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The Dark Side of Democracy

 

By Iftekhar Sayeed

 

 

 

In Mesopotamia, people released a goat at the beginning of the year to carry the sins of the city outside the premises: it appears that old habits never die, they just become modern.

            The Breton Woods sisters seem to be getting the flak for everything that goes wrong in the world. From economic dyspepsia to financial melancholy – it’s their fault. True, the sisters have not exactly covered themselves with glory in recent years. The East Asian currency crisis was arguably not of their making, but the IMF did its best to aggravate the situation. But the most dangerous form of scapegoating has been the recent attribution of violence to policies pursued by the IMF and the World Bank – in short, to the market – in order to deflect attention away from the flaws of democracy. Thus Robert Wade, of the London School of Economics, observed in The Economist: ‘Income divergence helps to explain another kind of polarisation in the world system, between a zone of peace and a zone of turmoil’. (Significantly, this was written before 9/11.)

            The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mohammed Yunus and his Grameen Bank of Bangladesh – a poverty-reducing strategy – implies that poverty leads to violence, and that the eradication of poverty would mean the end of violence. As head of the Nobel Committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said: "Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty."

            According to S. E. Finer, the forum type of polity – democracy, republic – has a bad track record: “The Forum polity is comparatively rare in the history of government, where the Palace polity and its variants are overwhelmingly the most common type. Only in the last two centuries has the Forum polity become widespread. Before then its appearance was, on the whole, limited to the Greek poleis, the Roman Republic, and the mediaeval European city-states. Furthermore, most of them for most of the time exhibited the worst pathological features of this kind of polity. For rhetoric read demagogy, for persuasion read corruption, pressure, intimidation, and falsification of the vote. For meetings and assemblies, read tumult and riot. For mature deliberation through a set of revising institutions, read instead self-division, inconstancy, slowness, and legislative and administrative stultification. And for elections read factional plots and intrigues. These features were the ones characteristically associated with the Forum polity in Europe down to very recent times. They were what gave the term ‘Republic’ a bad name, but made ‘Democracy’ an object of sheer horror.”

            It used to be a commonplace among political theorists that         democracy increases violence – from the Greeks to nineteenth century writers such as Gustave Le Bon. Aristophanes and Plato have vividly described the dangerous ‘idle mob’; indeed Thucydides made it clear in his History of the Peloponnesian War what the mob was capable of.

Thus, Plato notes: ‘...those who have tasted philosophy and know how sweet and blessed a possession it is, when they have also realized the madness of the majority, that practically never does any one act sanely in public affairs, that there is no one in whom one might find an ally in the fight for justice and live – then like a man who has fallen among wild beasts, neither willing to join the others in doing wrong, nor strong enough to oppose their savagery alone, for he would perish before he could benefit his country or himself, of no use to himself or anyone else – taking all this into account, he keeps quiet and minds his own business. Like a man who takes refuge under a wall from a storm of dust or wind-driven hail, the philosopher is glad, seeing other men filled with lawlessness, if he can somehow live his present life free from wrongdoing and impiety and thus reach death with grace, goodwill and a beautiful hope.’

 

Compare Thucydides:

‘Pericles, indeed, by his rank, ability and known integrity was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude –in short, to lead them instead of being led by them;...what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen. With his successors it was different. More on a level with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.’

 

Given such events as the murder and enslavement of the Melians, the disastrous invasion of Sicily, the execution of Socrates and the fact that between 479 and 338 BC Athens was at war every two out of three years, with never more than ten consecutive years of peace, it is not surprising that the Thucydidean and Platonic criticisms of democracy should echo one another.

            And two thousand years later, Thomas Hobbes translated Thucydides to warn his compatriots against the dangers of democracy!

 Le Bon wrote his La Psychologie des Foules to study the violence and irrationality of the mob as a reaction to the French Revolution and later developments in France. Alexis De Tocqueville said: ‘Intellectually, I have an inclination for democratic institutions, but I am an aristocrat by instinct – that is to say, I despise and fear the mass...I have a passionate love for liberty, law and respect for rights – but not for democracy’. His maternal grandfather and an aunt were guillotined.

It is only in the twentieth century that a fervent faith in the intrinsic merits of democracy has become de rigueur. We shall therefore employ the method of reductio ad absurdum: we shall agree that market-opening manoeuvres have led to violence, rather than democracy as a political system. If our assumption leads to absurdity, we shall abandon it.

Let us take the Sinhalese-Tamil riots of 1983. The immediate cause was the killing of 13 soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The event led to 2000-3000 murders between July 24 and August 5. How could so many have been killed in 12 days? The pogrom was a highly organised affair, in which the entire government machinery was employed: voter’s lists were used to identify Tamil homes, government trucks carried the mob. It has been argued that the vehemence of the riot must be attributed to the United National Party’s decision to liberalise the economy in 1977. Enormous economic competition had put pressure on all participants. After all, there had been two previous riots – one in 1977, and another in 1981.

Now, consider the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi the following year. The immediate cause was similar – the killing of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards. Again, around 3000 people were murdered in 5 days. Again, voters lists were used to identify Sikhs and politicians aided and organised the mass killings. Thus, we have two identical situations in which forethought and careful planning by the dominant majority were involved. In both cases, it appears that politicians and the government were ready to kill – all they needed was an excuse.

Thus we have an ‘open, liberalised’ Sri Lanka and a ‘closed, statist’ India showing the same pattern of violence. And since the Sri Lankan economy had been opened up only in 1977, one finds it hard to explain the earlier riots: those of, say, 1956 and 1958.

