Script for video - Democracy in the 21st Century

Democracy in the 21st Century

Part 6: Democracy in the 21st Century

(a montage of live video scenes)

(scenes of 9/11) (young people in Slovakia park) (Iraq war scenes) (St Patrick’s Day parade in Madison) (protestors at Ward Churchill talk) (performance in Chinese village) (protestors at NY anti-globalization rally)

After 100,000 years of human cultural evolution, 10,000 years of human civilization evolution, and a little over two hundred years of liberal democratic evolution we come to the 21st century. And here we are. Where are we?

Here is a map of the world in 1800. Countries with democratic governments are shown in red. Countries with an authoritarian government are shown in blue. As you can see the only liberal democratic countries were the United States, England, Switzerland, and France (which unfortunately regressed into an authoritarian empire shortly thereafter and did not become a democracy again until the middle of the 19th century)

Here is a map of the world in the year 1900. By this time the roll-call of democratic countries is much larger, though almost all of them are in Europe or North America where the echoes of the renaissance, reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution were the strongest..

And here is a map of the world in the year 2005. By this time democratic countries have taken root on all continents, including many non-western countries in Asia, Africa, and South America that had little or no experience with the western world’s renaissance, reformation and enlightenment. All of them, however, have been affected greatly by the western world’s industrial revolution and free-market capitalist economic systems.

And, perhaps most significant of all, by the end of the 20th century all had been penetrated by the remarkable speed and scope of a communication revolution. Education, in other words, the transmission of cultural ideas in thought and action, had taken giant steps beyond the printed word into a global village of electronic networks.

For the most part, nations around the world today have abandoned the communist and fascist systems that raised such strong challenges to liberal democratic systems in the 20th century.

The only pure communist states left are two small countries, Cuba and North Korea. True, China (the world’s most populous country) and nearby Vietnam are still communist in name and in authoritarian political control, but both China and Vietnam have moved into variations of free-market capitalism when it comes to most cultural and economic issues.

There are indeed still some countries in the world that have what might be called quasi-fascist governments. These include Burma, some of the former Soviet Union nations in Asia, some of the new African states that have had little experience with the industrial revolution and most of the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Some analysts would include Russia and China in this quasi-fascist camp..

An unbiased observer from another planet would have to conclude from this two-century evidence that free-market economics and liberal democratic political systems have been successful on planet earth. So successful as a matter of fact that one could predict they will be the wave of the future. One well-known thinker of the late 20th century, Francis Fukuyuma, has gone so far as to claim these systems are the “end of history.” That is, just as the evolution of primates has led to the present-day Homo Sapiens, so too the evolution of political systems has reached its ”final” stage with the triumph of free-market economics and liberal democracy.

Homo sapiens was more successful than previous primates because of a better brain and a better hand. Free-market liberal democracy has been more successful than other systems because it balances and satisfies better than any of other system yet invented the yearnings of human beings in three related areas of enduring ideas.

(1) Inquiry. Liberal democracy is like its partner, science and technology, open-minded, flexible, able to doubt and to correct mistakes, committed to evidence and the voice of reason.

(2) Meanings. By firmly separating church and state, liberal democracy allows, indeed encourages, individuals and groups to seek deeper meanings of life for themselves in religion, arts and the humanities, and to promote tolerance for those who have divergent views

(3) Pursuit of happiness: Liberal democracy when yoked with some variant of free-market capitalism favors individual security in person and property—progress in the multiplication of worldly wealth¬--free trade in goods and in ideas—and “whatever it takes” to pursue that elusive goal of happiness.

Of course not everyone in liberal democratic states today supports all of these ideas. Enduring ideas and yearnings from past authoritarian epochs are also still present in modern society. Some of these holdovers from the past pose serious new challenges to liberal democratic societies as the 21st century unfolds. Three seem particularly threatening.

First. Probably the most serious new challenge today is coming from radical Islam. International terrorists from this world caught the attention of modern democracies in a dramatic way in the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Second. Less dramatic but potentially just as serious are the long-term challenges of alleviating poverty in the half of the world’s people who have so far been left out of the modern world’s progress in freedom and wealth.

