By Richard Falk
Written June 28, 2013
To begin with, I know of no truly mature political democracy on this, although to be sure some rest on a more stable political base than others. Most importantly, some forces of opposition despair of ever succeeding by democratic procedures, while others pin their hopes on the next election, or the one after that. Some democracies have greater economic stability or can boast of high growth rates, possess a larger private sector and bigger middle class with more to lose, than others. Some states are more vulnerable to foreign interference than others, and some have formidable foreign enemies that seek regime change or something worse.
Perhaps, more victimized than any most modern societies, Germany devastated after World War I was caught in the midst of recovering from a humiliating military defeat accentuated by vindictive victors, a resulting economic depression featuring high unemployment and runaway inflation. Its pathetic enactment of liberal democracy could neither find credible solutions nor adopt principled positions. It should not be surprising that an extreme form of political polarization emerged in response, producing disastrous results not only for Germany but for Europe and the world: Communism versus Fascism. Battles raged between these antagonists in the streets of German cities, and the Nazis emerged triumphant even at the ballot box, helped by the complicity of cartelized big business and the ethos of the Bavarian elites hostile to any hint of democratic politics. The rest is history.
Today, there exist an assortment of deeply worrisome encounters between political extremes brought on by a range of conditioning circumstances. As a first approximation I would mention three disturbing instances, each distinctive, yet each afflicted by destructive polarized politics: Egypt, Turkey, and the United States.
Infernal Polarization and the Creative Dialectic
Before offering some comments on the three cases, it seems helpful to clarify what is meant by ‘polarization.’ There are several features, varying with context, grievances, goals, outlook, and unity of the opposition, as well as the response of those in control of the government, the economy, and sometimes the military, but there are also certain shared characteristics that encourage generalizations:
On discourse: in a polarized polity the opposition seldom reasons and never listens, while those governing rarely hear what critics say and almost never engage in serious self-scrutiny; reasonableness is seen by both sides more often as a lack of conviction and principle rather than as an expression of respect and inclusiveness: moderation is out, polemics are in.
On governance: both sides are generally inhibited from offering compromises and accommodations for fear of seeming weak, and thereby alienating their base of support.
On tactics: the opposition seeks instability and dissatisfaction, and if possible a climate of opinion that demands change either by constitutional means or by a populist uprising that makes the country ungovernable; the government, in contrast, obtains law and order by whatever means are at its disposal, often provoking worse opposition by employing excessive force.
There is also an emergent form of polarization that may be more productive of positive results, and seems often to be hiding behind the curtain of its infernal other. It is a youth oriented rejection of all traditional forms of political rivalry: parties, programs, politicians. Pox on both your houses! This kind of creative dialectic takes many forms depending on heritage, context, and cultural sensibilities.
In its most radical forms a creative dialectic is a bottom up momentum, sometimes substituting humor, sensuality, and satire for polemics, valuing all forms of inclusiveness, welcoming the participation of LGBT activists, celebrating the joy of living, and committed to governing from below. A rather restrained form of such a creative dialectic can easily confused with ‘infernal polarization.’ It was such a creative dialectic that flourished in Tahrir Square during those remarkable 18 days in January 2011, reflected in the spirit of the 99% that brightened the skies above Wall Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and many other cities for some hopeful months later in the same year, and just recently again became manifest during the early days of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and the Brazilian risings.
A benevolent future for democratic societies depends on nourishing these forces of mainly youth and malcontents that have ‘invented’ their version of a creative dialectic while not partaking of the largely negative energies of infernal polarization that are pushing many societies to the risky precipices of implosion.
Why infernal? The legitimating premise of a democratic society is some form of consent by the governed, normally by the political verdicts delivered at periodic, fair and free elections. In the extreme instances of infernal polarization, the opposition seeks to change the rules of the political game by forcing the elected leaders to surrender their power or face chaos or a military takeover. It may be democracy to end autocracy (as with Mubarak) or it make take aim at democracy (as with Morsi), ultimately, the politics of the Reichstag fire (1933), the military takeover in Algeria after the 1991 electoral triumph of Islamists, and the unfulfilled phantasies of extreme Kemalists in Turkey.
An abusive or highly incompetent and corrupt majority invites radical forms of dissent, and so it is not fair to put all the blame on the side of the opposition. It all depends. An autocratic option for the governing majority is to cancel elections, invite a military to take over, and throw in the towel of democratic legitimacy. In effect, polarization becomes infernal because it inclines both government and opposition to adopt extreme positions usually for contradictory reasons, either the majority becomes oppressive and greedy or the minority becomes desperate, despairing of gaining control over the levers of governance by fair play. Of course, in racist Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa it was the abusive minority that held the majority in chains, and yet had the temerity to claim lawful and legitimate governance. At minimum, infernal polarization jeopardizes and impairs the quality of democracy, and its persistence, is likely to impose a death sentence on what be called ‘the realm of decent politics.’
