Lisa Aubrey (University of Ohio)

Citizen Activism Now: Beyond Neo-Conservative Liberalism


In thinking about global citizen activism now, my first reaction is that I am frustrated that genuine participatory governance theories seem to be at a historic impasse. My frustration is at its height as there seems little hope that the dispossessed globally are gaining voice fast enough, even though the old liberal paradigms of the 17th and 18th centuries, warmed up and spun anew after the end of the Cold War, are losing credibility with deliberate speed among many in the world.


These resuscitated paradigms, which we currently call neo-liberalism, are losing credibility because of their arrogant and erroneous assumptions about how the world operates in linearity from tradition to modernity; that all the world’s peoples want to follow the path of progression and development of former Western empires; and that different cultures of various people and places do not matter in the way they govern themselves.  The truth is that the neo-liberal paradigm grounded in Western European history has never had universal applicability even though neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama, its major proponent at the end of the 20th century, argued with certainty that liberal democracy was the “universal homogenous state” and the end of ideology as well as history.


Despite its inapplicability to most polities in the world, liberal democracy continues to be hailed as the final form of global human governance by international institutions (IFIs) and states, even though Fukuyama himself is now questioning his own earlier “wisdom.”  Moreover, liberal democracy has never been the popular choice of the majority of people in any country. Only certain people initially allowed to participate in politics in the public sphere had a say in the choice and crafting of the system of governance, such as propertied white men who wrote and ratified the US constitution; a small percentage of aristocratic men were allowed to negotiate with the King under a feudal system for a shift toward a limited form of democracy in Britain, for themselves; and only certain Greek property-owning men were allowed to participate in city-states’ direct democracies! Excluded were Native Americans made landless, Africans enslaved and transported as labor, all women, and white men who did not meet property qualifications in the US until political activism and war cracked a fissure in the political system; lesser men, women, and the enslaved in Britain until social pressures widened the political space overtime; and women, the enslaved, foreigners and aliens, and the majority of men who did own sufficient property in Greece. All of these people had no choice in creating the system that ultimately determined how they were governed.


Liberal democracy has been imposed on numerical majorities in different parts of the world at different times for the past three centuries, without their consent:  in the US, where ironically liberal democracy has come to be lauded as “the model”; in former communist and socialist countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War in 1991; in Global South underdeveloped countries, especially in Africa, in synchronous waves in the same years toward a parallel Afrostrokia;  and, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq where the US has initiated wars of aggression and is responsible for the deaths of thousands, which it now subsumes under the Global War on Terror, for the purpose of  establishing US political and economic dominance in the Middle East where it attempts to systematically eliminate all formidable rivals by any means necessary.  US policy globally yells to all the world that it has an inherent right to all the world’s resources, like Iraq’s oil, and dares anyone to get in the way of its access—governments or citizens.


While many political elites in Global South countries, and aspiring elites, scramble to figure how, in the US sense, political parties work, how civil societies work, how the media and judicial systems work, how elections work (or don’t), how to set up their militaries and other state institutions in ways that will be get Western approval and aid for “good behavior,” while screaming about their civil and political “rights” and “freedoms” under new constitutional democracies, many of us within these so-called established and sustained liberal democracy countries shake our heads and laugh, albeit  with sadness, as we have lived majoritarism under liberal democratic principles and practices manipulated by race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and patriarchal and corporate interests.  We feel sorry for the mimic men, and their impotence, dependence, and sometimes gullibility; and for women who get caught in this patriarchal game of politics as well. We join activist organizations that aim to end political and economic hegemony over the Global South, and over poor and dispossessed populations in the Global North.


The promise of the benefits of liberal democracy—freedom, justice, equality, equal protection, choice, compromise, voice, participation, vote—being tied inextricably to modern free market capitalism (which is not free) has eluded and betrayed many generations, just as the American dream has been a nightmare to a marked number of Americans, yet liberal democracy continues to be propagated  and exported across the world as the liberation paradigm for all peoples—embrace it economically and it will “free” you politically, especially those of you who once lived under communist rule. The logic goes:  the more economic freedom you have, the more political freedom you will want and demand; the more you produce and sell, the more say you will want in government about fiscal and monetary policies; and the more say you have in the formulation of these policies, the more money you will get to keep for yourself in profits to enrich yourself and consume. As Fukuyama notes, with liberal democracy in the political sphere, all of the world’s people will gain easier access to “VCRs and stereos” in the economic sphere, and for this he thinks citizens of the world should celebrate.


