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Left: Geerten Waling, photo by Frank Ruiter. Right: the Sudanese revolutionary Alaa Saleh addressing a crowd during anti-government protests in Khartoum.

The text below is a translation of dr. Geerten Waling’s Dutch Cleveringa lecture on 23 November 2017.

‘Democracy’ is the buzzword of the age. It is much more than just our political system, it is a way of life. Do you know people calling themselves anti-democrats? Democracy is the moral framework through which every sane person looks at the world. Those who do not cry out loud enough that they are democrats are seen as either crazy, dangerous, or both.

Democracy is built on a combination of freedom and equality. Freedom to decide your own fate. Equality of choices and rights, so you know you are not subjected to the whims of the administration or the ruling class. In a democracy, the old master-slave dialectic, so characteristic of aristocratic societies, has been abolished. We, you and I, have become the masters of our own life. And, by the way, its slaves too.

But how did we get to this democracy? That was a long a windy road, with which you are already partly familiar. You know that in the Netherlands we have had a Constitution for about two hundred years, a parliament, with two houses, with elections, held for over one hundred years on the basis of universal suffrage. You know about politicians and political parties, about the cabinet, the Council of State, etc. But these are only the formal aspects of democracy. If we limit ourselves to these formal aspects, these institutions, a lot of countries can call themselves democracies. But it is also obvious that these formal aspects, these institutions, are not enough for a well-functioning democracy. From Ukraine to Cuba, from Iraq to China, from Venezuela to Turkey – we are confronted with this reality on a daily basis.

Arab ‘Spring’

Let me give you an example. Do you remember the revolutionary year of 2011? Jubilant commentators, weeping journalists, cheering crowds… Wasn’t it grand, this ‘Arab Spring’? For months, the entire Western world was euphoric. A wave of revolutions spread from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. Dictators fled, the people seized power. The comparison to 1989 was easily made. Die Mauer ist weg! [The (Berlin) Wall is gone] The proverbial Trabants rolled over Tahrir Square in Cairo and past those magnificent Roman ruins on the Libyan coast. Manifest Destiny had finally revealed itself to the Arabs.

It was too good to be true, literally. We now know that the revolutions did not bring better regimes in the countries to the South and East of the Mediterranean. The opposite. Religious sects, terrorist organisations and opportunistic criminals fight each other for control. The ordinary citizen, who was supposed to seize power has been chased from his home or been made the slave of the next tyrannical regime.

Where did it go wrong? Just like in Eastern-Europe in the 1990’s – and with Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001, we thought it would finally succeed. The age of freedom and democracy would dawn for so many peoples that were longing for fair elections. For McDonald’s, for iPads, for Netflix. That proved to be slightly more complicated.

I do not need to argue that individual freedom and the dignity of man are universal. If one assumes there is such a thing as Human Rights, one cannot but let them be valid for all people, everywhere and always. That doesn’t mean that they are universally applied or that they can be enforced everywhere in the world and in the universe. He who believes that, is a naive fluff ball.

We in the ‘Free West’ – and I use the term without irony – do not realise enough what sort of extremely exceptional condition we live in. A great experiment that started after the Middle Ages and that definitively broke through, more than two hundred years ago, around the start of the 1800s. First in America and on the North Sea, later in the whole of Western Europe. How did it come to be that we live in a democratic rule of law – and the majority of the world population doesn’t? How did this happen? What does that say about our culture? And can we perhaps derive what a culture needs for democracy? What are the cultural conditions for a democracy to come into being and to function?

1848 – The European Spring

Those are the questions that I have begun to ask myself more and more often during the writing of my dissertation on the revolutions in the spring of 1848 in Europe. We could speak of a ‘European Spring’ – at the time, there was talk of a ‘spring of the peoples’ – because not only was it the time of the year, there was a democratisation in the hearts and minds of millions of Europeans. In a wave of revolutions, from Paris to Vienna and Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Milan, Venice, you name it, residents of cities and villages began doing something which was up to then forbidden to them: they went into politics.

