Misdiagnosing democracy: Fully embracing the world, no matter the stripe

Dhaka,  Sun,  24 September 2017
Published : 17 Apr 2017, 18:57:27

Misdiagnosing democracy: Fully embracing the world, no matter the stripe

Imtiaz A. Hussain
No other form of government (or ideology, if that is what describes the phenomenon better) has attracted more people in the world, driven more aspirations, and acquired more respect as democracy. True there have been times when its antithesis of dictatorial powers, of one stripe or another, dotted a larger global landscape than democracy, but the tendency to shift from this state of affairs towards democracy has been far stronger than any reverse movement. Indeed, when democracy falters and authoritarian rules triumph, more attention has been paid to modifying democracy than to institutionalising hardcore authoritarian practices, even by the dictators themselves, thus beginning the practice of what might be called hyphenated-democracy. Pakistan's Field Marshal Ayub Khan's "basic" democracy exemplifies what those dictatorial forces entail. The message seems clear: an overwhelming proportion of people want to be associated with democracy, even if on paper, than with any other format for as much time.

Yet, as a March 2017 Economist feature brought out loudly and clearly, the current democratic disarray in countries hugging the "fourth" or "fifth" historical democratic waves could spell more trouble than any accompanying the "third" democratic wave when the Iron Curtain broke down across East Europe during the late-1980s. Accordingly, the revered weekly reduced the causal factors to two developments. The first is the rise of China's non-democratic presence in the international comity, posing, for other countries to rally to, a formidable alternative to North Atlantic democracy (where the "first" wave began with the suffragette movements of the 19th Century; and wherefrom the "second" wave found inspiration in the 20th Century until the 1950s).

A second catalyst sums up the devastating and widespread 2008-10 Great Recession effects: the manufacturing mode of machine-based assembly-line production that relied on physical labour being threatened by intellectual/intelligence-driven technologies, constituting the slow motions of a profound transformation. We will recognize this malaise from the 1930s depression, which shifted the production mode from agriculture to manufacture in the citadels of the global economy by introducing the tractor and popularizing the assembly-line.

Such seductive reasoning not only misses the point, but also unnecessarily sanctifies the North Atlantic model. This is harmful, and erroneous for at least two reasons. First, it shifts any attempt from rectifying democracy to an alternative Far East (or at least Chinese) paradigm that fewer countries have a taste for against the North Atlantic model, especially since the logic misconstrues Chinese economic support and bailouts as a form of political governance. Second, clearly, since the Great Recession's casualties lie almost wholly within the North Atlantic zone than in other regions of the world, dragging other continents in, particularly the one China belongs to, for a North Atlantic prescription is just the wrong wine in the wrong bottle.

Why democracy is failing is simply because, especially since the Soviet Union collapsed, it has largely been preached, monitored, and enforced dogmatically, much like communism was in the many countries where it had been practised before (a huge majority of them even failing to survive). In part this is due to the 1983 advent of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, articulated/ventilated through the Journal of Democracy. Legions of scholars who have chipped in to explain unfolding democratic efforts since then have unwittingly or otherwise created a cumulative agenda that every student in the North Atlantic is taught, every media outlet in the same region scrutinize as if they constitute the "be-all and end-all" credential to enter a more "civilized" society (meant as shifting from non-democratic rule towards representative government). In turn, a large segment of non-North American well-wishers of democracy get chastised for their actual democratic omissions and commissions rather than letting their overall democracy preference unfold itself naturally, with minor external nourishing.

Understanding them necessitates a mindset in which a Weberian ideal-type contrasts with reality. Punishing countries for not demonstrating long-haul changes overnight defeats the entire democratization purpose.

Two issues illustrate. The first involves adjusting to local cultures, often multiple local cultures in the same country. One must keep in mind, the North Atlantic model evolved in nation-states (a state created by a dominant nationality), within a Protestant context and influenced by the 17th Century European Enlightenment. This has since been applied to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where many countries were artificially created as state-nations (the state being formed before a nationality reflecting that state even existed), or multi-national-states (with multiple and contending nationalities still at odds with each other), where either Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, indigenous, or tribal, even Catholic,  influences determine the outcome, through a local "enlightenment" counterpart, not necessarily propounding philosophical treatises, but instead deeper and unwritten traditions that often align with, rather than in spite of, religious practices. 

Unsurprisingly, a long history of monotheism confronting polytheism, breeding tussles and tensions, like Europe's Thirty Years War (1618-48), dotted the democratic ballgame. Without first resolving this identity crisis, cultivating democracy within a single generation becomes a bridge too far. So, too, in the Atlantic zone. If U.S. democracy is traced back to its declared 1776 intentions, French to its 1789 revolution, and Britain to 1884 when more than a majority could vote for the first time, then they still had to wait several generations more before voting rights were extended to women and other minorities. Why Africans, Asian, and Latin Americans cannot have as long a gestation to sort out even more complex socio-cultural-politico issues is baffling. Sanctioning or denigrating them (through rankings grading democratization degrees) sanctifies antagonism, quashes the experimentation, and leaves both democracy preachers and practitioners worse-off.

Many of the transitional countries still retain the "lord-peasant" or "patron-client" feudal strictures that it took Great Britain three centuries to sort out (from the "long 16th century" when the enclosures began to disappear in the countryside to the 1832 Great Reform Act legitimizing a fairer representation); and the United States almost one century, when, through the Civil War in the 1860s, it could eradicate the last feudal vestiges. To have a "client" confront his/her "patron" eyeball-to-eyeball in a less-developed country today, as equal voting rights entail, becomes another bridge too far to cross within the same transformational generation, just as it is for Sunnis and Shias, Pashtuns and Tadjiks, or other feuding groups to embrace each other for keeps with the blink of a historical eye amid eons of bitterness. Such logic escapes North Atlantic zone preachers, as their experimentations in Afghanistan, Grenada, Haiti, Iraq, and elsewhere suggest.

The second feature relates to the media. Every African, Asian, or Latin democracy-related word, breathe, and action instantly ends up under the microscope in a way it never was in the first or second democratic wave. This magnifies every wart and expectation beyond proportion, and with blemishes few and far in between to count, local resistance against external monitoring thickens, paradoxically placing North Atlantic warts and wrinkles upon a pedestal.

Examples abound. Low-wage exporting countries get slighted for not raising labour standards today when slave-trading in democratizing North Atlantic countries only a few centuries ago went without comparable sanctions. Or prison-terms in less developed countries get much more North Atlantic media coverage (and reprisals) today than such common practices as hanging, guillotining, or firing-squad killings in that same zone centuries ago. True, we are a lot more civilized and communications far more speedier today than then; but if the English Enlightenment is the catalyzing force, then obviously all the "enlightenments" elsewhere, built upon traditions, face a disturbing dismissive fate in today's world court for it to remain balanced.

In his stout defence of individualism against European totalitarianism of the 1930s, E.M. Forster proposed "two cheers" for democracy, because it admits, first, variety, and, second, criticism. Somehow we have lost touch with both in the early 21st Century. As stresses and strains riddle North Atlantic democracy, African, Asian, and Latin countries continue rolling towards some nebulous democracy, that is, a democracy of their own making and reflecting more idiosyncrasies than imported traits. Though African, Asian, and Latin countries may be far from their particular end-point, when they do get there, embodying Forster's "two cheers" may find more unscrupulous carriers there than in today's North Atlantic zone. May be we can all stand up then and give democracy what it has always deserved: three cheers for fully embracing the world, no matter the stripe.  Patience carries its own virtues.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built 

Department of Global Studies 

& Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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