And finally third. There are old and new challenges coming from radical movements of the far-left and the far-right within the modern industrial democratic world.

Although all three are connected, let’s consider these challenges one at a time.

The challenge from radical Islam is goes back to medieval times, actually early medieval times, back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed himself. For five hundred years European and Mediterranean societies were divided into a Christian-dominated world and an Islamic-dominated world.

The Christian world attacked the Muslim World in a series of bloody crusades over 200 years in an attempt to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rule. These Crusades cost the lives of many thousands of Christians, Jews and Muslims and the wholesale destruction of entire cities of the Middle East. And they left a legacy of bitterness that has not dissipated half a millennium later.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the Christian world was shaken, splintered and radically changed during the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the 18th and 19th centuries the western world was shaken, splintered and changed again with the birth of modern industry, capitalism and liberal democracy.

The Muslim world did not experience any of this. It remained, for the most part, medieval Islamic in culture. Two events in the middle of the 20th century brought rapid and traumatic change.

One. After the 2nd World War the modern democratic Jewish state of Israel was founded in the center of middle eastern Arab culture in Palestine.

And two, in the middle of the 20th century enormous quantities of oil reserves were discovered under the sands of the Arabian desert.

The sudden new oil-based wealth flooding into medieval cultures, the contrasts between a successful Israel and a poverty stricken Palestine, and the explosion of modern world-wide electronic communication systems, has led, not surprisingly, to severe problems for their Islamic cultures, and for western cultures as well.

Some educated Muslims have become westernized and want to leap-frog centuries of history to bring their cultures into the modern world of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy without losing all of the cultural riches from their own past. They are probably in the majority, though it is not easy to be sure.

Some other educated Muslims, however, led by men like the late Ayatollah Khomeini, and the present-day terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, want to lead their cultures back into the security of the medieval age when Islam was supreme in law and in power. They rigidly and forcefully reject most of modern western culture.

They don’t want democracy. They want religious rule. And not just any religion. They want only what they consider the one true faith, Islam. (For some that would be the Shiite variety, for others it would be the Sunni variety.). They don’t want women to be liberated. They want all women to be kept subservient, under their veils. They don’t want western secular laws, they want only Muslim religious laws. They don’t want free trade (though they do want money from their oil reserves). They don’t want western style education. Learning the teachings of the Koran is enough. They don’t want western literature, cinema or television (though they do want modern communication gear for their own propaganda and military control). They deeply deplore the very existence of the modern Jewish state, Israel, in what they consider their sacred homeland.

In other words the only parts of modern western culture they do want are its technology, weapons and communication gear. And they are willing to sacrifice and to die for these things. Including by suicide.

These radical Muslims are a relatively small group, but they are spread around the world. They are organized, smart and deadly as they proved in the 9/11 attacks, and in numerous other bloody attacks over the past two decades in many countries in Europe. Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The conflict within the Muslim countries between the reformers who want to move into the modern democratic world and the reactionaries who want to move back to the ancient authoritarian world is on-going and bitter. It presents multiple challenges to Western democracies.

(1) How to bring these countries into the modern democratic world, relieve their poverty, and increase their freedom without losing all of the cultural riches inherited from their own medieval past.

(2) How to keep oil supplies flowing to an energy-hungry world in a healthy free-market system.

And (3) How to prevent the radical but potent fringe from mounting catastrophic attacks on western cities using biological, chemical or nuclear weaponry.

There are sharp differences of opinion in the west over how to manage these challenges.

Some advise a containment policy similar to that in the cold war that for 50 years prevented an all-out nuclear war and eventually helped to bring down world-wide communism. Others advise a more aggressive policy that would aid and prod Islamic countries into changing into democratic states, even if pursuing that policy means having to take preventive military action at times.

Whether by force, patience or persuasion or some creative combination thereof, is it possible to bring Arab and Muslim countries into the modern world of free-markets and liberal democracy?

Recent past history suggests yes. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries of Southeast Asia, for instance, did not have much experience with the Renaissance, Reformation , Enlightenment or Industrial Revolution until the 20th century. Even though many of them used authoritarian governments on the way, today most of these countries have joined the modern world and adapted rapidly and well to variations of free-market liberal democracy. And some of these countries are predominantly Muslim in religion.

