Tuesday, 26 January 2010

One Cheer for Democracy


Those who have studied the history of Europe between the First and Second World Wars will be aware that the intention to make the world safe for democracy, the hope of 1919, was effectively dead by 1939; democracy itself was almost dead, clinging on to the western fringe of Europe. Today, across the world, a similar pattern is at work, with a steady retreat of liberty and notions of liberal democracy. Woodrow Wilson’s vision, revived and strengthened, it might be said, by the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc and the apartheid state of South Africa, is once again blurring by degrees.

The objection here is that I am being far too alarmist. Not so; at least not according Freedom House, a lobby group based in Washington. Their report headed Freedom in the World 2010: the Global Erosion of Freedom details the decline in liberty in some forty countries across the world; in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East and in some of the countries of the old Soviet Union.

History, it would seem, has not ended, in defiance of Francis Fukuyama’s absurd post-mortem of twenty years ago. That partnership between economic freedom and political freedom, expressed with such confidence, was never more than a pious and sentimental hope. In China as economic freedom advances political freedom declines. In Russia the Kremlin, in pursuit of an increasingly authoritarian line, looks with interest on the Chinese example. In Latin America the upsurge of left-wing demagogues like Venezuela’s Hugo Ch├ívez represents a threat of a different kind in a continent that looked for a time to be turning away from an authoritarian past.

It is wrong to take comfort, however small, that this trend, this retreat from the model of the liberal state, is only evident in far away countries among people of whom we know nothing. It is not; it’s happening here also, though in a different way and by different means. The sovereign liberal state itself is being eaten from the inside.

How absurd, how ridiculous it is, to see the West attempt to ‘build democracy’ in impossible places like Iraq and Afghanistan, when democracy in Europe is threatened by the growing cancer of bureaucratic indifference; threatened, not strengthened, by distant and unrepresentative institutions. Oh, we can vote in the European Soviet Union (ESU) but to what end; what difference does it make? Voting, in a sense, is becoming ever more pointless when the outcome can be predetermined, rather like the plebiscites of the Third Reich. Voting is the opium of the European people.

It is perhaps a sign of our new times that democracy as an intellectual concept is also in retreat, a point made in a report earlier this year in The Economist. There are those who argue that elections do more harm than good when there is nothing in the way of tradition, law or civic culture to support the outcome, again the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Russia. This new mood of realism, or practical cynicism, if you prefer, is well reflected in the title of a book by Humphrey Hawksley-Democracy Kills: What’s so Good About the Vote?

I should say that Hawksley, despite the title of the book, offers a vigorous defence of democracy. I would certainly offer a vigorous defence of democracy; but, goodness, how we have traduced it by, first, making it a foreign policy aim- by bringing democracy at the barrel of a gun - and, second, by failing to understand the growing weakness of our own representative institutions. Two cheers for democracy, E. M Foster said. Is it possible, I wonder, now to even pass one?

6 comments:

  1. Yes, indeed, Ana, democracy is the opiate of the people. :-)

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  2. I agree with the following part:
    "How absurd, how ridiculous it is, to see the West attempt to ‘build democracy’ in impossible places like Iraq and Afghanistan, when democracy in Europe is threatened by the growing cancer of bureaucratic indifference; threatened, not strengthened, by distant and unrepresentative institutions."

    Democracy as a whole is not perfect although it solves a few major problems: It gives a chance to a nation to recreate its own rules without bloody ways. So it prepares an adequate platform for reforms and revolutions.

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  3. Democracy in Indonesia is interesting because it is new and developing before our eyes if we care to look. Easy for me to look of course since I live here. Arguably the real deal has only been on offer since about 2004, but villages and districts and regencies have all had democratically appointed reprsentatives for a long time throughout military dictatorship and before that a kind of nationalist 'guided democracy' that wasn't much different from a dictatorship.

    Now we are seeing the flowering of the trus stuff but it is stuttering and faltering and oh boy does it need watching as the old authoritarian instincts begin to come back amongst the political elites. Even so, even allowing for the problems and the corruption that is far from being cleaned up, it is exciting to see a system that is being developed without too much interference from outside and is trying to reflect the needs of the Indonesian society. I watch this and am convinced now that you cannot inflict your own ideas of what democracy should be on any other country because what suits you is unique and their requirements are unique too.

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  4. It's something that takes time, John. After all, democracy in this country only came after a very long labour.

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