracy. He is now in damage control mode, while the country has been shocked back to attention. The US has survived its four-year stress test of democracy, and will survive many more.

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!

#11: Authoritarian Governments Must Lie, and Democracies are Grown-Up Systems

Allegedly, Russia has no Coronavirus, but a rise in pneumonia cases. You certainly know what means. We know China lied about the outbreak, and it is safe to assume they will continue to lie, and they certainly are making sure no journalist is telling the truth. Iran and China try to pin the outbreak to the US, a blatant lie. As to what’s happening in North Korea is anybody’s guess.

Authoritarian regimes have to lie about these things, it’s in their nature. This is because there can be only one argument for authoritarianism, and it is as old as Plato: it allegedly works better than the rule of the people. It’s a simple deal. The state, through its leader(s), says that it knows what is best for you, and that they listen to the people (overtly and, well, covertly) and then channel their thoughts into their decision-making. L’état, c’est moi – I am the state, as Louis XIV is quoted so famously.

But this is not how human beings work. We are not perfect. This is not how life works either. Something always gets in the way of perfection. Nobody, probably, wants a global virus outbreak to happen, at least no sane human being. The planet and all the other life forms on it might want to cull the human herd, but human beings typically want to preserve themselves, and an uncontrollable outbreak of an unknown pathogen is low on the list of deviousness designed by diabolical human minds for their warfare. The typical Bond movie villain does not exist. Even Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) has warned its assassins not to travel to Europe for fear of contagion. Extremists might be mad, but not that mad. China may have researched the virus in its Wuhan lab, but it probably did not engineer it. The regime may be mad, but not that mad.

It’s called a mistake, and mistakes happen. Now it depends on how you handle it. If you are an authoritarian regime, you must seem all-competent and almighty in order to convince your hapless subjects to continue to tolerate their evil grasp. As soon as that grasp seems less competent and less mighty, a revolution might occur, and it will occur much more quickly than you might think. Dictatorships are systems on the edge, and they can turn instantaneously. I know, I grew up in one. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Honecker seem on top of the world. The next day, the evil couple is on the run. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Ceaușescu are praising the victory of socialism, and the next day they are lying dead in a ditch. One day the Soviet Union is the scary evil empire (no sarcasm intended), the next day it is on the path to becoming a pitiful petro-state with delusions of grandeur. One day you are the much-celebrated stereotypical “Oriental” despot written about so adoringly in your own orientalist romance novel, the other you’re dragged out from an Earthen hole by American troops. One day you are running the African Union, the next day you are gunned down by protestors in the street like an animal. A dictator must have all the power, because the alternative is extremely punitive. All or nothing, whatever the cost.

This is not strength, it is weakness masquerading as strength. If you feel the need to pose with naked upper body on horseback like a dime novel James Bond, you are not demonstrating real strength; but you are demonstrating that as ridiculous as you may look, no one better laugh at you, for you’ll be out to get them. When otherwise comical things are becoming serious, this is where the authoritarian spirit lives.

Now, contrast this with the West. For all the authoritarian-ish posing that you may see in someone like a Macron, a Trump, even at times a Merkel, this is always a pathos that can easily be decried as pathetic by a functioning press. Western-style democracy is a cacophony of voices, a shrill spectacle of different interest groups in a tug-of-war, of upper and lower chambers of parliament screaming or grandstanding at each other, of judges deciding against judges, of hapless leaders, angry protesters, angry commentators, angry commentators angry at other angry commentators, etc. It’s a spectacle, every single day.

But this is not weakness; this is true strength. Democracy is more than just the “rule of the people”, as that simplistic definition says. Sure, somehow that is important. But more than that, democracy is a grown-up system for consensus creation by listening to all voices, somehow finding a way to navigate through them, making a decision, criticizing that decision to the maximum extent, hoping for the best, and if it does not work out, at the next higher level you may change or veto things, and at the next election, you can throw the inept leaders out and try anew. Repeat.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll certainly, certainly, certainly know about the makes, if not sooner than definitely later, and we’ll have to grow around our mistakes, but the system will not collapse, and the hapless leaders, if they have not been found guilty of a crime, can retire in peace and be brought out once and again as an example of an elder statesperson that survived this hellish circle of life and can tell the tale.

I’ll take a grown-up system any day over one that treats everyone like a child.