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The significance of recent protests for democracy

There is a certain historical justice about TIME magazine’s choice of its 2011 Person of the Year: The Protestor, with the sub-script, “From the Arab Spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow”. What managing editor Richard Stengel writes on page 7 of this issue (December 26, 2011/January 2, 2012), resonates with Albert Camus’s contention that for everyone there is a point where they start rebelling or resisting. Stengel says:

History often emerges in retrospect. Events become significant only when looked back on. No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that the spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy. Protests have now occurred in countries whose populations total at least 3 billion people, and the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history. Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough…the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, ‘the people’, and the meaning of democracy is the people rule. And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets. America is a nation conceived in protest, and protest is in some ways the source code for democracy – and evidence of the lack of it.

It would appear that this veritable eruption of protests in the course of 2011 has been building up for some time, judging by what Hardt and Negri wrote in Multitude (2005:268-288), where they listed and discussed a number of “global demands for democracy” in the contemporary world. According to them, these demands, which even at that time had been increasing in strength, were directed at governmental authorities and multinationals in an attempt to communicate a variety of grievances pertaining to serious encroachments on the principles of democracy – something conspicuously brought into focus by Stengel (above) just the other day once again – and explained by Hardt and Negri as governance with the participation of the people.

The worldwide protests against the global political and economic system could therefore be understood as a sign that “democracy cannot be made or imposed from above” (2005:237). Hardt and Negri listed three principal elements which recur constantly across the board in all the global demands in question as preconditions for democracy, namely (2005:269-270): “…the critique of existing forms of representation, the protest against poverty, and the opposition to war”. What occurred in 2011 (and is still continuing) is therefore closely related to the demands listed by them (especially the first two).

It is also important to keep in mind that the grievances identified by them are inextricably connected to what they (Hardt and Negri 2005:232-238) took to be an increasingly obsolete political conceptualisation and vocabulary, which were forged in the crucible of the birth of modernity, and which could increasingly be seen as having little purchase on the requirements for democracy in the postmodern, globalised world.

Drawing a parallel between the social and political significance of the more than 40000 “cahiers de doléances” (lists of grievances) compiled all over France and submitted to Louis XVI just prior to the French Revolution of 1789, and the accumulating lists of similar grievances – ranging from the most local contexts to the “highest”, most encompassing levels of governance – they observed (Hardt & Negri 2005:269): “Perhaps we can see the protests against the present form of globalization in the same light today and read in them the potential figure of a new global society.”

I believe that the more recent series of protests across the world, involving a range of related political and economic issues, has vindicated Hardt and Negri’s observations published in 2005, and their shrewd insight, that a new vocabulary is needed to conceptualise politics anew, in a manner commensurate with the requirements of an age that is no longer synonymous with modernity.

Their more recent work, Commonwealth (2009), seems to have anticipated the protests of 2011 and beyond even more accurately, and may be connected with the need for a new political vocabulary, articulated in 2005. For Hardt and Negri in Commonwealth the realisation, that revolution of any kind should be understood from within the immanent forces of revolution itself, instead of rooting it in transcendental principles, was already evident in the work of Adorno and Horkheimer (Hardt en Negri 2009:22), although these critical theorists did not break through the “scholastic” level to the point where their conceptualisation of revolution was situated in the thick of activism or militant action itself. According to them, such a practice-oriented theorisation is found in the work of Mario Tronti and Cornelius Castoriades. The possibility of developing the “new political vocabulary” (referred to earlier) is therefore located precisely at the point where theory and protest (or revolution, of the kind witnessed in Tahrir Square early in 2011) meet. They elaborate as follows (Hardt en Negri 2009:24):

“Key is the immersion of the analysis in the struggles of the subordinated and exploited, considered as the matrix of every institutional relationship and every figure of social organization…revolutionary research constantly has to follow and be redefined by the forms of social movements.”

