Thursday, October 11, 2007

New language for a new age



The end of “democracy”
Oct 11th 2007

LIKE old clothes, the language of the old Cold War is comfortable, but not presentable. The “West” is not western. “Eastern” Europe is no longer eastern; central Europe is no longer central.

The definitions never made much sense, as a glance at a map and a brief journey into history shows. NATO, supposedly an alliance of “western” and “democratic” nations, includes Turkey and Greece, both of which are on the eastern fringe of the European continent, and spent chunks of what was supposedly a conflict between totalitarianism and freedom as dictatorships.

The “east” made a bit more sense, being a military block that stretched from the western shores of Bohemia to the Bering straits. Still, quite a lot of that was well westwards of much of the “West”. Finland and Sweden were “western” but neutral. Yugoslavia was neutral but not “western”.

It was once daring to speak of “Central Europe”, making out that the Iron Curtain was not the only division: that perhaps Hungary, Austria and Slovenia had more common culture, history and mentality than their geopolitical orientations would suggest. But that term now has little more than meteorological significance.

“New Europe” is convenient shorthand for the ex-communist countries, but means little. In what sense is Poland, a state since 966, “new”, while 19th century inventions such as Germany are “old”? Even the phrase “new democracies” is odd: Poland's constitution of 1791, the first in Europe, pioneered democracy on the continent. The eight “new member states” are no longer new, now that Romania and Bulgaria have joined.

It is much easier to nitpick than to invent. But here are some attempts. First, ban the word “democracy”, which has been worn smooth by misuse. If Vladimir Putin of Russia describes himself as a “perfect democrat”, he is welcome to the term, along with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and those nostalgic for the German “Democratic” Republic. Democracy all too often means buying votes, rigging elections and mob rule.

Three better terms are “law-governed”, “free” and “public-spirited”. The first means that the executive power is subject to an abstract code of rules, enforced by fearless outsiders: in other words, even the president can be impeached. That is the basis for private property, solid contracts and enforceable civic rights.

“Free” is a bit broader. It means countries where you can complain, singly, jointly or en masse, about things you don’t like, without fear of retribution from your targets. You can write to or set up a newspaper, join or found a pressure group.

“Public-spiritedness” is the most important: it embodies the idea that personal gain and family ties do not reign supreme, and that harsh patriotic sentiment is not the only abstract identity that deserves loyalty. It is public-spiritedness that creates strong institutions, both public and voluntary. It makes societies self-critical and self-correcting, and life for everyone becomes safer, nicer and more efficient.

A good shorthand term for the free, law-governed and public-spirited countries of the world is badly needed, to replace the misleading and off-putting “West”, with its echoes of colonialism, self-satisfaction and cultural supremacism.

The best candidate so far is “open” societies—the term coined by Karl Popper and promoted so energetically by the philanthropist George Soros. That has the advantage of a natural antonym: closed societies.

Better terminology means clearer thinking, but it does not guarantee victory. Nearly 20 years on, the gains of the heady and happy late 1980s are looking troublingly fragile and temporary. Closed societies are riding high; open ones are rattled and demoralised. Rather than asking when the values of “open Europe” will finally triumph, it might be better to ponder if they will survive.


antyx said...

I'd like to challenge your definition of "free". It's too reminiscent of the old joke about Reagan and Gorbachov, with the former boasting that in America, anyone can publicly say "Reagan is an asshole" and the latter replying that in the Soviet Union, too, anyone can publicly say "Reagan is an asshole".

I can't accept that the idea of freedom is in any way encompassed by the right to complain. I've always thought of a free society as one where an individual is allowed to do anything that does not hurt or violate the interests of another individual. A core principle of freedom that my parents taught me back when I was a kid in the Soviet Union (or what was still left of it), was "your freedom extends to within a millimetre of the tip of my nose".

The problem with defining freedom as the right to complain is that you can easily end up with a regime where you're allowed to complain all you want, but nobody's really listening.

Cyrill said...

I would add that "free" is a function of choice. "Free" spans beyond purely political speech. It covers economic freedom just as much. In a monopolistic environment a consumer of (gas, telephone service, health care, jobs, workforce, food, water, anything tangible or intangible) has less choice then a free market would provide.

From this very perspective every society can be classified on a scale of being more or less free. Privatizations and deregulation that are going on in "old, open, western" Europe illustrate the progress and development.

Every definition eventually defeats its own purpose, since it freezes a label applied to a developing and changing object eventually producing bizarre and ridiculous situations like in the US where words "liberal" and "progressive" seem to carry negative connotations.

Hijacking terminology and labels is nothing new. Along the lines of Putin's managed/sovereign democracy, the Communist Party in the USSR was built on the principle of "Democratic Centralism". The western left calls itself progressive because it draws the notion of progress from Marxist fallacy that socialism would replace capitalism.

Values themselves change in time as well. What made core values in even then "open" Europe seem to be changing. Monopolism, nationalism and protectionism seem to gradually diminish with further developed capitalism.

Maybe it is time to stop cringe and shiver after maligned and abused "capitalism" and proudly proclaim it for what it is: the progress that brings freedom of everything in the long run, be it political, social or economic choice.