NEW YORK – Across the world, from Hong Kong to Ecuador, Sudan to Iraq, angry protesters are filling urban streets and squares, clashing with police, smashing shops and burning tires. They do not have a clear leadership. Yet, even in hopelessly sectarian Lebanon, demonstrators seem defiantly united against their rulers. And they have claimed three major scalps already: the leaders of Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon.
Their immediate motivations differ. Public rage was stirred in Lebanon by a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls and, in Chile, by an increase in subway fares. More broadly, persistent inequality has grown more intolerable in all these countries, especially among the unemployed and underemployed young, against the backdrop of a global economic slowdown.
If it’s hard to pinpoint a unifying cause behind the simultaneous protests, it is possible to dispel one myth. The unrest hasn’t erupted, as The New York Times recently suggested, because “the expansion of democracy has stalled globally.”
Such assessments owe too much to a conservative notion of democracy. Upheld by Cold War institutions such as Freedom House, this idea confuses democracy with elections and other procedural matters. It fails to grasp that democracy is, above all, a social sentiment, a potentially revolutionary demand for equality and dignity — what by the 20th century in the West had ended millenniums of rule by kings and the feudal landowning class.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the sharpest analyst of democracy, prophesied that it was the inescapable fate of all societies, no matter how deeply hierarchical. He was clear that having “destroyed monarchy and aristocracy,” democracy would not “stop short before the bourgeoisie and the rich.”
Indeed, the European bourgeoisie and the rich of the 19th century spent much energy trying to contain democracy, and to keep ordinary people, especially the industrial working classes and women, in their place. Walter Bagehot, celebrated editor of the Economist, wrote obsessively on “what securities against democracy we can create.” A broader suffrage beyond the propertied classes was mooted, and some social security offered to the struggling poor.
But one political shock after another revealed that, as Tocqueville wrote, people in the democratic age “have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion” for equality, and that “they will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.” This intolerance is again evident in the furious anti-elite revolts in the West today.
It is even more strikingly manifest in the postcolonial world, which since the Arab Spring has hosted the world’s biggest mass upsurges.
Those above the age of 40 can recall a time in Asia and Africa when extreme deference, if not fear, marked the relationship between rulers and the ruled, rich and poor, and upper and lower classes and castes. Assured of immunity, the wealthy and powerful got away with murder — sometimes literally. A small, incestuous elite stole from the state’s coffers and splurged in London, New York and Paris, boosting the profits of real estate agents, Harrods and Bloomingdale’s, not to mention party planners and glamorous escort services.
A reminder of those good times for the Suhartos, Bhuttos and Mubaraks of the Third World is provided today by Lebanon’s recently departed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who allegedly showered a $16 million gift on a bikini model he met at a luxury resort in the Seychelles.
Even in India, supposedly the world’s largest democracy, a single family dominated politics for decades, including a loyal few in its network of patronage but excluding countless others. Visitors marveled at the infinite forbearance of the degraded and suffering millions, wondering why they did not mutiny against their cruel masters.
Social hierarchies finally began to crack faster from the 1990s, with broader politicization and the growth of literacy, satellite television channels and digital media. Massive street protests against a corrupt ruling elite in India in 2011 were the first sign that Indian society and politics were about to be radically transformed.
Indeed, the protests set the stage for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose to power denouncing venal and inept dynasts and claiming to represent their victims. Likewise, massive social unrest over bus fare hikes in Brazil paved the way for Jair Bolsonaro.
There is no guarantee that the current upsurge against ruling elites won’t empower demagogues. In late 19th century Europe, far-right and anti-Semitic movements also hijacked the demand for democracy, marginalizing left-leaning and liberal parties.
The practical challenge, now as much as then, is how to make mass democracy compatible with individual liberty — how to find political and economic institutions capable of deploying the tremendous energy of social mobilization for the larger good.
In the meantime, we should resist concluding that democracy is in decline. For, if democracy means rule of the people, and a demand for social equality, then we are witnessing its flowering in the most populous parts of the world.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”