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Rerum Novarum Revisited in Relation to People Rule and Mob Rule Democracy

The paper gives an overview of what is happening across the globe, especially Africa. There is a debate on rise of nationalism. While nationalism of six decades ago was to self-rule, today’s nationalism is built around what is ours. The modern nationalism is less about the wellbeing of humanity and execution of social justice. When people get tired of those, they elected into office what must they do? Should they result into mob rule or make sure the democratization process does not end when their friends are in power? Nationalism has been described as creating a sense of belonging, being part of a collective purpose, promoting cultural and linguistic pride, aggression, fear of strangers, fueling conflict. Negative nationalism can create xenophobia and discriminate against those seen as outsiders. The type of nationalism expressed in developed world is about welfare. Mylonas and Tudor, (2021) look at how academic research on nationalism tended to be addressed within political science. They argue political science tends to offer three perspectives on nationalism. Political science critically assesses by synthesizing classic debates and consensus that nations are historically contingent and socially constructed. First, contemporary nationalism as a comparative historical research where nationalism tends to be a macropolitical force and drills the relationship between nations, states, constitutive stories and political conflict. Second, political that applies survey data and experiments to gauge the causes and effects of attachment to nations. Thirdly, nationalism where ethnographic scholarship that illuminates the daily processes and practices that perpetuate nationalist tendencies.

Where does one draw the line when citizens do not have enough vaccines and their government feels philanthropic by sharing with the developing world in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The citizens tend to become incensed at this gesture of distributive justice. The Covid-19 vaccine distribution nationalism has not been about the spirit of the good Samaritan of helping the neighbour but based on what the electorate demand of their leaders. Our people first and others later. It shows modern democracy requires a lot of critique for a better global family.

Munck (2016) asks this question: What is democracy? Democracy is people rule in demanding freedom, equality, meeting basic needs like housing, quality health care, and longevity of life. But for people to rule well they need a soundly reformed democracy where rule of law and order are upheld. Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (translates as new things) highlighted why catholic movements should not take a back seat but become active participants who show interest in social economic, political life and cultural issues in that society. This document has continued to influence how people should engage those they elect into office to make sure the local politics is about meeting what they want. What they want must be continuously negotiated through parliamentary representation and negotiations. We have seen the role played by many social actors in America, Europe and Africa in relation to this encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891. Labour movements incorporated the ideals of this document in their work-related policies. The failure to be actively involved in the democratization process of each country has produced negative nationalism and what we may call mob rule.

What is happening today? There is a global surge of violence. The recent riots and looting in South Africa are just but many such dangerous manifestations of mob rule as opposed to people rule. In any democracy it is the desire of the people to rule through elected representatives who can articulately argue their case before others to arrive at a consensus. Failure to do this, one may experience mob rule, which breeds anarchy.

The euphoria that follows independence or winning an election is that the people can find their voice in those elected representatives to champion their needs. But as time runs by the different desires and interests of the people may not be captured by those elected to represent them. Some people may use violence to force being heard. If this delicate situation is not properly handled you may see confrontations between the people who want peacefulness and those who take advantage of the situation to causes chaos.

There have been cases in history where mob rule has driven the mighty and the powerful out of office. The recent Arab spring uprisings which saw mobs sweep sitting governments out of office across north Africa to middle east sent chills of anxiety to champions of democracy.  The French Revolution of 1789 stands out as a unique example where a mob cannot rule civilized people. A representative democracy tends to encourage a culture of holding those elected accountable without descending into violence. Zaslove et al (2021) has raised this question. What happens when citizens are influenced by populism and go beyond their own boundaries? When we say power to the people, which people do we really mean should wield that power? The French Revolution released an avuncular of distastefulness in its wake. The mob turned against its leaders because those chosen to represent them had failed to listen to their cry for social justice. The French nobility led by farmers, lords, judiciary, the legal minds, the monarchy, the gentry, the clergy and even teachers had failed to listen to the cry of the people. Hunger, over taxation, and poor services were just but part of a long list of unanswered needs. The quote from the French Queen Marie Antoinette has been used to express how removed the elite were from ordinary life of their people. When people cried, they had no food, the queen retorted ‘let them eat cake’. The mob took over Paris, the Bastille Prison and began a culture of guillotine anarchy. By the time a young Napoleon appears on the scene to bring law and order much blood had been shed. Egalite, fraternite, became slogans of justice to all people of France.

