Davos 2020: Historian Adam Tooze Explains Why Protests Are An Integral Part Of Democracy
2019 was a year when the people took to the streets across the globe. From climate change to economy and minority rights, protests raged in various countries demanding change and upheaval of existing systems.
That shouldn’t be viewed as a negative thing but rather a dynamic force of democracies, according to noted historian and author Adam Tooze.
“I don’t measure the success or failure of democracy by the level of protests. I would think of that as an integral part of a deep flourishing democratic culture,” Tooze, a professor at the Columbia University, told BloombergQuint at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Those sorts of things are anchoring for a democratic process. Even if you don’t win, you at least make a public statement of what your position was which then allows you to chain forward from there.”
So, I think all in all, this (protests) is something that we should welcome.Adam Tooze, Professor, Columbia University
Tooze himself is no stranger to protests. He was part of the demonstrations in U.K. against the Iraq war in 2003. “We didn’t get our way, the U.K. still went to war in Iraq, but millions of people expressed their open opposition to a government which held us in contempt at that moment,” he said.
Protests are an articulate way for a mobilised population to express their interest and arguments. But it should not end there, Tooze said. At some point, protests should then translate into active political participation electorally. “Not because that’s the be-all and end-all. But because we have so far not come up with any better mechanism for articulating governance except through party competition within a constitutional framework.”
Changing Nature Of Democracy
Democracies, as we know it, are under threat. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, only 22 of the world’s 167 countries have full democracy. Fifty-four countries, that house 43 percent of the world’s population, including India, have flawed democracies. Another 54 countries have authoritarian regimes. The Economist noted that 2019 was a democratic setback, led particularly by sharp regression in Latin America and Asia.
The challenges that the social and geopolitical environment is throwing up in 2020 is only a sign of how the nature of democracies in itself is always evolving, Tooze said. “We shouldn’t think of it as a static thing. Democracy is above all a process, and it can have many different outcomes.”
Tooze said that the democracies that we celebrate, like that of India—the world’s largest—aren’t characterised by the fact that millions of people vote. Rather, they are characterised by other values that those democracies embody such as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and a tradition of a national liberation struggle.
So, it’s always democracy in combination with something else. Democracy in and of itself is capable of producing incredibly ugly results because it simply can reflect the mass prejudice of whichever majority is empowered by its process.Adam Tooze, Professor, Columbia University
There is also no historical precedent to how democracies evolve, Tooze noted. It’s possible to draw lessons from previous experiences but that may still not give any clear prediction as to what happens next, he said.
WATCH | Adam Tooze talks democracy, protests and the problems of being in a leaderless world.
Here is the edited transcript of the interaction...
I saw this morning a chart the Economist magazine put out that said that only 22 of 167 countries have full democracy. Then in the chart, they’ve depicted the countries that have hybrid democracies and then flawed democracies and it sort of resonated with me because a question that we’ve been asking in India and I think many other countries have been asking as well, is democracy not working as well for the world or did we just misunderstand the way it was supposed to work?
I think you put that very well and I like the way you put it better than the way the Economist put it. I think it’s a question of how democracy works. We shouldn’t think of it as a static thing. Democracy is above all a process, and it can have many different outcomes. The democracies that we value and treasure and celebrate, including the Indian democracy, and not just characterised by the fact that hundreds of millions of people vote despite having low levels of literacy. It’s that those democracies embody other values as well. The rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, a proud tradition of national liberation struggle, the defence of individual liberties for instance. So, it’s always democracy in combination with something else. Democracy in and of itself I think is capable of producing incredibly ugly results because it simply can reflect the mass prejudice of whichever majority is empowered by its process. So, I think that’s really what we are seeing is the realisation of the highly problematic products of democratic politics in many cases.
Why does it seem that currently across the world, democracy is producing results that don’t sit comfortably with let’s say some of our constitutional principles or things that we’ve come to believe as people?
