Thursday, 8 December 2011

This whole democracy thing

I am beginning to think that, actually, scratch that, I am fully convinced, that we need to evolve a political system beyond democracy. It is NOT the best possible system.

For intro, I was raised and educated in the firm belief that there is no better method of governance than democracy, that after decades of experimentation, humankind has evolved into this Fukuyaman history-ending uber-system.

After all, who could possibly argue against - indeed what intellectual ammunition would they use to oppose - a system where "all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives"?

I mean, just read that one more time "all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions affecting their lives."

Sounds great right?

At first glimpse (and even after a hundred years of practice) democracy does look and sound and feel great, especially with continuous tweaking of its inconsistencies and blunting of its sharper edges. But taking a good close look at what democracy has produced, what results it has achieved, what various other schools of thought have to say about it, it becomes clear, we can and must do much better.

Here's why.

Actually before I start, gimmee two seconds because I'd like to give a quick mention to two of my pet hate democracy stories, namely Algeria and Gaza, where a democratically elected, people selected government was not allowed to operate.

Ok, moving on:

1. What has democracy produced?

Plato argued with typically impeccable logic, that since democracy entails rule of the majority by virtue of equal representation and that since in all societies the poor are bound to form that majority, democracy will always lead to rule (perhaps tyranny) by the poor over the rich.

What has in fact come about is the exact opposite. Democracy in the US for example far from leading to a powerful, tyrannical low-income class, has produced rule of the better-funded over the impecunious. For the last five or six decades, the presidential campaign with the most funds has consistently produced the president. Likewise the cases where the less-funded congressman won his election are few and far between.

Democracy in the US at least, has in effect turned into its ugly cousin, plutocracy, rule by the rich and powerful. Democracy in the country most revered for its democratic values has evolved away from itself into something quite scary.

Democracy has produced, again using the land of the free and the home of the brave as an example, a government which spends over a trillion dollars a year on weapons which will never be used in defense, while the number of homeless Americans (about 2 million in 2009) is spiking as I type.

It is easy to argue that the majority of Americans don't think that is OK.

Again in the USA democracy has produced a government which ignored 63% (a CBS/New York Times poll found this many percent of Americans wanted a diplomatic solution found for Iraq) of its own population -never mind the UN and the bulk of the world's nations and let's certainly not mind what the Iraqis thought! - and sent hundreds of thousands of its citizens to invade a country half way across the globe (oh, and by the way, oil prices never went down either).

Not to point a blaming finger at the US alone, let us look elsewhere. Democracy in France has led to a direct conflict with the one of the three supra-constitutional values of the Republic. To forbid a certain sect of women from wearing what they want cannot coincide with egalité! In India this wunder-system has led to the super-nationalist ultra-religious Hindu party coming to power. Democracy in Israel has produced an apartheid state, where the government's handling of different members of the population is far from equal (leave alone the Palestinians, I'm talking about Israeli Arabs).

Democracy has produced a world where lobby and special interest groups hold more sway than any citizen  or group of citizens. You could argue that lobbyists represent groups of citizens, and you'd be right. The problem is the amount of influence a lobby wields is directly proportional to its funding, not its merit, nor its popularity.

One could go on and on and on with these examples, listing shortcoming after shortcoming in the outcomes of this ostensibly wonderful system, but I hate to read (and therefore refuse to write) very lengthy blogs.

2. Liberalism and. Democracy

Although the two are frequently used in tandem, as in Liberal Democracy, there is much trouble between the two. Liberals have a major ethical/moral problem with the enforcing of majority will on the minority which is a frequent outcome of democracy. And so democracy is seen by many liberals (the more classical, the more this is a problem) as a flawed system in that it has no built-in mechanisms for addressing the grievances of the minorities in society.

Furthermore, while the common sense understanding of democracy certainly implies a high level of personal freedom of choice, speech and action, it is not the common sense understanding which is put to practice in so-called democratic societies. What happens effectively is that the collective decisions are enacted, the group will enforced frequently leading to a decrease in people's freedoms. An example to enlighten: Iran has for the past few decades been a highly non-liberal country because that is what the majority of its people have wanted. It is not that the Ayatollahs forged elections, it is that the people consistently chose the less liberal rulers.

3. Islam (or other religions) and Democracy

I may be accused of quoting Abdel Moneim el Shahhat (the infamous cleric who declared democracy as heresy). I plead guilty!

But think about it for a second. What does democracy mean if it doesn't mean that people collectively decide what is right and wrong, (read: allowed and forbidden, kosher and non-kosher, halal and haram) and therefore usurping that function from God? An observant, practicing Muslim (Christian, Jew, Hindu) doesn't want people to decide for him what is acceptable and not acceptable. He wants that done by God. Is not a democratic society saying, we know what is best for us, let us the people decide what is right and wrong? It is! Now take that piece of information and ask the average practicing Muslim the following question "who should decide what is right and wrong, legal and illegal, we the people or God?" and I will bet ten to one, he won't say "the people". For examples of democracy crossing religion: in mainly Muslim Tunisia it is illegal to take more than one wife, while Islam clearly allows that. In Israel the law allows activity on the Sabbath, forbidden by religion there. Catholics the world over have issues with contraception, abortion and homosexuality, their religion forbids all three, but the democratic process has led to all three being legal and acceptable.

Of course there is an additional element here regarding interpretation of God's laws and rules and who has the right to do this, but that is the subject of another discussion. Here I am just trying to clarify that democracy (in its raw, unbridled form) is as rejected by Islam (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc..) as it is by liberals.

At the risk of alienating my conservative friends (patience please, I promise to do the same with the liberal bunch in a second), I would say that democracy can work fine if it limits the powers given to the majority to enforce things on the minority. If governments can be made completely immune to the effects of campaign spending (fixed budgets?), if lobby groups were abolished so that the individual regains his rightful place and minorities and the less and dis enfranchised have more say in their individual destinies.

Now (as promised) at the risk of alienating my liberal friends, I think democracy can also work if it is as Abdel Moneim El Shahat recommends limited by a constitutional article saying that no laws may be enacted which contradict with the tenets of the religion(s) of the land. That would ease the pain of worrying about making kosher what the Talmud forbids or making forbidden what the Quran allows.

So, what's the point?

The point is democracy in an of itself is not the solution. More importantly, it cannot be the objective, especially when loosely or not-at-all defined.

It doesn't ever work like it promises to, it evolves all too easily away from its core tenets, it frequently produces terrible (and sometimes non-democratic) results and the two apparent poles of thinking, namely liberalism and religious conservatism have fundamental problems with it. Seems to me we really should be able to come up with something better.

Do I have a solution? No.

Do I think there are no merits in the system? Double no.

There are a lot of mechanisms within democracy which warrant respect, awe even. It is a great system in some ways, but it is all dependent on the implementation and the rules.

Final word? Not really.


  1. I think this is very interesting follow up to this blog :-)

  2. Thanks Mara, will watch pronto.I'm a Sag too!