As the world’s most established democracies flare warning signs of deterioration, perhaps it’s time for a look at liberal democracy’s most fervent critics to inspire renovation of our ideals.
On September 25th, nearly four million Cubans voted to approve revolutionary changes to their nation’s Family Code, rewriting the legal conception of a family to accommodate unorthodox structures beyond the nuclear unit. While most major news outlets narrowly focused on the legalization of same-sex marriage, the reforms also guarantee equal distribution of domestic responsibility; render family care as a form of labor; encourage family life to be organized by relations of ‘responsibility’ and ‘solidarity,’ rather than ‘possession’ or ‘custody,’ going so far as to require said relations to be “respectful of the dignity and physical and mental integrity of children and adolescents.” Perhaps most significantly of all, the reforms are a product of remarkable grassroots mobilization. Town halls across the nation allowed the citizenry a unique opportunity to partake in and shape the democratic process. Within and without Latin America, queer and disability rights advocates touted the results as unprecedented progressive victories.
Of course, one cannot ignore that, within a week, protestors took to Havana’s streets as some 180,000 citizens remained without electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. The demonstrations built upon the anti-government protests of July 2021 and faced identical pushback from the Diaz-Canel regime – internet shutdowns and police pressure, although Reuters reported no arrests. Surely, Cuba is not some Athenian idyll of democracy. The nation remains under the rule of a singular party whose tactics of suppression contradict their liberatory ideology and have forced generations of citizens to exit the isle via migration. And yet, across the Black Atlantic and African diaspora, Cuba’s regime is synonymous with anti-colonial struggle and independence movements across the Global South.
The story of Cuba should challenge our definitions of democracy. At the turn of the century, the post-Cold War world order fostered a triumphalist faith in liberal democracy and the free market economy, famously prompting some to announce the end of history. Today, the world’s premier democracies look much worse for wear. In Britain, Holland, Italy, France, Poland, Sweden, Hungary, India, the United States, and Brazil – to name just a few – post-Great Recession economic downturn and harsh austerity politics opened the public sphere to insurgent populist movements, then quasi-fascist leaders. Enfranchised majorities and, in some cases, entrenched minorities are weaponizing and thus eroding faith in democratic institutions.
Since the genesis of the discipline, political science has qualified ‘democracy’ by the presence and strength of formal and informal liberal institutions – separation of powers, checks and balances, free and fair elections, etc. For Joseph Schumpeter (1943), the only precursor was the ability of the people to produce a government and the subsequent struggle between elected officials or parties to win popular support for their politics. Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) highlight anti-democratic behaviors with regards to a free press and respect for the opposition. Even Robert Dahl (1973), known for his almost impractically substantive definition, focused on institutional guarantees of civil and political liberties. But each assumed liberalism to precede democracy and none theorized specific requirements for democratic depth – effectively, the extent to which the citizenry is able to articulate their preferences and see said preferences enacted as policy. As Sheri Berman wrote, “although it is certainly true that democracy unchecked by liberalism can slide into excessive majoritarianism or oppressive populism, liberalism unchecked by democracy can easily deteriorate into oligarchy or technocracy” (2017).
In addition to the exploitation of minoritarian institutions by nationalist factions – the detachment of technocrats, the power of unwieldy multinationals, and the prominence of special interest all dilute popular power and stall the responsiveness of liberal democratic governments to their citizens. Particularly in the United States, extreme disparities in wealth and demographic characteristics exacerbate the disconnect between representatives and those they represent: Congress is much wealthier, much older, and much whiter than America on the whole. Perhaps one crucial component missing from Dahl’s substantive model is what Vanderbilt professor and Biden’s failed nominee for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Ganesh Sitaraman has advocated for as economic democracy – a broader, deeper definition. Economic democracy proposes firstly, that financial factors be considered seriously with regards to participation and access, and secondly, that our economy come to resemble that essential principal of people’s power.
Economic democracy, intertwined with conceptions of solidarity economy, communitarianism, and radical democracy presently thrives in our public sphere with theorists like Hélène Landemore, Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and in movements such as the New Economy Coalition, Green New Deal, and revitalized labor unions. This is a philosophy as much cultivated by longstanding political thought as it is reactive to our contemporary struggles. The New Economy Coalition describes one of their core tenets as “frontline leadership,” acknowledging the undue burden placed upon the Global South by racial capitalism. Liberal democracy has failed these communities most of all, and herein lies the lesson of Cuba.
While Castro’s regime did little to liberalize governing institutions – eviscerating any sense of party competition and violently suppressing the rights of free press and expression – each saw the provision of public goods and empowerment of workers as the essential aim of government, and rendered such aspirations in the language of ‘self-determination’ and other characteristically democratic terms. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi idealized his regime as solving ‘the problem of democracy’ and leveled a poignant critique of parliamentary democracy as essentially untrue – “The mere existence of a parliament means the absence of the people. True democracy exists only through the direct participation of the people, and not through the activity of their representatives.” Whether or not their theory became praxis (and the historical record mostly affirms that it did not), their regimes charted course to an entirely different destination, a different definition of democracy, which is – perhaps – precisely what we need.
Around the globe, the concept of liberal democracy cannot be disentangled from its progenitors. The very same empires which built their political stability and wealth on the tyrannical exploitation of those subject to their rule, promoted a hegemony of liberal democracy through unwieldy war-mongering and ruthlessly pursued even the slightest hint of a leftist, decolonial, or militant anti-racist agenda. Not to mention the Western and especially American record with regards to its own citizens’ civil liberties is far from spotless, from HUAC to COINTELPRO to BLM. Presently, the aforementioned subaltern states and peoples face the worst and most proximate calamities of climate crisis, the natural devolution of longstanding cultural norms of necropolitics and extraction. Is democracy a luxury only ‘the West’ can afford? I hope not, particularly as the West seems to be hemorrhaging funds in this regard, but maybe the answer is a renovated aspiration – one incorporating leftist critiques of elitism and fatal inequality seemingly inherent to liberal democracy.