I was troubled to see that Democracy Lab published Sarah Kendzior's piece so dismissive of civil society -- to the point that the headline said "Stop Talking about Civil Society". I don't know what drives the urge to publish these "provocative" but ultimately debilitating Real-Politik pieces. It might have been conceivable in a "Room to Debate" sort of format with multiple takes on the issue and introductions -- but it wasn't. It just appeared -- because the editors liked it.
Then possibly because there was some static (I criticized it thoroughly but surely there were others), another essay, by Kerry Cosby appeared which is still problematic in other ways (which I will get to some other day). Then Christian Caryl, the editor, himself had to appear and tell us, complete with a Lawrence of Arabia clip from the scene "Nothing is Written", that we all should become pragmatists, i.e. not utopianists or fatalists. (To which I make a different point, that there isn't the inevitability of fate as in "it is written," but we can make institutions like the Supreme Court -- where of course it's written, but revisable -- that in fact make democracy enduring).
Look, what's driving this here, people? Budget time in Washington and the fears of the fiscal cliff? Democracy promoters have to justify their huge expenditures now and need a new, leaner theory? The drones-smiths have become impermeable to reason about winning hearts and minds unless they get some "realism"?
It has baffled me how Christian Caryl can natter with the Registanis on Twitter. This has been a mystery to me, given that here was a fellow who covered all the democracy struggles in the world with verve and flair -- it gets very hard to keep writing about democracy struggles with interest and enthusiasm as I can tell you, having done it for 35 years. And then there are the Registanis, who turn in thumb-suckers minimizing the massacre in Zhanaozen and academic pieces counseling everyone to stop critical human rights work if they want the Internet to grow. But fortunately, we don't have to write it; others do; and it is revisable and they are revising it.
I asked Caryl on Twitter what he calls his school of thought then. Neoliberals? (i.e. the opposite of neocons, but with the "neo" -- and hey, somebody has to fit the description of all those rabid Marxists always kvetching about "neoliberal policies," i.e. capitalism, foreign investment, structural adjustment). Pragmatists? Realpolitickers? As we know from Joshua Foust's endless invectives, those other people are always the reactionaries, the neocons, the loons, the liars, the sell-outs. But then, what does he call himself and his friends? The smart people? Surrounded by idiots? Oh, the Registanis?
I thought about trying to write a piece of my own on democracy promotion theory for our time, which I will get to in due course, but I thought it was urgent to write a letter of distress to Christian Caryl about these notions:
You were struck by "the self-sacrifice and idealism of figures such as these" and you recognized that these "give the story its lift". Yet you seem to want to abandon this quickly in a rush to realism so that we don't seem too silly spreading viral Kony videos. I would submit, however, that we can face reality, without giving up idealism as you seem to be implying by publishing Sarah Kendzior's piece, which is a tacit endorsement of the scrapping of the Western notion of civil society in democracy work abroad. Sure, when you publish that piece first, not in a "Room to Debate" or round-table kind of framework, it *is* an implicit endorsement or some kind of concession that "this idealism has to go". While publishing Kerry Cosby next somewhat mitigates that misfortune, that article tends to see "civil society" as a series of discrete USAID programs or NGOs formatted in the western grant-recipient style, and seems to relegate all people's movements to "nationalism," never beloved by the Western liberal intelligentsia.
That simply misrepresents what is civic and what is society in these countries, such as it is, and discounts first movements of secular internationalists even in these “nationalist” settings, and also the power of movements that may not be very liberal or organized in Western terms, but still challenge the regimes, in Uzbekistan, i.e. taxi drivers who go on strike or religious believers who form prayer groups in their home despite the brutal consequences. A key reason why so many analysts missed the signs of the Arab Spring *and* the big demonstrations of Russia is that they kept looking to formulas of regime change devised at seminars of grant givers and grant recipients, and didn't take the broader view of various social movements.
I don't understand why people complain so much about how democracy is not going well, quite frankly. Yes, I realize Thomas Carothers has been saying that the winds of democracy are not at our backs for the last 15 years, repeatedly. But in my lifetime, I worked on issues and cases in the Soviet Union for more than ten years before I saw any change or progress in the 1980s -- and there were other people before me who worked then 20 or 40 years -- and of course there have been many reversals in Russia and the other post-Soviet states. You complain about Venezuela, but have you checked into Chile? It's changed, and changed more durably. What about Poland or South Korea? Is it that people are no longer able to go the distance and want a quicker fix because social media makes it an interactive 24/7 story for them? Every one of these case histories you give from the film are in reversal -- but think of what they were years before that and it puts it into perspective.
