Is the end of democracy nigh? This question is not new. Indeed, after Francis Fukuyama controversially wrote that humankind had reached the end of history, the debate has shifted more significantly towards the clash of civilisations and the threatening demise of democracy. Fukuyama thought that with the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union the benefits of democratic models of government would diffuse – almost on their own fuel – to every corner of the globe.
When Fukuyama in 1989 talked of the end of history, he does not suggest that life itself comes to a grinding halt and that humanity is frozen in permanent present moment. Yet there is a sense in which he borders closely to this. He is basically telling us that there will be no more new development models. The Smithsonian free market political economy has emerged victorious over competing paradigms. Henceforth, historical transformation of society in the model envisaged and discussed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the Communist Manifesto fame will cease. The only transformation left will be the transformation of dictatorial societies into democracies.
A whole generation after Fukuyama’s prognosis of a world suffused in Western Liberal Democracy, democracy itself seems under threat. The Western World that is supposed to be the cradle gravitates dangerously towards extremist far right xenophobic populations and governments. If by “the triumph of democracy” Fukuyama had in mind the triumph of Capitalism over other modes of ownership of wealth and the means that produce it, then he was probably right. Even countries that profess to be communist – such as China under the Communist Party – have embraced ruthless capitalist models. In the specific example of China, she now excels in what Marx and Engels described as “the highest level of Capitalism,” which is Imperialism.
Later day Imperialism departs from the more traditional forms of establishing empires, powerful nations having recognised the futility of overloading themselves with colonies when they could very exploit other people’s wealth without setting camp as colonising nations. Going out ruthlessly to rake in anything and everything seems to be the mantra. Within this ruthlessness, the seeds of autocracy – and the death of democracy – seem to have been broadcast, even in what were once emerging democracies with serious derogation of human rights and values that you would expect in a democracy. It is the big irony of history that nobody in power seems to care anymore about democracy.
Look at it this way, in the age of European Mercantilism and the Old Colonial System (1660 – 1774), powerful nations went out to bring comparatively disadvantaged parts of the world under them first as “exclusive spheres of influence” and later as colonies. Much of this, of course, happened under trading companies rather than governments as such. This would however pave way for governments taking over, basically to protect commercial interests. You may, therefore see France colonising Indochina (1859 – 83) and decades later Japan laying claim to the same territory (1940). France may afterwards seek to regain control (1945), a factor that may draw France and Japan to be enjoined in World War II. When it was dark in one corner, it was shining in another. The one defining factor was derogation of the local populations’ rights. The story of the Spaniards in the Inca and Aztec kingdoms of South America and that of Portuguese atrocities in the Congo tell of wanton erosion of rights. The stories of European colonialism in Asia, Africa and Australia and New Zealand read like the same script, with alteration of place names and the actors – even if colonisation of Africa falls outside the Old Colonial System. Instructively, the colonial period in Africa witnessed China and the Soviet Union stand aloof, or protest against colonialism and the attendant violation of peoples. The USSR has particularly been closely identified with liberation movements in Africa. China, too, spoke of human rights abroad – while at home this did not seem to matter. In a sense, China was closed up for the longest time after World War II, doing her things quietly with such countries as Tanzania in our region. The end of the Cold War – in which she was not such an active player unleashed China upon the world, and especially upon Africa. In an age when Africans were learning the alphabet of “transparency” and “accountability” in the late 1980s early 1990s, China under Deng Xiaoping and later Jiang Zemin was uncoiling. She was getting set to export her own new brand of “mercantilism to the world,” and with it the seeds of the end of democracy. Ironically, those who had been adversaries of human rights and democracy in the Third World were now preaching democracy. The Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) and a cocktail of rich lending nations called the Paris Club proselytized about human rights and democracy. That was until China started giving them a run for their commercial monies in the Third World. They soon realized that they would have to drop the democratic script and focus solely on their commercial interests in the world. Nobody puts it better than US President, Donald Trump, “America first.” And this seems to be the mantra everywhere. Today nobody really seems to care about democracy anywhere in the world. In the underdeveloped countries, dictatorships are thriving under the mantra of “Development first, democracy later.” There is a conflation of elections and democracy, to the extent that it is now understood generally that democracy is about elections, rather than about how governments govern and the opportunities they avail to citizens. The world is entering a new phase of intolerance and dictatorship, provided you can wrap it all under the guise of development. Kenya is not an exception.
- The writer is a strategic communications adviser. [email protected]