Comparisons – the United States
The mildest instance of infernal polarization is currently evident in the United States, although it may be the most consequential, given America’s global projection of hard power and its world leadership role. Increasingly, the domestic political atmosphere is beset by a polarizing opposition that rejects reasonableness in its preoccupation with inducing the elected leadership to fail and thus disappoint the electorate even if the result is overall decline for the society, especially its poorest 40-60%.
The Tea Party mentality of opposition to the Obama presidency is mainly expressed by way of polarizing rhetoric and irresponsible Congressional behavior, but its worldview is extremist, and regards with a scary sympathy right-wing advocates of anti-democratic and even violent tactics. In the background is the post-9/11 mainstream moves to monitor the behavior of the entire citizenry, regarding each person, whether citizen or not, as a potential terrorist, and possibly a target for assassination. On the one side of the divide is a rejection of compassionate governance and an unconditional libertarian distrust of government, while on the other side is the expectation that citizens will forfeit their freedoms to the Orwellian security claims of a government engaged in a perpetual war against its enemies who could be hiding in the bushes situated anywhere in the world including within its borders, or even deep in the bowels of its most secretive bureaucratic domains.
How else to interpret the vindictive fury, cries of ‘treason!’ even by supposedly liberal politicians and media stalwarts against such public spirited whistle-blowers as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden? To tell the secrets of government is not a matter of breaching security, but it is a massive, acknowledgement of cruelty and criminality. The messenger must be mercilessly destroyed so as to frighten potential future messenger, and the message shredded and forgotten. Whether such a pattern governance and opposition is to remain relatively ‘mild’ is a matter for debate, but so far the framework of constitutional government has been superficially maintained, and neither an appeal nor threat of a military coup seems imminent.
Less containable within the boundaries of constitutional government is the virus of infernal polarization that has been afflicting Turkey for the past eleven years, ever since the AK Party gained a plurality in the 2002 elections. Particularly the traditional Kemalist opposition, long the governing majority, has seen its grip on power slip away in this young century as the AKP has won successively more impressive electoral victories. At base there is a polarization that is sometimes confusingly phrased as an opposition between traditional and modern values, although there is an important dimension of the rivalry and distrust that pits the religiously observant against the secularly permissive, but really the tension is between different visions of modernity expressed as secularism versus religion.
The AKP is all for modern business and science, has turned many keys of power over to the private sector, although its main leaders are privately devout, avoid alcohol and gambling, pray daily, and marry women who cover their heads. Also, there are class and regional tensions, with the AKP being seen as a slightly disguised movement of political Islam, while the secular opposition, and its political parties, represent the social and nationalist elites that were associated with the life and leadership of Kemal Ataturk that above all saw a modern future for the country depending on mimicking European life styles and church/state relations.
These Europeanized elites were never really willing to cede power to their AKP rivals, and counted on a military intervention to end the political nightmare, and validated by judicial activism from the high court dominated by Kemalist holdovers that shared the sense that the AKP posed a dire threat to the Turkish republic as established by Ataturk. When these anti-democratic plans of the opposition failed to materialize, the opposition grew increasingly frustrated and bitter, and began to see itself as a permanently beleaguered opposition with little hope of regaining control. On the other side, as the AKP and its charismatic leader, Recip Teyyip Erdogan, rode the ever higher waves of success, became contemptuous of their opposition, and seemed to pose an autocratic threat given concrete form via Erdogan’s ‘presidential project.’
Simultaneously, many urban youth in Turkey yearned for a permissive social milieu, a redeeming purpose for their lives, and deeply resented the tendency of Erdogan to express his constraining personal life style preferences as if they should become the law of the land. It was this combination of factors that suddenly erupted in reaction to the plans to transform Gezi Park into a shopping center.
What was evident, along with the anti-Erdogan animus, was the clash between the old style of party politics as the negation of the AKP, and this new style that refrained from articulating its vision, but appeared to seek substantive and participatory democracy that was not only inclusive of and responsive to all elements in society, even the most marginal, but also seemed intent on reinventing the modalities of opposition and governance.
There is confusion in Turkey, partly because this new youth politics of revolution is intertwined with the old party politics that wants to enjoy the fruits of power, prestige, and influence. It is encouraging and appropriate for this innovative current of Turkish politics to be holding nightly forums to discover what it is they believe and desire, and how to go about attaining it.
This political and cultural thrust of the Turkish protests needs to be understood against a background of economic stability and fantastic progress as assessed by standard economic indicators. Somehow, despite the inequality of benefits associated with this spurt of growth, and the presence of a large impoverished underclass, the AKP has so far maintained the support of the poor and disenfranchised. The agenda of social and economic rights was not entirely absent from the Turkish demonstrations, but it was certainly not salient.