One therefore has every reason to expect political philosophers and theorists of all stripes to have begun engaging with the lessons there are to be learned from the revolutions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, and the ongoing protests of different kinds in Syria, Yemen, Greece, Russia and other countries, expressing outrage at political and economic oppression. It seems clear to me that the understanding of how democracy could, and perhaps should, function in a changed world, may well emerge from a close scrutiny of individuals’ involvement in these protests.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 January 2012


    Since both Gustav Landauer and Erich Muehsam were writers and philosophers, who were arrested by the same Freikorps already mentioned by me, and Landauer in fact stoned to death by them in May 1919, I don’t see how you can quote them as historians?

    IIt was because the anarchists were against social structure that when they did get into power they closed all the cafes, put the students in change of the universities, and nationalised ALL businesses – which is why the socialists got cold feet and called in the Freikorp.

    This is why I go off philosophers – all this pie-in-the sky impractical theorising.

  2. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 13 January 2012

    By not making falsifiable, then my interpretation of the OWS has as much merit as yours (it being unspecified nonsense and possibilities being endless). If it is falsifiable, it would be easy for you and me to come to terms with what OWS is about. Direct democracy? Move to Switzerland.

    For the most part, all the tearjerker posters I’ve seen circle around blunt stupidity: “I have 3 kids I cannot afford, we are the 99%”, “I can’t afford to pay my study debt, we are the 99%”, “I need a mammogram, we are the 99%”. Or even worse “Daddy is rich, I have no idea how he got that way, but We are the 1% and we think justice means sharing the silver spoon”.

    OWS doesn’t know what it is itself, but it knows that the Tea Party Movement is astroturfing and so is the We are the 53% movement. Any interpretation of the Arab Spring or OWS that doesn’t follow the pied piper’s tune is suspect, but anything that confirms the official story is accepted without much second guessing. Protesting has become a commodity. These armchair revolutions are filled with rhetoric but devoid of a suitable context. I’m afraid this is not the libertarian socialist (or whichever flavour it is this week) uprising you were hoping for, because The Left have in fact lost the debate, that’s why they’re out on the streets using force and inside tertiary institutes denying reason and dodging any rational scrutiny with flexible definitions of simple dictionary terms like, say, anarchism.

  3. Aragorn23 Aragorn23 14 January 2012

    @HD: Exactly. Most of the left nowadays (except in parts of good old Marxist-traditionalist SA, *sigh*) has internalized the Frankfurt School, poststructuralism, etc.

    Hoppe and co. still seem to argue the a priori thing on, so I assumed it was still a dominant strain of free market thought. I’m glad to hear that empirical inquiry has entered back into their practice though.

    Your link is interesting, but upon skimming it (will give it more attention later), the following stands out as immediately controversial: “For heterodox economists, markets don’t satisfy, they exploit. They deny the invisible hand. The Austrians don’t.”

  4. Aragorn23 Aragorn23 14 January 2012

    @Lyndall: I didn’t quote them as historians; I merely cited them as people who wrote down their thoughts and observations.

    @Garg: Many anarchists share elements of your critique of Occupy; it is entirely wrong, however, to appeal to dictionary definitions of terms like anarchism that are contextually and historically defined. That said, no, Occupy is not the libertarian socialist revolution I’ve been waiting for…could it be a start, or a move in the right direction? Certainly, which is why I’ve invested some energy into working with local Occupy movements and defending the movement in public, online, etc.

    As for ‘the Left’ losing the debate, I’d like to emphasize the fact that anarchists don’t really comfortably fit into this broad category; we have almost as many problems with ‘the Left’ as cranky right wing minarchists do.

  5. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 14 January 2012

    It seems wrong to me to be ignorant of dictionary definitions. The dictionary is after all there to maintain a standard and to avoid side quibbles over True Scotchmen and Scotch Taped Men. It does not matter what you mean by anarchism and what the dictionary claims it means. Just like it doesn’t matter what the OWS crowd means with democracy – we know what it means and for the most part, we have it. If anarchism doesn’t have a falsifiable definition, there is no wrong definition (that’s what falsifiable means).

