Two Faces of the “Democratic Movement”
Posted by Taimur Rahman on July 1, 2008
The concept of democracy is one of those murky terms that means all things to all people. Whether it is the occupation of Iraq or the Palestinian struggle against occupation both are conducted in the name of democracy. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto died for democracy, Nawaz Sharif suffered years of exile for democracy, Imran Khan supported Musharraf to bring about “haqiqi democracy” and then opposed him to bring about real democracy. Even the Jamaat e Islami, that long time ally of General Zia ul Haq, now speaks in the name of democracy. It would not be incorrect, therefore, to consider the term democracy to be a hegemonic concept in the world today.
Literally, the word democracy means rule by the people. According to Ellen Mieksin Wood (“Capitalism Against Democracy”) the ruling classes of ancient Rome were completely opposed to the concept of democracy. In fact, the ruling elite considered democracy no different from “mob rule”. However, modern ruling classes speak in the name of democracy. How did this transition occur?
This transition was made possible because the modern system of parliaments retains the form of democracy but excludes the political content of democracy. The political content of democracy was encapsulated eloquently in Lincoln’s famous phrase “rule by the people, for the people, and of the people”. The form of democracy is the representative parliamentary system. Thus, while the form of democracy (i.e. the parliamentary system) has become hegemonic, its political content (i.e. peoples rule) remains an elusive goal.
Democracy reemerged as a hegemonic concept in the struggle of the capitalists against the feudal monarchy overthrown by the capitalist-democratic revolutions and transformations of 1648 (Britain), 1776 (USA), and 1789 (France). And in the context of the neo-colonial world, it has come to signify the struggle to overcome both pre-capitalist and colonial relations in favour of modern representative institutions of the type found in the West today. In Pakistan, however, it has come to mean almost exclusively the struggle against military rule. Why has the meaning of democracy become so narrow in Pakistan?
The struggles against successive military dictatorships were no doubt successful in so far as they managed to displace the military rulers of that period. However, they failed to bring about any systemic change to the state or social structure of the country. Hence, in a historical sense and from the point of view of a transformation from a neo-colonial state to a democratic state they failed to achieve their goals. As a result of these failures, the expectations, the goals, the vision of the democratic movement shrank, not only in the minds of politicians belonging to various propertied classes, but even in the minds of the rank and file of the movement. Yesterday the word democracy evoked aspirations of land reforms, national sovereignty against imperialism, a welfare state that would supply health, education, and employment, a society that would guarantee equality of all nations, equal of race, gender, religion and caste and so on. Today the word democracy has become narrowed to one singular item: the struggle against military rule. In sum, the reviving democratic movement bears the imprint of yesterday’s failures.
As a result, today the democratic movements finds itself, ironically, in the company of people that were trenchant opponents of democracy yesterday (for instance the Jamaat e Islami). It should be self-evident that not all those that speak in the name of democracy today, objectively stand for its political content. It is because of this disjuncture between the content and form of democracy that the words “democratic movement” are placed in inverted commas in the title of this essay.
It is my contention that there are at least two faces of the so-called “democratic movement” (i.e. the movement against Musharraf). The first is democratic, the other reactionary.
The progressive face of the democratic movement is opposed to the coup because it violated the right of people to be governed by elected representatives, it is opposed to the parasitic economic character of the military, it is opposed to the neo-liberal policies of the regime that resulted in the rising cost of living for ordinary people, it is opposed to monopolistic practices of Musharraf¢s supporters that caused the sugar, wheat, and cement crisis, it is opposed to the wanton murder of people in Balochistan and so on.
The reactionary face of opposition to Musharraf is not primarily opposed to the above mentioned issues. In fact, they have supported or been the direct beneficiaries of many of these policies. The reactionary face of the opposition to Musharraf is opposed to the U-turn on the policies that were continuing from the Zia period. They are opposed to the de-escalation of war with India or support for insurgents in Kashmir, they are opposed to the spread of relatively liberal values on the media, they are opposed to the retraction of support for Jihadi groups, they are opposed to the operation against Lal Masjid, the clamp down on foreign jihadi groups, they are opposed to legislation such as the Women¢s Protection Bill, or the holding of mixed marathons.
While these issues are not mutually exclusive and there are many individuals that straddle the fence, however, at the mass level one can clearly identify these two political trends.
The lawyers movement, that is not outside these society wide influences, is equally ideologically split along these trends. Progressive and reactionary factions are struggling externally against the establishment and internally for the hegemony of the movement.
Since the formation of the democratic government, the lawyers movement has seen a precipitous drop in the participation of PPP. The party in power no longer needs or wants to utilize the street. They wish to utilize the National Assembly. As a result, the lawyers movement on the streets has seen a massive drop in the participation of relatively progressive PPP grassroots workers. As a result in comparison to the protests before the election, the Long March was heavily dominated by right-wing political parties.
The APDM (dominated by the JI and PTI) is attempting to dominate the lawyers movement. The genuine leadership of the lawyers movement including Aitzaz Ahsen, Munir Malik, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Anwar Kamal, Asma Jehangir has come under increasing criticism from the APDM for not undertaking a sit-in at the end of the long march. However, the question of the dharna must be seen in the wider context of the struggle between the reactionary and progressive faces of the movement.
Thus, it is vital to support the relatively progressive face of the lawyers movement and the democratic movement. Support for the progressive face of the lawyers movement will eventually widen the democratic space available to society. It would be a fatal mistake to support the reactionary face of the lawyers movement because it will result in a reversal of the democratic space available to society and society may become dominated by reactionary elements that have been the pillars of past dictatorships.
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