Is the future of DEMOCRACY bleak?

There is a shift happening in the imagining of political structures and systems around the world. This overarching and surprising turn of events has led to the undermining of institutions and civil liberties of the people. The detour of optimism from the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe after the break-up of Soviet Union and the weakening of democracy in the 19th century have completely thrown the world into some kind of ‘new political system’. These events from their immediate and causal undercurrents have been acutely and candidly documented by Anne Applebaum in her recent book ‘Twilight of Democracy-The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’. Anne starts the book with a party she hosts in her home in Poland on the eve of Millennium in 1999 with her friends mostly holding the same set of political ideas. This event being the reason for her to write this book acts as the metaphor how the same people after the 20 years have been diverged from their core beliefs and have converted themselves into the diametrically opposite directions. This book explores how some of the west’s success stories in democratic sphere have sloped into far-right absolutism. She chronicles the rise of populist figures like Orban in Hungary, Trump in the U.S. and her own former colleague and friend, Boris Johnson in the UK. It is very relevant to comment on the fact that Anne is the author of three critically acclaimed and award-winning histories of the Soviet Union: Red Famine, Iron Curtain, and Gulag; The History- winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This book is very different from her  other books as it is kind of  deeply-felt memoir with subjective view of  what Karen Stenner calls ‘authoritarian pre-dispositions’ of political strongmen reverberating in the modern day anti-democratic and illiberal climes. Kirkus Review perfectly terms the book as ‘A knowledgeable, rational, necessarily dark take on dark realities’. Anne Applebaum with her acute and timely analysis crafts and surveys  the gloomy pattern and tide of authoritarian right emerging right into the heart of western democratic sphere. This book puts forward the intriguing spectacle and semantically a warning about how the political systems rhyme the circularity of historical revolutions ideas take both chorologically  and chronologically. This surely forms the primer of modern day 21st century form of political absolutism and the relative iconography, symbols and slogans being deconstructed in different set of spatial and situational scenarios

There is a spectrum of splintering of politics across the globe. They are very different from the band of ‘total ideologies’ in accepting the way things are. Anne calls these tactics ‘medium sized lies’ with the use of technology, conspiratorial and disinformation tactics of keeping the people hooked to the ‘seductive lure of authoritarianism’. She is also currently a Senior Fellow of International Affairs, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) working on ‘disinformation and 21st century propaganda ’ and taking the argument further she writes that due to this perception engineering of public ‘Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal’. The evolution of technology and the rise of totalitarian regimes have been ringing alarm bells with ‘most’ of the leaders pressing the buttons according to their convenience and ‘political ideology’. Anne further writes about the same as “The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even elections campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world”. Elif Shafak,  in her timely crafted essay turned pamphlet ‘How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division’ beautifully contrasts the position of how a kid was named after Facebook and another one in Israel after ‘Like’-the social media platform after the Arab Spring and influence technology had on their lives and now the growing antipathy towards the same.

Anne skilfully connects the links and reaches at the stage which perfectly syncs with the chronological and systemic form of this gradual rise of far-right ‘tendency’ in the ruling political tribe. The major segment of the book engages in an intellectual and anecdotal rhyming and borrowing of ideas straight from the previous populist regimes that plagued the European continent. The resonances clearly can be linked to the propagandistic rhetoric as the repetition of simple slogans and their repetitive tactics being drawn into public sphere with an aim of dividing the people into us versus them. This revival of style book driven programming of societies on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world  has been the dark trend in the sustaining and flourishing of the democracy. Carl Schmitt -the prominent political theorist dwells on the theme of how fascist regimes lay their ideas of realpolitik on the binary of friends and enemies. This book treads on the same thesis polarity as the book has been titled differently in United Kingdom as ‘The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’.