In 2007/08 post-election violence in Kenya reminds us of the danger of mob rule. Violence tends to obliterate the positive gains of yester years. Jimmy Buffet in Barefoot Children in the Rain uses this aphorism, ‘Wrinkles go where the smile has been’. Wrinkles tend to overshadow a smile. Nobody wants the good life to be overshadowed by violence. Politicians tend to prevaricate on non-essentials while people are suffering economic and social wellbeing hardships.

What should one avoid in a democracy? Democracy should avoid these situations. When leaders engage in cacophony of insults, misuse public funds and become uncaring spend splurgers. When a government is highhandedness to obdurate what they rogue behaviour without justice. Locking up those trouble makers may not cauterize the ugly wounds of their own governance weakness. Being trigger happy on the weak, if not checked can espouse a catharsis of emotions seeking revenge. Haiti has just experienced this kind of situation. A section of society thought by assassinating their president peace would prevail. But violence has engulfed the nation out of control. The mob in Haiti, like in Kwa Zulu Natal (South Africa) want insalubrious living like kings without labouring for it.  When other people across the country see a weak government in control, trouble is brewing and a nation moving towards apoplexy with less ability to steer a country forward.  Politicians will then turn this mob to their own advantage.

Faith leaders can lead too. When people move towards elections, leaders ought to know they represent people. Kenya leads most countries in Africa for having not only reformed its constitution to give more powers to the people but also because faith-based organizations under the ecumenical movement called Ufungamano initiative has been an active player in reforms. This body has the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB), National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM), Hindu association of Kenya and other faiths. It means Pope Leo’s encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 still has great relevance into the political life of people. It is those in office who can articulated the key components of this letter to the people they represent. The Kenya Constitution 2010 article 1 and 2 place all functions of the state and representatives under the people. But again, we should not tempt mob type of democracy. It is dangerous and almost irreversible once money controls a mob.

In conclusion, people rule or mob rule, we choose ‘people rule’ democracy as transformative. The Good Friday mob rule was tempted to shout in chorus “Release for us Barabbas, we want Barabbas. Not him but Barabbas” only to regret few hours later ‘learning they had truly crucified an innocent man’. The lesson is that unless leaders satisfy the wants and needs of their people, there might buying fuel for anarchy where their demands will be met with anger and fire. No mob rule but people rule. Let people build platforms for dialogue and consensus building rather than monuments of perpetual torture. See, judge act by consensus building. This is sound democracy.

Academic research can raise the bar of nationalism by going beyond what Myolonas and Tudor (2021) raise as nationalism to be a macropolitical force of excavating relationship between nations, states, constitutive stories and political conflict. Where nationalism raises attachment to ethnicity or nation states, and what perpetuates nationalist tendencies. There are negative ideologies which tend to fuel negative nationalism that feeds into mob rule. Religion, cultural ontologies, un researched epistemologies, geographic locations, historical injustices and trauma and the desire to revenge the oppressors. These tendencies seem to have no desire for a teleology that looks at the greater good of the greatest number. Mob rule has no time for teleology but what they see as their duty for ‘popular justice’. The mob will cry deontologically: ‘We want our rights, “Haki Yetu”. It is their duty to demand for their rights but less on rights that bring about a humanity the responds to a greater good for of greatest number: ad majorem dei gloriam. Not mob democracy but people rule will bring about the desired good and transformation.


Boyer, John W. (2001), “Catholics, Christians, and the Challenges of Democracy: The Heritage of the Nineteenth Century”, Christian Democracy in 20th Century Europe, Böhlau Verlag, ISBN 3-205-99360-8

Catholic Church. (1940). Rerum Novarum: Encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII on the condition of labor (with discussion club outline). New York: Paulist Press.

Fitzpatrick, Paul (2013). “Review of Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought”The Furrow. 64 (10): 573–576. ISSN 0016-3120.

Munck, G. L. (2016). What is democracy? A reconceptualization of the quality of democracy. Democratization.

Mylonas, H., & Tudor, M. (2021). Nationalism: What We Know and What We Still Need to Know. In Annual Review of Political Science.

Rød, E. G., Knutsen, C. H., & Hegre, H. (2020). The determinants of democracy: a sensitivity analysis. Public Choice.

Thomas Aquinas, On the Governance of Rulers, 1, 15 (Opera omnia, ed. Vives, Vol. 27, p. 356).

Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia-Ilae, q. xciii, art. 3, ad 2m.

Zaslove, A., Geurkink, B., Jacobs, K., & Akkerman, A. (2021). Power to the people? Populism, democracy, and political participation: a citizen’s perspective. West European Politics.