    Same goes for capitalism, which everyone seems to agree is the true evil of the day, but nobody seems to look it up in the dictionary to see what it is about, or consider that we’ve tried alternatives nearly identical to ‘resource based economies’ or mixed economies (what we currently have). instead they seem to rely on this or that arbitrary thinker like Žižek or Chomsky to define capitalism, then fight tooth and nail about arbitrary definitions in order to avoid the topic, short before long it degrades into emotive ‘what about the planet/children/previously disadvantaged?’ drivel.

    I’m not so interested in what anarchism isn’t, I’m more interested in what it is and how it will be better than our current system, where most people do enjoy relative personal and economic freedom. I’m for any alternative to our mixed economy that grants more of both and opposed to any system that will limit either.

  6. HD HD 14 January 2012


    I recommend going through it in more detail, because Boettke does a nice job of emphasising the Austrian interest it the institutional nature of markets – what are the rules and ideas that underpin create markets?

    He also takes a fair amount of time emphasising that Austrians don’t believe markets are perfect under all conditions (real world not theoretically) but with the right rules in place are sufficiently robust to deliver better results than other institutional arrangements (in the real world).

    He doesn’t go deeply into this but if you regularly follow “coordination problem” or other Hayekian Austrians, you will see that these guys have moved on considerably past the Rothbard/Hoppe/Block framework that you seem found to associate with free-market libertarians.

    As an example Leeson/Coyne’s work on Pirates and Nation Building are stuff that should be of interest to all anarchists.

  7. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 15 January 2012

    @ Garg

    For the first time you have raised a point I would take issue with.

    We do not have at all a satisfactory definition of ‘democracy’ in this and most other discussions of its kind and certainly we do not have one that is broadly agreed or understood. Terms like ‘real’ democracy are without meaning and people presumably employ them because they feel, or wish to suggest, that some indefinable ideal is notwithstanding attainable. It is a good thing in one way, a release at least, but the absence of agreed premises also means all manner of hobby horses are ridden all over the place and I often doubt much is added to everyone’s understanding in the end.

    Perhaps the same may be said on the subject of anarchism – though I would imagine in that case each anarchist can claim that, in the nature of things, the term obviously defies pinning down.

  8. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 15 January 2012

    You raise a valid point, though it’s not about definitions as much as it is about implementation. America does have a democracy, as their rule is by the people via freely elected representatives. Furthermore, you raise the point of a difference between ideology and systems of government. Democracy is often confused with being an ideology as it is grounded in ideologies of equal rights and privileges, it is rather a system of government. It appears to me that OWS is more ideologically driven than driven by the need for a different system of government, despite the few commonly held demands being for a different system of government (Robin Hood-type rob from the rich and give to the poor policies, with government’s purpose being to oversee how other people’s assets are looted by show of hands).

    OWS appears anti-Capitalist (or against its understanding of Capitalism, whereas America is a mixed economy like China) and not so much pro-democracy in the sense of being concerned with equal rights and privileges. OWS is more concerned with income equality than legal equality (equal rights).

    Conversely, the Arab Spring is at the completely opposite side of the spectrum, it being an anti-authoritarian state movement.

  9. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 15 January 2012

    @ Garg –

    Yes, but democracy is ‘defined’ in line with how broader realities – the struggle for power, the course of events – shape the form ‘implementation’ (which is to say institutions) takes in each case – people’s democracies, representative democracies, constitutional and parliamentary democracies, and so on. Many seem also to think what is needed is ‘direct’ democracy, without making clear how that is to be achieved beyond referring to ancient Athens. And that still leaves out what ideology contributes to the general muddle. Many reject the US is a ‘democracy’ at all, prefering instead a term like plutocracy; others are unpersuaded a party-state is a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word.

    One doesn’t want to insist, stuffily, on definitions – life is short. But there is a problem in all talking about different things, if only that radicals are not then put on the spot to say what they want or feel would be a better arrangement for human affairs.

