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The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present & Future? Mass Anxiety & Democracy

2020 is nearing its end, and anxieties are at an all time high. What does this mean for democracy? Using Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas story, I attempt to explore the question. This article is the first episode of a series called “If the Universe is Expanding, Then So Should Democracy”, which aims to explain the inspiration behind Accidental European.

Fatemeh Jailani

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“‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’” 

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol1A Christmas Carol recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. After their visits, Scrooge is all the more wiser and is transformed into a kinder, gentler man., Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, doomed to wander the earth forever as punishment for his greed and selfishness during his time within the realm of the living. 

Of Dickens’ morally infused Christmas tale this passage stayed with me the most: the image of a transparent and worn figure bearing these heavy chains… his guilt and regret weighing him down, a prisoner of his own making, shackled for all eternity to the memory of a life poorly spent. Striking a feeling too foreboding for the young girl I was at the time, I somehow unconsciously understood that Marley’s suspended state is one of the worst fates imaginable. Fast forward twenty-five years later, that foreboding sentiment has resurfaced in me as I see these chains “link by link, and yard by yard” treading around us all, weighing down upon our societies, our democracies, and our planet. 

As we gear up for the end of the year, it is evident that Covid-19 has created a shared environment of uncertainty, not just in Europe, but worldwide. Let’s not be fooled though; what our current pandemic has made obvious to me is that while uncertainty has defined a good part of my generation and has personally exposed me—a product of immigration—to the darker truths of our world, certainty, on the other end, has sheltered many from the growing fractures of our societies: at times even legitimising the happiness of the few over the distress of the many. 

Uncertainty is the new norm, leaving us all bare, making us all feel insecure enough to self-reflect, an act that requires us to individually and collectively consult our past as we battle a present that puts into perspective our successes and failures, as well as our human psychology.

“Are we ready?” asks the Ghost of Things to Come.

The past is not some lost paradise, but a reminder of our unfulfilled potential

If you have lived a life of certainty, revisiting the past can be hard. Yet, if Dickens’ tale teaches us anything, it is that we can also be much better off for it. 

However, it would require a lot of self awareness from us.2It would require us to look back, without nostalgia, but with an objective eye so that we are not deceived by those promoting modified visions of a half-imagined past. It would require us to acknowledge our past wrongs, until we get it right—even if whatever is “right” might change again and again. It would require us to foster a culture of introspection and improvement, and not a culture of unjustified self-emulation, so that we are not commanded by our dogmatic egos but by a desire to design a mutually prosperous world. To thread it all together, it would require us to break away from the societal pressure of pretending perfection, to finally assume our very human struggle of trying to be good day-in and day-out. If we meet such requirements, maybe then can we look back with a nuanced mind to ensure that tomorrow’s solutions take us two steps forward, and not four steps back.

For it is only when we look back that we see economic prosperity as a precursor to healthy democracies, while economic precarity renders populations vulnerable to fascist rhetoric, as was the case in post-World War I Germany. Zooming in further, we also understand that the “Declaration of Human Rights” is still a relatively young concept when set against the span of 70,000 years since our cognitive evolution, reminding us that these “human rights”—fought for by those who came before us—have yet to become absolute truths. Flying high with a birds-eye-view, we then observe that social justice represents a long, tireless and sometimes poorly rewarded fight by those working to ensure the advancement of our human rights—rights that are chipped away every time a hate crime goes unpunished, a political leader fails to address past and present injustices, or when big corporations are exempted from paying their dues to the societies that helped them grow.

The past is no El Dorado or lost paradise as some might have you believe.

The past serves to measure our progress, to keep us accountable in our present, and to remind us of the potential we have yet to realise. The present is where such realisations happen.

While potential is often realised in the present, not everyone is given this chance today

Linger too long in the past, and we lose the momentum to act in our present. Easier said than done, right? Particularly when our current present seems so unstable. Feelings of disappointment or disillusionment today are understandable when we switch on the TV, or scroll through our social media feeds. And rightfully so.

Capitalism has not delivered on the promise of equal opportunity to benefit from the fruits of one’s labor. Instead we see an accumulation of wealth funneled to a privileged minority, with our current crisis magnifying this.3“According to Oxfam, the wealth divide between the global billionaires and the bottom half of humanity is steadily growing. Between 2009 and 2018, the number of billionaires it took to equal the wealth of the world’s poorest 50 percent fell from 380 to 26.” 

