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NON-FICTION: THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY?

February 10, 2019

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Protestors in yellow vests stand near a burning vehicle. Alain Bertho’s book comes out at a time when unrest in his country is resulting in scenes of rioting in Paris reminiscent of the Third World | Reuters
Protestors in yellow vests stand near a burning vehicle. Alain Bertho’s book comes out at a time when unrest in his country is resulting in scenes of rioting in Paris reminiscent of the Third World | Reuters

French anthropologist Alain Bertho’s new book, The Age of Violence: The Crisis of Political Action and the End of Utopia, offers a simple premise: the increasing global incidence of urban strife in the world today is attributable to the failure of representative democracy as we know and practise it. Elections might be able to ignite violence, but they fail to enthuse voters, if we were to examine global polling turnout trends. The youth have grown weary of democracy’s inability to improve lives and so, are turning towards violence to bring about the change they wish to see in the world around them.

For Bertho, governments’ duplicity plays a part here. Politicians’ lip service to delivery, but failure to do much, has caused the public to view all official information with incredulity. Today’s politicos find it more important to be seen to act, rather than actually deliver on manifesto promises. Speeches and statements by politicians are designed so carefully that more important than content is the words chosen, so that they make for good publicity. At the same time, the internet has exposed the youth to so much information outside of what they learn in formal education, that they have lost faith in what is taught in schools as the ‘truth’, and become prone to conspiracy theories that abound on social media — the ‘alternative facts’ that pedagogy fails to talk about.

But is that why the youth are rapidly losing faith in government as an institution? Not entirely, for the author identifies globalisation as the leading culprit here. As the world shrinks further and further, the legitimacy of the state becomes compromised in the minds of the public (think how demonstrators in Pakistan often blame international actors for decisions ostensibly taken in Islamabad). Globalisation thus furthers the youth’s belief that their elected government is useless; conspiracy theories and ministers’ doublespeak add fuel to the fire. Consequently, young people turn to violence.

A French anthropologist argues that rising global urban unrest is mainly because of a waning of public trust in traditional civic relations

Bertho is unequivocal that religion is not to be blamed for modern violent acts. Rather, he alleges that the youth find refuge — and meaning — in radicalism after despairing of the entire system of voting in representatives. Citing the example of the 2005 riots in France that stretched over three weeks and led to over 2,000 arrests, he says the riots were initially believed to have stemmed from radical interpretations of Islam, but later research found unemployment, lack of social integration of ethnic minorities and police tactics to be more culpable.

The author talks extensively about the rise of the militant group Islamic State (IS) and its ability to attract Muslim youth born and brought up in the West owing to their disillusionment with politics as a means of organising relations between people and governments. France has been particularly affected: Bertho quotes rather shocking research from 2014, according to which almost a sixth of French citizens had a favourable view of IS — considerably more than their counterparts in Germany and the United Kingdom.

Developments in the French-speaking world are understandably the focus of much of the author’s discussion, though events taking place outside the Francosphere are discussed as well. Bertho believes the French hijab ban to be a classic example of policy backfire: instead of mainstreaming the ethnic Muslim minority, it marginalised them even more because women — forced to leave the public education system owing to their inability to cover their heads — ended up marrying and staying home instead of joining the workforce, as they might have. The principle of liberty simply became a tool of oppression in the right wing’s hand, he alleges.

Bertho juxtaposes the Charlie Hebdo incident within the globalisation debate. He says that in the pre-globalisation era, what a relatively obscure French magazine (it was certainly no Newsweek or Time) published might not have mattered as much as it does today, when the internet makes sure that people in all corners of the world find out. What the French might have found funny in the 1960s is no longer acceptable to this new, global audience that even Charlie Hebdo would not have imagined it has, leading to the violent outcome. At the same time, he questions the genuineness of the subsequent outrage in the Western world (remember Je suis Charlie?). He alleges that, despite its speedy proliferation on social media, it was not representative of mass sentiment, and was overshadowed by praise for the French police (police brutality being a global problem), leading to further endorsement of the French state by the world’s leadership. These are all indicators that it was a departure from a “truly revolutionary” social movement, the likes of the civil unrest France witnessed during the ’60s.

Indeed, the author thinks the failure of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century to bring about change in people’s lives has contributed to the success of the jihadist mindset, where martyrdom is viewed as more rewarding than civic unrest. The defining moment for the failure of revolution as a concept in the youths’ minds was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has rendered Marxism an abstract topic of academic debate in universities rather than a practical alternative path. Bertho thinks that today’s “revolutions” don’t bring credible governments to power, owing to the state’s ability to enact deals with revolutionaries under the table. Indeed, the biggest casualty of the end of communism has been the global rejection of the political class, and its replacement by religion as a saviour.

The book ends on a rather sombre note: that governments are wholly incapable of handling the evolving global situation — the European refugee crisis being a prime example — and that groups such as the IS have risen and expanded in this vacuum. The situation is dire enough that youth who were born in the West and grew up far away from the Middle East see no hope in enacting change except through terrorism. This is indeed a sad state of affairs.

This relatively thin book has been translated from French into English. This makes it likely that some of the author’s original thoughts were lost in translation; always a challenge with translated academic work. Looking past this possibility, the reader might then wonder what makes the author’s argument particularly novel. After all, the thesis that militant Islam can be explained by socio-political and economic exclusion of Muslims has been voiced by numerous academics, including Bertho’s own compatriot Olivier Roy. Secondly, Bertho appears to see meaning in almost all recent urban violence, but at least some recent riots have arguably been comprised of rebels without a cause (consider the viral video of the Pakistani protestors who stormed a fruit-seller’s donkey cart and made off with his potential day’s earnings). Finally, readers might also find the suggested conflation between demonstrations, rioting and jihadism indigestible. Sweeping all phenomena under the umbrella of “urban violence” is problematic because, for another researcher, they could have different causes.

Nonetheless, the book has come out at a pertinent time as the Yellow Vest movement in Bertho’s homeland refuses to show any signs of abatement. Starting with transporters’ refusal to accept rising fuel prices, the movement has led to calls for the resignation of the French president, and has resulted in scenes of rioting in Paris reminiscent of the Third World. Outside of France, looking at the world’s map, we see plentiful examples of riots and demonstrations in the second decade of the 21st century, be it the 2010 Arab Spring which rattled numerous Middle Eastern regimes or the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013; the Occupy movement which sprouted across Western capitals in 2011 or much closer to home, dharna politics and religious demonstrations — a recurring feature of Pakistani cities since 2014. Their ubiquity across the rich country-poor country divide stands out.

If nothing else, the book allows the reader to make some sense of recent happenings, though a complete understanding may be lacking.

The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi

The Age of Violence: The
Crisis of Political Action
and the End of Utopia
By Alain Bertho
Verso, UK
ISBN: 978-1786637475
144pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 10th, 2019