Responding to the Challenges of Our Time
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In 2016, the world had changed in ways that no pundit could have completely foreseen.
From the northern portion of the Atlantic to the western shores of the Pacific, popular despots had suddenly come to power, upsetting the “liberal international order” that had governed global affairs since the end of the Cold War. The Varieties of Democracy Institute described this slew of events as “the beginning of a decline,” with political polarization ravaging the world's advanced democracies, even as millions of people “continue to live under repressive conditions without much hope for greater democratic rights and freedom.”
Stanford University's Francis Fukuyama shares a similar analysis, adding that all the major developments in each individual country form part of a “broader trend in international politics.” While “the period from 1970s through the mid-2000s” democratization,” the present moment, he argues, is now characterized by “democratic recession,” in which “the aggregate number of democracies fell from their peak in virtually all regions of the world.”
But unlike in the past when power was seized through armed insurgency or military coup, today's global decline has come about through the very means that is most closely associated with democracy—elections. In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt observed that the main challenge to liberty no longer comes from “men with guns,” but from elected leaders “who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” The two authors further maintain that while democratic governments are now rarely overthrown in “spectacular fashion,” they can still “erode slowly, in barely visible steps.”
This democratic decline coincides with the global rise of rightwing populism, with its vicious agenda of excluding segments of the population from the body politic. For Simon Tormey, a political science professor at the University of Sydney, 2016 can be regarded as “the year populism exploded,” with the UK's Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's surprising electoral victory in the United States. He also locates the origin of this explosion to the Asian region, citing the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines. According to Tormey, Duterte's victory was “the first glimmer that something was afoot,” since he not only “threatened to turn his back on the United Nations,” but also “made no effort to hide his disdain for the rule of law.”
With the rising threat of rightwing populism, a more vigorous ideological response is now expected from social democrats. To overturn this latest authoritarian wave, progressives must develop a compelling vision of the future that addresses the anxieties of the present while remaining rooted to social democracy's foundational principles of freedom, justice, and solidarity.
This challenge is especially pressing here in the Asian region, where there are only a handful of strong social democratic parties that can win elections and form governments at the national level. Since most of these parties are still in the process of accumulating political strength, the idea of social democracy has yet to reach a wider audience to fully influence public discourse. And unlike Europe or the United States with their clear electoral rules and firm human rights guarantees, the world's largest continent is still dominated by rightwing authoritarian regimes that view democracy as an alien Western concept that is completely unsuited to Asian conditions.
If we are to overcome the rising threat of rightwing populism, then it is vital that we have an organizational nexus where like-minded progressives can exchange ideas and foster a common vision for the region. The Network for Social Democracy in Asia (Socdem Asia) can potentially take on this role since it is the widest formation of social democratic parties and movements at the regional level. Established in 2008, Socdem Asia is present in 12 countries with 16 active political parties. It also helped in the formation of the Progressive Alliance—the political international of more than 140 socialist and social democratic parties from across the globe. This close relationship between these two networks has enabled progressive Asian parties and movements to create bonds and forge fraternal ties with kindred formations from other continents.
Apart from its geographic spread, the Network also has the advantage of having its own publication called the Socdem Asia Quarterly. With its first issue appearing in July 2013, the Quarterly was envisioned as a space for expounding on the “policies, perspectives and lessons learned from social democratic political practice.” It did so by mirroring the activities of Socdem Asia. As a result, the themes of the conferences that the Network had organized also became the themes of the subsequent issues of the Quarterly.
Looking back, the model that Socdem Asia had followed was the most appropriate at a time when liberal democracy, as Fukuyama asserts, was still the “default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration if not in practice.” With Barack Obama in the White House and with center-left and center-right parties still dominating European politics, it seemed as if international politics followed a fixed set of rules that had been there since after the end of the Second World War. During that period, a political movement that sought relevance had to engage in policy issues, while exploring the nuts and bolts of practical governance.
But the rise of populism and the apparent failure of neoliberalism compels us to search for new ideas and to imagine the world anew. For this reason, Socdem Asia has to set a new editorial direction which, while acknowledging the need for policy, sees the overwhelming importance of ideology. Such a process involves a major rebranding of the Network's publication, wherein its new editorial direction is reflected, not only in its content, but also in its name. We are not abandoning the Quarterly. We are, instead, transforming our publication so that it can better deal with the fresh challenges of our world.
It is for this purpose that we are launching PRAKSIS: The Journal of Asian Social Democracy. The term PRAKSIS perfectly reflects the purpose of our publication —that of combining theory and practice by providing cogent analyses to inform our strategy for attaining power and the policy direction that should guide all Asian governments.
Our objective is simple yet ambitious: to build a regional platform for progressive thinking that would provide hope to the continent's 4.6 billion people. In doing so, we will also help shape the concept of Asian social democracy by identifying its constitutive principles, its distinguishing features, and its concrete application in the context of the region. Part of this task entails examining how ideas are translated into reality and how they mutually reinforce each other to promote democracy and social justice.
It is our hope that by bridging theory and practice, we can help forge needed multilateral cooperation so that we can adequately respond to the challenges of the time: inequality, creeping authoritarianism, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The appearance of our maiden edition coincides with International Workers' Day (May 1, 2021) in honor of the labor movement from which social democracy traces its origin. We offer this first issue of PRAKSIS, aware of the dangers of the present, while remaining firmly hopeful for the future. And hope, as Desmond Tutu once reminded us, is that which allows us to see the light despite the enveloping darkness.
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