Crisis of democracy – the simultaneous rise of individualism and populism through the agency of the Internet

If one were to make a most basic study of the idea of democracy, it would readily be understood that it stands on the principle of transfer of power.  Decades ago and as it happened for centuries, when even the possibility of the existence of the Internet and communication technology as we have today could only be wished for, democracy escaped threat because transfer of power from the public to the government had a finality.  Once the people chose their leaders, those leaders retreated to the institutions where they served.  Having received the power from the people for a set amount of time, a disconnect then existed.  The period of disconnect had an associated mystery.  People could complain, discuss in private groups, there could be protests, the news could report on the successes and failures of the government, but nothing threatened the post-election separation of power by means of popular willing transfer.

Each vote that was cast by each individual was a willing surrender of power to a candidate, on the basis of trust.  Even if later developments in society and government would cause a differentiation in the value of each respective vote, the general existence of trust still had to be there.  Democracy continues on trust.  If the trust in the idea of democracy and the results it produced could not be sustained, then the entire exercise of democracy would turn meaningless.  By the agency of the Internet, just such a thing is happening in not only democracies but also other forms of government.  The Internet – particularly through the use of social media – has turned the transfer of power to government, into a struggle for power between the elected and the electors.  Then, it has even crossed the political boundaries.  It is not a coincidence that, non-democratic governments quickly see the Internet as their enemy.

For the purpose of exploring what government should be, and what it is supposed to do, democracy is currently perceived as the best example.  It has been so advertized too.  Why?  Because it is closest to the human idea of justice.  A government is understood to be the need of people, and also an expression of the will of the people.  Only in democracy is the need for government met, while honoring the most basic individual need for freedom of expression.  This freedom of expression is a double-edged sword, and unless the people understand its significance, it could become the very thing that destroys democracy through irresponsible employment.

A superior form of democracy can be established if a leader/leaders can be found that actually prove to be above the human limitations of the general public.  This would be a temporary success though, lasting only during the tenure of such leaders.  When such leadership by example happens, the people will genuinely be able to look up to such a leader.  Until such phases of time or before social decay due to over-emphasis on freedom happens, any democratic government is sustained by the stability of its institutions because, institutions are based on ideas that exceed the ability of any individual, even the one who finds himself as a leader.  Would those institutions survive in the face of counter-ideas – the existence and expression of which is made possible by the Internet – remains to be seen!


The Internet – particularly through the use of social media – has turned the transfer of power to government, into a struggle for power.


Why the Internet is the agency for exposing the rise of individualism?

Individualism in the present age, seen in the context of democracy, exists on two different planes.  On the one plane, there are exceptional leaders who stand apart from other leaders and common public for a combination of reasons.  On the other plane, there are individuals in common society who also stand apart from the rest of the public by virtue of excellence in some regard, but do not directly participate in governance.  One would not be wrong in concluding that, human society has often fallen prey to the superficial appeal of certain traits – charm, eloquence, physical form – while overlooking the deeper values that make a person a quality human being.  Even when people have looked deeper, they have tended to search for someone charismatic.  There also seems no absolute agreement on what criteria all would agree upon, in an age when even the gods are criticized!

We are in an age when, individuals are literally free to establish their own criteria for greatness.  Why has this happened?  It is due to the combination of power, freedom, and knowledge.  The Internet was at one time thought to be the medium of bringing information to the people, and it was supposed that it would bring overall social improvement.  In a furtherance of the idea of democracy applied to information, social networking came to be established as fulfilling a very significant need in the global community of humans, even in matters of governance.  Social networking by means of the Internet tested the idea of democracy in a way it was never meant for, nor designed for; it unwittingly revealed the flaws of homogenous social union and interlinking brought about in every community where, democracy is accepted as an idea.  It has to be accepted that, we are still going through an unsettling time of transition, and the speed of changes is very unsettling.

While all these phenomena are taking place in the realm of government and society where democracy has been accepted as an idea, the rise of politics is also inevitable. [Used in this context, politics means: activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization.] Why does this happen?  Legitimate acceptance of a person as leader through total social consensus has never happened on the basis of merit.  It could be that, those who put faith in the idea of democracy as a just basis of forming government, or to be used in the area of creating and sharing information had a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature.  Politics unfailingly emerges in democratic setups because, human beings compete for power and then they stoop to using unfair means for supremacy even if it corrupts the entire system.  When that has happened, merit is no longer the consequential factor in who becomes leader.