Some of these states, like Japan and South Korea, came to democracy only after the military defeat of previous regimes. China, while still holding firmly to a communist-run authoritarian government, has become a leader in free-market economics. Instead of the old Mao slogans condemning landlords and evil capitalists, all over China today street fairs like this one proclaim loudly, “it is good to be rich!”

Which brings us to a second important challenge to democracy and free-trade economics in the 21st century, in a word, poverty.

Poverty, of course, has been with human societies for as long as there have been human societies. For thousands of years populations of human beings were divided into the haves (typically one percent of the population) and the have-nots (the remaining 99 percent.) What is different today is that roughly half the world is no longer poor and authoritarian, but instead is wealthy and democratic.

For the most part today leaders in this liberal democratic world have realized now that wealth not a zero-sum game. Rather than colonizing and exploiting the poor countries of the world as they did in the 18th and 19th century, many of these leaders are working together to bring hope and progress to developing countries in Africa, Asia, South and Central America. Leading the way are organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, as well as many other international and national, public and private, religious and secular groups.

So far, there have been remarkable successes and sad failures. The combination of direct loans and grants from national and international agencies together with the power of free-trade economics has brought rapid progress to countries like India that many experts despaired of only a few decades ago.

Free-trade along with some movement towards democracy—especially the security of private property and contracts-- has brought rapid progress to China that only a few decades ago was sinking into desperate poverty and chaos under the radical communist rule of Mao Tse-tung.

Despite some progress in disease and health, large areas of sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, remain poor and unfree. Epidemics of AIDS and genocidal violence have made progress difficult if not impossible in some countries.

There are, though, tentative signs as the 21st century unfolds that many countries of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are making progress and may be ready to move toward democracy and free-market economies--like India and China -- faster than many in the west would have predicted just a few years ago.

Which brings us to the third challenge to liberal democracy in the 21st century—far-right and far-left radical movements within this liberal democratic world.

The modern western world’s progress over the past two hundred years in wealth and democracy has been led and supported in large measure by its partnerships with science and technology and with free-market economics. These partnerships are being challenged today. The far-right is questioning and rejecting core values of science and technology and the far-left is questioning and rejecting core values of capitalism and free trade.

Neither of these challengers are united monolithic movements like communism or fascism were in the 20th century. Some dissidents in the west today are in the mainstream of reform that goes back to the founding of the nation itself. Early advocates for the abolition of slaves, for women’s suffrage, for labor unions and for abolishing child labor made western countries better places for everyone in the 19th century. And then in the 20th century, we owe a great debt to the courageous civil rights activists who brought justice for African-Americans and other minorities in the 1960s and 1970s; to the environmental activists who have led the way to making our air, earth and water cleaner and safer; and finally to the women who are leading the way today to further liberate the one-half of modern western societies that are female.

That said, let’s consider though the dangerous challenge from some on the far-left. This one strikes at the heart of the modern free-trade system. In its most radical form their protests come close to the views of the Islamic radicals. And indeed some of the radical fringe of this movement have resorted to terrorist violence, destroying SUVs, private homes, corporate buildings, lumber camps and even assassinating business and political leaders.

While most of the far-left western protesters do not advocate or practice terrorist violence, they do agree with the Islamic radicals that ...

(1) Free-market capitalism, and most especially large corporations in the U.S., Europe and Japan, exploit third world labor at the expense of home-country workers and perpetuate the degradation and impoverishment of third world peoples. This corporate globalization, they claim, steals resources from the undeveloped nations, enriches the few, harms the many, and is the major cause of third world anger, poverty, and violence.

These political protesters often join hands with radical environmental activists to further claim that ...

(2) Free-market capitalism does not see that the present world’s industrial complex is un-sustainable. Populations are exploding. We are going to run out of the fossil fuels that power our lifestyle, the minerals that support it, the foodstuffs that feed it. We are also heading toward a global warming that will seriously damage and perhaps destroy the natural ecosystems that make all life possible. Further growth is thus not only undesirable, it is potentially catastrophic. We must cut back drastically on consumption, stop population growth and change to a simpler lifestyle if we expect to survive.

