Why tomorrow will be less democratic than today

Western-style democracy, emphasizing individual freedoms and rights, is under global pressure and facing decline even in the West. Here are five reasons why.

1. China gets away with an authoritarian approach
Some banks are “too big to fail”, some countries are “too big to franchise”. There is no way Western democracies can shape China in their own image. It is also clear by now that they are not willing to sacrifice political and economic relations with China in exchange for upholding a Western view on democracy and human rights. So, get used to a world where superpowers can be openly undemocratic (according to Western standards) and get away with it. And don’t forget how inspiring it can be for other regimes, and how much it can add legitimacy to their own authoritarian ambitions, to see China ‘win’ with an authoritarian approach.

(Russia is a different and more complicated story, due to its strong army and weak economy. Its military strength demands caution in the West; its economic weakness gives leverage to the West.)

2. Western-style democracy does not seem the ultimate solution any longer
Western-style democracy is a tough seed to sow: in most countries where it was recently introduced, it failed. Democracy is a vulnerable system as it requires discussions among equals and does not stop the election of undemocratic people and parties. Whatever its value, recent history has made it much easier for opponents to dismiss it as a universal solution. In October 2014, an influential journal of the Chinese Communist Party (Qiushi) made the following statement with reference to the enduring violence and turmoil in countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya:

The West always brags that its own democracy is a ‘universal value’ and denies there is any other form of democracy… Western democracy has innate internal flaws and certainly is not a ‘universal value'; its blind copying can only lead to disaster.

The days are over when the West could suffice with simply supposing the superior nature and universal resolving power of its democracy.

3. Secular societies lack the resilience to withstand their need for security
More freedom means less security, more security means less freedom. A well-known dilemma in democracies, leading to the question: what will democracies need more in the coming years, security or freedom? The answer is clearly security, for two reasons: 1) the growing amount of threats within and around democracies, making citizens feel more vulnerable, 2) a lack of resilience in democracies to accept risks.

Ad 2) The Democracy Index of The Economist Intelligence Unit shows that the most democratic countries also happen to be the most secular countries in the world. This combination seems to have a price: the less people can surrender to Someone or Something that controls the universe – a God (Jews, Muslims, Christians), Spirit or Life Force (Taoists, Buddhists, New Agers), Social Order (Confucianists, Socialists) – the more difficult it becomes to accept adversities and risks in life. Friends and family can compensate to some extent, but solitude is a major problem in secular societies and only some problems can be fixed by others. So, what we see in secular societies is a lack of resilience: people can be the happiest in the world when their life is in order, but easily get anxious or depressed when things get out of hand. There is little tolerance for anything that threatens the good life. Combine this with the growing threats in the world and we may see a growing willingness in precisely the most democratic countries, to sacrifice freedoms in exchange for more security.

Big question: where will this process end? How much loss of freedom does it take before people start to accept insecurities in exchange for freedom?

4. World issues cannot be solved in a tolerant way
Pandemics, climate change, cyber crime, international crime, global terrorism, nuclear risks – the dangers these issues contain can only be tackled if all countries cooperate. Leave one out, and hackers, criminal organizations and terrorists will pick that country as their hiding place. And so, the more urgent these issues become, the less countries will be patient with those that obstruct the process. World issues, by their nature, don’t care about the sovereignty of states, and so will powerful states when facing a clear and present danger. Authoritarianism will take over, a less democratic world order appear.

5. Democracies cannot be defended in a democratic way
Another notorious dilemma: democratic tolerance can only be defended in an intolerant way. We simply cannot differ about the democratic space to differ. Democratic rules ensure freedom, but only if everyone submits to them. This raises the question: do democracies need to be more intolerant in the coming years, to ensure a fee and open society? The current rise of oppressive groups, in and around democracies, clearly points towards a yes. And so, expect to see more ‘inevitable intolerance’ coming from democracies as a matter of self preservation. Democratic governments will have to be specific about the rules of an open and free society, and they will have to enforce these rules where needed. A process as unavoidable as it is tricky, because of the continuous risk that democracies become too specific about the rules and a source of oppression in their fight for freedom.

