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  • Democracy Today: Four Maxims
  • Antonio Y. Vázquez-Arroyo (bio)

Worldwide, the summer of 2009 was a throwback. The world witnessed Manuel Zelaya getting ousted in Honduras – in what seemed an anachronism in the post-cold war era – by a coup d’ état, with a mild reproach by the United States. Even so, after some additional rebuking by the international community, Zelaya remained out of office. Coeval with this, an election, the minimal marker of democracy, was blatantly stolen in Iran, with Ayatollahs in tow, to the temporary outrage of the west; of course, the same west that scolded the Afghan elites was silent about the fact that during the same week in which the photo of the young Iranian woman killed in the streets of Tehran was widely circulating the web, a death that was prominent enough to elicit a public lament from Obama, as well as the outrage of bien-pensant liberals, US drones killed 60 people in Pakistan, including women and children.

Likewise, stealthily or overtly, the war on terror has been extending to Pakistan, a move that has gone hand in glove with the escalation of the war in Afghanistan – the latter garnered a headline in Il Manifesto about the homologies between Afghanistan and Vietnam; and all of it by the newly minted president, who a few months later became a Nobel laureate for peace, thus lending a new lease of credibility to the benign face of American imperium, even if the war on terror is now Obama’s war (the continuous reliance on the mercenary armies of Blackwater has also become his). And this is without dwelling on the collusion of western democracies with on-going anti-democratic practices that their very ordinariness and dreariness render invisible, such as the apartheid occupation in Israel that effectively keeps the Palestinian population at the threshold of a humanitarian catastrophe; or the less violent, but no less deplorable unbroken occupation of Cyprus and the EU’s collusion in it. Not to dwell too much on the on-going corruption and thuggery of the likes of Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and Álvaro Uribe. Obviously, both Zelaya and Iran were swiftly routed off the networks by the sudden death of a global king, Michael Jackson.

And yet, we live in democratic times. At least this is the strange message one not only hears in the corridors of power in the west and across the political spectrum, but also among intellectuals: at one pole of the political spectrum the Freedom House celebrates the twentieth century as “the democratic century”; on the other, we have figures of impeccable leftist credentials, like Tom Nairn who asserts the awesome spread of democracy and the possibility of recasting a democratic form of national identity even if the spread of democracy has implied diluting it of substance. Also on the left, one finds the wide-eyed miraculism of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s now complete trilogy (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth), who despite having European, mostly French and Italian theoretical signposts, is drenched with chronic American upbeatness and the pieties of the “can do” credo whose popularity is in inverse proportions with its political import. Equally folded in the pieties of US political trajectory is Hardt and Negri’s account of US political form (the enthusiasm to the United States found its highest pitch in Empire, but the two sequels are not entirely bereft of it).1 And, finally, no less than the doyen of critical theory, Jürgen Habermas, has become a champion of humanitarian interventions and of post-national orders, such as the EU: an exercise in elite and oligarchic power whose main achievement has been the expansion to the East, even if this entailed inclusion in a common market, not democratic incorporation. Of course, this is without dwelling on the political dearth of his conception of “deliberative democracy.”

An illustrative recent example lending credence to the expression “we are all democrats now” is found in John Keane’s 2009 mammoth, The Life and Death of Democracy. This highly praised tome combines a sweeping narrative on the travails of democracy that while not bereft of local insights is thoroughly marred by a failed attempt...

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