09/12/2013 10:10 GMT | Updated 06/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Will We Let Democracy Die With Mandela?

This great man knew that the freedom of every member of a society to participate fully in its governance was the absolute, the fundamental, the non-negotiable. This freedom transcends race, and it transcends political affiliation. I believe we must all claim his legacy as a matter of urgency, and do so actively and constructively, if we are not to sleepwalk into a new era of oppression.

As we approach the greatest state funeral of the century, the vast majority of the commentary has understandably turned toward South Africa, the nation Nelson Mandela played such a huge part in delivering from horrendous oppression into at least the chance of a positive future. South Africa has a moment in time to claim a legacy that Mandela deserves, breathing new life into the dream of the Rainbow Nation, a dream that has if anything seemed to be receding from grasp in recent years.

But it is not only South Africa that should turn to the legacy of Mandela and hear in his words a deep demand to do better. The dream of the Rainbow Nation was not a dream just of equality for his people with the other; it was a dream rooted in the idea that the most fundamental freedom of all people is the ability to take part in our own governance, to run our own societies together as free citizens. Over and over again he would pointedly visit countries with a history of tyranny and oppression and speak, as for example in Ireland in 1990, to the essential necessity for "all people to be free to govern themselves and to determine their own destiny."

As such, Mandela was more than anything a champion of democracy, a political system which for three and a half centuries has been on the rise around the world. As Mandela took up the presidency of South Africa in 1994, the march towards full democracy across the globe seemed unstoppable, only a matter of time. Even as the Arab Spring began at the end of 2010, we seemed on cue.

Yet as the Economist Democracy Index for 2012 reflects, that march has become something of a stagger. For the first time in its history, the Index found democracy to be at best at a standstill. Measured across the five factors of electoral process, government functioning, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties, the results were a sobering read: the USA and UK barely made the cut as full democracies, with the Index lamenting "a generation of political pygmies" here in Britain; France, Italy and others were down to the ranking of flawed democracies; and despite the hope inspired by the Arab Spring, in the words of the Index report, "it has become apparent that democracy in the region remains a highly uncertain prospect."

There are many proximate causes for the stagger, specific to the context of each nation. But there is also a deeper root to the current malaise. In the near-global consensus of narrow GDP growth as the key measure of the success of a society, the core freedom that can only be guaranteed by democracy has fallen from the highest place that Mandela would have given it, to a merely instrumental concern. Where democracy promotes growth, fine. Where it seems in tension, it has become dispensable. As long as we are free to choose between products in the market, it seems, we should not worry about losing the right to run that market.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the new round of trade agreements that are nearing completion around the world. Deep in the text of draft agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (between 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, including USA and Japan, now nearing completion) and the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (between the EU and USA) are clauses relating to intellectual property that could render trade laws unaccountable to democratic governance. In the name of 'investor protection', governments and therefore we ourselves would lose the ability to change the terms of trade to reflect environmental or health concerns, for example - and if we choose to do so anyway, could be sued for huge amounts, not by another country, but by a company.

If you think that sounds like a conspiracy theory, think again. Even under the terms of existing agreements, Australia and Canada are suffering similarly right now. Under the terms of a trade deal with Hong Kong, and through an offshore tribunal that has no democratic accountability, Tobacco company Philip Morris are suing the Australian government for their shift to selling cigarettes in plain packaging; likewise, the Quebec administration are being sued under the North American Free Trade Agreement by mining company Lone Pine, having brought in a moratorium (not even an outright ban) on the controversial fracking technique of gas extraction.

In a recent blog exchange on the Guardian website, George Monbiot and Ken Clarke went head-to-head on just this subject. What is fascinating is that Clarke's response does nothing to counter Monbiot's claims directly. Instead of defending the importance of democracy, he simply makes the business case, outlining the benefit to the UK economy. But theorists like Amartya Sen have long argued that democratic freedom must be a far more fundamental concern of government, on both empirical evidence (citing the overwhelming decision of Indians to vote for political freedom in an election in the 1970s that framed a choice between that and economic advantage) and theoretical. Sen, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work, argues convincingly in the classic Development as Freedom that democracy must be considered a pre-condition of economic success, not least because economic success must be defined by what free people want and need, not just GDP.

At such a time, the rage of voices like Russell Brand against our current political system threaten to be deeply destructive. Our democracy is not perfect - it seems more than likely that the Economist will agree and call it 'flawed' in its 2013 Index - but we must make it work better, not throw it out.

The new era of digital democracy is one source of hope. now has 50 million members worldwide, the same as Facebook in 2007 or twitter in 2009. Avaaz has over 31 million, and has close on 1.5 million signatures (myself among them, and soon I hope you too) on their petition to Trans Pacific Partnership countries at least to make the text of the deal public before signing. Beyond simple petition-based structures, new formats for web-based participation like Loomio, and enablers of grassroots engagement like mySociety are flourishing.

And the evolution of our democracy is not only taking place online. Organisations like the Phoenix Education Trust are working to bring democratic structures to bear in allowing students a true voice in running their schools, learning the skills of democracy from an early age. Despite the travails of the Co-operative Bank, mutuals are on the rise around the country, celebrated in a recent report by the thinktank Res Publica and launched in Parliament by Francis Maude, the Conservative Minister for the Cabinet Office. These are organisations owned and run democratically by their staff and sometimes customers, and Conservative support shows clearly this is not a leftist concept.

This I think is a key point, and brings us back to Mandela's legacy. This great man knew that the freedom of every member of a society to participate fully in its governance was the absolute, the fundamental, the non-negotiable. This freedom transcends race, and it transcends political affiliation. I believe we must all claim his legacy as a matter of urgency, and do so actively and constructively, if we are not to sleepwalk into a new era of oppression.

Jon is Director of the New Citizenship Project, an organisation devoted to championing the role of the citizen in society. He is exploring the theory underlying his Huffington posts at