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'Dromocracy' Now: When the Streets Take Over

Neither left nor right, dromocrats feel sold out by whoever's in power. And they're rising up.

By Crawford Kilian 1 Mar 2014 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The mass demonstration as political act is nothing new. Major cities deal with them all the time: I saw Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington in 1959 at such a demonstration, and took part in Vietnam protest marches in San Francisco during the mid-1960s.

In the early 1980s, the anti-nuclear marches in Vancouver were major events. So was the protest against the Bill Bennett Socreds' convention in 1983, when an estimated 60,000 British Columbians surrounded it at the Hotel Vancouver.

Tiananmen Square stunned the world in 1989. Europe's capitals saw enormous protests, with millions in the streets, in the months before George W. Bush launched his Iraq War.

Those demonstrations had one thing in common: they failed to effect prompt political change. In failing, they also frustrated the demonstrators and challenged their faith in democracy.

When protesters gather as a solid mass of hundreds of thousands together, it's easy to feel nothing can stop such righteous numbers from prevailing. But inevitably, the protesters disperse (sometimes by violence), and nothing seems to change.

A tsunami of change

Not all demonstrations fail, however. Like the Boxing Day earthquake of 2004, some protests resound, making the whole planet ring like a bell as a tsunami of change sweeps over it.

We now seem to be in such a seismic time. From Cairo to Kyiv to Caracas, millions are in the streets. Not since Wenceslas Square in Prague in 1989 have we seen so many demonstrations that actually toppled governments and inaugurated new social orders (and disorders).

The catalyst of this time was a young Tunisian vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who in December 2010 was deprived of the fruits and vegetables he was selling to support his family, and who therefore set himself on fire.

He also ignited the Arab world itself. Governments from Tunisia to Syria have toppled like rotten trees, or survived at brutal cost to their people. Egypt's demonstrators toppled a dictator, set up a democratic election and then toppled the winner.

And here is where democracy, the rule of the many, seems to defer to a new form of government: dromocracy, from the Greek word "dromos," meaning the street.

From Vancouver to Bangkok to Kyiv

Dromocrats are neither left nor right. They are people who feel sold out by whoever is in power, and the chance to cast a ballot in a year or two does not console them. Dromocracy offers an instant referendum on the status quo, but it doesn't guarantee a happy outcome. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad responded to street protests with brutality that soon evolved into an outright civil war.

We see it elsewhere around the world: it was here in Vancouver during the Occupy movement. In Bangkok, the urban middle classes are in the street opposing the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. In Caracas, the opponents of the late, democratically elected Hugo Chávez have risen against his legitimate successor, Nicolás Maduro. Canadian observers confirmed the legal election of Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine in 2010, but he has escaped to Moscow as protesters occupy Kyiv and install an interim government.

Dromocracy is unimpressed with mere electoral victory, especially victory gained in the aftermath of earlier protests. Like the two-thirds of Canadians who don't support Stephen Harper, secular Egyptians couldn't find a single candidate to back, so Mohammed Morsi won with the votes of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If anything, Morsi was a more legitimate winner than George W. Bush in 2000, but the Egyptian street would not accept him. It turned, quite happily, to General Sisi and the army that has run the country for 60 years. Just what the street really wants isn't clear, but it seems to expect Sisi to provide it.

'Let them take arms'

A couple of hundred years ago, "democracy" was as dirty a word as "terrorism" is today. The American colonies' landowning class, having ousted their British masters, had no interest in letting ordinary people run the country. But they knew themselves very well, and knew that plenty of affluent scoundrels would try to gain undue power. Hence the checks and balances that would keep the scoundrels relatively well-behaved.

Even then, the founding fathers were no utopians about their new country's prospects. That's why Thomas Jefferson foresaw a future of periodic political violence: "What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

That tree was drenched in blood in the U.S. Civil War -- and the South, having lost the war, contrived to win peace through Jim Crow laws that effectively restored emancipated blacks to their pre-war servitude. Not until the dromocratic civil-rights demonstrations of the 1950s and '60s, which put the marchers on TV screens, did the prospect of equality return.

Equality remains only a prospect, not a reality, and that Jeffersonian spirit of resistance has sometimes faded. The civil-rights movement imploded into mere riots and arson after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Democracy comes last

Even so, democracy in North America has spread since Jefferson's time -- from male property owners to males, to females and then to racial minorities. As the late historian Tony Judt observed, democracy needs institutions to support it, direct it and sometimes save it from itself: "If you look at the history of nations that maximized the virtues that we associated with democracy, you notice that what came first was constitutionality, rule of law and separation of powers. Democracy almost always came last."

Judt also noted that "the one thing fascists do supremely well -- transforming angry minorities into large groups and large groups into crowds -- is now extraordinarily hard to accomplish."

Hard, but not impossible. And dromocracy, free of law and the separation of powers, can flourish when those powers weaken. Whether it tilts into fascism or back into democracy seems to be more a matter of luck than historical inevitability.

After all, Chile's Camila Vallejo and her Young Communists brought half a million people into the streets of Santiago to demand a good, free education. She shook the democratic government of Sebastián Piñera, and inspired the Quebec student movement as well.

But then she and her student comrades ran for office in the next government -- and won. They'll take their seats in Chile's parliament soon. (Some of Quebec's student leaders, like Alexandre Boulerice, have also been also elected.) Now Vallejo and her comrades are attacking the dromocracy in the streets of Caracas, which seeks to overthrow Maduro.

An instant referendum

Most governments aren't really tyrannical; they just want to aggrandize themselves and their supporters so they can stay in power. If Tony Judt's institutions are in place, such governments can and must yield to popular pressure. They may even take credit for their wisdom when they do so: U.S. Democrats, after almost a century in bed with southern segregationists, remade themselves as advocates of black equality (and made a gift of the white south to the Republicans).

Where those institutions are not in place, and political legitimacy is fragile, however, the street is a clear and present danger to government -- and to itself. The terms of engagement revert to raw force on both sides, as Hungary learned to its cost in 1956 when it tried to break out of the Soviet orbit.

As in a misguided war, dromocracy justifies itself by both the number of its supporters and its martyrs. Rather than drive protesters out of the streets, those martyrs may bring more in. Never mind ballots; a tweeted photo of great avenues jammed with protesters confers its own legitimacy.

A determined assault, as in Tiananmen Square, or during Iran's Green Revolution of 2009, can break dromocracy, regain the street and restore order. But it takes a cold, calculating political intelligence to know when to do it, how to do it and how to pay the inevitable price.

The street has been a political factor since the days of the Roman Empire, if not earlier, but it was usually a local force. Now the media have put us too into Tiananmen, Tahrir Square and Kyiv's Maidan.

Dromocracy marches locally, but it acts globally. We cannot reject it out of hand, nor can we uncritically support it. It is only a means to an end, and neither the means nor the end is automatically good.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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