As uprisings broke out in the Arab world, Western commentators labeled the events the “Arab Spring” and enthused about the imminent spread of democracy across North Africa and the Middle East. When protests later began in Russia, many saw these occurrences as the Russian version of the great democratizing trend. I’m not in favor of dictatorships by any means, but I’ve found it hard to be optimistic about the immediate future of these changing national societies.
My hesitation to cheer these mass movements is precisely that they have been mass movements, each a different sort of manifestation of what Ortega y Gasset termed “the revolt of the masses.” Large crowds of people, composed of frustrated individuals or opposing groups united only by their opposition to a regime, rampaging through the streets do not provide a stable foundation for a workable democratic order.
Recent events have only deepened my skepticism. In Port Said, Egypt, a riot by fans at a soccer match resulted in the deaths of over 70 people and in nearly 250 injuries. The rioting ultras, or fanatical soccer fans, had earlier made up part of the “democratic mass movement” that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Now, those same ultras, together with supporters, are fighting with the nation’s security forces and attacking the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. The ultras and their sympathizers blame the authorities for not having prevented the violence perpetrated by ultras. If the military government cracks down on the protesters, it will probably provoke even more violent protests. If it accedes to their demands, it hands over power not to a representative elected government, but to a mob.
A functioning democracy is not a matter of mass movements. As I see it, too much passionate “engagement” is bad for civil society. A polity works best when it grows out of the everyday interactions of citizens going about their own business in voluntary systems of associations, with minimal coercion from authorities and without large-scale, intense social movements. Something approaching this state of affairs may eventually come to pass in the many troubled parts of the world. But only after a very difficult period of transition that will probably last a long time.