Finally, political and environmental activists also find common cause with scholars who note that ....

(3) Free-market capitalism and democracy together foster gross inequalities of wealth that lead to ethnically inspired violence often approaching genocide in developing countries. Often the people who profit the most—and are therefore resented the most-- are ethnic minorities like the Chinese in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, the Indians in East Africa, the “whites” in South America, the Tutsi in Rwanda, and the Jews in Russia.

There are clear intellectual answers to these challenges which proponents of free-market liberal democracy make, along with specific plans for reform and progress. Here are some of their answers:

Globalization, rightly understood and practiced, is the best friend of poor countries, and of rich-country workers as well. For proof, look at the record. Consider the dramatic improvement in living standards in China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, and much of South America since globalization has gathered steam. And then look at the United States. and Canada. Yes, some jobs have been lost but more have been gained, inflation and unemployment are at historic lows, the cost of most goods and services are decreasing, and most worker incomes, contrary to the protesters, have not been hurt. In fact they have gained.

From the third world perspective, talk to a “low-paid worker” in a Chinese factory, or a “low-paid” engineer in India, or a “low-paid” shirt-maker in Kenya or South Africa and nine times out of ten you will find that they consider themselves much better off than they were before the “exploiting” capitalist built the office or factory in which they now work. The alternative is almost always the grinding labor and poverty of an outdated agricultural age.

In addition the charges of globalization harm rest on a basic fallacy about wealth in modern industrial economies. In agricultural ages wealth was in large part a zero-sum game. Any increase in wealth for one family or nation usually meant a decrease in wealth for some other family or nation. There was, after all, only so much land, animals, natural resources and serfs or slaves to go around.

Since the industrial revolution that is no longer true. Wealth is no longer a zero-sum game. When free trade capitalism can work its wonders, wealth is a win-win game. Both sides in a free trade gain from this net increase in wealth.

Returning to a zero-sum economic system (which is what a full-blown socialist or fascist system would amount to) would spell disaster for humankind. Indeed without continuing the dynamic growth of free-market systems, there would eventually not be enough to go around and the only recourse individuals and nations would have, would be the use of violence to secure a larger piece of this diminishing pie.

None of this means there are not problems in growing economies. We have to improve our methods of re-educating workers, for instance, in some of the industries that have been hurt by foreign competition. We also must find better ways to deal with serious problems of immigration where workers from poor countries in Asia, Africa and South America flood into richer countries of Europe and North America. But once again, these problems will be exacerbated, not solved, by abandoning the engines of growth and progress, free trade and liberal democracy.

Most, though not all, of the complaints about unsustainable growth are also off the mark Population is not exploding. In industrial nations it is declining. In developing ones it is leveling off rapidly and is expected to decline as well as these countries enter the modern industrial world. The most serious problem in the 21st century may not be the explosion of populations, but rather the relative decline in young people and the sharp increase in old people.

Yes, fossil fuels will some day be exhausted. But inquiry into new technologies will be able to replace fossil fuels with renewable fuels and/or nuclear fuels as soon as it becomes economically necessary and profitable. Similarly, soil fertility, forestry reserves and mineral deposits do raise problems, but not the catastrophic ones often claimed.

Farmland around the world is actually decreasing as farm productivity soars due to technical innovations like genetic engineering. There are local problems with old-growth forests in the tropics and in the north, but overall, forests around the world are increasing in size, quality and productivity. Satellite communications have already replaced millions of tons of copper wires, plastics have replaced millions of tons of metals, computers have replaced millions of tons of almost everything. There is no reason to think this kind of technological progress, coupled with strong environmental policies and with the important trend of doing more with less, of increasing efficiency and productivity, will not continue and indeed accelerate in this century.

As to worries about pollution and global warming, yes, there are problems. There always have been. But not unsolvable ones. For starters, the richer the country, the less it pollutes. For corroboration compare any city in the United States or western Europe today with any city in India, China or Africa. For evidence of the effect radical socialist policies might have, compare the pollution in the United States or western Europe today with pollution in Cuba, China or the formerly socialist countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who have still not fully recovered from their disastrous experiments with communism.

