Editorial Note by John O’Sullivan
In the relatively brief interval since our last issue, there have been riots and disturbances of a more or less political kind in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt. These riots are separated by periods of three years or less from similar outbursts of popular discontent in London and Manchester, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt again. And smaller or at least less noticed disturbances have taken place elsewhere – in France, in Greece, in Sweden.
Three years ago these events were seen as a localised or culturally distinct phenomenon: the Arab/Islamic Spring. They were also viewed through a certain lens as strivings towards more accountable government. That explanation served in effect as a justification: oppressed peoples rightly seeking to be democratic as the 19th century British statesman, W. E. Gladstone might have described them. So what are we to make of the three most recent disturbances in countries that are undeniably, if imperfectly, democratic by the clearest test: elections following which power changed hands.
Doubtless each national case is different. Nor do we know how any of them will turn out. At the time of writing a coup is taking place in Cairo; it might yet become a civil war. In addition to examining the particulars, however, we should surely ask whether or not there is some general phenomenon taking place before our eyes: a multicultural imitation of the 1848 or 1919 revolutions perhaps.
Professor İlter Turan’s dispassionate and precise dissection of the events in Istanbul seems to raise that possibility, especially when his analysis is set alongside reports of the Brazilian riots. After pointing out that the demonstrators in Gezi Park were drawn from different religious and social groups, but that they were generally civic-minded, mutually respectful and mutually protective, he hazards the theory that a new political animal is emerging in Turkish life: “the socially engaged individual citizen who expects a government to be open to regular communications with citizens, more responsive to citizen preferences, and more respectful of the individual’s privacy. Expressed differently, they want more refined democratic governance: limited not interventionist, pluralistic not monistic, inclusionary not exclusionary”.
Except that they were more violent – not a trivial difference, of course – most of the Brazilian rioters seem to fit into a similar social-cum-ideological framework. Neither set of rioters is what we usually mean by “extremists”. It is a comforting, even encouraging, picture. But the demands of both sets of rioters are still more extreme – well, more “problematic” – than they sound.
Democracy operates on the principle that the majority party forms a government and determines policy. Consultation, criticism and loyal opposition are part of the democratic package too – the liberal part. And a wise government will generally abstain from laws that intrude needlessly into people’s lives. But sometimes deep disagreements exist; unavoidably one side will win and another lose; and choices have to be made. Until now it has been generally agreed that political debate ends eventually and the majority gets its way until the next election. Has that changed?
If we are to depart from this model, as critics of merely “majoritarian democracy” sometimes seem to suggest (and as some rioters implicitly demand), then we will be moving to a different political system. It may be that this system will prove to be more pluralist, more flexible, more inclusionary – and, for all those reasons, more democratic. But it may also be the case that a less “majoritarian” system will be one that gives greater weight to the interests of powerful minorities (or what we call “elites” when we disapprove of them.)
Future events in Cairo, where yesterday’s rioters are celebrating a military coup against a democratically-elected government as if it were a popular revolution, will indicate which interpretation is closer to the truth.
Or maybe not. Cairo is not Brussels, nor Budapest, nor Lisbon. Still, as the erupting Portuguese political crisis over “Austerity” and the euro illustrates, and as our four articles on the European Union and the nationality principle discuss with rare scrupulousness, Europe is not without its own “problematic” attitudes to democracy. These arise from the uneasy cohabitation of the European Union with its own nation states.
With a few lagging exceptions, most European countries have largely solved their own internal difficulties with nationalism. They have domesticated it in two vital senses: first, every legal citizen is now, without dispute, a full member of the nation; second, by being largely satisfied, the nationalist passions have quieted down into a mild beneficent patriotism.
And if nationalism and democracy were once in conflict – see Ambrus Miskolczy’s review of Lucian Boia’s Traps of History for ironic and tragic examples of this in pre-war Romania – that is no longer so. National sovereignty in Europe is now democratic sovereignty. And as Roger Scruton demonstrates in his important essay, originally delivered to the Hungarian Academy of Letters and Sciences, a sober patriotism is an indispensable assistance to peoples and governments seeking to solve great economic and social problems by democratic means.
