What is the truth about democracy? Is it wise or ethical to promote it the world over? In this post, I argue that what passes for democracy is specific to a particular corner of the globe. Democracy is not in evidence anywhere, but there is not repression either. At the same time, other cultures should be allowed to develop their own assemblies and gatherings. Natural aristocracies should be allowed run their course.
Democracy is all the buzz, isn’t it? All corners of the world must be democratized: that is the remedy to all manners of ills across the globe. So the story goes. It would be surprising to find anyone who would question the democratic ideal on principle.
Yet, it must be wondered, is the democratic agenda an ethical or a wise one? Or is it even a ‘true’ agenda?
Now, everyone who has read anything on democracy will know that there is no democracy anywhere in the world and hasn’t been for quite some time. A conversation on democracy often ends up noting the democratic deficit, how much work we have to do, but how brilliant democracy is, even though we have never witnessed it.
But how are do you get all these people into parliament, people’s true opinions without influencing them in some way (e.g. preparing questions they must form an opinion on), or preventing either mob rule or imprudent rule? These are obvious arguments.
The person promoting democracy will of course say that what they intended to promote was representative democracy, or parliamentary democracy, or even liberal democracy.
In other words, they want to synthesize the technical know-how of, for want of a better word, the ‘aristocrats’ of society, with a popular form of government.
However, what this representative democracy really amounts to is nothing more than an aristocratic government.
Popular involvement shouldn’t deceive us. Aristotle insisted that elections were part of aristocratic government, while selection by lot is an attribute of democracies (Politics, IV, 9, 1294b 7-9). Even inherent in the word ‘election’ is the notion of the ‘elect,’ the superior people in society capable of making decisions on behalf of others. Democracies involve real power wielded by a wide segment of the enfranchised populace, aristocracies have power wielded by a small circle of the enfranchised. Which is more common?
Ok, so we’ve cleared that up. But whatever you call it (it is certainly not democracy) it works. It works in Euro-centric countries, and Euro-centric countries have the know-how of transferring a popular will in society into a form of government that then makes decisions on the people’s behalf and for the people. This should be the universal template the world over, it is insisted.
However, it is important to be precise about ‘what works.’ How did the modern form of parliamentary democracy develop? In brief, you had a king who summoned the ‘Estates’ to court or to assemblies. Those who attended the assemblies were aristocrats, essentially, and ‘big men’ in their locality.
After a time, these Estates, particularly the ‘Third Estate’ (the bourgeois classes, traders, professionals, etc…) became more powerful than the King and made the monarch their servant or eliminated him. Then an aristocratic government developed which later had to allow for participation by the masses after the industrial revolution.
But really ‘what worked’ was not a scientifically engineered system that can be applied anywhere in the world. The story of ‘representative democracy’ is the story of sociological and cultural developments taking place within a specific locality and historical context.
Furthermore, it is a fiction to say that there is a ‘will’ in society that can be transferred to offices in capital cities with bureaucrats and politicians who will then interpret this will and administer affairs in accordance with this will.
However – and this is an important point – it is not untoward to pretend that this is the reality. Some means of governing, no matter how disorganized its development or how inconsistent its current justifications, must be implemented. What works is the fact that such systems are believed in and that there is tacit acceptance despite deficits between reality and idealism.
Now, maybe it is possible to simply export parliamentary democracy all over the world. There are many tragic cases, particularly in Africa, to demonstrate that this is not the case. But I would say that the main lesson from the history of parliamentary democracy is that political organization should be allowed to develop naturally over time and in the spirit and context of the culture it is rooted in.
Notables assembling together to discuss common interests is by no means confined to European history. Even the most primitive societies have tribal gatherings. Bear in mind that these resemble what once took place in Europe.
These tribal gatherings, if allowed evolve, will morph into more sophisticated gatherings. If they do morph, they may look different from what is current in Euro-centric countries. But what is wrong with that? Where is the deep moral justification for aristocratic rule in Europe?
Surely, the reason why many countries in the world are unable to ‘democratize’ themselves is because they are being made follow something that could only be truly grasped, in all its eccentricities, within a certain corner of the globe.
Supposing, such natural development occurs …then one day, these sophisticated tribal gatherings suited to their particular context may tack on the name of ‘democracy’ to give a moral justification for an essentially aristocratic system. Then, they would be no different to the Euro-centric variety of government.
Currently, I am researching a book on Carl Schmitt and hope that such a published book will represent my research adequately. I have already authored one book Mysteries of State in the Renaissance. My Amazon page is here.
Image: “Reykjavik althing”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reykjavik_althing.jpg#/media/File:Reykjavik_althing.jpg