We also see that the past 20 years have rolled out one crisis after another. Key issues such as trade, war, public health, social security, education, migration, security and climate change are increasingly positioned as vehicles for party politics, with little attempt to actually educate and inform the population.4This is referred to as “tactical framing” — an approach to news coverage that focuses on strategy and polling rather than a policy’s substantive benefits. And while the political viability of a policy proposal is important, research shows that a fixation on strategy can undermine people’s ability to make informed choices. 

In Europe specifically, some national leaders have often used the EU as a scapegoat to divert attention from their own shortcomings. By leaving citizens in the dark and excluded from the debates held on pan-European issues, sentiments of euroscepticism5This refers to criticism of the European Union (EU) and European integration. It ranges from those who oppose some EU institutions and policies and seek reform (soft Euroscepticism), to those who oppose EU membership outright and see the EU as unreformable (hard Euroscepticism or anti-European Unionism/anti-EUism). have grown6Democracy is declining in Central and Eastern Europe, with Hungary and Poland as the starkest examples. ; developments such as Brexit demonstrate how reactionary populism7“According to Hans Kundnani’s research paper, “The Future of Democracy in Europe: Technology and the Evolution of Representation” published in March 2020 by Chatham House, the complexity and heterogeneity of populism makes it difficult to generalise about its implications for democracy in Europe. “Analysis of the causes of populism has been divided between explanations that focus on cultural factors and those that emphasize economic factors. Cultural factors include opposition to changes in values since the 1960s, anger about immigration, and racism and Islamophobia. Economic factors include wage stagnation, the loss of manufacturing jobs, growing inequality, and economic insecurity or ‘precariousness’. Yet in no national or regional context can support for populist figures, movements or parties simply be reduced to either set of factors, though their relative weight may differ from one context to the next. Instead, populism is a function of a complex interaction between both sets of factors – as well other factors such as digital technology – that we are only beginning to understand. But left-wing parties that are described as populist are unlikely to restrict minority rights, for example, in the way that many fear far-right parties will. Many left-wing parties, such as Spain’s Podemos, emerged out of protest movements against austerity and actually stand for a radical deepening of democracy. However, because some of the leaders of parties such as Podemos admire South American socialist leaders like the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, some observers fear that, if elected into government, they would seek to abolish checks and balances and consolidate power in their own hands. Some argue that Syriza sought to do this while it was in power in Greece between 2015 and 2019.” can impede  the hard-fought European project.

From a global perspective, information technology has allowed for more connectivity, but this over-connected way of life has left many feeling confused, anxious, and vulnerable. The age of information has become the age of disinformation, disrupted by forces that seek to undermine our democratic way of life. Constructive discussions are undermined by echo chambers, conspiracy theories, mistrust and polarisation8“Social media ‘makes it possible for disinformation and misleading information to spread quickly and widely – and thus feeds Truth Decay by enabling the blurring of the line between information and fact and magnifying the relative volume and effect of opinions and beliefs over objective facts’.” Kavanagh, J. and Rich, M. D. (2018), Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, pp. 110–21., leaving most political leaders incessantly talking into a space devoid of listeners. The need of the hour is not for political leaders to keep talking, but to stop, look around, and start listening.9Astra Taylor, filmmaker and writer, wrote a very engaging piece for the New Yorker, “The Right to Listen” for the Future of Democracy Issue published 27 January 2020, where she considers the importance of listening in a democracy, and bottom up approaches to leadership. 

As citizens dare to look towards the horizon, reassurance is nowhere to be found. Democracy has become more about privileging short-term returns over long-term interests. A growing number of political leaders tend to position themselves in response to the next election date instead of the issues slowly paralyzing our societies. Positive narratives for the future have been monopolised by populist parties who present hazy versions of distant pasts, beguiling people to recreate realities no longer relevant to their future. 

When you take away the right to economic stability, to understand, to have a voice, to dream, to hope in a world fraught with uncertainty… how can we expect anyone to reach their full potential? 

Anxiety will shape our future. Is that the future we want? 