Are these the promises of liberal democracy? Is pacification with material goods a satisfying substitute for democratic practice? Current activism says a cautious no.  Instead, activism now seems to say material improvement in life circumstances is part, but participatory governance as an end in and of itself is also important, with freedoms, rights, reciprocity, and consent between state and society. Yet important questions abound: is there an amount of material goods with which the average person can be bought?  With what electricity, especially in the rural areas in most parts of the world, will average folks run these VCRs and stereos? In liberal democratic practice today, are consumption and consumerism of the homo economicus replacing the demand for political, economic, and social rights of homo sapiens?


Without knowing the definitive answers to the above questions, what is certain is that “entrepreneurship” and “finding the market niche” are fast becoming the mantras of the democratic spirit in this day and age, and making profit as an individual, without a thought toward extended kin, local community, the human family, ancestors, or the environment is prevailing.  Private enterprise expansion is a base measure of liberal democratic success by liberal democracy proponents.  I doubt however even the most Eurocentric of traditions would chant this mantra without wanting to add on some caveats, for individuals, born into families and cultures, do tend to care about the well-being of others, albeit in different degrees. All is not a cold and calculating world, as theories about political and economic rational choice behavior would suggest.  Some cultures, especially ones in Africa, maintain widespread communitarian values where sharing in economic successes, as well as failures, is expected. Rational behavior to these cultures is to share the spoils, even ones gained on an individual basis from elected public office. These values which uphold the commitment to the community remain in constant conflict with liberal democracy’s focus on the individual in modern governance. Moreover, these values generate activism against increases in taxes, against water privatization and electricity privatization, against the increases in fuel prices, against multinational exploitation of local communities, like Shell Oil in Nigeria, and for external debt reduction. This activism that is generated in Ghana is called “wahala.”


In spite of communitarianism and group well-being remaining important values in many parts of the world, countries that do not make a passing grade in transitioning to and consolidating liberal democracy with the requisite focus on the “individual” and on the development of domestic “capitalism” are said to be “stuck in tradition” and not creating the middle classes nor the markets for liberal democracy to work.  Liberal democracy proponents ask no questions as to what type of governance people want; instead their primary concern is that individuals are not developing the tastes and generating the financial resources to buy VCRs and stereos, hence they will have no impact on democratizing governments. Most troubling is that these criticisms do not only come from the Washington consensus—World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and US Treasury, and other European institutions promoting liberal democracy; sadly they also come from some of  the political, economic, educated elites in Global South countries who likewise demonize communitarianism and their own Global South cultures. They argue that it is traditional institutions, that are hierarchal, conservative, and based on kinship, that make it impossible for liberal democracy to take hold. One wonders if these Global South elites are Western-identified, and how they became so?  In whose realities do they live daily? Moreover, whose interests and pockets do they have in mind? Perhaps capitalism has liberated them on an individual level, and the majority of the world’s citizens do not count in their worldview. They blame the victims of global inequalities for their marginal conditions. Whether the world’s downtrodden are liberated or not does not matter to them. The hope they see for activism today is in the development of capitalism under the liberal democratic governance paradigm. As such, we should also ask what type of activism they hope for, for not all activism is necessarily progressive.


Despite the twinning of liberal democracy and capitalism, there remains no proof that liberal democracy and capitalism necessarily go hand-in-hand, or that liberal democracy coupled with capitalism is an assured route toward harmonious living bringing about social justice in a fair, peaceful, and stable environment. Even though capitalism and liberal democracy can make no promises whatsoever for effective, efficient, or good governance, we think little of alternative forms of governance. Fukuyama tells us that alternative ideas are merely “strange thoughts” to people in Burkina Faso and Albania.


More understandable than Fukuyama’s comments are comments by people who do not know where to turn ideologically.  They are not convinced that liberal democracy is liberating, and some even find themselves unfulfilled and frustrated by liberal democracy’s outputs, so they ask, “Well, if not liberal democracy, then what?  They find themselves without alternative suggestions, as their mode of thinking is dichotomous, conditioned by the propaganda of the Cold War—making a false analogy comparison of “democracy or communism,” as if communism could not ever be democratic, not even in theory!  Their question also highlights a resignation of many in the world that “there are no alternative paradigms of governance,” as well as no alternative ways of living, and no alternative ways of citizen activism not generated by capitalist development. To this, we must ask what has happened to the human imagination, human innovation, and creativity of the human spirit?