  10. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 15 January 2012

    I see what you mean. I don’t think Ancient Athens is a very good model for democracy, although they did initially decide on public leaders with some kind of lottery instead of with voting. They had a system more similar to that of England, with some elites still having more equal representation than the rest, so in that aspect America’s democracy is more representative if you will. Direct democracy merely speeds up decision making but does not really solve any of the difficulties of opposing pressure groups fighting each other for loot instead of being concerned with solving problems.

    To me, many of the problems with democracy can be avoided with more individual autonomy and less reliance on authorities to give us our daily bread, but I seem to be more or less alone in this kind of thinking. Most people want to vote for someone to give them free health care, free education and a more or less equal wealth distribution. This implies a claim to resources that are not earned. Everyone cannot keep on taking, someone has to put something back. Debt lies at the root of all recent financial crisis. Governments are faced with taxing more or going deeper into foreign debt to fund social welfare spending. Both these often lead to revolutions.

    But what you’re saying underscores my point: It is of no use to run around in the streets if you don’t know exactly what you’re protesting for or how you intend on achieving it. To get there, clear definitions are the first step.

  11. HD HD 16 January 2012


    I agree. In any way “democracy” contains an institutional, cultural, political and procedural element. There are many ways to think about these components on their own or how they relate to one another.

  12. HD HD 16 January 2012


    “Direct democracy” is a nice ideal but represent several logistical and moral problems that are often not properly thought through by its advocates – especially those that stress deliberative variants. (Mark Pennington’s Robust Political Economy discusses this in great detail). Some limitations include:

    (1) Logistical – In deliberative democracies models everyone has a “voice” and needs to be heard in order for consensus to be agreed upon. Many advocates have conceded that this is impossible in complex societies and look at representative models. These on their on terms present problems – can representatives really “voice” and understand the concerns of those they are supposed to represent? Secondly, if you respond by devolving the polity to smaller units – why not go all the way to individuals? (of course deliberative democrats criticise the classic liberal focus on individuals)

    (2) Moral – Some moral problems include that not everyone can equally voice (express) their concerns/preferences. Often the “voice(s)” that win out our those that are more articulate or better organised. (No wonder intellectuals prefer such models). Secondly a lot of knowledge/experience/information is not easily expressed (Cape Town is racist feeling) but important to peoples decisions.

    (3) Consensus – Reaching consensus is also difficult if you admit that communities change and individual preferences change. Deliberative systems are not well adapted (robust) to handle…

  13. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 January 2012

    HD/Garg –

    It seems what sets people at odds in all these debates – the philosophical point at issue, if you like – is the view or conviction that some undefined ideal exists that is there to be achieved, an assertion it is plainly impossible (and maybe undesirable) to refute; whereas others take it as more realistic, and possibly more fruitful, to consider only how one existing order compares with another.

    The ideologue does not believe the latter and the pragmatist does not believe anything else.

  14. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 16 January 2012

    Ah, yes Paul I understand what you mean now. It’s a bit ingenious, because the goal posts change all the time so there is no effective debate.

    I think democracy is a fundamentally flawed idea. I can only echo Winston Churchill: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

  15. HD HD 16 January 2012

    “The ideologue does not believe the latter and the pragmatist does not believe anything else”.

    Powerful stuff. Spontaneous orders, competitive institutional arrangements, social experimentation, competition, tacit knowledge, knowledge problems, cultural evolution…add these and that line could have belonged to Hayek :)

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 16 January 2012

    The Greek philosophers said that the biggest threat to a functioning democracy was if the people chose “orators” who were glib speakers (nowdays we would call them populists) and not men of integrity.

    Plato went as far as to say that power should not be given to those who want it, but the people should seek out people of integrity to lead, who do not want power.

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 16 January 2012

    Thanks, your example of Cape Town is racist boo hoo is very appropriate. I also enjoyed your link to Peter Boettke, though he does seem to cling to the idea of rational agents and efficient markets (I think Aragorn23 is right to be slightly horrified here), which are more in line with Chicago School than Austrian School economics. He does make it clear that he’s more pragmatic, though. Boettke notes that Austrian thinking does try to anticipate the impact these cultural and social phenomena has on people’s spending, very much in tune with Economics in One Lesson.

