The roots of democracy in civil society are - paradoxically - a precondition for revolutions and uprisings. Without that proviso, argues Benjamin Barber, citizenship and civic reform are on shaky ground.
There is little to be gained in questioning history: the yearning for freedom incites rebellion and in time brings down autocrats and propels the quest for democracy, whether the task is doable or not. Once insurgency is under way, arguing about revolution's efficacy as a democratic facilitator is besides the point. But the paths to democracy are historically diverse, and it is not clear that armed rebellion, though it overthrows a tyrant, ushers in democracy. On the contrary, whether in Paris in 1789, Moscow in 1917 or Teheran in 1979, revolutionary insurgencies have often succeeded in toppling tyrants without establishing democracy. Instability, anarchy, civil war and - too often - renewed tyranny in a different guise can also be the outcome.
Here is the paradox: democracy's roots in citizenship and civil society are a precondition for revolutions made in the name of establishing citizenship and civil society. Revolutions aspire to ends that are ideally present before revolutions begin. Many of the radical changes in the Arab and North African Worlds in recent years were precipitated by a revolutionary "decapitation" of an autocratic regime (Libya and Egypt for example).
Here the heartbreaking historical lessons of revolution are being reenacted. Bringing down a dictator has not by itself established freer governance or a more capacious civil society, let alone competent citizens or the rule of law. On the contrary, the outcome of revolutions, however well-intentioned and well-merited has served anarchy more than lawfulness and has made evident how little civic capacity exists in the spaces outside of formal government in these transitional societies. While the lessons cannot be applied in countries where revolutions have succeeded, they remain relevant in nations where the struggle is not yet decided - Syria, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba and even China.
More anarchy than stability
In Libya, killing a long-standing dictator who had been moving his country slowly out of the camp of rogue states into the Western orbit, and entertaining very modest changes in civil society and human rights at homed has had problematic results. Despite paper efforts at constructing a national unity government, the reality there today is decentralized tribal and militia rule and a smoldering civil war between east and west.
Further indications of Libya's sorry state today include the inability of the government in Tripoli to get the Zintan militia that captured and is holding Saif Gadhafi to turn him over either to the central government or the International Criminal Tribunal; the ongoing assault on Sufi Mosques that the police have not prosecuted and the courts have not tried; the free movement of North African al Qaeda forces 'liberated' from prisons after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
Bottom line: in the absence of responsible citizens and a rooted civil society, developing a stable government and respect for the rule of law are nearly impossible. Gadhafi's death took the lid off, but there is more anarchy than stability today. In time, things will calm and the responsible forces in the country will make some progress. But "in time" the forces of internal reform would also have made progress - without the horrendous costs, though without offering Libyans that welcome sense of momentary liberation that came with Gadhafi's downfall.
In Egypt the story is much the same. Mubarak is gone, but the country still is caught in a vise between political Islam and a festering military, and the young secular liberals who took Tahrir Square and brought down the dictatorship find themselves sidelined in the political battles being waged, Women remain marginalized and at risk, human rights are regularly violated, and political and religious schism make national unity problematic. Again, the point here is not that the revolution should not have taken place - it did, full stop. But rather that revolutionary change is not necessarily the best road to a healthy civil society and an engaged citizenry when and if there is a choice.
In places where violent change is afoot today - Syria, for example - it seems evident that no one can predict who will really benefit from the overthrow of the Alawite regime under President Bashar al-Assad. Civil Society? Or a new Shiite dictatorship? or Al Qaeda? Muslim fundamentalists? or secular liberalism? A truly unified Syria or one mired in a low-grade civil war? Will there be more or less pluralism? More or less tolerance? More or less abuse of law?
Rage or reforms
The reality is that the rage of people torn by generations of autocracy and abuse often outruns the gradual reforms. King George III and his government might have avoided the American revolution (as they did a potential Canadian revolution) with more rapid responses to American complaints of abuse. Yet even the American revolution ushered in not pure freedom, but 80 years of a slave republic and a bloody civil war. Only nearly a century after the uprising, did a free civic republic truly come into existence that included a citizenry comprised of "all men" (if not yet women).
In looking at the Eastern European nations that emerged from the fall of the Soviet Union, those that have been most successful (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) seem to be those that already had considerable civic capacity in place either from an earlier era or through civic resistance of the kind represented in Poland by Solidarity and the Catholic Church. This would suggest that civic reform and civic building prior to radical change in government may be the key to the success of such a radical change. Paradoxically, some degree of civic capacity seems necessary in order to achieve the successful overthrow of autocracy and create a regime capable of strengthening and supporting civic capacity. One needs up front and pre hoc the very civic resources violent political change wants to produce post hoc.
What comes first?
Getting rid of an autocrat, displacing a political elite, is meant to foment civic change - but if civic change had actually occurred, the violent overthrow might have been avoided and its high costs circumvented. The media have played an unfortunate role here in cheerleading violent rebellions for whose consequences they need take no responsibility. The 24/7 media love a spectacle and adore the shining faces of bloodied rebels, but are usually long gone when the revolution falters, and counter-revolution or chaos set in. Real democracy is all about slow and later (persistent, unromantic educational, cultural and civic development). The media are all about fast and now (violent insurgency, heroic resistance).
It is hard to know what lessons we might learn from this history, or from the larger historical context of political revolution. History is as history does, and there is no taking back revolutions, whatever their consequences. Moreover, even when they fail to create democracy in the short term, they end horrendous abuses and afford an oppressed people a sense of liberation and dignity - a new start. There may be mistakes, but the new mistakes will be their own mistakes and not those of tyrants.
Yet in an interdependent world, where the consequences of civic anarchy and political instability spread across borders and can be very costly - above all to those most vulnerable (often women and children) - the West and the media ought perhaps to be a little more cautious in fomenting uprisings whose outcomes are so uncertain, and whose costs they will not have to pay.
The most successful and productive revolutions have occurred in nations where some degree of democracy and civil society have already been established and where the rebels are no longer subjects but already citizens. Which is an argument for trying to put the democratic horse in front of the revolutionary cart wherever possible - to try to facilitate genuine civic change before inciting problematic revolution.
Benjamin R. Barber is a Senior Research Scholar at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society of The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, the President and Founder of the Interdependence Movement, and Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus, Rutgers University.
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