My parents immigrated to the United States (US) in 1985 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, 1979 – an invasion that ironically took place just after Christmas. And though I never experienced my parents’ hardship during that time of war and exile, I do, however, recall their trauma, from which they often escaped via work. Growing up, our everyday was filled with plans, activities, chores… As if any momentary lapse would put into jeopardy their very existence. I still hear my mother in her retired age constantly shuffling about, complaining about her “to do list”, all the while secretly relieved that she still has “stuff” to do. Why this urgency for movement? Why the constant hustle and bustle? It wasn’t until I was forced to shelter-in-place that I finally understood from where my parents’ restlessness came. 

Fear. Not the fear of uncertainty, but the fear of anxiety grinding away their existence. What shelter-in-place demonstrated to me is that while time remained linear, my existence was all of a sudden suspended. Everything I knew up until that point, planned for the coming months, achieved in the recent past was irrelevant. Sitting at home listening to political leaders contradicting themselves on the tube while the Covid-19 curve moved in all directions, I felt utterly powerless.10 I imagined how suspended my parents felt as they waited for the end of a war that never came, how irrelevant refugees must feel to the western societies they yearn to access, or how powerless Jewish German families felt when, from one day to the next, they became enemies of a Nazi state. Obviously, my experience does not depict these extreme hardships. However, to a much lesser degree, what I realised is that while my life has always maintained a certain degree of uncertainty, never before had I felt so suspended, irrelevant, or powerless: all at the same time. 

Yet this has been the reality for many people, long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. 

In 2017, 113 million people in Europe alone (22.4 % of the population) risked poverty or social exclusion11, with one in five people experiencing monetary poverty, very low work intensity, or severe material deprivation.12“The rate of risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU over the past decade has been marked by two turning points: in 2009, after which the number of people at risk started to rise because of the delayed social effects of the economic crisis; and in 2012, when this upward trend reversed. By 2017, the number of people at risk had fallen below 2008 levels (see Figure 1), which is the reference year for the Europe 2020 target. Nevertheless, with a gap of about 16 million people, the 2020 target remains at a distance. Poverty and social exclusion can manifest themselves in various forms. While household income has a big impact on living standards, other aspects, such as access to labour markets and material deprivation, also prevent full participation in society. This is reflected in the three sub-indicators that compose the ’at-risk-ofpoverty or social exclusion rate’ indicator: monetary poverty, severe material deprivation and very low work Europe 2020 indicators – poverty and social exclusion 2 intensity1 . Because these sub-indicators tend to overlap and people can be affected by two or even all three of these types of poverty, a person is counted only once in the headline indicator, even if he or she falls into more than one category.”

This means that almost one quarter of Europeans have felt excluded from a world that is portrayed through the social media accounts of privileged elites that make success and “positive” thinking seem like something easily attainable; irrelevant in the eyes of politicians–“woke” or otherwise–elected on promises for a better future only to defend the same nepotic institutions that keep many marginalised; and powerless in a present rife with inequalities that hinder any movement to act in the name of realising potential. This number has probably grown since the pandemic, in tandem with anxiety levels. 

And yes, poverty is anxiety. Social exclusion is anxiety. Inequality is anxiety. 

We have let anxiety grind public reason away, leaving many feeling desperate for any form of relief. That is a state more undesirable than any other, a state my parents feared reliving the most, and a state that has the potential to lead us to our own demise. In fact, I would go as far to say that anxiety is a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) for democracy. 

Today, if you tell me that democracy means rule by the people for the people, then I think it is currently “out of order”.

As I look around, many developed democracies have not only failed to heed the needs of their own people, but it has also left them stagnating in distress, with no spaces provided to help them cope, except maybe social media. 

The ghosts of Christmas past, present & future should visit us all year round

Coming back to A Christmas Carol, as frightening Marley might seem, he did Scrooge a great service–he set the stage for him to arbitrate between his past, present and future. 

By the end of such an endeavor, we have a desperate Scrooge pleading for redemption. “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” 

While some people might call this a ghost story with a moral lesson–which it is–I also call it inspiration for tomorrow’s democratic spaces.

If human progress is made via a detour into the past, in order to keep us accountable in a present meant as a testing ground to launch our future potential; then, like Scrooge, we need a proper stage or space for such arbitration.