Well, I think there’s an issue of what previously was held in check. Many of these movements have about them impatience, the desire to finally say something which for a long time they were somehow prevented from saying, finally acknowledging the essential Hindu-ness of the Indian nation, finally recognising that the politically correct norms of liberalism need to be overturned in America and people need to speak their minds. There’s this impatient sense that something repressed needs to be articulated and political entrepreneurs can make extraordinary political capital out of taking advantage of this kind of rhetoric. Feeding in many cases of very genuine problems, failures of development which are very significant in the Indian case still, huge inequality which is a characteristic of many of the developed societies, the breakdown of hitherto expected futures in the sense of the white working-class in America anticipating a kind of endless 1950s, that is not the 21st century. If you then combine those two things of structural problems with a dynamic political entrepreneurship that is willing to speak in these terms of releasing as it were the unspoken that needs to be finally brought out into the public realm. It’s a very potent combination.
Does history inform us as to what happens from here on?
I mean, my sense is that there isn’t a lot in history that tells us, for instance, about the trajectory of India. I mean India is such a radical experiment. We’ve never seen a democracy like it, we’ve never seen it’s sui generis (one of a kind). I mean, the search for analogues to understand the Chinas the Indias and even search for analogues to understand the U.S. and in a sense beyond that that’s as it were to read smaller history into a future which is very dramatic and gigantic in scale. We can clearly draw lessons from previous experiences about the crucial significance of the independence of the judiciary as a key anchor or the role of the independent media and the plurality of voices. Those are sort of simple principles, but I wouldn’t be looking for any simple historical template. I mean history can as it expose to us things we shouldn’t take for granted. We know the potential for violence that lurks in intercommunal strife in the Indian case, but it doesn’t give me any clear prediction as to what happens next. It depends crucially on what actors do at this moment.
This is all exacerbated by a leaderless world because there is really no country or democracy now left to look up to, right? I mean, there was a time when you know much of the developing world looked up at the U.K. or the U.S. and said those are the kind of institutions we want to build, that’s the kind of country we want to build and that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
I mean I find it hard to see that as a problem in and of itself. I mean, in a sense the emancipation from those simple norms I think is part of the slow evolution away from an imperial or colonial regime and that’s really to be celebrated. But that then opens up the possibility for various types of politics. That was always there after all it was the greatest excuse of British Empire in India that the Brits needed to be there to prevent this kind inter-communal strife. To which we know of course that Indian nationalism provided a whole string of serious, extremely sophisticated answers and it’s the failure to continue those that I think describes and characterises our current crisis. Likewise, in the American case, the founders provided a framework, but we have seen the way over the last twenty to thirty years extreme partisanship has torn away at that fabric and rendered what was always a complex design- completely dysfunctional. So, if there is a need for reinvention, I really would shy away from saying we need new models, we need new leadership. I think it’s really a call for everyone to take inspiration and I remain for that reason a passionate European because I think for all of its deficits, the EU is an effort to think a new type of politics. It is clearly flawed in many ways but one of the more impressive speeches at this conference has been was the Ursula von der Leyen speech today. She’s not perhaps the most charismatic speaker that you’ve ever heard, but she is articulating clearly the mission of the European Union around the green agenda and the energy transition and the Green Deal. That’s what I think the way democratic politics are thought into the future.
One of the outcomes the fallouts of a leaderless world is when you look at issues or problems or challenges on an international basis, for instance climate change, you have no one set of people to lead that and it is now left upon individual countries to do so by themselves to try and come together in nuclear groups. The EU is attempting to do that under the aegis of the EU but what about the rest of the world? So, that’s why I’m not suggesting that to go back to a world where we have a model to look up to but the lack of leadership also means that certain important priorities and challenges don’t get tackled the way they need to.
But I think this is why we need bargains and we need we need clubs exactly as you’ve described. It’s clear especially on the climate issue ever since Copenhagen in 2009 that really this is a G4 -G5 kind of a deal. It’s the EU-China-India, the U.S. and Japan as a potential fifth party to that deal. That is the future of climate politics at a global level. Those key actors all need to be brought in. Obviously, the issue of climate justice has to be considered which has been one of India’s key contributions to global climate politics but one of the things that one has to credit Modi’s government which is taking responsibility on India’s part for its contribution which needs to be adjusted to India’s capacities and it’s absolute imperative for economic development. But that is the future, I think. It is those kinds of coalitions and the Europeans are very seriously working towards trying to build a coalition like that ahead of COP-26 in Glasgow in November which really will decide the future of global climate politics for the foreseeable future.
