Democracy and the Problem of Speed

We live in a paradoxical time vis-à-vis democracy. While democratic reforms have recently taken hold in places as diverse as Tunisia and Sri Lanka (Tunisia through revolution; Sri Lanka through the ballot), and while Greece has turned to the demos as a front line against its predatory creditors, leading democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom are experience a period of economic and political malaise. That the developed democracies seem to be in decline encourages a growing skepticism toward democratic governance, especially among the populist right wing and neoliberal elites that have come to constitute such powerful political blocs in the West. It is not uncommon for well-known public figures to openly question—and sometimes even dismiss—democracy’s desirability, and they often do so in the pages of the most widely read and respected publications. Consider, for example, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s provocatively titled New York Times editorial from this past December: “Is Democracy Dead?” Blair’s op-ed criticizes the core political institutions of the US, the UK, and other European democracies as “dysfunctional,” and he openly declares democracy to be “failing its citizens.” These are strongly pessimistic words, yet I suspect they resonate with many people who, nurtured on the Cold War promise that democracy will deliver everything from unlimited economic growth to global political dominance, find themselves disillusioned as the West struggles to make good on the promised benefits of uncontested global influence. But what is most concerning about this loss of faith in democracy is not that it reflects a failure of democracy as such, but rather that it reflects the success of an ongoing effort to redefine democracy as a tool for advancing economic development rather than as the irreducible means of achieving and preserving political self-determination.

Blair locates the problem with democracy in what he calls the “efficacy challenge,” a phrase which has less to do with the diminishing political power of average citizens than it does with the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. According to this view, speed takes precedence over democratic deliberation. Blair makes this point clear when he writes, “In a world of change, where countries, communities and corporations must constantly adapt to keep up, democracy seems slow, bureaucratic and weak.” He blames this inefficiency on activist citizens groups such as teachers unions, which he holds responsible for rallying the public “to defeat change even when it is in the public’s own interest.” Here again, he leverages these arguments in defense of the view that the public’s primary interest is not justice or equality or political power, but rather the speed with which government is able to deliver material goods and services. This is a vision of democracy sapped of idealism and removed from the higher order virtues that have provided the raison d’être of democratic practice throughout history. Indeed, in Blair’s view, the core problem with contemporary democracy is the demos itself, which is either too ignorant to recognize what is in its own best interests, or, in those cases when it does articulate interests, is too inclined toward forms of political activism that challenge government hegemony over the political sphere. At the heart of his argument is the peculiar notion that democracy is no longer about a society’s political culture, but that it has become a technical means of delivering governmental services with ever-increasing speed and efficiency. Here again, Blair is explicit on this point: “It is time to debate how to improve democracy, how to modernize it. Traditionally this debate has been dominated by issues of transparency and honesty […] But the disillusionment with democratic governments is really about people believing that the changes they need in their lives can’t happen quickly enough. It is a practical challenge.”

The frustration Blair expresses toward political activism is one of the core anti-democratic attitudes political theorist Jacques Rancière studies in his book Hatred of Democracy. Rancière explains how, by investing political power in elected representatives, democratic societies have opened a paradoxical schism between the public and the private, wherein what has traditionally been understood as public becomes the private concern of the government. By working to demonize, discredit, and silence political activism, anti-democratic forces seek to wrest political power from the people and establish it as the sole right of elected representatives. Rancière argues that the concern of democracy is not, as Blair would have it, to further privatize what is public, but rather to expand—radically and exponentially—the public sphere: “The spontaneous practices of any government tend to shrink this public sphere, making it into its own private affair and, in so doing, relegating the inventions and sites of intervention of non-State actors to the private domain. Democracy, then, far from being the form of life of individuals dedicated to their private pleasure, is a process of struggle against this privatization, the process of enlarging this sphere” (55). There is, no doubt, an economic component to this struggle over public/private boundaries, and there is no reason to believe that both sides aren’t working hard to establish the political contexts that will bring them the greatest benefits. Rancière, for his part, sees the privatization of public affairs within the exclusive domain of government to be a thinly disguised substitute for unchecked corporate power, which is why he insists democratic practice “entails struggling against the distribution of the public and the private that shores up the twofold domination of the oligarchy in the State and in society” (55). Blair obviously sees things differently. He openly advocates for increased autonomy of government decision-making power by disparaging the public’s intervention in public affairs, while continually pressing for rapid privatization—both economic and political—as an antidote to the lack of “effective decision-making through strong leadership” that he sees as the principle challenge to 21st century democracy.

