Crisis in the free world

DEMOCRACY UNDER THREAT Edited by Surendra Munshi, Oxford, Rs 595

By Maidul Islam
  • Published 8.06.18

DEMOCRACY UNDER THREAT Edited by Surendra Munshi, Oxford, Rs 595

The book, edited by Surendra Munshi, is an eclectic and excellent collection of essays by leading academics, reputed journalists, policymakers and professional politicians. The book has 19 essays besides the editor's introduction. The essays are placed in six different sections. The first section, with three essays, concentrates on the crisis of democratic leadership. The second section, with a couple of essays, focuses on the fragile state of democratic institutions.

The third part consists of five essays on the new era of authoritarianism in the 21st century. The fourth part, comprising four articles, deals with issues of populism and dynastic rule. The fifth section has three essays that seek to answer the question whether the West has failed to deliver democratic rule.

The final part of the book has two essays, both engaging with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Václav Havel, the celebrated Czech leader. In doing so, the penultimate essay focuses on the similarities in the political thinking of Gandhi and Havel in their quests for freedom and truth.

Taking forward the discussion of the penultimate essay, the concluding essay by the editor engages with the concept of post-truth, a discursive domain of perpetuation of falsehoods, racist canards, and conspiracy theories promoted by social media. In this respect, the editor asks a legitimate question: whether we can live with dignity in an era of post-truth.

The book on the whole deals with the strengths and weaknesses of liberal democracies after the fall of the Soviet Union, the end-of-history thesis of Francis Fukuyama and the ongoing crisis of Western liberal democracies in the aftermath of the Iraq war and the global economic recession of 2008. It has a no-nonsense approach in its interrogation of the dynamics of democracy in our times.

The precise issue discussed in the book is whether democracy, both as a virtue and as a mode of governance, is facing a severe challenge from the rise of authoritarianism in various parts of the world. In effect, Democracy Under Threat deals with the crisis of the Lockean State and the symptoms of a return of the Hobbesian absolutist State. In doing so, it largely operates within the liberal democratic theory.

While the volume tends to eulogize the core values of liberal democracy, it unfairly criticizes populism. Sophisticated theoreticians in the field of political theory have justifiably argued that populism is a part and parcel of democracy. In fact, populism is a governing principle of democratic political practice where active forms of electoral politics is a given reality. Populism is not always a contemptible idea but a real and substantive strategy of political mobilization under conditions of representative democracy.

The decisive issue is that of the ideological moorings of rightwing-cum-regressive populism versus left-wing and centre-Left versions of progressive populism. The former is xenophobic while the latter is inclusionary, socio-economically more focused on redistributive programmes, and a promise to transcend neoliberalism.