I think this notion that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government is "democratically elected" is part of the problem here. I think we as Americans and our administrations and democracy programs obsess too much with elections, and particularly election day as some kind of alchemy. There is less attention to the institutions and methods that ensure that day-to-day life has democratic *processes* and the rule of law. As you well know there were many stages along the way to this "democratic administration" in Egypt that proved not to be so fair of free.
This is like the old chestnut that Hitler won in democratic elections, i.e. gosh, democracy isn't "all that:". But what kind of political life? What kind of institutional life? What is the nature of that movement coming to power? All this matters tremendously, not just mere "democracy"; democratic procedures matter. That's why when Adbusters says airily that they don't care if their behaviour is bad on the way to the revolution, they'll fix it later, I don't buy it; it matters now whether you can be peaceful and civil and create viable democratic processes -- "the people's mike" and the sectarian-ridden "General Assembly" were not that. If people "vote against democracy," then...the liberal democratic institutions in society are weak and insufficient and ultimately *it is not democracy that produced that undemocratic effect*. There doesn't seem to be any inevitability to liberal democracy as much of the world doesn't have it and doesn't engender massive movements for change.
And you're quite right that the Internet isn't decentralizing these tyrannies because they can just shut them off, and some of the "lovely" examples of what are supposedly to be "decentralized" non-hierarchical movements like Anonymous in fact are highly-rigid and disciplined shock troops in what is in fact a very illiberal and totalitarian-style movement. But it's not over til it's over, and the struggle goes on in some places. I was the first to say that the demonstrations in Russia would not work and were doomed, and that was simply because I could see the opposition didn't have durable and long-term organizations even as good as the nyeformaly era of the 1980s, which led them into the reform of the parliament and other institutions. There were too many grant-suckers and no enough doers. Everyone thought it was great that they had Facebook and could turn out 20,000 people on Bolotnaya with a single post, but then...that was all they had. They didn't have a way to keep connected and keep fighting and focused and most of all, to keep people's livelihoods and support maintained as they became threatened.
In fact, we *are* on the right side of history by supporting liberal institutions and values and we need not be guilty about saying so (this is different than saying "democracy" is the station we permanently disembark at). Why could possibly be wrong with them, Christian? Surely you yourself have witnessed that people in even very profoundly unfree situations still instinctively grope for better processes, and fight unfairness. I recall my colleagues returning from a trip to report on Zimbabwe, where they interviewed some women taking a cart 30 miles to get treatment for cholera for their children, and they were asked what they needed most. Clean water? Medicines? Clinics closer to home? And they answered "better governance" -- despite never having had an NED grant or attended a USAID sponsored workshop -- because the problem with cholera was engineered by a corrupt and despotic government. You know how this works, and yet you shy away from choosing that forever for fear of looking like it's an uncool end of history like Marx or Fukuyama.
But curiously, the pragmatists believe this process has to be SO open-sourced and infinite that it can undermine itself automatically -- and should do so in order to stay loose and democratic. To me, that is the fatal flaw of all the pragmatists and realists and International Relations graduates AND the fatal flaw of all extreme leftists and libertarians -- and why we increasingly find the pragmatists, socialists, and libertarians of a certain sort all converging around this philosophy even if they spar with one another. The left doesn't want any Internet regulation to protect its endless free and open realm that it claims will never be destroyed by terrorists or pirates or child pornographers undermining civil society. The libertarians want to keep the state out for their ideological reasons and also increasingly are shy about "prescribing" methods of democracy to others, hoping only to hang on to their own. These people say they are realists, but they don't chose the Shah of Iran over the ayatollahs, or Yeltsin over Putin, or come up with a good idea for Syria -- because they aren't really realists. They're happy to embrace WikiLeaks and Anonymous uncritically in the name of "Internet freedom" and fear of "chill on speech" without having a plan to address their fundamental criminality and antagonism to real civil society.
In short, they're ideologues who have come to use realism and cynicism as a club to beat ideological opponents or competitors in state and private grant programs.
Why forego the solidity of liberal establishments that maintain civilization merely because OMG they might "end history" in some facile way that we're all supposed to be horrified at? What?! Why is it that the illiberal regimes get to end history and we have to be pragmatic about them, and can’t resist their deadliness without accusations that we are ending history merely because we chose a better way for people to be governed? A demonstrably better way that is a magnet to millions of immigrants and even the privileged youth of the Communist Party of China in our universities. The immigrants of the world aren't flocking to China; China's golden youth aren't studying in Russia.
