Reflections on democracy
In his book The Magic Mountain (1927), German novelist Thomas Mann wrote about the “crisis of rationality and modernity”. The paradox that everything we do, while progressive, brings an inherent contradiction of modern culture. Inevitably, we have an ideological struggle between life and death, health and illness, progress and tradition. The character Leon Naphta, a fascist Jesuit communist and an arch-enemy of the liberal philanthropist character Settembrini represents this struggle which has been around throughout the centuries. Julius Caesar led a revolution that overthrew an old order, and became a dictator of the Roman Empire. Brutus then stabbed fascist authoritarian Caesar in defence of freedom.
Karl Marx  argued that feudalism created the conditions for the emergence of the bourgeoisie and produced the capitalist economic system. In making progress away from feudalism, we simply created another hierarchical society. Mann’s characters capture this enigmatic ambiguity of romantic anti-capitalism. One of the trade-offs of progress is dealing with a lack of “tradition” and a loss of the “way things are” or a lack of a clear political model. It is a paradox. In searching for the ideal society, we find ourselves in a less-than-ideal society.
Picture the same ideological struggle today. On the extreme left end, we have today’s “Woke” social media matrix, the arch enemy of centre-left Liberalism; representing freedom, the rule of law, free trade, and the market economy. The far-right and the far-left have risen again in many democracies throughout the world. In the last 50 years, we have wiped out 70% of animal populations in our quest for efficient survival. Recently, activists threw mashed potatoes on famous paintings to draw attention to the situation.
In 2022, Liberalism comes under suspicion since the limits of tolerance have become greater. In the US, freedom of speech and expression is of utmost importance. Freedom of expression does not constitute any judicial problem. You can burn the flag of the US in the middle of a square and nothing happens. But can we blame progress for the problems we have yet to solve?
2022 is indeed a paradoxical time to be alive. Much is seriously wrong with the world while we’ve also made significant strides in the right direction. In 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Now, the last Gallup poll figure in July 2021 was 94%. The TV show Friends would be laughed at if proposed to any network today, no TV show now has an all-white all-straight cast.
Wokeness as a concept stems from the same social justice movement as Liberalism and wants to offer the same things; freedom, equity, and opportunity, but what are the methods it uses to achieve this?
What began as a term to signify staying alert against racist cops in America, “Woke” has become a catch-all for a range of activities from authentic social justice to virtue signalling (which does not achieve justice). Whereas Classic Liberalism works modestly but in conjunction with progressive movements at achieving justice according to the changing times. “In a democratic society,” Balkin and Siegel write in an introductory essay to The Constitution in 2020, “courts best perform their institutional role as partners in a larger dialogue: they respond to popular visions of the Constitution’s values and help to translate these values into law.”
While there are people genuinely trying to achieve awareness of injustice, to spark change in the Woke movement, others take advantage and use it as clout for personal gain. Let’s examine some extreme aspects;
Speakers including Scottish MP Alex Salmond, actor Liam Neeson, comedian Harry Enfield, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens were quietly no-platformed . (Epoch Times, Owen Evans). Of course, even in a democracy, there is a limit to the tolerance of free speech. Where speech incites violence, a line is drawn. In Europe, it is a crime to say that the holocaust is a myth. Rap artist Pablo Rivadulla was recently arrested in Spain on charges of glorifying terrorism and insulting the monarchy (José Miguel Arenas Beltrán, The Guardian, 2021). But de-platforming these aforementioned speakers is extreme.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's “very bad defence” of her own falsehoods was written about in Washington Post. She was awarded four Pinocchio’s for grossly misstating Pentagon spending. The title of her documentary “Knock Down the House” is a clear rally against the institutions.
In another scenario, if someone is caucasian but trying to do good, they might risk being “Wokescolded” online simply for taking part in a discussion or debate critiquing an oppressive regime, or taking part in a discussion that isn’t “theirs”. Social spaces should be about building social bonds and collaboration, not breaking them. Wrestling was invented in Greece, does that mean only Greeks should wrestle? Badminton was an Indian tradition, Tennis is French, Skiing is Scandanavian, Taekwando is from Korea. The good parts of humanity are about coming together and sharing. In these cases, the Woke movement has asked for more than what is just, more than what is equitable. Ok, Liberalism lost a few elections, but Venezuela and Russia are falling apart.
Are Liberals soft because we support tolerance and dialogue over war? The Liberal Allies levelled Germany’s greatest city, Berlin in 1943, smashing Germany into submission. Liberalism requires tolerance where necessary to preserve peace. Parliament is broadly liberal. But note, that Parliament started with Oliver Cromwell chopping off authoritarian King Charles’s head. The tolerance of liberals isn’t limitless.
Like any political system, how do you separate or recognise the value in something that has turned extreme? Or the value of traditionalism, when traditions do fall out of favour? What is the best way to call into question traditions that may be hurting people? Public forums are necessary to open discussion on things that work and don’t work in each political movement. This is an essential feature of democracy. Without this, war prevails.
Victoria Campbell-Gillies graduated from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (2021) with a Master's degree in Political Science specialising in democracy and government. Her research areas of interest include social media, the public sphere, Habermas’s theory of communicative action and democratic deliberation. She has a BA in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She earned a decade of experience as a writer and journalist in Johannesburg, before moving to Spain where she spent two years learning Spanish and furthering her political studies. She now works as a political analyst and lecturer living in Cape Town, South Africa.
Source: Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology Part One, with Selections from Parts Two and Three, together with Marx's "Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy." New York: International Publishers, 2001.