The book is divided into five chapters starting with ‘New Year’s Eve’ and the major portion of   it covers the linearity in the surge of political pessimism with revealing chapters like ‘How Demagogues Win’, ‘Unending of History’, ‘Cascades of Falsehood’ etc.  Applebaum using the historical and experiential framework of how the future of liberal democracy is bleak around the world  ‘Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.’  Applebaum while having witnessed the vicissitudes of rise of democracy in Poland first hand with her deep connections with the British and American political spaces brilliantly scrutinizes the rise of an authoritarian and nativist brand of leadership. Applebaum’s husband  Radosław Tomasz Sikorski being the politician in Poland where she has best local connections and also having the benefits of US-Polish dual citizenship she manages to gather and analyse the patterns of the rising spectre of authorities right and discuss the prognosis of decline of democratic ideals and markers across the world.

There is a ‘design’ which acts a conduit of how demagogues whip up the emotions of public Applebaum invokes the process of ‘restorative nostalgia’ and ‘cultural despair’.  Russian artist and essayist Svetlana Boym in her elegant book ‘Future of Nostalgia’ differentiates between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Applebaum warns of how ‘restorative’ nostalgia is being used in the political programmes as the slogans and are at the core of the nationalist projects. This is the common reality we are experiencing around the world be it in South Asia or in the America’s. Restorative nostalgia draws its meaning from the fact the mythical past is to be re-imagined as the monolith and the glory to be capitalised again. Fritz Stern a German Historian in his famous book ‘The Politics of Cultural Despair’, while writing about 19th century had identified many intellectuals who were in a kind of cultural despair with the present and wanted to recreate the past. Applebaum finds the similarities in the contemporary political discourse with the same ‘nostalgic rhetoric’ being peddled coupled with the distresses of ‘cultural despair. Contemplating on why and how her friends had changed their political orientations towards a more populist and autocratic system and in that moment of political upheavals she turns to the French writer Julien Benda who had identified intellectuals referring to them as ‘clercs’. In his book ‘The Treason of Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs)’ he wrote about how the same ‘clerics’ loosely translated as intellectuals attaching themselves to the political propaganda and taking a somewhat compromised route for appropriation and glorification of the political projects they associate themselves with. Benda was enraged with intellectuals who became cheerleaders for totalitarianism. He was living, as he writes gloomily, in the age of the “intellectual organisation of political hatreds.”

Applebaum deliberates on how her former associates propagated their visions of autocracy and nationalism in their respective countries, using tools such as conspiracy theories aka medium sized lies. Applebaum speculates that the debunked theory of “birther” conspiracy that Barack Obama was not born in United States was shared by more than a third of Americans, greatly dented their trust in government. There are instances from Hungary and Poland too on how conspiracy theory is being used as a tool in modern politics. Anne cites how Viktor Orban of Hungary used the image of George Soros,   Hungarian Jewish billionaire, to panic Hungarians about an immigrant invasion and in Poland the right-wing party used the death of former President Lech Kaczyński who died in a 2010 plane crash.

This book though tracing the genesis and the immediate instances in the lure of authoritarianism leaders and the public simultaneously fall still falls short of the synoptic swathes of what Adorno called ‘Authoritarian Personality’. There is still the larger picture of understanding and theorising which is lacking in this book. Twilight of Democracy in one of the chapters on ‘unending of history’ belies the Fukuyami’an ‘end of history’ thesis as the  circular orbiting of  extremes have suddenly been swiftly making revolutions again.   Anne Applebaum rigorously tracks the start of ‘twilight of democracy’ and the flames of ‘authoritarian right’ having the spark of bio-political models and the algorithms emboldening the techno-despotic rise of political dispensations. This book rightly takes us to the tour of how the future of democracy is hanging in thin air with the scenes of fractured present and shaky prospect of liberal values prevailing. Applebaum quotes the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s speech while receiving the Nobel Prize in 2019: “Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat.” The hope of melody getting louder and beats inspiring us to the compassionate and amiable socio-political systems would never fade away.

Mir Sajad is a Researcher, Department of Geography and Regional Development University of Kashmir