Messianic solutions

By Saad Hafiz:

Societies that twist between
negativity and cynicism are fertile ground for would-be saviours — political and military strongmen — with messianic proposals and authoritarian models. These would-be messiahs advocate quick fix solutions and extempore decision-making, which are often easier to sell during times of economic hardship and physical insecurity. Spin-doctors are on hand to convince people that centralised power offers magical political, social and economic solutions. The wonders of centralised power are contrasted with a wasteful, tedious and corrupt democratic system.

The tried and failed European fascist models of the 20th century offered comparable hope with an affirmation of ‘traditional values’ of a conventional social ideology, such as ‘machismo’, family values, religious faith, patriotism, social structure, honour, and traditional hard work. Asvero Gravelli, a prominent author on fascism at the time, described fascism in the following way: “Fascism transcends democracy and liberalism; its regenerative action is based on granite foundations: the idea of hierarchy, of the participation of the whole population in the life of the State, social justice in the equitable distribution of rights and duties, the infusion of public life with moral principles, the affirmation of religious values, the prestige of the family, the ethical interpretation of the ideas of order, authority and liberty. In the light of this transcendence, Europe will be able to find its way to enter a new phase of History.” Modern-day messiahs deliver a similar call-to-arms during their periodic long marches and dharnas (sit-ins).

The appeal of messiahs is understandable in societies that have fallen into a state of serious cynicism and collective despair under the crushing weight of national problems. Cynicism and despair have also a lot to do with the news and the images people assimilate daily — full of blood, violence and cruelty. The people start to disbelieve and lose confidence in almost everything, but particularly the governmental institutions and those running them whom they hold directly responsible for their plight. The people’s representatives may be elected in basically free and fair elections, but they lack the ability to manage democracy or react to the swelling and increasingly multifarious and often impossible demands from the masses.

When distrust is so widespread and people’s lives are overwhelmed by insecurity, violence, unemployment and the high cost of living, they usually look to ‘divine answers’ and ‘god-fearing’ persons rather than rely on their own ability or that of society’s institutions to make the needed changes. People expect others, coming from above, to resolve the problems, while they simply immerse themselves in personal survival. Still others find solutions in religious fundamentalism and obscurantism. Another allure of modern authoritarian systems is that they are more subtle than similar models in the past. They adopt a form of democratic governance while emptying it of actual content, thus falling somewhere between democracy and authoritarianism. They provide benefits to make up for the loss of freedoms and rights, and are careful not to provoke citizens excessively. It is no surprise, therefore, that ‘credible’ forces that pay lip service to democracy emerge from this breeding ground. Such forces in countries are often naturally allied to the military within the framework of ‘authoritarian democracy’, invested in by other powerful fundamentalist sectors in society, who collectively despise the messy contentiousness of parliamentary democracies.

Another significant challenge faced by emerging democracies is how societies that have known only dictatorship, repression, injustice and inequality can democratically transform the myriad anti-democratic habits, beliefs and customs, as well as anti-democratic internal power structures. Many citizens tend to underemphasise the deep-rooted, evolutionary process of social, economic, and cultural change that goes into democratisation and see the process simply as a matter of an essentially non-democratic society simply adopting the right institutional framework. They tend to focus on voting as the definitive form of political participation and pay less attention to the question of a grassroots self-transformation of a society as the basis for democratic development. What is also ignored is the crucial question of how much actual authority any particular elected government has, and whether, for example, an elected government’s authority is largely curtailed by traditional power groups in the country, such as the ruling oligarchy.

Faced with these circumstances, the task for a nascent democracy is much deeper and more grave. It is to build citizenship and institutions in a society sunk in depression, generate confidence in people’s own abilities to develop proposals, and build a citizenry that can shake off its fantasies and put the country’s failures and problems as well as its various leaders, with both their successes and their limitations, in the right perspective. The ultimate aims are clear: the rule of law, more authority to elected politicians, mechanism for accountability of politicians through ‘free and fair’ elections, overcoming poverty and ignorance, propagating secular values, strengthening democratic institutions and engaging constructively with the international community. Whether Pakistani society has the wherewithal to achieve these aims is an open question, but it would be wrong to belittle the power of a democratic polity to effect change without needing to rely on messianic solutions.

Comments are closed.