Like hundreds of other writers on politics across the world, prior to writing an article, I test my jokes and analysis on poor taxi drivers. That is why I started a conversation with one last time I was in London. The taxi driver was pissed off with the snap elections and the embarrassing state of British politics. So when I said, “Great Britain, my friend, is still a novice at being a Middle Eastern country. Don’t worry, one gets used to it” he gave me a fully formed “fair enough” lip curl on the rearview mirror. Upon interest I carried on, “Well, you know, waking up in the morning and turning on the TV while asking yourself, ‘God knows what the hell happened last night to embarrass me today?’ has been a traditional Middle Eastern feature until few years ago. Now you too know how what it feels like.” The taxi driver gives me a frown through the rearview. “But then believing that this mess will resolve it, let’s say through an election, referendum or an impeachment, is an illusion.”
If your article starts with a conversation with a weary British cab driver, all you have to do is to find a slick Latin phrase for the title. Something like tadeium democratie, which means “weariness of democracy”. A fitting title I guess, not only for the politically semi-engaged cab drivers but also for my politically emancipated friends in London who roll their eyes when I bring up the upcoming elections.
The recent political fatigue in Britain is not due to the exhaustion of being politically engaged 24/7 nor is it from the telenovela banality of the Brexit saga. Rather, it has to do with losing faith in national and international democratic institutions altogether, which in fact is global trend. Even the most apolitical people can turn on the TV today and witness the live broadcast of democratic institutions falling apart whilst the establishment suffers from inconsequential anxiety attacks through impeachment or snap elections. The people of the world’s periphery have already mastered the insanity of living through times of crumbling institutions, but now the center of democracy itself, Europe is having a taste of it. They have started to sense that the disintegration is not limited to the higher echelons of politics but that, encouraged by the lack of triangulation points, the basic moral consensuses have also started to erode. Although there are no 1984-style totalitarian regimes in Europe or in the US, many of us ask ourselves, “Am I mad? Are the people mad? Has the whole world gone mad?” The questions Iulia Beausobre raised under Stalin in “The Woman Who Could Not Die”. The talented new disruptors of democracy eschew the old-school oppressive propaganda or election fraud as they learned to steal the votes even before the voter makes it to the ballot box. They manipulate the democratic agora that is supposed to shape the facts, the decisions and eventually the votes to forge an arena where facts wander like defenseless orphans. The beasts of the arena are owned, trained and fed by powers that do not stick their posters around or seek obedience and worship like 20th century dictators. Instead, they work through global PR companies and uber-complex algorithms. It is a complicated and shady structure that turns democracy altogether into a monkey business obliging the voters to go into endless swordfights with the ghost beasts in the communication space in order to gain their promised representation. This explains the “why-bother-voting rolling eyes” of my London friends and Britain’s pissed off cab drivers.
The problem is that no democracy on the planet is strong enough to regulate this arena where truths are hunted down or ridiculed to the ground by some zombie-like digital creatures and entities. Most of the business of shaping the truth and our democracies is run in shadows, yet we do know that the agora-turned-arena – from which today’s deformed democracies are emerging - is owned by a handful of people, the most visible of them being Zuckenberg. In this lawless arena, political power is left with the desperate option of attempting to shame Zuckenberg and the likes of him to stop this insanity. Still, such attempts result in little less than inconsequential schadenfreude for the viewers. Alexandra Octavia Cortez (AOC) slapping Zuckenberg in Congress provides some relief for those of us who are aware of the deepening political and moral madness. But then Mr. Zuckenberg goes back to business as usual, selling the truth to the highest bidder, paralyzing the very institution of communication, and thus undermining the public’s faith in democracy. Whilst savoring the moment through sharing the video of Zuckenberg’s helplessness, politicians forget that when the institutions disintegrate, the center of moral consensuses are no more to be trusted. Shame is not a functioning political or moral tool anymore. This also means that, although Sacha Baron Cohn delivers dozens of his heroic speeches in the name of truth, it wouldn’t change much.
It is neither Zuckenberg nor any of today’s right-wing populists who introduced shamelessness to politics and this new morality to the 21st century. Sometime back in the 1980’s, when profit became king, the questions of the good and the right and the rest turned became losers’ whining, that was when ladies and gentlemen, and shame left the room. So it is only consistent with the dominant moral code that Zuckenberg and his ilk conduct this naiveté act with their blank “error-alert-computer-screen” faces whenever politicians publicly shame them. Once the profit is sanctified, it no more responds to moral pleas. Bringing the shame of lying and the dignity of defending the truth back into politics and regulating this new arena to transform back into an agora requires a radical transformation. And the need for such a transformation has politely been announced on this newspaper’s cover, “Capitalism needs a reset.”
To put it even more politely, we have not yet been able to integrate the 21st century communication tools to our 20th century democratic institutions. Democracy needs its belated upgrade. In the current power vacuum, our modern-day arena holders and invisible MCs of political insanity are thriving. They work to dismantle democratic institutions but also to undermine our faith in the very word “representation” and eventually our sense of justice.
In order to make the cab driver and my well-educated London friends vote, political leaders should take this understandable tadeium demokratie and loss of faith in voting into account. The question at hand is not as easy as banning ludicrous political ads or fact checking political lies. It is a political, moral and a global matter that has a lot to do with what is good, beautiful and right.