This desirable outcome is now threatened, as so often in history, by another desirable outcome: namely, the movement of European countries towards “ever- closer union”. As two of Dr Scruton’s friendly antagonists (Géza Jeszenszky and Péter Ákos Bod) rightly contend, the European Union has brought great benefits to ordinary Europeans in the forms of greater prosperity and economic opportunity. But integration has proceeded erratically, in the wrong order (a currency union before political integration), and far ahead of popular sentiment in most member states. The result is Europe’s famous “democratic deficit”.
That deficit was tolerable as long as nothing else important depended on it. But a democracy-lite EU is now insisting that its democratic members pursue “austerity” policies that the voters bitterly dislike. The latest result is Portugal’s political crisis as fewer and fewer local politicians are prepared to accept political oblivion in defence of policies chosen by a remote bureaucracy disguised as Angela Merkel. To point out that most of those same voters want to remain in the euro when that requires the austerity they oppose is merely to re-state the problem: which is that the euro, like the EU itself, cuts the democratic link between the voters and government policy.
This is not an insoluble problem, as Péter Ákos Bod points out. National sovereignty, democracy and EU membership can be reconciled by a “workable modus vivendi”. That solution, however, would probably have to include assigning fewer powers to Brussels and more to national parliaments closer to the voters.
Not an insoluble problem, then, but a problem nonetheless.
The friendliest of Scruton’s interlocutors, George Jonas, turns the usual indictment of nationalism against its prosecutors in Brussels and elsewhere. If they fear that the ordinary citizen’s love of country is the first step to hyper- nationalism, fascism, or simple irrationalism, how would their own loyalties fare under cross-examination? After all, their patriotism is to a country that doesn’t yet exist. As Orwell points out, this kind of “transferred nationalism” is usually more irrational and zealous than the ordinary common-or-garden kind.
Irrationalism was certainly a marked feature of the self-styled “scientific” political doctrines of the first half of the 20th century on both Left and Right. In his ground-breaking investigation into Stalin’s anti-Semitic “doctors’ plot”, Tibor Pethő underlines the absurd ideological acrobatics that state officials performed in order to comply with the orders of the Soviet dictator and his Hungarian accomplice Mátyás Rákosi.
Rákosi had originally ordered the head of the secret police (ÁVH), Gábor Péter, to prepare a series of show trials at the end of 1952. In mid-preparation, however, he changed his mind: “The ÁVH leader was arrested on 3 January 1953 in Rákosi’s villa on Lóránt Street. Péter arrived shortly before from Szuhakálló, the site of a mine disaster where he personally tried to identify the ‘plotters’ and ‘diversionists’. (Even in the case of accidents, a culprit had to be found…)” You couldn’t make it up, as the British say.
But among those who could certainly make it up were the Romanian intellectuals who flirted with the extreme nationalism of the Legion of the Archangel Michael before the Second World War and with communism after it, sometimes consummating both relationships in succession with orgiastic cries, sometimes retreating into a guilty silence. With intellectual brilliance and an utter lack of commonsense, they adopted and preached one silly ideological novelty after another.
They are treated with dry-eyed irony by both Lucian Boia, author of Traps of History, and by our reviewer, Ambrus Miskolczy, and suffer appropriate fates at their hands. Thus, one intellectual ornament of the Legion, who was probably also working for the Germans, died suddenly of poisoning, “conforming with legionary tradition”.
Sadly, Magda Lupescu, the flame-haired temptress and conspirator who became the King’s mistress and famously arrived into Brazilian exile with almost seven hundred pieces of luggage, does not make an appearance in the dock. But she is suitably memorialised elsewhere in a limerick:
“I was stranded,” said Madam Lupescu, “When Royalty came to the rescue.
Now it’s diamonds and pearls. So, honestly, girls,
Is democracy better? I ask you.”
Now, there’s a girl who could have taught the average Romanian Nobel Prize winner a thing or two.
4 July 2013, Budapest