With this understanding in mind, it is no surprise that Blair holds forth the corporate world—with its anti-democratic, authoritarian hierarchical structures—as a model for how democratic governments can become more responsive to people’s needs. Blair did, after all, cut his teeth as a corporate lawyer and served as a senior advisor to both JPMorgan Chase and Zurich Financial Services in the years following his tenure as Prime Minister.1 Yet his thoughts on democracy’s supposed failure to keep pace with global capitalism still demand analysis, for it’s precisely in the tension between the public and the private that Blair attempts to shift democratic governance away from accountability to the people and toward an alliance with private business interests. Contrasting governmental and corporate models, he writes: “Examine the changes in the private sector over the past 20 years. Look at the top companies by market capitalization and how new names have displaced the old. This is the way of the world, except in government. We go along in the same old way—unable to change, due in part to top-down bureaucracies that manage the status quo instead of changing it.” Suggesting that top companies by market capitalization should serve as a model for democracy is a dangerous (though entirely typical) neoliberal rhetorical strategy. One would think that Blair, with his experience as Prime Minister in the years immediately preceding the great recession and as a senior advisor to JPMorgan Chase, which was recently fined a record $13 billion for its role in causing the 2008 financial crisis, would at least acknowledge the massive fraud and financial destruction companies with “superior market capitalization” have inflicted on the world. Yet corporate practices continue to serve as Blair’s model for democratic governance. Indeed, one of the four proposals he makes at the close of his editorial is to allow “greater interchange between public and private sectors,” which is another way of saying that deregulation and privatization will deliver us from the the inefficiencies of democracy.2

Blair frames his proposal as a call for decentralization, but it is not the sort of decentralization that diffuses decision-making power through varied and popular democratic processes. His concept of decentralization is committed to shifting power away from the centers of government and toward the centers of global commerce, precisely in order to further withdraw power from an impatient people who, imagined as simplistic homines oeconomici, will settle into political contentment so long as their desire for basic services are satisfied without delay. Blair thus recasts the core mission of democracy as evermore speedy (and profitable) economic development, with the weighty and ennobling values that have always been a part of the democratic ideal receding toward the margins of public discourse and policy making. Here we see quite clearly how capitalist ideology attempts to redefine democracy as part of a larger process of economic development and modernization, while actively subverting its deeper purpose, which is the radical seizure of political power by the demos. But what is perhaps most concerning about Blair’s cynical vision for democracy is not that it imagines less public involvement in political affairs, but rather that it articulates a process that has already taken hold around the world and continues to advance with the speed and efficiency he extols.

