Zimbabwe must shun spectator democracy

WHEN Woodrow Wilson was elected to the presidency of the United States in 1916, his administration was committed to joining World War I at a time the US population was so pacifist that it saw no reason to get involved with a European war.

Wilson decided to establish a propaganda commission called the Creel Commission, which succeeded within an impressive six months to turn an apathetic and pacifist population into a hysterical war-mongering jingoistic mass sworn to the marrow to the idea of destroying everything and anything German, avowed totally to the doctrine of tearing Germans to pieces limb from limb — in the process saving the world from the deadly threat that German had become.

In the aftermath of the war, the Creel Commission successfully used the acquired propaganda tactics to launch an attack on unionism in the United States, whipping up a hysterical Red Scare, and successfully destroying workers’ unions and eliminating such dangerous problems as freedom of the Press and freedom of political thought.

The propaganda model was superbly supported by the media and business establishments, as well as by the intellectual community, especially the intellectuals of the John Dewey era — themselves overly proud of being the “more intelligent members of the community,” as Noam Chomsky would put it

In quite an impressive and indisputably successful way, this group was able to drive a reluctant population into a massive war by simply terrifying them to the point of eliciting jingoist fanaticism.

All it needed was a good deal of fabrication of atrocities attributed to the other side, like making up stories of Belgian babies with torn off limbs, and all sorts of awful things recorded against the Huns that one can easily read in history books today.

The Americans borrowed much of the fabrications from the British propaganda ministry, whose declared objective was “to direct the thought of most of the world.”

US intellectuals were roped in, them in turn passing on the concocted propaganda for facts, successfully converting a passive country to unprecedented war-time hysteria. It was more like the 9/11 effect on the US population in 2001.

This experience shows that State propaganda can have a huge effect on democracy, especially when it bars deviation and when supported by the educated classes.

Hitler himself believed so much in this political doctrine, and the doctrine keeps Western democracies ticking to this day, just like it is used by totalitarian regimes.

Liberal democratic theorists like Walter Lippmann got involved so much in the propaganda commissions of the time and immediately recognised how much could be achieved through them.

The prominent journalist ended up arguing that “revolution in the art of democracy” could be positively used to “manufacture consent,” essentially to make the public agree with what they do not want.

Not only did Lippmann think that using propaganda techniques to manufacture public consent was a brilliant idea, he also believed it was an absolutely necessary phenomenon, as the idea is treated today by modern democracies.

His reasoning was impressively frank. He argued, “the common interests elude public opinion entirely,” and that such interests can only be understood and managed by a “specialised class” of “responsible men,” who are privileged to be the only ones intelligent enough to figure out life’s complex realities.

This theory that asserts that only a small elite can understand common interests has become part of Zimbabwe’s political culture. We failed collectively to make use of the political acumen of Robert Mugabe by deifying the revolutionary icon and making him the ultimate answer to every political question in the country.

Most people around the president at the time prohibited recognition of political talent from anyone else, but Robert Mugabe, demonised ambition, punished criticism, rewarded bootlicking, promoted loyal docility, elevated mediocrity, eliminated creativity, and ultimately reduced a whole revolutionary party to a hero worshipping political cult.

It had to take a bitter factional infighting for the deteriorating political culture to rapture, and in weeks the cultists in ZANU-PF were ousted. Sadly for history and legacy, Robert Mugabe had to go with the cultists from whom he seemed to have gladly benefited in his last days.

In came Emmerson Mnangagwa preaching the voice of the people as equivalent to the voice of God.

His idea is to take back ZANU-PF to the people, to restore the power of the voter in a democratic society, to allow democratic delegation of duty in matters of governance, to bring back collective formulation and implementation of policy, to create transparency, to re-unite Zimbabwe with the family of nations, to separate the State from the party, and indeed to practice politics of tolerance, peace and development.

We had developed a culture of power politics where retention of power had become the supreme occupation of our political leadership.

Sadly, Morgan Tsvangirai had started to emulate the Mugabe model of leadership at his MDC-T. Up to the very day he breathed his last in a long and excruciating battle with cancer — the only slogan permissible in the MDC-T was “Save Chete Chete.”

Had the MDC founding constitution been adhered to, Tsvangirai could not have possibly led the opposition party for 18 years

He was not supposed to go beyond ten years, regardless of whether or not the MDC won elections to govern the country. Instead of following the constitution we began to hear Tsvangirai loyalists saying he was meant to “finish what he started.”

But truly Tsvangirai did not start the MDC, and neither did he personally come up with the vision of the party.

