Friday, 5 July 2013

Contingent Democracy

Despite their proximity, I've yet to see anyone draw parallels between the coup d'etat in Egypt and the shenanigans in the Falkirk Constituency Labour Party, so I will. Once upon a time, the Forth and Clyde Canal, which runs through Falkirk, allowed ships to transfer between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, thus avoiding the need to sail around the North of Scotland. It's not quite on a par with the Suez Canal, but no mean engineering feat either. But that's enough about canals. The more interesting contrast relates to the practice of democracy.

The embarrassed silence of Western governments over the military intervention in Cairo (beyond peace-n-love anodynes) has been widely interpreted as sympathy for "our side", the secular liberal middle class. The implication is that the West cannot help itself in displaying this prejudice - we're only human after all - and that liberals everywhere should simply hope for the best as the alternative (the mad mullahs) remains too objectionable.

Apart from the obvious hypocrisy, this looks strategically foolish as the Muslim Brotherhood clearly enjoy majority support outside of the metropolis, much as the AKP does in Turkey outside of Istanbul. What happens if the electorate fails to deliver the "right" result at the promised (but unscheduled) election? To quote Bertolt Brecht "would it not be be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?"

In Cairo, the protestors' charges against Morsi centred on broken promises, economic incompetence and favouritism. These could be levelled at many democratically-elected governments, such as the UK coalition (student fees, stagnation, creeping privatisation etc). As the idea that representative democracies should have the power of recall remains alien in the UK, the dominant narrative in the British media that explains (and justifies) the current rebellion is that Morsi pursued a majoritarian approach that verged on a "constitutional coup". In plain terms, democracy is more than one person, one vote.

This hinterland of democracy is described using flexible terms such as pluralism, tolerance and inclusivity. Of course, the failure of pluralism was as much the fault of the opposition as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has in turn fed the casually racist debate in some parts of the media as to whether Arabs are capable of "doing democracy" (imagine if the Daily Telegraph wrote an editorial suggesting the same crippling deficiency in the Scots). The demands for pluralism now are partly defensive appeals for sectarian tolerance (for the Copts and the small Shia community) but largely a demand that politics be conducted within a narrow spectrum acceptable to liberals. This is consistent with the more subtle coup of neoliberalism in Western democracies, where large areas of political debate have been ruled "beyond dispute" (the free market) or "inconceivable" (workplace democracy).

The army's promise that it will appoint an interim technocratic government pending elections is clearly intended to reassure the West that normal business will shortly be resumed and due proprieties observed. The deployment of the adjective "technocratic" deliberately echoes the Monti interregnum in Italy. The Labour Party's decision to refer l'affaire Falkirk to the Scottish police has much the same purpose: a show of propriety and an appeal to an independent arbiter (this would have been more problematic if the constituency was in London and under the jurisdiction of the Met).

The fuss over Falkirk has predictably produced mutterings about Militant entryism in the 80s and the ridiculous claim that the soft left Unite union is conspiring to dominate the Labour party. In the UK, one-person-one-vote has long been the preferred stick with which to beat the unions. Bloc representation, which is a perfectly respectable democratic practice (after all, MP's represent blocs of voters with widely differing views), is routinely denigrated as anti-democratic. In plain terms, democracy is no more than one person, one vote.

Regardless of the specific abuses in the Falkirk case (which we don't really know about as the "report" remains embargoed), what is noticeable is the ready recourse to the trope of union members as mindless ballot-fodder. You'd expect this lurid depiction from the Tories, but much of it has come from the Blairites who presumably remain "relaxed" about New Labour being primarily dependent on rich business donors. Falkirk is interpreted as a culture clash, with Unite determined to advance working-class, pro-union candidates at the expense of middle-class, neoliberal cuckoos. This is as misleading simplistic as the representation of the Egyptian crisis as a clash between Islamists and secularists, but if it were true, then encouraging more working class MPs would surely be in the interests of pluralism.

What this highlights is a well-worn truth. Pluralism is always advanced from a liberal perspective because it is simply an aspect of liberal practice: the informal division of the spoils. But it rests on the assumption that plural society does not include everyone, only those who ultimately subscribe to liberal values and abide by the rules of the game. This means that there are always some who are beyond the pale, such as Islamists and trade unionists, for whom "democratic rights" are contingent.

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