How cities changed our spirituality

Once, we were all hunters and gatherers. Then we started developing agriculture and domesticating animals. Some of us turned into pastoral nomads, moving livestock between pastures. Others turned into farmers, cultivating fields. Then the urbanites appeared, doing everything but producing food (13 May 2012).

Those who ended up in cities had to organize themselves in new ways, as the old ways of running society didn’t suffice any longer. Innovations occurred with a profound impact on people’s spirituality. Here are two of these revolutionary changes in society:

Conflict control – from nomadic blood ties to urban law enforcement
As all the members of a nomad group belonged to the same tribe, it was in their common interest to end internal conflicts as soon as possible. Any revenge or escalation of violence within the group would only diminish their own survival chances. Most issues could therefore be resolved quite peacefully. The traditional Indian approach was to discuss the issue until consensus was achieved.

In sharp contrast to this stood the city with its many different tribes. When these tribes clashed, blood ties could no longer inhibit the escalation of violence. In order to resolve urban conflicts, a third party was needed, one with the authority to adjudicate and with a monopoly on violence. The judge appeared, and to avoid controversial verdicts that would only provoke new conflicts, laws were carved in stone. Whoever violated these laws would face another urban invention: law enforcers.

All very understandable, even unavoidable, these urban innovations. But the fact remained that the communal self regulation of tribes was replaced by laws and law enforcers. Relational solutions had to make way for legal solutions. And it wasn’t always obvious that laws and rulers served the interests of the entire community. Endless fights occurred between those who thought it right to enforce the law and those who thought it right to break the law. New forms of spirituality were needed to enhance the arrival of righteous laws and law-abiding citizens. And it still took many more centuries before one powerful idea, the idea of democracy, would finally convince sufficient citizens to combine the necessity of laws and rulers with the good of communal self regulation.

Solidarity – from family duty to religious and legal duty
Some quotations from Stephen Sachs about leadership and solidarity in traditional Indian tribes:

Leaders (who have mistakenly been called “chiefs”) functioned primarily as facilitators, consensus builders, and announcers of decisions. In general, they had little or no decision making power of their own, though usually they had influence. They were chosen for positions of leadership on the basis of their high moral character and ability to represent the people and lead in the long term interests of the community as a whole. (..) Culturally, people believed in, and related on the basis of, mutual respect, identifying with the band or tribe as an extended family, in which members supported each other in their individual endeavors to the extent that they did not contradict the common good, while they collaborated out of mutual interest and a strong sense of shared consensus. (..) At the same time, economically, as well as socially, the structure of living caused people to need each other’s support, while economic power was at least not so concentrated as to upset egalitarian relations, and was most often broadly dispersed in economies based upon reciprocity (..). Thus, by developing cooperation and a sense of unity through honoring diversity on the basis of mutual respect, these communities usually maintained a very high quality of life.

What a contrast between this servant leadership, solidarity and mutual respect among the members of nomadic tribes, and the oppression and exploitation that seems almost inextricably connected to the rise of urban societies. But let’s not rush towards moral qualifications. Let’s first recall that cities became the habitat of many different tribes. As these tribes were focused first of all on their own survival, conflicts would usually end with winners and losers – meaning that one family would turn into a dynasty of rulers and the others would have to settle with being subjects or slaves. New forms of spirituality were needed to rediscover and redefine the value of brotherhood, of equality, solidarity and mutual respect beyond ethnic borders. And it still took many more centuries before one powerful idea, the idea of human rights, provided a legal basis for egalitarian relations and community-based leadership.

We city-dwellers can easily marvel at the social and natural harmony of nomadic tribes. Romantic Hollywood productions like “Dances with Wolves” (1990) and “The New World” (2005) make us sometimes yearn for that which we lost in the city and never fully found again. Urban life has put us on a long journey towards a new understanding and embrace of brotherhood and solidarity. And yes, we did make progress, thanks to the idea of democracy and human rights. But it seems the search isn’t over. Precisely in the most democratic societies, loneliness and individualism have become major issues. It seems we need more than democracy and human rights to fully enjoy brotherhood again.