The party was an initiative coming out of collective feelings of many people at the time; who in their collective wisdom identified Tsvangirai as one to hold the position of party president. As an elected leader in a democracy the only thing to start and finish is your term of office.

There is no extra time for failing to achieve the intended goals.

Now Tsvangirai dies and a young and ambitious politician is allowed to blatantly disregard the constitution and take control of the party. The borrowed deification from Mugabe’s ZANU-PF quickly kicks in and those with opposing views are brutalised, purged, harassed and expelled. The “Save chete chete” mantra is replaced with “Chamisa chete chete!”

Nelson Chamisa is evidently so carried away to the extent he is enjoying the deification, the cultist chants of his name, the idolising songs, the no-nonsense security, and the ultimate show of power by parading an array of bad-boy looking bodyguards

Chamisa has adopted the elitist messianic approach that says me, myself and I are the three members to the committee that has answers to all your problems.

The propaganda machinery is very simple to understand. Everyone in ZANU-PF is too old to govern this country, the answer to the problems of this country lies in the age of the leader, and I come to you at the right age to solve your problems, says Chamisa. I will lead because of my age; they cannot lead because of their age. Age, age, age, age; nothing else but age, he says.

President Mnangagwa says he goes to rallies to meet the people, and he does not want anyone to insinuate that the people come to rallies to see him. He has publicly corrected those introducing him at the few rallies he has done so far. He wants to be seen as the servant of the people.

The culture that says the president is the star that people come to see at a political rally made the former President an excellent orator who ended up giving next to nothing in terms of attention to policy detail and implementation.

Even at the international forums we all began to look forward to bragging about the eloquence of our iconic revolutionary and about his standing ovations at the UN General Assembly.

President Mnangagwa has no intentions of coming across as a super hero of oratory skills, something Chamisa is certainly trying far too hard to achieve

The view that what all of us care about can only be explained and articulated well by a few elites is typically a Leninist one — that concept of vanguard revolutionary intellectuals taking power on the ride of popular revolutions, using people power as a force to gain power, and then skilfully driving the stupid masses toward a future they are too dumb and incompetent to comprehend.

In the first five years of the MDC, Tsvangirai believed he could whip up public emotion to the level of carrying out a mass revolution through which he would rise to state power — power he would then use to push back the masses to a future defined by Western capital and foreign policy, even dreaming for a while that the “stupid masses mushrooming on farms,” and “destroying productive agriculture,” would be “evicted from the farms” they had occupied at the expense of colonial white commercial farmers.

Of course, Tsvangirai met a state power that was too strong for his plans and history has a telling record of how the planned mass protests were thwarted.

The common ideological assumptions between liberal democrats and Marxism-Leninism are quite similar, just like the ideological assumptions of liberal democracies and dictatorships are essentially the same.

That is why it is easy for liberal democrats to instantly switch to dictatorship, and also for dictators to instantly convert to liberal democracy.

Now, it is ZANU-PF coming across to the world as a liberal democratic party open to liberal capital, open to Foreign Direct Investment, open to business with Bretton Woods even.

Five months ago, this was just unthinkable.

And dare I say the debate about dictatorial tendencies is now bedevilling the MDC-T where Chamisa is battling accusations of overriding the constitution, and running roughshod over the views of anyone opposed to his own views.

All that needs to be done in politics is to assess where power lies and say if power is in a popular revolution, let that revolution put us into state power; or maybe we can rely on the power of business and corporations to get the same power; or who cares if that power will come from the military, or from foreigners, for as long as it takes us to state power.

In the end we will just have to drive the “stupid masses” toward a world they are too dumb to understand themselves, a world of complex matters only comprehended by a few talented ones like our eloquent orators.

As Lippmann aptly argues, there are two classes of citizens in a democracy, the specialised class that always talks about what to do about and on behalf of those all others, and of course the class of “those all others,” — the bewildered herd whose function in a democracy is to be “spectators” in the complex action of the thinking elites, when they are not enjoying those moments they are allowed to lend their weight to one or the other member of the specialised class through programmed elections, like the one we are going to have here.

Precisely, that is why incumbent politicians believe by merely looking at their action plans and adding to them their personal political aspirations they by definition become not only indispensable but also unreplaceable.

Tsvangirai became to his brand of the MDC what President Robert Mugabe became to Zanu-PF — hard to replace politicians in whose absence an election became so hard to envisage.

This is what happens in any spectator democracy. This is a chapter we want closed never to be opened again.

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in Sydney, Australia.

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