Frustration has reached its apex:  We know that liberal democracy is disempowering to us politically, economically, and culturally.  What are we doing about it? Are we resigned to let liberal democracy take us to the guillotine? We have lost confidence in ourselves, and our ability to govern ourselves.  Activism today must restore our self-confidence, and our ability to think broadly about what we can create in the world. Activism now demands that we pull up stories from our archives of historical knowledge to give us direction for action.  We can do this as activism is an ancient practice.


Beninois civil society, expatriate in France and in-country in Benin, for example, pulled up a historical story from its archives, as a way to force Mathieu Kerekou, Benin’s President first from 1972 to 1991 to open the way for political and economic reforms.  By calling Africa’s first National Conference, Benin scheduled and held Africa’s first democratic elections after the end of the Cold War. Beninois civil society called on its cultural knowledge, shared with the French former colonialists, linked to King Louis XVI for regime change, to redefine popular sovereignty and to renegotiate the social contract.  Beninois activists succeeded in their mission and ushered in a change in government in Benin.


Activism today must take place in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, schools, clubs and organizations, churches, mosques, other places of worship, markets, universities, and on the radio, internet, and other communication waves. Activism must as well be transnational and cross-cultural. It must become not only something that we do, but more fundamentally something that we are.  It must become as natural as breathing, as well as a continual process.


In pulling up our historical archives we will see that past activist movements are important and instructive for us in continuing activism today. The poor and dispossessed have been critical in starting and pushing movements forward.  Liberal democratic theory attempts to confuse us by making us think that it is the capitalist and middle class that makes the big difference.  But look at Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, Dedan Kimathi, Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Nyerere, and Nelson Mandela. Were they entrepreneurs who found their niche in the capitalist machine and from that trajectory pushed for change as the neo-conservatives tell us is the path toward political activism?  Is liberal democracy trying to hoodwink us? 


On a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta Georgia USA in 2006 that Kaari, my 13 year old daughter, insisted that we make, I came across a definition of “power” by Dr. King that I had not seen before, and that has stayed with me. He left us with a profound thought that says, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.  Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” In  Dr. King’s definition there is nothing about the means or ends of power being about dominance, calculation, manipulation, force, or coercion—some of the usual ways we think about and talk about power. Political scientists, in my learned trained profession, would assuredly balk at this definition as it turns our more commonly used paradigms completely on their head.


Defining power in Dr. King’s way demands that we make a revolutionary shift in the way we think about the world and relationships between human beings and institutions.  Power is not determined by the balance of arms—conventional and nuclear, and not by “the ability of A to get B to do what B otherwise might not do in the ordinary circumstance.” If we embrace Dr. King’s definition of power, what a difference this would make in the US approach to talks with North Korea; to the amorphous War on Terror; to the US government’s interaction with Iran; to US international relations with Venezuela; to intra-national relations between citizens and the state in the US. What different orientation to the world and individual countries would this bring to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization? People with HIV/AIDS would not have to reject medications because they would have enough food to eat so as to absorb the drugs and slow down the virus.  The reality is that global inequality makes daily food insecurity a challenge for the majority of people in the Global South, and that it is the lack of sufficient food due to poverty, and not to HIV/AIDS, that is killing many.  If we perceived power in the way that Dr. King did, everyone in the world would have enough water for daily consumption and use.  And every child would have a chance to be educated. Social justice would begin with the recognition that all of us, regardless of where we live and what our identities are, are human beings deserving of having our basic human needs met, without preference of one over others. We might only then lean toward a world with greater certainty of non-violence. Activists now can make this type of world come to fruition.


Perhaps, as activists, we should stop looking for the way forward in leaders and saviors.  Perhaps leaders will not save us, as intellectuals will not save us either, as they have possibly been mislead and mis-educated to mimic.  Perhaps we need to unlearn modern-day hierarchies, and remove ourselves for hierarchies, and look deeper inside ourselves as average everyday world citizens for activism to grow.  We depend so much on leaders and their pre-packaged directions that we forget to think for ourselves.  We don’t think and don’t espouse what and how we feel. 


As for me, activism is simply a part of who I am, while I try to remember each day the interconnectedness of Power, Love, Justice, and those who came before me, giving me the optimism to envision possibilities beyond liberal democracy and knowing that change will come.