We can see how the suture of democracy and development works politically by turning our attention away from the West and toward developing nations in the East, and in particular India, which is the world’s most populous democracy and a major center of political gravity in Asia. Take, for example, India’s 2014 general election. Widely heralded as a triumph of democracy after the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overwhelmingly defeated the incumbent and long-ruling Indian National Congress, India’s most recent national elections delivered the Prime Ministership to Narendra Modi, whose campaign slogan—“Unity, Action, Progress”—perfectly expresses the value neoliberal political parties put on speedy economic development. The first part of his slogan speaks to the BJP’s Hindutva ultra-nationalism, which imagines India as a Hindu state and has historically found expression in pogroms against India’s minority Muslim population.3 The second two terms are geared toward Modi’s promise to streamline India’s notoriously labyrinthine bureaucracy, thus speeding the pace with which India achieves economic development. The emphasis is on development, or “progress,” even when development disenfranchises people and/or otherwise tramples on basic democratic principles. As prominent author/activist Arundhati Roy makes clear in so many of her writings, the forward march of India’s economic development depends on the mass dislocation and dispossession of millions of India’s most vulnerable citizens—the chronically poor, the indigenous, the so-called untouchables. In her essay “Democracy’s Failing Light,” which opens her excellent collection Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, Roy writes: “Two decades of this kind of ‘Progress’ in India has created a vast middle class punch drunk on sudden wealth and the sudden respect that comes with it—and a much, much vaster desperate underclass. Tens of millions of people have been dispossessed and displaced from their land by floods, droughts and desertification caused by indiscriminate environmental engineering and massive infrastructural projects, dams, mines and Special Economic Zones. All of them developed in the name of the poor, but really meant to service the rising demands of the new aristocracy” (xiv). This process was well underway long before Modi came to power, but he and the BJP openly advocate accelerating this development by limiting the state’s regulatory apparatus and undermining processes for collective decision making that are the hard-won rewards of democratic struggle.

On the day that it published Blair’s op-ed, the New York Times also published an article by Ellen Barry and Neha Thirani Bagri outlining Modi’s plans to dismantle India’s environmental regulations, which is being done in the name of accelerating economic growth. As the article makes clear, the struggle between environmental preservation, which is crucial to sustaining the subsistence economies of India’s rural poor, and large scale industrial development is being decided in favor of industry: “Indian industries have often complained that convoluted environmental regulations are chocking off economic growth. As a candidate, Mr. Modi promised to open the floodgates, and he has been true to his word. The new government is moving with remarkable speed to clear away regulatory burdens for industry, the armed forces, mining and power projects.” Modi’s BJP plans to eliminate regulatory oversight wherever possible, while simultaneously relying on “business owners to voluntarily disclose the pollution that their projects will generate and then monitor their own compliance.” This approach, which Modi’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar describes as an effort to “decentralize decision-making,” is in reality a massive centralization of power within the corporate sector. Indeed, the reforms Modi has implemented in the months following his election are overtly anti-democratic and do much to stymie the diffusion of power through institutions of collective decision making. As Barry and Bagri explain: “Smaller coal mines were granted one-time permission to expand without holding a public hearing; projects in forests will no longer have to seek the approval of tribal village councils; smaller mining projects of less than 100 hectacres (247 acres) will no longer undergo ministry inspection.” These reforms go well beyond trusting industry to regulate itself; they are direct attacks on democratic control over how the nation’s natural resources are used, and they undermine the degree to which communities can exercise a role in protecting their own environments. So when Javadekar proudly boasts that the BJP is eliminating “those [environmental regulations] which, in the name of caring for nature, were stopping progress,” he not only admits that India’s new government will choose development over preservation, but he also hints at how these development plans constitute a thinly veiled assault on democracy itself.