Individualism in leadership and in public is a possible expression of the corruption brought about by politics.  There is a conscious attempt to manipulate public opinion and appeal to the masses to reach a position of power, and once that power is achieved, to hold on to that power.  It is difficult to say if, individualism is the cause or the effect of social decay in democratic setups.  It is perhaps an inevitability of democracy because, democracy seeks to equalize all members of society.  Social equality of individuals is a dangerous unreality, a myth; individuals in society are not equal.  Politics becomes a petty means to bypass that equality especially when genuine merit goes unrecognized; to rise above as individuals, and then benefit from the imbalance of power.  The more individuals will see the failure of democracy as those who employ politics succeed, individualism itself will become corrupted to use unfair means of gaining power.  So, it is prudent to conclude that, democracy fails when it becomes an internal competition for supremacy.  Those using unfair means succeed, and it leaves a poor model for society to follow.

Even in a “seemingly” democratic setup of information sharing as through social networking, the failure of democracy is visible.  It is the human tendency to follow people rather than ideas that corrupts the overall setup.  At the same time, to assume that human alliances can be completely done away with is unrealistic.  The way social networks are set up to process and provide information, is usually not even a consideration for most users.  However, in the existing situation, even if an individual succeeds in rising up in the digital or social world, why is it assumed that all the ideas coming from that person will be right and beneficial?  This is true regardless of where individualism succeeds, be it on the plane of leadership or be it on the plane of general society.  The danger of letting any person get to a point where, all the words and ideas coming from the individual are accepted by others without personal consideration is a very harmful state.  Social media is partially successful in countering this rise of individualism, but this very resistance provided by the setup also creates tensions that provoke more extreme ideas and actions by individuals to stand apart in the competition.

Since it has so happened that the Internet has permeated society and government while also connecting the two, individualism has appeared in every place where the idea of democracy has been accepted.  This has shifted democracy into a new realm through abrasive competition of individuals among society.  Democracy seeks to equalize and balance; individualism seeks to dominate democracy through domination and imbalance.  This is the true reflection of human nature that we see in government and society by means of the Internet.  It seems to be substantially overcome only when, an entire society finds common objectives.  A society where everyone works together and puts aside personal ambitions does not exist, for it seems to contradict human nature.  Even when the question of survival is raised, competition rather than cooperation seems to become the favored way of thinking.


So, it is prudent to conclude that, democracy fails when it becomes an internal competition for supremacy.


In this regard, one might say with confidence that those societies that accepted mutually opposing ideals of “capitalistic competition”, “scientific inquiry”, and “democratic equality” brought to us the existing reality seen especially in the Western powers, but subsequently reflected in Eastern countries as well.  There is opportunity for fairness, but also the avenue for injustice.  Democracy was an imperfect system to begin with, but it has continued for as long as it has due to allowing the free coexistence of opposites.  This free coexistence does flare up into troubles, more frequently now than before!

Why the Internet is the agency for exposing the rise of populism?

The Internet by means of the World Wide Web connects people.  In this connecting of people, there is still the outplaying of preferences and beliefs. No one can stop the linking of dissimilarities, but in the connections that are forming between people and ideas, there is the ever-present irrationality of human beings.

It was perhaps a very dangerous assumption that, people and ideas will come together on the Internet in some glorious way, and all of mankind will be lifted up toward some higher, communal existence.  This supposition seems to have been based on the existence of human intelligence and tendency for agreement.  This is not what would have happened, it hasn’t happened, and the present situation bears this out.  Often, this is the problem with visionaries.  They have visions, and their visions must rise above the ground-reality to be reason for inspiration.  With the passage of time, all human visions start a painful descent, and the grave of ideas welcomes another human vision.  It didn’t stop people in the past, and it hasn’t stopped people today from having a vision.  There is yet the possibility of success where other predecessors failed – this is what every visionary continues to believe.  If the previous king couldn’t conquer the desired kingdoms, there will be a king who will succeed in his stead…and so it goes, on and on and on.  Each king, each visionary finally is himself conquered by death.  The most one can hope for is, that the vision will survive.

The way social networks – a very significant part of the Internet – are set up, it is very obviously a platform for populism, right after individualism has found a footing in society.  The human tendency to let someone in leadership position take the bulk of responsibility to think, act, or simply lead and then follow for some personal benefit is seen in action.  Unlike the ideal where, people stand for or against an idea due to the virtue or vice of it, people simply prove to be focused on some personal objective for purposes of gain.  Social networks are largely organized on a reward system.  The reactions of people are the reward, and there is ongoing measurement of reactions in favor and those against.  The very ability to produce a reaction on Facebook or Twitter is considered as evidence of power – the power to influence.  Leaders take pleasure in this public response, even if there is little accomplishment through all this exchange.