Under pressure from barricades and revolutionary writings, the French king fled, just like Austrian Prince Metternich. Other kings chose to barter, accepting a (more or less) democratic constitution, like King Willem II did in the Netherlands, when he ordered Thorbecke to rewrite the Constitution.

All 1848 revolutions demanded the same: freedom of speech (freedom of the press), the freedom to form societies and meet. In frightened response to the French Revolution of 1789, governments in Europe had again banned political assemblies and increased political censorship of newspapers and books. That is the reason political parties had not yet formed on the European continent in 1848. It also ensured that there was hardly an open, public debate on political issues.

1848 can be called a historical rapid, a ‘moment of madness’ as I describe the revolutions in my dissertation. In one fell swoop, censorship was abolished, after which thousands of revolutionary newspapers and pamphlets were printed: Paris paper merchants sold their entire stocks within two weeks! Thousands of political clubs were established and countless large scale meetings were held. On street corners and squares, in public buildings and public houses, everywhere the future was busily debated. The word ‘politics’ rapidly became synonymous with ‘democracy‘.

Being politically active, which took centre stage, made the revolutions quintessentially democratic revolutions – and makes 1848 a turning point in the history of democracy.

Take note: 1848 did not change everything for good. France, under Emperor Napoleon III and Germany under Chancellor Bismarck did not, for the moment, become exemplary democracies. There are, nonetheless, good reasons to associate the democratic transitions of 1848 with the early, but promising sun of spring.

In de democratische experimenten van 1848 zien we het ontstaan van drie essentiële aspecten van een democratische samenleving. Ze gaan niet over de formele staatsinrichting, maar over een onderliggende democratische cultuur.

In the democratic experiments of 1848 we see the emergence of three essential aspects of a democratic society. They do not concern formal organisation of the state, but concern the underlying democratic culture. That’s why I call them the cultural conditions for democracy:

1) An independent civil society, open to a free public debate.

2) The recognition of an opposition (in a public debate ánd in parliament).

3) Recognizance of ‘the people’ as a power, one which every ruler should account with, in order to keep and wield power.

Culture as explanation for the emergence of a democracy

De drie voorwaarden heb ik in de epiloog van mijn boek over 1848 gedefinieerd. Er zijn misschien nog meer voorwaarden aan te wijzen waaraan een cultuur moet voldoen om een volwassen, goed functionerende en duurzame democratie voort te brengen, maar het gaat mij er vooral om dat we het belang van cultuur durven te benoemen en te onderzoeken.

These three conditions I have defined in the epilogue of my book on 1848. There might be more conditions that a culture has to meet for the emergence of a well functioning, sustainable democracy, but I am most interested in daring to call out the importance of culture, and to study that aspect.

Someone who did so without timidity was philosopher and sociologist Ernest Gellner, for example in one of his later books: Conditions of Liberty. Civil Society and its Rivals, which was published in 1994. It was a time of euphoria. The Soviet Union had fallen, dozens of countries in Middle and Eastern Europe had been liberated from Communism. Those countries had to become democracies in the 1990s. Gellner warned that Western countries could help establish formal democracy (constitution, parliament, elections…) but that there had to be a cultural basis for a democracy. He proposed concentrating on building a civil society, capable of carrying such a new democracy. Gellner also wondered how democracy had come to be in the West, and he arrived at a crucial, sociological upheaval around the year 1800. In the Western countries, led by the young United States, Gellner saw the development of a new type of person: modular man.

About two centuries ago, our ancestors began to act more and more like individuals, in loose assemblages of their own choice. They started manifesting and developing on grounds unconnected to traditional associations such as the family, the tribe, the church or the state. In this civil society they sought those sharing their ideas, but they were free to distance themselves from these assemblages and seek out other ones. This was true for academic and literary clubs, but also became more usual for more philosophical or political clubs. Even nationalism, taking centre stage in the 19th century, is classified by Gellner as a modern phenomenon carried by the ‘modular man’. Together, as millions of individuals, beneath one flag.

In America, the individual citizen, associated in local communities, had become the basis for the revolt against the English king in the 18th century. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States owe their inspiration completely to this – even though there are many older sources, such as the Dutch Act of Abjuration from 1581.