Our past, present and future needs to be thrown on the table, dissected, debated, even chewed apart–not just with the intellectual elites and politicians, but with the greater population who need to take back ownership of their respective futures and co-construct a shared reality that paves the way for a better world. As Jill Lapore13Staff writer at The New Yorker, professor of history at Harvard, and the host of the podcast “The Last Archive.” The quote comes from an article she wrote called “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” published in the New Yorker’s Future of Democracy series published in the 03 Feb 2020 issue: wrote, “It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent.” 

However, what we also see through Scrooge’s experience is that such a journey can be just as painful and frightening as it is rewarding. That is why such an undertaking should not be done alone. The development of inclusive and vibrant public spheres is fundamental in reassuring each citizen as they take on this journey: individually and collectively. 

I know what you’re thinking – sounds kinda like therapy, right? Well it is. If we want to bring democracy into the twenty-first century, then we need to start by providing a place for collective therapy.

Democracy is a collective effort where one person’s trauma can become another person’s president.14As John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” If we want our main continent to prosper, we need everyone to be well.

No longer can we afford to leave a large part of the population “biting their nails”. Not only do we need to return democracy back to its people, but we need to better equip its people so they can understand and legitimately participate in shaping the policies that will govern their lives.  

This will demand creative efforts across the board: from national to supranational governments, politicians, economic actors, civil society organisations, the media, billionaires…15In the last few years – and in particular since the decision by the British people to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016 – there has been a proliferation of projects that seek to ‘defend’, ‘protect’ or ‘secure’ democracy within Europe and the US. That is why we launched Accidental European (AE); to break the silos, build the bridges, listen better, breed understanding, so that our collective force is brought back to the policies that govern our democracies – in Europe and beyond. AE will only play a small part in a greater ecosystem that should involve efforts made by everyone to revolutionise democratic spaces. 

All I want this Christmas is for democracy to learn new tricks  

Christmas is just around the corner… and though my family never celebrated, the end of the year still marks a moment of discussion, contemplation, and festivities. I do not know how much festivities we will be allowed this year, owing to the pandemic, however discussion and contemplation is definitely on the menu. What those discussions will revolve around will depend on how the next couple of days, weeks, months unfold: US elections, Brexit conditions, pandemic… and that is just scratching the surface. 

Whether in Europe, or in the US, we are living a democratic recession that knows no borders.16“A number of indicators point to a state of dysfunction in democracy in Europe. Satisfaction with democracy has been declining. The party system has changed dramatically with the rise of radical political parties, which has increased the overall number of parties in many European legislatures and may diminish the effectiveness and ideological coherence of governments. Over the past few decades, there has been a general decline in voter turnout in many European countries, particularly among groups such as younger or less well-educated voters. There has also been a decline in the membership of political parties – and a rise in electoral volatility as voters have become more likely to change affiliation. As a result of these trends, some fear that Europe may be part of a worldwide ‘democratic recession’.” – Hans Kundnani’s research paper, “The Future of Democracy in Europe: Technology and the Evolution of Representation” published in March 2020 by Chatham House And much like the US, who understood that the survival of European democracies – after World War II – was a requisite for American democracy, I think – 72 years after the Marshall Plan – Europe now too understands that the survival of American democracy is a requisite for its own democratic stability. 

As we sit around with our families and loved ones this holiday season, let’s try to remember that democracy is still a very recent achievement. If we want it to endure, we need it to expand. This will require great efforts from everyone; and however uncomfortable it may be, keep in mind that if an old fart like Scrooge can learn new tricks, then so can we.

The future of democracy lays in the balance. 

Fatemeh Jailani

Born and raised in California as a first-generation American balancing between western life and eastern heritage, I moved to France in 2008 in the pursuit of a degree in International Economic Policy. Two years later I got the degree… along with a European mindset to compliment the rest. Working between Paris and the EU capital for the next nine years, I realized to what extent EU policy discussions remain inaccessible to most Europeans… and non-Europeans. With a multidimensional understanding of the world, I felt privileged having this insider and comparative perspective which allowed me to set the EU against a greater backdrop, and ironically, appreciate its existence at a time of growing Euroscepticism. As someone that has “accidentally” navigated through many cultural and social perspectives, I fundamentally believe that if we can bridge perspectives, we can promote a tolerant world equipped in co-creating better and agile solutions for tomorrow’s pressing challenges. That is the fundamental reason why I founded Accidental European.