    It’s also interesting to me that he’d write on Russia and how its egalitarianism by any means necessary methods failed, not to mention the folly of trying to plan without price mechanisms. I wonder if Boettke has an ideal system, like the Anarcho-Capitalists hold the Icelandic Commonwealth as an ideal? Besides pirates which are obviously superior.

  18. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 17 January 2012

    In the days of the Greek City States and the birth of Democracy – church had not been seperated from state, politics had not been seperated from principles, psychology had not been seperated from philosophy – so the vision of the Greek philosophers is often broader than the nit-picking of the moderns.

    Man has not changed since he became man – knowledge increases and technology – and so does fanaticism and superstition, and the fanatics then burn the books with the knowlege which does not fit into their superstition.

    The Roman Catholic Church burned books – the most tragic being the library at Alexandria.

    The Nazis burned books.

    The Taliban in Afghanistan burned books.

    In the end even they know that “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

  19. The Creator The Creator 17 January 2012

    Hmmm. A nice long thread, bravo.

    But any text which ends with a frothy waffle from Hardt and Negri, those two egregious pseuds, is difficult to take seriously.

    In reality, none of the “recent protests” have much to do with democracy per se. Tunisia and Libya were special-interest power-grabs (the latter orchestrated by Western imperialism) and Egypt attempted to be the same, except that the army got its blow in first. There’s no real sign that either the gunmen or the businessmen of Syria want to bring democracy to their country; they just want to run things themselves.

    And is OWS really into democracy, except for their own internal democracy? Well, they are opposed to corporate rule, and that’s a foundational principle for democracy in the modern world. But I haven’t seen them providing any ideas of how to change the Western kleptocracy into something where the general public might have any say in government.

  20. HD HD 17 January 2012


    Follow Boettke & co on He is very much against the Chicago school notion of rational agents and efficient markets – he is Austrian after all. Although most of the George Mason crowd are Hayekian Austrian’s (if you have label them) they all were Rothbardians at one stage and still teach (imagine that) from Rothbard and have a lot of respect for his work. I see them as having moved passed the “worshiping” of Rothbard/Mises that you could accuse some of the Mises crowd off (although many there also will not agree with everything Rothbard/Mises said and more open minded than given credit for by critics). They have a much broader research interest as well that includes public choice, institutional economics and experimental economics. They are also open to mainstream academia and other economist ideas that can contribute to “good economics” and help answer their research problems. The comment sections gets responses for the whos-who of classic liberalism and libertarian academics as well as some good critics.

    Boettke has a strong research interested in political-economy. He actively promotes young scholar under him and the positive anarchy research program. But check it out yourself…

  21. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 18 January 2012

    The Greek City States, where democracy started, all had one religion, one language, and one culture – even if the states were rivals – very much like America, where the only reason they make such a fuss about skin colour is that it is the only difference they have.

    Nowdays “democracy” means that those who kill off or outbreed their enemies can suppress their culture in the name of “majority rule”.

    Whether Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, Chinese in Indonesia, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Native Americans in the USA, Basques in Spain/France, Tibetans and Mongolians in the historically fictious “Greater China”, or the Kurds in Turkey/Iraq.

  22. Lennon Lennon 19 January 2012

    @Lyndall Beddy:

    I think you could sum modern “democracy” up like this: “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for lunch.”


  23. Lennon Lennon 19 January 2012

    On a more serious note:

    Since modern democracy often rests on ethnic or religious bias, what would it take to change the mindset of citizens?

    To me it would seem logical to vote for whichever party runs the government (be it national, provincial or municipal) like a proper business.

    Personally, I would prefer a party that espouses libertarian values, but will settle for the next-best thing if a party is capable of managing my tax money and state resources efficiently. Minimal-to-no corruption is also a big plus.

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