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Against All Odds

By Ece Temelkuran

March 12, 2024

Perhaps it is better to fast-forward past the long and dark assessments of the current darkness that we pretty much agree upon and ask:

What is the human being capable of doing when there is no hope?
What are the moral and political raisons d’être for us to think, talk, and act when the conditions are hopeless?

Let’s bring the abstract question to our reality: Why should we attempt a global dialogue in Washington, DC, where the most powerful are making terrible decisions that destroy the last hopes for humanity on a daily basis?

Here’s my answer.

In the last decade, for too long and by too many, the central predicament of democracy has been defined as “right-wing populism,” hoping that the phenomenon is a docile political fantasy that can be repelled if the existing political machine is fortified here and there. Many wanted to believe that if only citizens’ trust in the system could be refreshed, the state institutions could hold fast, and the enthusiasm for rights could be reinvigorated, everything would be back to business as usual. Yet, after a decade of mitigating the political monster, many democracies have already been lost to a new version of fascism.

For those of us coming from the Global South where the new fascism had already devoured countries, watching the “mature democracies” falling one by one was a relatively bearable cringe. The unbearable part was seeing that our mistakes were repeated only because our calls to share some know-how were dismissed due to Western exceptionalism. Alas, as it happened in the South, the masses in the North or West have voted for the thugs in tuxedos and worshipped sinister clowns. We know in the South the anxious urgency that captures the country before every election, prompting the political establishment to push every button all at once to save the day. However, those whose countries have already been invaded by new fascism had enough time and experience to contemplate the root cause.

The fatalistic cynicism that has devoured our societies did not come from nowhere. After decades of voting, the masses concluded that unless it was bringing social justice, democracy was just an irrelevant theatrical ritual. The fundamental promise of democracy, égalité, was made into a joke by the brutal capitalist order. We also learned that the worn-out Cold War tale coupling authoritarianism only with communism was irrelevant and that countries could, in fact, go into wars with each other even when they all had McDonald’s. Thus, the masses lost their faith not only in democracy but on a grander scale in politics. Since humans are political animals, this loss of faith can also be interpreted as humans losing faith in humanity. And if you think of the last five or six decades, one can say that the cynicism is not entirely ungrounded.

When the thugs and the clown arrived in power, the words “end of liberal democracy” began to be uttered in the higher echelons of political thought. The intellectual courage was scarce to call a spade a spade: We are going through the implosion of the discrepancy between democracy and the brutal capitalist system. This is the last stage of neoliberalism’s definition of humans coming home to roost. Since that definition says we are selfish, self-centered, cutthroat competitive bastards, the masses, as a last resort, embrace the definition and send their own bad guys to the capitals to avenge their broken pride.

When it became clear that this period was not a political fantasy and the sinister clowns were here to stay, that was precisely when many began talking about hope—as if we were on a drifting ship destined to perish and as if we, as humanity, do not know how to or have never rowed against the current. Hope gradually became the signal to let go of the oars. After all, hope calls out for hopelessness louder than any other word.

Unfortunately, we are experiencing one of those moments in history where our political, moral, and even physical existence depends not on a feathery thing like hope but on an impregnable concept: faith. Faith in our inherent skill of believing and acting towards the rightful and beautiful against all odds. The scarcity we are suffering from today is not of hope but faith, both in ourselves and the future. Not to forget the faith in convincing the masses that it is not their pride but their dignity that has been broken and that can be mended together through a truthful democracy. After all, a democracy faithful to social justice is still the only option for humanity to save the fundamental moral values and the planet.

Since the word "faith" has been monopolized by religion for thousands of years, it is natural that one finds it difficult to welcome the term into the political realm. However, as the politics of emotions should be urgently reinvented from a progressive perspective to respond to the new fascism’s lethal exploitation of fear and anger, the concept of faith, too, should be included in our political imagination to fight back against the fatalistic zeitgeist. The necessary transcendence that Pankaj Mishra highlighted in a conversation with Tom Banchoff leading up to the Georgetown Global Dialogues can be achieved through thinking about faith in politics, both in the context of democracy and climate justice.

Returning to my initial question in the light of political faith, my earnest answer to the reason for the dialogues can be formulated in a simple sentence: I believe in us. This moral and political stance is hopelessness-proof, which we might need due to our deteriorating reality. Thanks to the inner workings of faith, I don’t need to produce proof for my belief. Faith is self-evident. It rows against the current not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is the only thing to do. Faith is despite all odds. However, even though it doesn’t require proof, faith needs miracles. That is how it works. Such miracles happen daily in remote parts of the world, where people make and remake life every day from nothing. As the ones who are supposed to know better, we should bring a cast-iron faith to Washington to have the intellectual courage to say that this is not the end of humanity but just the end of a system. Not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is the only truthful response to our times.

I look forward to the Georgetown Global Dialogues to expand and discuss this approach with my esteemed fellows and our American counterparts, who seem to be going through one of the last steps in my book How To Lose A Country: The Seven Steps From Democracy to Dictatorship (2019).

Ece Temelkuran is a novelist and political thinker who explores challenges to democracy on a global scale.