Today’s World – Democracy, capitalism and Islam.

Nov 17, 2014

Mauricio García Villegas, El Espectador, Colombia,

The anniversary of two events that have marked out the course of our world has just been commemorated.

The first is the taking of the United States embassy in Teheran on 4 November 1979. Iran at the time was governed by the Shah, a monarch who wanted to turn the ancient Persian people into a Western nation, hell or high water. It set off a reaction from Islamic leaders, amongst them the Ayatollah Khomeini, who, from his exile in London, organized a revolution to overthrow the Shah, and to establish an Islamic theocracy. The taking of the embassy and the capture of 52 American hostages for 444 days is one of the culminating moments of that revolution.

The second event is the fall of the Berlin Wall that occurred on 9 November 1989, which started the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and put an end to the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union changed history so much that Eric Hobsbawm, the great English historian, said that the 20th century was a very short one, lasting only 75 years between the First World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

These two events changed the course of the 20th century. The Iranian revolution was proof that despite all the colonial attempts to assimilate the Middle East culturally and economically, the old yearning for a theocratic government continued intact for many Muslims. The colonial sins of Europe and the United States in the Middle East (starting from events in Palestine) not only gave rise to the Islamic revolution in Iran, but also saw the birth of the increasingly furious forms of Islamic fundamentalism that we see today.

On the other hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent defeat of the Communist model, gave way to a kind of bold and lazy capitalism that ceased to feel guilty about increasing social injustice. Not only that, the lack of a competing system divorced capitalism from its democratic ideal, which was the flag that Western nations hoisted in opposition to its great 20th century enemies, first the Nazi regime and then the Soviet model.

Many academic studies published in the last decade have raised the alarm about the way capitalism has been devouring democracy. I only site two recent and influential examples. The first, Thomas Piketty’s book (Capital in the Twenty First Century) demonstrates that we live in a system of hereditary capitalism where the level of accumulation of capital increases faster than the economy, and this leads inevitably to an increase in inequality.

The second text is an article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens) which uses quantitative information never used before to show that the American political system is dominated by the most powerful economic elites, and that there is very little that ordinary citizens can do to prevent it. The authors demonstrate that the majority do not rule in the United States. The rich do.

In short, the direction that the world of today has taken has been determined in good part by the fall of Communism and the political defeat of the West in the Middle East. We have inherited terrible evils from this: the increasing acceleration of economic inequality and the rebirth of the wars of religion; they are two evils that in the middle of the 20th century, appeared to be on the way to extinction.

Mauricio is a lawyer, sociologist and currently professor of law at the Universidad Nacional in Bogota, Colombia and also Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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