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Democracy shamocracy - wuthering times in Europe

, by Frank Maxwell

Voters can no longer complain that there is no such thing as choice in politics. As the European Union is gearing up for what will be a rocky election season, with far-right parties expected to win a sizeable chunk of votes, the array of options is dazzling. Unfortunately most such parties appeal either to staunch nationalists or to a prevalent current of anti-European sentiment. But are we right to start writing obituaries for Europe and democracy in general?

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Ever since the 2008 crisis, populist anti-EU parties have based their platforms and electoral success on criticizing mainstream parties and proposing policies that would demolish the current political establishment. Their solutions, coated in a sugary rhetoric by charismatic leaders, reek of populism and chauvinism. Banks and Big Business are accused of being the puppeteers standing behind vile and self-serving politicians.

The streets have answered their militant calls, albeit for different reasons and without espousing firm political convictions. We are the 99 percent movement and its anti-political offshoots have generated a crisis of credibility and trust in traditional democratic institutions. And this is how a perfect anti-establishment storm began. The silent consensus that had awarded political leaders the right to rule on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis is withering. Many prophets have risen from the ranks, marching through the capitals of the Western world and demanding the scrapping of unpopular austerity measures, a revision of immigration laws and a return to the nation state. Their speeches have fallen on deaf ears though with mainstream parties failing to respond in an adequate and timely fashion.

Even academia pitched in this frenzy. For instance, in 2004, Colin Crouch coined the term “post-democratic society” to refer to a society that “continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”. In other words, democracy is merely a show meant to keep the masses distracted, while a few powerful individuals call the shots and line their pockets. Or at least that is what extremist parties would have you believe. By tapping into the understandable feelings of frustration and fear that followed the near collapse of the world economy, illiberal leaders engaged in aggressive scaremongering campaigns for political gain. However, they have raised some valid points.

It is true that austerity is a supply-side policy that works towards restoring the competitiveness of the economy at the expense of the consumer. Poverty and unemployment shouldn’t be accepted as a necessary evil of “macroeconomic responsibility”. Most importantly, even when faced with increasing opposition from fringe political forces, mainstream parties have failed to address these issues, further losing touch with the average Joe.

Riding on a rising anti-European sentiment, parties like UKIP in the UK, Syriza in Greece, Four Star Movement in Italy and the National Front in France have made significant headway in becoming a strong voice in the European Parliament.

Fortunately, not all unconventional political theories that have gained traction recently share the same inflammatory rhetoric. One of the most sensible alternatives comes from the Green movement. Acknowledging the nationalistic urge of some European countries, these liberal extremists argue for another way of doing politics. In the words of their newly elected leader, Jose Bove, they are against neo-liberal Europe but they seek to counter austerity driven fiscal policies from within the confines of the existing institutional framework.

Ecuador’s silent revolution

Perhaps the most interesting example of a successful coping strategy with the failings of globalization comes from Ecuador, a country that unfortunately is known more for its bananas than for its political strategies. Essentially, all of Ecuador’s policies follow a model called “Good Living”, a choice borne out of the terrible consequences of policies used in the early 2000s when capitalism was synonymous with inflation, corruption and disdain for the environment. Stemming from the country’s Quechua philosophy, the “Good Living” model shares common goals with neo-liberal countries, such as the paramount importance of knowledge and innovation in a services-driven economy. However, the pathway it proposes aims at pursuing social harmony, equality, equity and solidarity, instead of assuming that an invisible hand regulates the economy in the most efficient way. The initial results are promising, receiving the backing of several influential intellectuals, like Edgar Morin and drawing the praise of the UNDP.

Furthermore, Ecuador became the first country in the world to enshrine the “Rights of Nature” in its Constitution. It maintains that nature in all its forms has “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles”. This is part of the four-pronged approach of the model, the other three being narrowing inequality gaps, innovation and sustainable development.

This strategy manages to strike a balance between two supposedly conflicting trains of thought, that in Europe have led to polar opposites, proving that a middle way is imaginable. With political parties either drifting towards the center or hurtling along to the far end of the political spectrum, odds are that neither old-fashioned tax-and-spend socialists nor social conservatives have anywhere to go.

Some soul searching is in order. Ideas aired by the likes of Jose Bove or by Ecuador’s government prove that thinking outside the box can yield unexpected yet successful solutions. Although it is true that cultural and social contexts force different political outcomes, it is very hard to believe that the cradle of democracy and human rights can go, full steam ahead, down an illiberal path. Only hardship can be found there.

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