This phenomenon can be seen happening over and over on social networks.  A segment of followers adhere to the opinions and words of a person in power or in a celebrated position, regardless of what that specific opinion is.  For as long as there is the energy and time to analyze the words of others, a person will do so, but situations emerge when it becomes difficult.  A person is lacking in energy and in time.  From then on, it is the pre-existing programming or the mindless following of a leader that takes over.  This must eventually happen!  There are decisions made at the very basic levels of instinct and conscience that take control in the very extreme of situations, and those have been shaped by the most formative of influences.  Even so, no human – no matter how strong and wise – will not be flawless.  Certainly, a social examination is not the ideal measure of human responses since society itself is undergoing rapid, deep, and tumultuous changes.  And yet, this is precisely what social networks have done by becoming the instrument of change and also dividing people into camps of populist separation.  Over a period of time, the effects of changes caused by social networks and the Internet are deep as the mind is simultaneously becoming shallow and ill-focused.


…social networks… the instrument of change and also dividing people into camps of populist separation.


Populist followings – the true currency of the future of democratic leadership

Already, democracy has descended into a shameless number game.  Many measure the strength of a leader by the numbers of people behind him on social networks.  Analysis and statistics of popular support continue to measure the legitimacy of a leader during and after the process of election is over.  But wasn’t that the original idea behind the democratic model of government from the very beginning?  The quality of democratic government has certainly become degraded with the social decline that was to necessarily come as a result of freedom of the people, and weakening of the government.  The most basic reality we are left with is, people are the same as currency.  The more “popular currency” one has, the more social power one has, and the result of this social power is the obtaining and maintaining of leadership position.

Yes, in the dividing of population too, not every individual holds the same currency value; not every person is of the same denomination.  A celebrity with a large popular following, whether he or she himself entertains political aspirations or not, is a currency note with a higher value.  His actions and words have a greater effect.  In terms of value, one celebrated sportsman, actor, musician, or industrialist has far more value than many beggars, teachers, or office clerks who do not have the same popularity.  Even though the Internet is supposed to level out this difference, it has not really done so in actual society.  Had the Internet or social networks succeeded in this regard, merit of individuals based on ideas would have been recognized and rewarded.  A systemic change – should it happen – such a recognition and rewarding of ideas should be the goal of technology, at the level of society and finally at the level of individuals.


Had the Internet or social networks succeeded in this regard, merit of individuals based on ideas would have been recognized and rewarded.


This is the great crisis of all democratic systems we are facing today – governmental and informational: the merit of ideas is being relegated to a less and less important place.  To further confound the picture, we do not see the social calibre that would recognize such ideas.  After all, if casting a vote and then looking at the sum of votes behind a person or an idea is the yardstick, we would need to have a society that has individual members that cannot be swayed by fear or temptation.  We need society with individual members who have themselves the weighing power to evaluate ideas, determine consequences, communicate with each other and come to an agreement on what is good for the entire society.  It would be slow, but it would be lasting.  Even upon adoption of an idea, it should not adversely affect a section of society in such a way that the entire society itself starts to disintegrate.  Going back to the example of currency: we need society in which the difference between individual members not be so great that, members with lower value are entirely overlooked.  This could never be achieved by democracy, and thus should not realistically be considered as one of its goals.

What could be the likely future of human society and of the government as individualism and populism coexist?

If we are to accept that individualism and populism are going to be the constant reality of the future – signs of which are already visible – then, division of society on the basis of objectives and merits is also inevitable.  This fragmentation is the only way to keep order, even if not real peace.

The fact has to be accepted that, democracy will last only when the internal friction of society is kept to a minimum.  Otherwise, as the Internet and social networking makes disputes possible, it will be absolutely impossible to keep unity.  Once social disunity due to diversity of opinion has escalated, freedom of expression will surely come into question.  Also, it will not be possible to calm the crowds without use of force.  That is a very undesirable situation, and it will make violence come upon those too who simply desire nothing more than to live a calm and quiet life.  What is desirable right now is, maturity to abstain from escalating violence in speech.  The leaders themselves should set an example.