This sort of anti-democratic “progress” is the lifeblood of the economic structures that both Modi and Blair hold forth as models of efficient governance. It is also a principle means by which those who stand to benefit the most from global capitalism exploit the poor and eviscerate traditional communities. Development and modernization are almost always presented as the most effective ways to liberate the destitute from otherwise insurmountable conditions of poverty, disease, and ignorance, but in practice they work to expropriate and transform traditional means of subsistence into profits for those at the centers of global capital. As C. Douglas Lummis argues in his work on developmentalism, “The ideology of development has been immensely successful, not in actually raising the poor people of the world to the level of ‘ultimate prosperity’ but in convincing millions that this is what capitalist activities in the Third World are intended to do.” In reality, developmentalism constitutes “the most massive systematic project of human exploitation, and the most massive assault on culture and nature, which history has ever known. It was the extraordinary achievement of the development ideology to render the imperialism of the countries and corporations carrying out this project an arguable question” (60). What this exploitation looks like in India, where democratic environmental protections are being dismantled in the name of speed and efficiency, should sound the alarm for all who care about basic social justice and human dignity, whether in the developing East or the developed West. As Roy notes in her book Walking with the Comrades, in India alone, there are an “estimated sixty million people who have been displaced by rural destitution, by slow starvation, by floods and drought (many of them man-made), by mines, steel factories and aluminum smelters, by highways and expressways, by the 3300 big dams built since Independence, and now by special economic zones” (153-154). Such massive displacement is but one sign of the ruin that development and modernization brings to so many of the world’s people. To allow development projects to bypass required public hearings, tribal approval, and government inspection not only threatens democracy, it also threatens the very existence of the communities people like Blair wish to silence in the name of so-called “progress.”

The issue here goes beyond economics and cuts to the core of what it means to exist in a state of self-determination. One of the central aims of neoliberalism is to limit self-determination to such an extent that people have no choice but to participate in the consolidation of capitalist hegemony. Global capitalism—from the time of mercantilism and the slave trade to our current age of free trade agreements and corporate personhood—depends on, as Lummis rightly notes, “the massive uprooting of humanity from traditional community life and work, the rendering extinct of ancient skills, values, and ways of thinking and feeling to make society into an instrument of efficient factory production” (55). This social uprooting has assumed many forms, from overt subjugation to the commercialization of culture, but it remains in the service of a totalizing project that seeks to pull every aspect of one’s lived experience into the centripetal force of global capitalism. Those who wish to maintain ways of living outside the logic of efficiency and profits—ways of living that, in some instances, go back thousands of years—are labeled enemies of “progress” and in need of “development” (as if they are underdeveloped children rather than fully-developed, intelligent adults capable of determining their own socioeconomic and political presents and futures). And besides, existing outside of the development regime is, for many people, simply not an option. For example, as recently as 2008, India’s finance minster P. Chidambaram advocated for relocating 85% of India’s rural population to the nation’s burgeoning urban centers. Such a project would, as Roy argues in “Democracy’s Failing Light,” “require social engineering on an unimaginable scale. It would mean inducing, or forcing, about five hundred million people to migrate from the countryside into cities” (xv). Such a process is well underway throughout the developing world, compelled by a combination of corporate land grants, unchecked environmental degradation, and the growing number of free trade agreements that render traditional community life and work unsustainable.

Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid dramatizes this violent transformation in his aptly named novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Taking the form of a satirical self-help book for those wishing to make the most of South Asian economic development, Hamid’s novel traces the upward mobility of the unnamed narrator from his youth in a desperately poor village to his rise as a corrupt entrepreneur. There is much I could say about the novel’s commentary on poverty, urbanization, war, and the deleterious effects of global markets, but what is most interesting about Hamid’s work vis-à-vis development is that he identifies the destruction of traditional communities as the very foundation of “rising Asia.” For example, the book’s opening chapter narrates how the protagonist’s family is forced to move to the city, in part because he has fallen chronically ill from drinking polluted river water that was contaminated by a textile factory located nearby. As he and his family arrive in the city, the narrator says (speaking in the second person, as he does throughout the novel): “As you and your parents and siblings dismount, you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.” (15) Within this wonderfully dense passage Hamid compresses the erosion of traditional communalism, environmental destruction, the insane proliferation of nuclear weapons,4 and the way in which economic “productivity” and “potential” are tied to the “insecurity” and “anxiety” that attend free-market economics. It also gives a powerfully human voice to the sixty million people who, like the novel’s narrator, have witnessed their traditional way of life intentionally rendered obsolete by the forces of development in neighboring India.

