The decline of democracy in the world: on which side will our Europe decide to stand?

by Simone Zoppellaro

Eighteen years in a row. So far, it would date the decline of democracy in the world, according to the latest reports by Freedom House and the V-Dem Institute, two authorities on the subject. It seems abstract, an icy statistic. It is not. In each of the 52 countries where political rights and civil liberties have declined in the past year alone there have been executions, torture, falsified elections, war crimes or rape. People whose names we will never know, but who often represent the best these societies have to offer in terms of dignity and courage, have lost everything. Books, films, and works of art that no one will be able to see have been suppressed by some obscure official, or by their author himself for self-censorship. Homes and landscapes have been forcibly ripped away from millions of people, guilty of having a different culture from that of a dictator, or perhaps just for an ideal. Lives have been erased by the order of other men, houses set on fire, cemeteries destroyed.

We are tired of wars, so many repeat. The point, however, is quite clearly that dictators and executioners are not, convinced that they are living – perhaps not wrongly – at the dawn of an era dominated by autocracies; and that perhaps we do not have the weapons, even in a metaphorical sense, to counter this drift. A drift that affects every corner of our Europe and even the United States, once considered beacons of democracy. In a mantra we have heard repeated since the Covid era, so many have been clamoring for a return to normalcy. Grotesque. As if history was waiting for a few puffs of ours to reverse its course, and bring us back to the protected idyll of childhood, when certain things could not happen, at least by us in the “first world.”

Few have realized, precisely, that this enormous thing has happened in the meantime. For the first time in several centuries, we Western Europeans can no longer look out on the rest of the world by making ourselves strong with a privilege, a sort of ius primae noctis, that lets us enjoy as much as we like of each country, from tourism to the exploitation of materials, with nothing bad awaiting us. The lines drawn on the continents by our colonial ancestors, nice slices cut on a cake, no longer serve to protect us. Our divide and conquer, with Dantesque contrapasso, seems to be backfiring on us – just browse social media to see it.

Yet, we have all realized it: something is no longer working. As Benjamin recalled, “On a beam which supports the ceiling of Brecht’s study are painted the words: «Truth is concrete». On a window-sill stands a small wooden donkey which can nod its head. Brecht has hung a little sign round its neck on which he has written: «Even I must understand it».”

Indeed, there is no point in asking reality to change. It will do so on its own, but unpredictably and violently, regardless of our wishes. What we need is a radical change of gaze, unearthing a square root of the world. We need to question ourselves, not the reality, abandoning stale and outdated categories. It takes, another Brechtian virtue, even contradicting ourselves – when necessary to sharpen our gaze.

Let us look around, then. Starting with what is close by, our own Europe. A turning point, in my view, came in 2015 with the migrant crisis. Since then, the traditional right/left dichotomy has been reconfiguring into a system/anti-system dichotomy. Voting for Merkel, SPD or Greens becomes almost irrelevant, compared to AfD, for instance; and so in many countries. Now, voting for nothing to change is not a strategy, it is a suicide, because everything in history changes, and in the end if you do not have a future and do not seek it, everything can only end up collapsing. In contrast, anti-system parties propose simple and feasible goals: a regression of minority rights and a reestablishment of native ethnic supremacy – all without touching economic and constitutional systems, without political upheaval. But actual changes they are: they motivate and gratify their electorate.

Instead, the party-of-nothing-changes suffers and trudges on: pandemics, crises and wars. Everything changes, and nothing is done to challenge ourselves. The thing is simply not sustainable. Because everything shifts convulsively, and no vision of the future is offered. Not only that, essentially also no critique of the present, at least in a relevant sense. What then? The question is not if, but when this will eventually come crashing down on our heads. Probable it will be soon.

Are we, therefore, in for a ride by the far right in Europe? In my opinion, it will be unsustainable in the long run. I have already explained why: the hegemony of the West – political or cultural – no longer exists, not only at home, but most of all in the reality of the world. Stubbornly wanting to revive a corpse may lead at most to a new Frankenstein. Living in a multipolar world, going around ranting about our supposed superiority – as taught by the parable of some Italian politicians – simply does not work. Chinese, Indians, and others are not at all willing to bow their heads – and why should they?

Where to begin from, then? Once again, it is necessary to look around. Italy, this country of “sleepwalkers” so well described by the latest Censis report, is not too far from the rest of Western Europe: withdrawal, fatigue, lack of courage and ambition. Let us then move further east, just a few steps away. In a not insignificant part of Italian pacifist and leftist circles where I come from, there is a terrible racism toward post-Soviet peoples. The fact that there are wars, massacres and persecutions arouses no empathy. They are “all Nazis,” they repeat like a mantra. “They get what they deserve.” The point, though only a few admit it, is that their sin is original: that of betraying socialism and our demented dreams of children born on the right side of the Iron Curtain. But the reality is another: a pacifism that does not start with the victims and their protection is pure pornography. What many pacifists in Italy today clearly seek is not peace: it is to be left in peace in their narcissism.

By contrast, many women and men, morally superior, are fighting on the frontiers of Europe with a courage and determination unthinkable to us. There are those who risk everything, like Russians, Belarusians, and Azerbaijanis, to oppose some of the most ruthless autocracies on the planet. They are few in number, as is inevitable given the violence they endure, but their voices are not extinguished. There are the Armenians who, a century after the genocide, again face a frightening crisis that has recently wiped out the entire indigenous minority in Karabakh. They face this, once again, with dignity and in silence, trying to disentangle themselves from Moscow. And again: hundreds of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets with European flags to demand democracy and freedom despite the government attacks and threats. Then there are the Ukrainians, who have already won their war: for more than two years, without anyone intervening to defend them, they have stood up to one of the most fearsome armies in the world. Even if they were to fall tomorrow – and it won’t happen – history has already declared them winners, and their glory will mirror the infamy of a perennial loser like Putin who, to the detriment of his imperial dreams, sees year after year his neighbors and former subordinates turn their backs on him and look elsewhere.

I know, in Italy especially you read and hear far different things. Leading sleepwalkers, for some, does not seem such a difficult task, and the risk of making us end up like Bruegel’s blind men is all too tangible. But truth is concrete, let us not forget. And the truth is that there is a part of Europe that is fighting for its and our freedom, and another where democracy is in danger of being thrown to the wind out of idleness or weariness. Are we still sure that we are the pulsing heart of Europe? Are we sure that we are the center of the world? Reality tells us otherwise. That our Europe – just another dot on the world map – is dying or being reborn in Tbilisi and Kyiv.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Raimond Spekking

Simone Zoppellaro

Analysis by Simone Zoppellaro, journalist

14 May 2024

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