You’ve studied history, you’ve studied you know economic crashes, financial crises. We’re at the beginning of a new decade. What do you think will be the key things we should be looking out for in these next 10 years when it comes to deep changes in society, in politics, in economics some of which we may have already discussed but things that I might not yet have asked you about?
Well, I do think the ongoing tech revolution, it’s a complete cliché but there’s no doubt at all I think that that transformation of all of our lives, the closeness, the interconnection the fact that everyone in the world can watch your TV channel online. We’re all part of these networks of communication that is transformative, and it has obviously both a positive and a negative potential and that is something that we’re going to have to have politics about too. Again, the EU is a leading actor in that issue of data protection and the regulation of Big Tech. That’s a key issue. So, that’s one of the frontiers and it’s also a frontier that enables many actors, of course. What are the great Indian success stories? They are precisely in that space. So, I think that’s one zone but it has huge ramifications potentially for the industrialisation of large parts of Africa for instance which may never get the chance to make the leaps onto the value chain that other countries were able to make in the 80’s, 90’s and so on. So, I think that’s a huge set of problems. The other one I do think is climate and because we’re on a very short clock now the actions need to be quite dramatic in the next 15 to 20 years. Not the world will not end otherwise but the world that we will be living in, our children and their children will be living in will be much tougher and much harder. Especially and there is no country again that is going to be worse affected than India and India’s neighbourhood—Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are going to be in the absolute frontline of the extreme weather that will come our way. The droughts, the lack of water we’ve already seen this in southern India this year and last year in 2019. So, that is a very dramatic reality that that has to be grasped and it really is a matter of the next 10 to 20 years.
And protests? You have been seeing them for the last three years now. They have become daily now. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t opened a newspaper and that I haven’t read about a protest. Whether it’s in India more recently or the Yellow Vest movement in France or a protest in the Middle East. These have come to become part of life maybe I’m just noticing them for the first time when they were always part of history but I’m wondering if that is something that we’ve come to live with and will for the next decade?
I find it very hard to think of it as it is, I mean, it’s not a negative thing. It’s a dynamic force, it requires interpretation. Obviously, it can provoke and bring out the very worst in a repressive state apparatus. Sometimes it’s designed to do that, but on the whole, this is a mobilised population articulating interests and articulating arguments. It’s got to be part of the process. I don’t measure the success or failure of democracy by the level of protests. I would think of that as an integral part of a deep flourishing democratic culture. I mean I was on the great demonstrations against the Iraq war in 2003 and still hold that as a cherished memory of a powerful moment. At which we didn’t get our way, the U.K. still went to war in Iraq, but millions of people expressed their open opposition to a government which held us in contempt at that moment. Those sorts of things are anchoring for a democratic process.
Even if you don’t win, you at least make a public statement of what your position was which then allows you to chain forward from there. So, I think all in all, this is a something that we should welcome. You obviously would like to see it then also moving into the realm of active political participation, of electoral participation, of incorporation into institutions. Not because that’s the be-all and end-all but because we have so far not come up with any better mechanism for articulating governance but party competition within a constitutional framework. That’s what I think where I see protests as a troubling sign is when it’s clearly an expression of the frustration of large numbers of people with those channels of communication. If it’s articulated with them, backs them up, gives them instructions if you like, helps to express what needs to be expressed. That’s a different matter.
One final question. You’ve been watching the events unfold in India. What do you make of the message that India is sending out to the world or how the world is reading it?
Well, I think it’s very much complicated the way in which the world has to read the Indian message. In so far, as I’m entitled to have any voice in that, but the whatever naivety we may have had about the significance of nationalism in the form that the BJP articulates it, I think has been stripped away. It is clear that this needs to be understood for what it is. Namely, a type of ethnic nationalism and religiously backed nationalism that in the Indian context has explosive implications. It’s not for an outsider like myself to as it were adjudicated that one way or the other but as a historian, it’s evident that this touch is on some of the most violent and difficult episodes in recent modern Indian history. One worries, one is concerned for the sustainability of that project.