In contrast, the Brazilian protests, also coming after a decade of progress and left of center political leaders, found their unity in these social justice issues, especially rallying against the perception of corruption at the top and distorted priorities as embodied in expensive sports stadiums for international events while the Brazilian poor languished. Unlike Turkey, the Brazilian political scene is not polarized, and there is no comparable antipathy toward (or enthusiasm for) Dilma Rousseff as exists in relation to Erdogan. For these reasons, at least for now, Brazil with all its problems, and its opposition because more motivated by material demands may be more sustained, is still not to be categorized as infernally polarized.
Egypt is by far the most precarious of these three instances of infernal polarization, especially at the moment. For months it has become evident that an incompetent and beleaguered elected government headed by Mohamed Morsi was opposed by an irreconcilable opposition that would only be satisfied by the resignation of the elected leader, and new presidential elections far earlier than their scheduled 2016 date. As this process slides toward its awful and dreaded moment of truth on June 30th (a year to the day after Morsi was sworn in as president) when both sides have promised a show of populist force in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in the country.
Morsi has become for the opposition the new Mubarak, the latter provided the unifying element in those remarkable days of January 2011. Unlike Mubarak, however, Morsi has legions of Muslim supporters rallying to his side beneath the banner of ‘No to violence, Yes to legitimacy.’ And unlike Mubarak in 2011, even in 2012 when Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak surrogate came within 2 percentage points of an electoral victory in a runoff election against Morsi), the once anti-Mubarak secular/Copt opposition is now allied with the Mubarak remnant, as well as those who once hope for change, but now just want normalcy, especially with respect to the economy.
As brilliantly analyzed by Esam al-Amin (“Egypt’s Fateful Day,” Counterpunch, June 26, 2013), the outcome for Egypt is uncertain, but extremely dangerous as the country is in the midst of staggering unemployment, especially among the young, near 50%, living in poverty, stagnant development, a failing tourist sector, and dwindling currency reserves, while also being engaged in a potentially dangerous conflict with Ethiopia over the damming of the upper Nile whose waters are indispensable to Egypt’s subsistence as a nation.
In other words, the political confrontation on June 30th takes place against a backdrop of economic and foreign policy crisis, and will not be resolved in the street because both sides seem to have formidable backing. The only way to avoid such a dismal and demoralizing unraveling would seem to be either a sudden moderating of opposition demands or a reentry of the military into the governing process, thereby canceling the extraordinary achievement of Tahrir Square, a regression of unimaginably demoralizing proportions.
I recall my visit to Cairo weeks after the overthrow of Mubarak when great excitement about and support for an inclusive democratic process existed in most circles, although some suspicions were also voiced. At that time, the secular forces seemed confident that they could control Egypt’s political future. The sentiment expressed in Cairo was that the Muslim Brotherhood should by all means be encouraged to participate in elections, and was likely to win support at the 30% level.
It was further conjectured that this would be fine, but that if it was at a level of 40% the country would be in trouble. When the initial elections for the parliament disclosed far stronger Muslim support than anticipated, including over 20% for Salafi parties that were far more socially conservative and politically constraining than the MB, it was clear that the future was not what the anti-Mubarak secular liberals expected or wanted, and with the passage of time, especially since Morsi managed to win the presidency in a close vote, this implacable opposition hardened to the point of outright defiance. No matter what kind of peace offerings were made by Morsi, the opposition was not interested.
The composition of this opposition is also a restored blend of Mubarak followers, disenchanted secular liberals and a re-energized revolutionary youth, which is quite a political brew that would seems an expedient coalition that is likely to survive only so long as the Brotherhood runs the country.
If the Egyptian situation is not bad enough, there are a variety of foreign governments that would like to push the political process in one direction or another, including the Gulf giants of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and of course, the United States and Israel. For different reasons, it would seem that all these foreign meddlers would, if the situation further deteriorates, side with the opposition, which certainly had feeble democratic credentials, and is suspected, as with the Kemalist opposition in Turkey, of looking with favor at a takeover of the reins of government by the re-politicized Egyptian military.
A Concluding Observation
Infernal polarization is unlikely to give rise to efficient and humane forms of democratization, unless transformed from within by a creative dialectic that seeks to transcend traditional political encounters.
As the future unfolds it will become clearer as to whether this positive scenario has sufficient traction to both end polarization and offer something new by way of democratic governance. At present, there are few reasons to be hopeful about these prospects for the United States, Turkey, and Egypt. In some respects, Turkey offers the most hope of the three cases as its governing leadership has achieved much that is beneficial for the society, and the polarized opposition seems capable of exerting strong reformist pressures that yet fall short of threatening to capsize the ship of state.