Politics in the Pandemic and Information Age


                                               Author: Bican Şahin

Bican Sahin is ILN Turkey Fellow and a professor of political science in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Hacettepe University, Ankara. He is the President of Freedom Research Association. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2003. Among his research topics are classical liberal and libertarian philosophy, the relation between liberal democracy and Islam, and the relationships between state and civil society in Turkey.

Humans by nature live with other humans (social animal). Living together necessarily creates common needs. Common interests such as defense, justice and urban development push people to cooperate with their fellows. Aristotle stated that humans, like ants and bees, are creatures that work and produce around common interests, and in this respect, humans are “political animals” (zoon politikon).

Politics is the whole of the process of seeking answers to the problems of how, when and with what resources the needs of people living in society will be met. In monarchic and oligarchic governments, the search for answers to these problems, that is, politics, is carried out by a small minority, while in democracies it is carried out by all citizens.

In ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, Athenian men over the age of 20 were accepted as citizens and tried to find answers to the needs of common life in the people’s assembly called Ecclesia. Of course, while Ecclesia was the place where public issues were ultimately decided, discussion of public issues was not limited there. Citizens would discuss public issues face to face in the Agora. Citizens could not afford to be indifferent to public affairs. Those who remained indifferent to politics were seen as parasites, not, as Pericles put it, a self-interested person. It was believed that public matters took precedence over the private matters of the individual. Rather than the individual’s rights and freedoms, they had duties to the state.

If one of the processes that turned politics upside down was a state of war, another was epidemic diseases such as the plague. It would not be wrong to think that the plague epidemic that broke out in Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian Wars interrupted the ordinary course of life and politics.

Modern democracy differs from ancient democracy in various aspects. First, the position of the individual against the state has been strengthened, and the private sphere of the individual has become autonomous against the public sphere. It is no longer the case that politics and therefore the state dominate every aspect of life. The state has become a limited, constitutional state. Second, modern democracy has become representative democracy. Instead of direct citizen participation in politics of ancient democracy, there was indirect participation through representatives. In the words of John Stuart Mill, citizens began to be involved in government through servants who were more specialized in political matters than themselves. While representative democracy has been appreciated for making democracy possible again in the nation-state with a population of millions, it has been subject to criticism in terms of distancing the people from politics. For example, Rousseau insisted that the people should not delegate law-making authority to anyone. Today, supporters of radical and deliberative democracy speak of a crisis of representation. Demands to increase direct participation at both local and national levels are being voiced more and more frequently.

Just at the time when these demands are rising, humanity is going through the information and communication revolution. The internet, smartphones and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have radically transformed the way we communicate and inform. While citizens in ancient Athens could have information about public issues by talking face to face in the Agora, today’s citizens can access instant information about the country and world affairs from their smart phones while sipping their tea during breakfast. In this sense, citizens interact with each other in the “virtual Agora” at all hours of the day. Face-to-face interaction has been replaced by electronic/digital interaction.

The effect of the Virtual Agora was seen at the beginning of the 21st century in mass actions such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street in the world, and in Turkey during the Gezi Park Protests. Hundreds of thousands and even millions of people have been able to be informed and organized about an issue through social media in an environment where the traditional media has become silent. In addition, while in the past, political and social communication was paralyzed as a result of extraordinary situations such as epidemics, natural disasters, and war, today it can maintain its vitality thanks to modern technologies. The pandemic process we are living in has also shown that as a result of the curfews implemented to combat the epidemic, even at the highest level of social isolation, people were able to be informed about social, economic and political issues and develop reactions through social media.

It should not be a prophecy to expect that the information and communication revolution will increase the active participation of the people in politics in the future. In this context, it can be expected that the participatory dimension of ancient democracy will be revived thanks to new technologies. However, the aspect of ancient democracy that should be avoided is the dominance of politics over all areas of life. Liberal democracy should be a limited, constitutional democracy in which the autonomous sphere of the individual is respected.