Beyond Appearances: Part 2: The "War within Democracy": democracy's strategic weakness is its inability to defend itself



“Some criticise media operatives for engaging in verbal jihad whilst sat on sofas in beautiful houses... But by Allah no, they are at the forefront of the conflict, in the heart of the war, within the furnace of its battles.”    (“Media Operative, You are also a mujahid,” Al‐Himma Library)

 “…Liberals have slipped into a moral panic about identity politics and political correctness.” Mark Lilla

2.1.      It’s a truism that western democracies are in trouble. There is a widespread recognition that not only is the political centre under pressure and fragmenting in the face of identity politics, but there’s also a dramatic shift towards right and left-wing populism such that “illiberal democracy” has become a threat to the integrity of the EU itself - not to mention the bizarre decline of the (dis)United States of America. We are living in a post-ideological age where conspiracy theories, hysteria, exaggerated gripes and imagined disasters are driving division and polarization. Perhaps even more threateningly, they’re also driving fake news, rumours, hysterical witch-hunts and a retreat from any semblance of objectivity and truth.

2.1.1.   The so-called “war on terror” - the fantasy of the “Clash of Civilizations” - and European populism- are driven by fear, prejudice, manipulation, identification of, and paranoia for, “The Other”. We are living through an incipient form of modern McCarthyism – only the name of the war has been changed ….. where the “Us” and “Them” identifiers are being used to radicalise democratic populations against social cohesion and the values of tolerance, pluralism, compromise, hope and confidence.

2.1.2.   Democracies have developed an autoimmune disease where process is being used to attack its core values (more below); consequently, the voter has become the single most significant threat to democratic values.

2.2.      In any conflict, if you cannot defend your strategic centre of gravity, you will lose (see 1.5 above). For today’s democracies - being drawn unwittingly into a psychological war they’re already losing -- “losing” doesn’t mean losing territory or sovereignty, but having our defining nature, our open and free character - especially the core humanitarian values of tolerance, compromise, pluralism, and respect for “The Other” -- taken away. Unfortunately we, the citizens of these open and free societies, are the only people who can permit these values to be taken away … and the reality is that, not only are we not defending our values, we’re rolling over and accepting defeat. Under the rampant engagement of populism, social and mainstream media, these values are not so much being taken away, as being given - even thrown - away. This is one characterisation of an auto-immune disease.

2.2.1.   These core values around social cohesion -- tolerance, pluralism and respect for “The Other” -- are the very values that depend on reason, reflection and the thinking process. They are, for that reason, the “higher values.” However, it’s this very value - the value of thinking openly - that fear is eroding. One way to put this is…. “We are becoming stupid in relation to ourselves”. This is another way to characterise the auto-immune disease.

2.3.      In a psychological war, if you can't think, you lose. The key to surviving and prevailing is to be able to assess what is really happening, to separate appearance from reality and identify when mass hysteria, irrational fear and misinformation are driving the issues in ways that distort and distract us from the real task at hand. We need a clear head to help us both defend and attack.But, even more importantly - at this time -- we need a clear head to prevent us from attacking ourselves.

2.3.1.   Democratic leaders struggle to show leadership in the face of movements in mass psychology. They tend to “follow the needle” of the fear-indicator and reflect it in their thinking for fear of being unelectable.

2.4.      “Liberté, Egalité, Fratérnité.” The three key elements of every democracy. 

The main values and concepts underpinning democracy can, more or less, be simplified to the slogans of the French revolution - “Liberté, Egalité, Fratérnité.” These three equally essential values are inter-related but not always mutually reinforcing. But, take any one out of the equation and the full meaning - and experience- of democracy quickly evaporates.

2.5.      Of these three key elements the first two - Libérté and Egalité -- are legal concepts - defined by law, protected by law, tested in the courts and often enshrined in the constitution. In other words, freedom (of speech and expression and acts within the law) and equality of rights for everyone under the law are protected and can only be changed or amended by governments (law-makers) or through citizen referenda. The same is not true of the values that comprise fraternitéFratérnité is a “soft” valueand exists only by being practiced and refreshed by individuals in their everyday citizen participation through a series of practical gestures and attitudes.

2.6.      If we take a closer look, we see that freedom and equality have an uneasy relationship - sometimes repelling each other as they struggle to be heard. It’s a truism that societies that prioritise (socio-economic) “equality” are less free for the individual, and societies that prioritise individual freedom experience greater (social and economic) inequality. What is really in play here are two opposing ways of looking at what “freedom” actually means and entails. These two ways are (1) “Libérté” as the “freedom to”(do or say what one wants) and (2) “Egalité” as also meaning “freedom from” - eg - the right to be free fromoppression, injustice, racist or sexual abuse, discrimination and so on. Freedom “from”clearly imposes limits on the freedom “to.” 

2.6.1.   In many ways the defining purpose of the on-going project that is democracy is to find a socio-political balance - to resolve the tensions -- between these two key values. 

2.6.2.   In most Western democracies - especially the US -- freedom is regarded as the “Big Brother” of democratic values and shows its primacy by emphasising self-reliance, the anti-social gun-rights, free-speech “freedom-fascists” and where any attempt to defend equal rights and social justice is demonized as “socialist.” 

2.7.      The main values of fratérnité - social cohesion - tolerance, respect, compromise, pluralism etc. - are not legally defined and so cannot be protected by law. Fratérnité is the basis of social cohesion yet no judge or court can incriminate someone just for refusing to show respect or compromising on social issues. It is not illegal to be a racist or Islamophobe or to sponsor socio-political polarisation. The values that underpin social cohesion are in the hands of the citizensand only there -and depend on the citizens, as individuals --- for their everyday protection and application. 

2.8.      If we take fraternité out of the democratic value equation - as they’re doing in Poland, Israel and Hungary (or at least re-defining it culturally, ethnically and religiously to be deliberately exclusive) -- we can see what an illiberal democracy looks like. Freedom without fratérnité quickly becomes every man for himself- and no better than the freedom of those fleeing the sinking ship (“Sink or swim - it’s up to you !”). Fratérnité is the glue that holds democracies and democratic values together- it is the essence of the democratic mindset without which the citizens’ right to vote guarantees nothing. And that’s the soft target IS is attacking, namely our undefended, strategic centre of gravity. It’s also the target the populists and far-right are attacking. “Every man for himself” is incompatible with the concept of fratérnité.

2.9.      What we are witnessing is how the processes of democracy are being used to attack the values of democracy. We are looking at the radicalised, intolerant voter using the banner of patriotism and concern for his culture as an excuse for demonising liberalism. Populists need the democratic processes to work for them in order to gain power through the electoral system. They will try to achieve this by ensuring the voter becomes more fearful and less tolerant and respectful of “The Other” - how “us” and “them” is being manipulated to drive polarisation. Increasingly, populists are defining the “us” in terms of nativism, nationalism and indigenous culture. The democratic - electoral - process is being manipulated - and the voter is being wooed -- to do one thing above all others - namely, to destroy the thought-dependent, inclusive, values that define open societies. This, in a nutshell, is what it means for democracy to have an auto-immune disease. And this is also what it means to be engaged in a psychological war we don’t see or understand clearly.


Populism is a manifestation of democracy's auto-immune disease - and a gift to the long game being played by IS and others....