In short, as globalization allied to democracy continues to increase wealth around the world, there will be less pollution, not more.

The one exception to this rule may be the problem of increasing carbon dioxide in the air, which many scientists think is leading to global warming. This will be a problem with any system of economics or political control. The free-market democratic way, however, offers the best hope for coping with global warming, because it is the most receptive to innovation and change. Scientists, environmentalists and politicians are already working hard on ways to cut down the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that go into the air. They are also working to find new ways to take carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases out of the air, sequestering them underground or under the oceans.

Some scientists think that the biosphere itself is homeostatic, that is, any increase in one component (carbon dioxide for instance) will automatically signal the system to find ways to decrease that component (sequester carbon dioxide in the ocean perhaps or increase plant production.). If worse comes to worse, and there is significant global warming, it is the free-market wealthy democracies that will be most able to cope with the changed environments that the warming will bring.

Finally, problems with inequalities of wealth are indeed real, (as they always have been in human history) especially in poor nations and most especially when made worse by ethnic hatreds and divisions. It is also true that globalization has not yet been of much help to sub-Saharan Africa, nor to the Muslim or Arab world. Finding ways to bring these societies into the modern world is a challenge for the 21st century.

Increasing the size of the wealth pie will help but until the developing countries reach a level similar to North America, Japan and Europe, there may not be easy solutions. Trading free-market democratic economies for fascist, socialist, communist, or Islamic ones would make matters worse, since it would inevitably lead to a decrease in the wealth-pie, an increase in poverty and to a catastrophic increase in government-sponsored violence as it did in Germany, the Soviet Union and other fascist and communist and Islamic countries of the 20th century.

On the other side of the political spectrum, extremists on the far-right have been challenging the liberal democratic consensus sometimes with terrorist violence in the late 20th and early 21st century. In Waco, Texas, in Oklahoma City, in Atlanta and other cities individuals and groups from the radical fringes of this far-right movement used guns and bombs to kill hundreds of innocent people in a crusade against what they consider moral decay in our American democracy.

It should be noted that many religious groups-- politically right, middle and left—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Secular Humanist--do much-needed and much-appreciated work in hundreds of thousands of humanitarian projects in western countries and in the developing world. In doing so they contribute a great deal to the moral health and well-being of the world. And by neither advocating nor using violence and by using and supporting democratic methods in their own congregations as well as in the wider political arena they also contribute to the liberal democratic progress of the world..

Some far-right religious groups, however, do actively seek to restrict science and technology, especially when it comes to ideas like evolution, animal experimentation, stem cell research, cloning, birth control, AIDS, and many other areas of biological, chemical, psychological and sociological research. More important and most threatening of all to the long-range progress of both science and democracy, these groups often propose relying on the absolutes of divine revelation for political and scientific guidance rather than the doubts, debates and questions of reason and empirical evidence.

In answer to this challenge, liberal free-market advocates say we have been there before. We have done that. And it didn’t work. The whole history of Europe in the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Enlightenment; the history of Islam yesterday and today; the history of all past authoritarian kingdoms in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas -- and yes, the history of the secular religions of communism and fascism, who also thought they had a vision of the absolute truth-- all of this sobering history shows clearly and dramatically how disastrous reliance on supposedly absolutely truths can be.

Liberal democracy is like its partner, science and technology, open-minded, flexible, able to doubt and to correct mistakes, committed to evidence and the voice of reason. Divorce science and technology from liberal democracy and both may perish.

And so we end up where we started. Liberal free-market democracy may or may not be the end of history but it certainly seems to be a good start. And one of the main reasons it is a good start is its unfinished nature. That is, both free-market capitalism and liberal democracy in their very nature, are subject to inquiry and to change.

One of the wisest of our fellow citizens, the late physicist Richard Feynman, summed up this case for liberal democracy by noting a not-often-noted feature when he called for “a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought.

“I feel a responsibility,” Feynman wrote, “to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations.”