The signs of public dissatisfaction and expression of it are already seen at an alarming level from around the world, but more pronounced in certain parts.  People are dissatisfied with the government in particular.  Venomous criticism and abuse is let loose on social networks and on the Internet without any consideration of consequences.  One thing that can most easily be noticed is, there is such speech against individuals and entire communities.  It is less so directed toward institutions.  Perhaps the reason is, that people have in mind the permanence of institutions far more than they accept the permanence of individuals or even communities.  When the existence of democratic institutions themselves comes under threat and people see their collapse, it truly will be the alteration of how people perceive life, relationships, and society.  Some would think, it is unrealistic or naive to think of the collapse of institutions.  This is however, happening before our very eyes as respect for institutions suffers harm.  So the current attempt is to reform and revise rather than abandon the establishments that have held society in place.  It is giving people a chance to decide, to take sides.  The time will come when, the deepest underlying ideas of each individual and institution will be revealed as to what they are, and what they are worth.

The Internet and social networks have given people opportunity to be aware of and to think of the bigger issues.  What is lacking still is, a meaningful and serious understanding.  It is for this reason that the idea of democracy is important because, to our mind, it still affords society the opportunity to recognize amongst itself those who have this quality of understanding.  Even if we have made the mistake of concentrating power into the hands of individuals, and perhaps the present time makes it seem legitimate, those with understanding of the bigger issues must have the chance to be close to those leaders who find themselves in position of power.  The Internet in its present form is a less than ideal, but the best means we have today.

There are two things that must happen in a democratic system – government or information – to make it sustainable.  There need be decentralization and dilution of power.  The time for this is not now; it is yet future.  If power of the leaders is decentralized and diluted in the present time, it will give an opening to some very old issues – ideological issues raised by powerful forces of religion, especially the Abrahamic faiths.  Where the collapse of society and human leadership starts to coincide with prophecy, the longstanding expectations of believers will take over even before actual action from God.  If those ideological issues get the opportunity to come out into the open when there would be a simultaneous weakening of governance and control, mobs will descend into senseless violence.  This is already a time of impatience on the part of the people when in fact, the God of Abraham is Himself One who typically demonstrated tremendous restraint and patience through the centuries.


There need be decentralization and dilution of power.  The time for this is not now; it is yet future.


 

There is an example from the Hebrew scriptures that stands out as unique in the history of mankind because it reminds us of the future that is to be: the confusion of human language and how people spread all over the earth.  It stands apart in history because, the truth of that incident in borne out by human society even today!  As long as the division of language exists among humans, regardless of how much effort humans put forth to unite on a global scale, the very mind of humans starts from concepts that are fundamentally differentiated on the basis of the original language of the thinker.  This has a direct effect on governance because, to govern any society it has to be unified by some common objectives and interpretation of situations.

The Western civilization has used the philosophical thoughts emerging from it and the English language to unify the world.  In more recent times, trade and technology has the method of influence.  One cannot honestly say, that these ideas have spread purely on their merit.  Coercion, imperialism, and aggressive military power coincided.  Also, the places where these influences reached, turned into territories for exploitation.  For all the good and bad reasons, we have seen that happens when ideas are imposed on society instead of giving them a chance to evaluate the idea and accept them willingly.  At this present time, we are in a position on a global scale to see the decay of democracy, even if not its absolute destruction at the hands of the very societies that accepted it.  This is the evidence which is most powerfully being demonstrated before the eyes of onlookers, causing an awakening of the mind through asking fundamental questions.  With these questions, we also have the threat to the stability of democratic institutions and governments that are in existence today, from their own societies.

This discussion is necessary in considering the future of both, governments and society.  There is already taking place an unmistakable systemic shift, and what we have at present is a lot of uncertainty.  Unless we recognize and agree upon, what are the fundamental requirements of a human society, the way forward will be marred by even more uncertainty.  The thing holding countries together is certain common objectives regarding quality of life, and also the fear of what may happen if the flow of globalization is suddenly halted or reversed.  The countries of the world surely must be thinking of the many years yet to come.  Their actions today are demonstrating this awareness when they meet at the UN, BRICS, NATO, or at G-20.  Human society is also deeply aware, and every step of a government taken to shape the future is seen with skepticism and distrust.  The loss of confidence in the individual or collective human ability to solve the issues before us is the greatest threat to democracy, and this is very powerful.  Those who anticipate calamity are not being unrealistic!  What we are witnessing today is, the human desperation to keep hope.




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