Monday, February 11, 2019

The novelty and fragility of liberal-democracy

I've been reading a scholarly history of liberalism. It isn't directly about this, but as it reminds me of things that I already knew in broad strokes and fills in some details, it is making me think morbid thoughts about the relative historical novelty and consequent fragility of the institutions that, at least in 21st century mainstream thought, are understood as being essential to democracy.
Not that such institutions are so great, in all the ways the left and rad Indigenous folk have pointed out since forever, but the possibility of their transformation in illiberal and anti-democratic directions seems to me to be worth worrying about.

So think, for a moment, about 1850.

Sounds like a long time ago. But, really, it wasn't.

"Nonsense," you say. "That was 169 years ago, which is a very long time indeed."

Well, yes, that is the count of years, and that count is not small, but think of it like this: When I was younger, I knew and spent time with people who in turn in their youths knew and spent time with people who were fully functional humans in 1850. And when I say that I knew people who knew people who experienced 1850, it suddently doesn't seem quite so distant.

Take my partner's great-grandmother. She was born in 1894 and she passed away in 2000. I ate many a meal at the same table as her. And it's not even vaguely a stretch that her youth included knowing folks who were alive, aware, and doing their thing in 1850. Or take my great-aunt, who lived from 1909 to 1995. I know she spent time with someone who was around in 1850, because she lived in the same household in Stratford as her great-grandmother, who was born in 1832 and died in 1918.

So 1850 is really not so far removed from today.

And in 1850, almost no countries in the world had what we would now consider to be liberal-democratic institutions. From what I've been reading, maybe Belgium would count? Not sure. And I think that's it in continental Europe, though perhaps some smartypants will pop up to cite some other example. Certainly not France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or most of the rest – admittedly, two of those named weren't even unified states yet, but their anticipatory fragments in that era were no more liberal or democratic for all of that.

That leaves the US and the UK, which in 1850 did have institutions somewhat approximating mainstream understandings of democracy today. But it's hard to take either of them too seriously in this regard, as the former still had chattel slavery, while the latter ran the biggest empire in the history of the world and had a franchise so limited that practically no one could vote.

Of course, there had been various attempts across Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 to create institutions that were variously more liberal and/or democratic than what predominated in 1850 – though, interestingly, most liberals were actually against mass democracy for most of the first half of the 19th century, and were not at all pleased when people and movements to their left attempted to insist on such things. In fact, it was really only in the couple of decades after the failed revolutions of 1848 that most liberals reluctantly decided that democracy was necessary, and set about finding ways to institute it over the objections of the reactionaries who were mostly running things in those years, while keeping it limited and controllable.

None of which is news. It's not like that history is a big secret, and the trajectory towards the development of such institutions is no doubt the focus of many a mainstream history course, even at the high school level. But, at least for me, it takes on a different feel when I hold firmly in mind that I knew people who knew people who were around then. The historical novelty of the institutions in question feels clearer, and their existence and stability feels consequently less certain.

As for the fragility of these institutions today – well, that may be a harder case to make than novelty. Though perhaps not – it's hard to avoid a certain unease on that front that comes just from being alive in 2019 and watching goings on in the US, in Brazil, even in still-liberal Canada with the far-right swing of several provinces, the disarray of both the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left (such as they are), the slowly growing white nationalist appropriation of the yellow vest symbology, and the launching of a white nationalist federal political party headed by a figure with considerable name recognition. In light of the history that makes it clear that these institutions are relatively new and quite historically contingent, all of this is even more concerning.

Which maybe sounds more pessimistic than I feel. Yes, these institutions of mainstream liberal-democracy are relatively new in historical terms, possibly more fragile than we realize, and definitely (speaking from the left here) far more limited than contemporary liberals will ever admit. But the energy and activity among ordinary people that forced such institutions into history in the face of violently opposed elites, and that pushed and still (disarray notwithstanding) push for more – well, that is not novel, that is not fragile, and that I continue to have faith in.

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