Safeguarding democracy in 'new' modern times, society

A woman reads a copy of the draft constitution
A woman reads a copy of the draft constitution

A debate is raging in the Western world regarding the need to safeguard democracy in 'new' modern times.

'New' modern times mean a new era, in which technology and knowledge have transformed society and social relations in such a way that our assumptions of how things have been done in 'normal' modern times no longer hold. Certain new enterprises, which have understood this now, organise themselves very differently, most likely to the detriment of their workers, who may not necessarily understand what is happening to them. Let me give you an example.

An ultra modern knowledge-based global enterprise with head quarters in a US city has realised that paying its tech-savvy workers fat salaries is not a problem. It can easily do so because it can afford it. And it does so. But what is even more important is to ensure the employees work in an environment very unique to that enterprise.

For example, having paid them the fat salaries, they can afford to live in the best apartments not too far from their working place and go to work in special buses where they can work using their computers, laptops. etc. They are always interacting with their fellow workers in a special way — keeping the productivity of the enterprise up to the mark to the extent that it is always at the cutting edge of knowledge and its dissemination in that particular industry.

Once the workers 'get to work' — a misnomer, for they seem always to be working — they lack nothing. Food of all types is available in plenitude, entertainment accompanies work itself and what happens in the external environment is none of their business. The trouble, however, is that, in real terms, these workers have become like bees or spiders. Apart from what they do — which they do very well — they know very little else about the outside world.

Their health is also threatened: Obesity has become a major problem in this enterprise and young people suffer from diabetes in unreasonably large numbers. But since the enterprise can provide them with expensive health insurance, these preventable health hazards don't seem to worry them, and they do nothing about work-related health risks that stare at them every day.

Likewise, in this 'new' modern society, life-related 'living styles' currently are a living threat to safeguarding democratic political cultures, not just in the West, but in developing countries as well. Given the sudden upsurge of right wing and populist political formations threatening liberal democratic traditions in the West, scholars have started to write extensively about threats to democracy in 'new' modern times.

They identify, for example, the vulnerability of 'modern' workers, in the enterprise such as the one I have just described, to extremist political views. Living in a world of their own and having little interaction with 'ordinary' human beings, such 'captured' workers can easily fall prey to extremist political propaganda, especially if that is what they always listen to in their spare time.

A media channel in the West called Fox News has, over time, captured the attention of such 'captured' workers and 'captured' and isolated rural people. When problems arise in their lives, they have little knowledge of the history of such problems, nor do they have access to any other groups of people affected by such problems. All they know is their small world and how Fox News presents the reality 'out there' to them.

To make matters worse, the tech-savvy enterprises, whose workers are already captured and work in special environments, are quite often the ones given the 'political and social data' by extremists to manipulate and analyse, so as to give some 'scientific results' on how political and social problems can be solved. However tech-savvy these computer gurus are, they cannot escape dealing with the time-tested dictum in data processing, ie, "garbage in garbage out"!

The British experience with the Brexit vote apparently seems now to prove this. In a recent article in The New York Times on Tuesday headlined "Support Grows for a Second Brexit Vote," the author gives evidence of a number of Britons, across the political and socio-economic divide, who have started to regret that they voted for Brexit. They feel cheated. They think they were manipulated. Some feel alternatives to Brexit were not explored. Some blame the deliberate manipulation of information by the powerful campaign machinery that Brexiteers rolled out at a very intense time and now say rationality was not given enough time.

And this brings me to my last point — the dangers to democracy that 'narrow' and 'extremist' right-wing propaganda pose in 'new' modern times both in the West and in developing countries. In the US, scholars now blame the Republican Party leadership for having given too much room to right-wing propaganda to capture 'the soul of the party', making the triumph of President Donald Trump possible.

The scholars argue, as did Professor David Easton as early as the 1950s, that political parties in a democratic political system must act as 'gate keepers', preventing garbage from being thrown into the system. The Republican Party failed as a gatekeeper, and allowed plenty of right-wing propaganda to pollute the political system and produce an openly bad leader.

In an era where the media, such as Fox News, can also easily penetrate isolated communities with lopsided views of reality, active and democratic political parties fail in their duty if they do not intercede, on behalf of the people, to offer an alternative and viable world view. In this regard, the Democratic Party must also share the blame for having not reached out to areas where right-wing propaganda captured the imagination of these vulnerable voters.

Our 2010 Constitution recognised the need for viable political parties in building a democratic political culture in our society. But we are victims of our past, and we have never been able to escape from the tribal trappings that the reactionary independence ruling class laid for us to sustain its rule. Try, as we may, to get away from this original sin, this ruling class keeps on dragging us into the past.

With the advent of modern information technology in these 'new' modern times, we have become even more vulnerable to the politics of tribal trappings in producing "vifaranga vya komputa". Thus it is now possible for people to vote but for the votes to be manipulated using computer science, giving results that may not necessarily coincide with the choice of the voting public.

With a tribalised political system and a tech-savvy electoral management system that can allow "garbage in garbage out", we are in no better position than the Brexit voters in Britain nor the ordinary Americans who gave Hillary Clinton three million more votes than Trump but ended up getting the latter as their president. In the US it is explained in terms of constitutional provisions. Hillary may have won the popular vote but Trump won the Electoral College vote: But was this really the case? Remember what Karl Marx said: "If appearances coincided with reality, science would be superfluous."

We are all victims of the 'new' modern times, where democracy is threatened by tech-savvy enterprises available to right-wing and populist political forces bent on exploiting social and economic discontent without offering any viable and sustainable solutions while satisfying their egocentric desires, needs and curiosities. How do we safeguard democracy in this 'new' modern era wherever we are?