After the American Independence modular man manifested himself more and more in England – in citizen clubs and petition-movements – but also in the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands, and in France after the Revolution. Central in the political debates was the ‘common good’, the interest of the ‘nation’ centrally organised in a neutral (nation) state.

The rise of ‘modular man’, then, took place at the end of the 18th/start of the 19th century. We can regard the European Spring of 1848 as a perfecting, the final phase of that process. The impulse towards democracy, understood as the emergence of the primacy of the individual, the political citizen as an expression of the modern citizen, united in open, ideological societies and meetings. It is not without meaning that immediately after the break through of 1848, everywhere in Europe political parties sprung up, even before universal suffrage.

Back to 2011

What makes a revolution democratic?

Not everyone was fooled in 2011, when the revolts started. Christopher Hitchens wrote a scathing essay for Vanity Fair which detailed his own experiences with revolutions through the years. He saw Lissabon (1974), South Korea (1985), Czechoslovakia (1988), Hungary and Romania (1989) and also Chili, Poland and Spain go through the democratic carwash.

What Hitchens had observed in all those revolutions, not a trace had he seen in the Arab countries in 2011. Relatively well-read citizens, for example, who knew what they wanted: living according to Western standards. And who knew how they wanted to accomplish this: with democratic leaders and parties that would build a democratic rule of law. Underground, these leaders and movements had been there for a long time, the infrastructure was already there.

The Arab Storm

In the Netherlands, it was Afshin Ellian, as an Iranian refugee an expert through experience when it comes to failed revolutions, who was one of the early voices to point out that the ‘Arab Spring’ frame was complete nonsense. He consistently referred to the revolutions as an ‘Arab Storm’.

Hitchens and Ellian were proven right. 2011 did not become a 1989. New democratic states with rule of law are nowhere to be seen on the other side of the Mediterranean. If anything, 2011 was a 1789. The French Revolution cost Louis XVI his head, but things didn’t improve. A bloody terror erupted, years of bloodletting, insecurity and illiberality followed.

Alexis de Tocqueville already concluded that the French Revolution couldn’t be merited to brave revolutionaries, but was the consequence of a rotten absolutist system. Radicals like Robespierre only needed to push, and the crown crumbled. Just like the Islamists in the Arab world today.

The Arab World will not see spring for a long time

What differentiates the European Spring of 1848 from the Arab Storm of 2011 to such a large degree, is that there were a number of underground movements and leaders that could be mobilised to lift the revolutions in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and dozens of other cities to a higher plain. People who could debate in public, could fiercely speech, write convincingly and could supply capable candidates for parliaments, who could train their followers to play the democratic game.

Central to the 1848 revolutions was the interaction between individual, self-conscious citizens collected in organisations that had already begun to look like political parties. In debates that were parliamentary, respectful of the opposition and its views. In a political system in which everybody was to get a place, not just the people of one’s own clan, religion or ideology.

The Arab World is weak on all these counts. Democracy seems further away than ever before.

We must ask ourself uneasy questions. Like: why isn’t there one country in the world where Islam is the dominant religion, and that has democratic rule of law at the same time.

Ernest Gellner didn’t speak of the Umma of Islam and the Umma of Marxism for nothing. The community of faith and the proletariat resemble each other. Both demand absolute loyalty from their members. A loyalty that trumps democratic values, human rights, fundamental principles of freedom and equality.

Tribal and religious societies are a brake on modernity. A ‘modular man’ in those societies will lose against corruption and dogmatism.

Een dictator kun je makkelijk omverwerpen, IS bombarderen we wel plat. Maar het is naïef om aan een land een democratische Grondwet op te leggen, een paar politici op te leiden, verkiezingen uit te schrijven, en dan te denken: Dat komt wel goed! Afghanistan en Irak, maar ook Oekraïne, herinneren ons daar elke dag weer aan.

A dictator is easily overthrown, IS can be bombed into oblivion. But it is naive to impose a democratic constitution on a country, educate a few politicians, organise elections, and to then think: this will all be well! Afghanistan and Iraq, but Ukraine too, remind us of this every day.

A real democratic revolution comes from the bottom, when the culture is ready for it.