This is class war, but it’s also a war on democracy, and the battles in this war occur at the level of language and ideas every bit as much as they do at the level of economics and politics. As such, literature and the arts have an important role to play in cutting through the narrative that reduces democracy to a lubricant in an economic machine. I agree with Michael Mack when he argues that narrative fiction “does not celebrate or endorse what it represents. Rather than affirming the validity of history’s quasi-universal and mythic repetition of harmful socio-political and socio-economic policies, the mimetic content of the novel turns against itself. Here representation aims at interrupting itself” (101).5 We can see such a process in Hamid’s work. That How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia gives us a protagonist who only realizes his “potential” through a process of forced urbanization gives the lie to the narrative of neoliberalism as a force freedom and democracy by contextualizing the limited benefits of economic development in relation to an ongoing social transformation that actively limits the potential of people to survive outside of the capitalist paradigm. Hamid thus turns the representation of economic development as a benign, mutually beneficial and voluntary process against itself. There is nothing democratic about a rural community disbanding in order to escape a poisoned river, even if one of its members strikes it rich in the city. And there is nothing democratic about systematically dismantling sites of communal decision-making à la Modi’s environmental deregulation, or concentrating political power in the hands of government and corporate technocrats as Blair suggests we do.

Democracy is slow. It is intentionally deliberative, and it militates on behalf of both expanding the public sphere and subjecting it to the influence of as many ordinary people as possible. When leaders and spokespersons for the world’s major democracies advocate for freeing democratic governments from the influence of activist groups, popular councils, and individual citizens, they engage in an act of doublespeak designed to delegitimize the very premise of democracy—that power belongs to the people. So long as democracy is accepted as a synonym for capitalism, and freedom and power are reduced to free markets and purchasing power, such doublespeak will rule the day. With global economic inequality and environmental degradation reaching alarming heights, it’s clear that a project for revitalizing democracy’s core tenants is in order. Such a project can begin by rescuing the term’s meaning from the perverse uses to which it has been put. Democracy is not capitalism, nor does it exist to service the global market’s demand for speed and efficiency. On the contrary, democracy exists to deliver power into the hands of the people. This is the radical point from which all who wish to revitalize democracy’s liberatory potential must begin.

  1. Rancière notes how the easy flow of officials between government and the corporate sector is one way that oligarchy exerts control over both the State and the economy: “What we call democracy is a statist and governmental functioning that is exactly the contrary: eternally elected members holding concurrent or alternating municipal, regional, legislative and/or ministerial functions and whose essential link to the people is that of the representation of regional interests; governments which make laws themselves; representatives of the people that largely come from one administrative school; ministers or their collaborators who are also given posts in public or semi-public companies; fraudulent financing of parties through public works contracts; business people who invest colossal sums in trying to win electoral mandates; owners of private media empires that use their public functions to monopolize the empire of the public media. In a word: the monopolizing of la chose publique by a solid alliance of State oligarchy and economic oligarchy” (72-73).
  2. Blair’s other proposals include changing “the relationship between governing and governed,” forcing parliaments to “function differently,” and even implementing “constitutional changes,” all of which are vaguely articulated. He also, earlier in the op-ed, proposes raising the salaries of elected officials in order to encourage those who are successful in the corporate sector to bring their business acumen to government.
  3. Modi is widely believe to have used his position as Chief Minister of Gujarat to help orchestrate the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which rioting Hindu nationalists murdered nearly 2,000 of their Muslim neighbors and displaced more than 150,000 others. The United States was so convinced of his involvement that it suspended his visa privileges. It was only with his election as Prime Minister that the U.S. agreed to issue Modi a visa, after which he promptly traveled to New York City to address a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Since then, President Obama has traveled to Delhi on an official state visit to deepen ties between the U.S. and Modi’s India.
  4. though never explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to determine that the novel is set in Hamid’s native Pakistan, which has been engaged in a dangerous game of nuclear one-upsmanship with India for decades
  5. Mack makes this comment in relation to Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer, but the point applies to any number of fictions, including Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.