Certainly, Kinshasa had one of the lowest crime rates in Africa in 2000. This was so despite the fact that the economy had collapsed with the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko: the Congolese franc had been devalued to 23.5 to the dollar from 9, and in the black market $1 fetched over 60 francs. The government had been printing money continuously to finance the war. The calm in Kinshasa was due largely to the informal network of friends and family.

There appears to be no correlation between income inequality and violence. In Brazil, between 1976 and 1996, inequality fell (the Gini coefficient declined from 0.62 to 0.59); Bangladesh became more unequal between 1992 and 1996, with the Gini coefficient rising from 0.26 to 0.31. And yet violence increased in both countries.

            Those who correlate widening income difference with increasing violence are resorting to some theory of ‘underdog resistance’. One such theory is that of ‘subaltern resistance’. To quote Robert Wade: “The result is a lot of unemployed and angry young people to whom new information technologies have given the means to threaten the stability of the societies they live in ....’.  Radio, television and newspapers are hardly new information technologies, yet they have been instrumental in creating mass awareness of dominant majority identities. VCRs and audiocassettes have been used to spread political hate messages from urban centres to remote villages in a process that one anthropologist has described as the simultaneous nationalization and parochialisation of violence. The demonising of the other – whether another leader, another political party, another linguistic group, or adherents of another religion – has been the hallmark of democratic politics in South Asia. Through such demonisation the killing, burning and raping of the odious others becomes legitimised, leaving no collective guilt. We do not see ‘subaltern resistance’, we see lethal and organised political campaigns in which a cross-section of the population is involved, from politicians to workers to thugs.  Besides, as C.A.Bailey has observed, “It is not at all clear that resistance, let alone violence, is a defining characteristic of the poor or exploited. This may be an unfortunate fact, but it not one that historians can ignore”.

            Today’s violence, therefore, is organised by political parties competing for votes. ‘In South Asia’, as Stanley J. Tambiah remarked, ‘violence is an integral part of the political process’.

Black people in the United States have had to riot on many occasions to make their presence known to the majority – notwithstanding the efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and unlike their more muscular counterparts, such as the Israel lobby or the Cuban-American lobby, or even the steel and farm lobbies! The under-representation of African-Americans in the American political decision making process is underscored by some stark statistics: though only 12% of the population, by 1990 blacks had come to represent over 44% of prison population - in 1994, 7% of all black men were behind bars, compared to less than 1% of white men. Since incarceration deprives one of the right to vote in the most populous states, and since prisoners are usually prevented from voting, African-Americans have been significantly disenfranchised. Blacks are not ‘effectively’ represented.

 And neither are most foreign peoples. As James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute observes: “When we do focus groups, Americans say, ‘I know who the Israelis are, I don’t know who Palestinians are.’ And they sympathise and identify with the one they know.” Hence, we come across such chilling passages as the following in an international newspaper like The Economist (May 4th 2002, p. 39):

 

‘The last presidential election saw about 4m evangelical conservatives, once reliable Republican voters, staying at home. Mr Bush may be able to re-engage evangelicals by getting cloning banned. But this will count for nothing if they conclude that he is putting pragmatism above principle in Israel, a country evangelicals revere both as a home for God’s chosen people and as the scene of the “end of days”. The stakes are particularly high because the impending ban on soft money, which will kick in after the November elections unless it is ruled unconstitutional, will make the Republican Party far more dependent on the sort of small donations that come from grass-roots activists.

            ‘The make-or-break issue for Mr. Bush, however, will be Iraq. Mr. Bush aroused huge expectations on the right when he promised to confront the “axis of evil” and extend the war against terrorism into a war against heavily armed toxic states. He has repeatedly stated his determination to mount a war against Saddam Hussein to damp down criticisms of his Middle East policy.’

 

Who finds democracy an attractive form of government should keep in mind those not represented, but affected, by such a form of government – the victims of democracy, in this case the 655,000 Iraqi civilians who have died because of the invasion.

One of the abiding illusions of our time is that “democracy works” or “functions essentially” in the west, despite the fact that it has largely been abandoned in Western Europe – and has a sorry history of literally exporting violence to the world: the 'liberal' democracies account for around 80% of world arms sales, with America leading the pack by a wide margin, according to The Economist (July 20th 2002, p.6). And as late as 1927, six years before Hitler’s electoral success, Aldous Huxley could write:

 

“Only the most mystically fervent democrats, who regard voting as a kind of religious act, and who hear the voice of God in that of the People, can have any reason to desire to perpetuate a system whereby confidence tricksters, rich men, and quacks may be given power by the votes of an electorate composed in a great part of mental Peter Pans, whose childishness renders them peculiarly susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and the tirelessly repeated suggestions of the rich men’s newspapers.”

 

It had been evident to Huxley that democracy in the west was not “functioning”, not even essentially, before its most tragic failure. His vision of a bureaucratic society has largely been realized in Europe – in the shape of the leviathan called the European Union. Most Europeans do not understand the leviathan, and so do not vote in European elections: in the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, turnout fell below 50% for the first time, and had voting not been compulsory in Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Belgium, turnout would probably have been 42%! In 2004, turnout was, in fact, 45%. To avoid future wars, Europe’s elite have felt it prudent to wrest control over fiscal and monetary policy – and other affairs of state - away from ‘mental Peter Pans’ and their elected representatives  and to hand it over to unelected bureaucrats and bankers. As Helmut Kohl observed, the single currency was a matter of “life and death”. And that may be the way of the future – the bureaucratic polity as it first emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

For it is not the invisible hand of the market, but the visible hand of politics, that causes violence.

 

© Iftekhar Sayeed
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