So…You're willing to concede that sure, the Muslim Brotherhood can and should be elected "democratically,” and that’s an end state that we must accept as legitimate for "democracy" -- or at least as a very long-term and painful state. But we can’t wish liberal democratic movements well because they might end history? Why? Can't we chose without having our brains fall out here?
Some systems are better and deliver better results for their people; others are worse. It's not about believing you're "favoured by the gods," Christian, just because you find you support the women of Tunisia or Egypt questioning why they must be forced to wear the veil, or because you support the civilians of Syria. Note the terms in which I phrase this, which is about human solidarity, not "imposition of beliefs" which gets the IR kids so riled because they were trained to be politically correct and always want to apologize for America. It's not that we're saying, "Oh, our way is better, this is what you should do" -- although that would be consistent with your notion of free agents, eh? It's that we're saying "we see you have people who themselves have chosen these values we have and we support them" -- and standing up to thugs, at least from the safe distance of other shores or the Internet. We can do that much -- not confer legitimacy on tyrants.
When you fret about the people in Washington who believe Putin's regime is weakened -- with the implication that this is dangerous for policy -- it's as if you're forgetting that it isn't the State Department or the think tanks that has to believe this or decide this -- the people demonstrating in Russia do. And even if you pragmatists decide that it is folly for them, or victimhood, or imprudent, they will continue, and if they are blocked on the streets or even the Internet, they will find other ways. Don't undermine that for them and say you know what‘s best and what‘s best is pragmatism -- and Obama should go to visit Putin next year without complaint. It's not *necessary* even if some pragmatic goal like trade or arms control must be pursued -- they don‘t require the gift of a presidential presence. It's also a sweeping overstatement from afar to bash the Russian opposition movement as “having no clear leaders, no clear organization, and no guiding issues that can appeal to people outside of the educated, urban middle class.”
The Russian opposition is as divided as Europe, Christian; it's as divided as the American political classes. It's divided about the very same issues of whether you have capitalism or social democracy or socialism or communism; it's divided about whether you have more federal control or decentralization; it's divided about whether you have a strong security state with total control over natural resources or a more flexible state with less reliance on the hydrocarbons economy, etc. etc. Where's the good leader in America to solve the fiscal cliff, in or out of Congress? Occupy didn’t have clear leaders or clear organization, either, to which I an only say: good!
I speak as someone unlike most everybody else who is on the record as firmly declaring the futility and the failure of these demonstrations a year ago in Moscow (and by the way, in Zucotti, too) and who didn't endorse Navalny and co (and didn‘t swoon for OWS, either).
But as for Russia, to claim that there aren't issues outside the "educated, urban middle class" is to miss the many other kinds of protest that constantly go on in Russia, whether the "blue buckets" on cars to protest the unfair privileges of the elite who speed by and cause traffic accident, or the huge outpouring of protest over the orphans law which isn't merely about Moscow intellectuals. There are anti-corruption and justice efforts in small places all over, whether by local lawyers or soldiers' mothers. Again, as for "no clear leaders," unfortunately the opposition, just like any democratic entity, has the leaders it deserves, and it has to build better organizations and movements that serve even their own members better before they will generate better and attractive leaders. Russia's political culture won't change probably in our lifetime. But some little things happen that are important -- the news isn't that more than 400 Duma members voted for the "anti-Magnitsky" law; the news is that 15 voted against it, from a party that is opposition, but which attempted to cooperate with the authoritarian Putin and Medvedev enough to get seats in parliament and try to work on specific issues.
You teach us the lesson that authoritarians have discovered the Internet too -- just like Evgeny Morozov. But one always suspects that he has a sneaking admiration for them because they're smarter and stay in power, and his solutions always tend to run towards either conceding their power or forming some sort of global Glavlit in which the smarter people around the world will get to run things just like the authoritarians do only with more "science" and "direct democracy". Like so many at Foreign Policy, you seem to have half-accepted the snark with which we have to face movements of liberation because they fail. Why? Where are these giddy, overly-idealistic sorts supporting movements doomed to fail, other than in your movie? In the dreaded and hated "neo-con" camp whose ideals of regime change failed in a few obvious places like Iraq? But they don't have anything near the influence they once had, so the question is to whom you are sending your cautionary reprimands. There are many things we could be doing better or differently but they would still involve a basic consensus that it's okay to fight tyranny -- regrettably the concerted posse who are in power now in Washington and shy away from human rights confrontation and disdain democracy don't believe that. They will pick up the word STAY REALISTIC in your essay's final paragraph and disregard the call to remain optimistic. Optimism means having some spirit of resistance that doesn't accept that the end of history has to be totalitarianism, either.