Tuesday, May 17, 2005



The problems of democracy

Writing in the Guardian, Peter Preston discusses Professor John Dunn's new book, Setting the People Free - and its subject matter, the problems of democracy. Democracy has spread around the globe since the end of the Cold War, and yet just when it seems to be succeeding on an international level, it is failing on a national one. Democracy has failed to satisfy the people of East Germany (who felt better off living in Stasiland, where one person in eight was an informer). Declining voter turnout is a constant problem in the west, as there is less of importance to vote about; the market consensus and economic globalisation have tied democracy's hands so tightly that it hardly seems worthwhile. At the same time, democracy seems unable to deal with the big problems of our age - global warming, world poverty, the power of multinational corporations. Faced with this, it seems we just have to haul out the tired Churchill quote:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

In other words, this is as good as it gets, and so we might as well stick with it.

At the same time, there's also a strong argument (made by George Monbiot in The Age of Consent) that the reason democracy seems helpless in the face of global problems is because we haven't got enough of it. While we've spread democracy globally, we haven't globalised democracy. We have an incipient global governance structure - a hodgepodge of international organisations such as the WTO, IMF, and UN - and we clearly need it - but this system represents national governments, not people. It is therefore easily captured, and in practice works in the interests of the powerful rather than of the majority. This has to change. If globalisation is to continue (and it seems unstoppable), then the international system has to grow stronger. But if that system is to have any legitimacy whatsoever, then it must be democratised, and its officials regularly held to account by the people whose interests they purport to be working in.

On a national scale, we get the democracy we deserve. If we don't take an interest in our government, and raise holy hell whenever it does something indefensible (or when it gives away our power in ways we don't like), then we only have ourselves to blame for the consequences. If we want our governments to start paying attention to the problems that concern us (rather than those concerning international investors), then we need to let them know - and by utterly ruthless application of accountability mechanisms if necessary.

This may not be enough. But as Preston says, democracy is "a beginning, not an end". It is one of the few systems that contains the potential for its own improvement. If we remain committed to that improvement, we might manage to get by.

14 comments:

Very interesting, both the Preston piece and your musings about democracy. I am inclined to agree that it is a system which is considerably less than perfect, but which has not yet been bettered. And I agree with you about the necessity of strengthening and democratising the various behemoths of the international community. The question, of course, is when, and how?

One thing I do have to take issue with though. Preston implies and then you as good as outright state that *a majority* of East Germans felt better off under Communism. That is false. Considering what things were like under the SED, there is an alarming number of East Germans who hanker for bygone days, sure. But it is *nothing like* 50%. In fact, in all the polls I've seen, it's the West Germans who are more likely to want the Berlin Wall back than the East Germans. The latest such poll, released, I think, in January of this year, found that in the West 1 in 4 people wanted the wall back, while in the East 1 in 8 wasnted the wall back. Note the interesting correlation between that figure and your figure of the number of Stasi informers and employees and make of that what you will. There are real, serious problems here in Germany which both the govt and the public are struggling to come to terms with. But whether or not the advent of democracy in the East was a good thing really is not one of them.

It's a small point, and I know you didn't base you argument around it, and nor did Preston, but I thought it bore clarification.

Posted by BerlinBear : 5/17/2005 11:01:00 AM

NRT you said: "Faced with this, it seems we just have to haul out the tired Churchill quote..."

Not at all. You could pull out some of these which are much more explanatory.

"[A] s Preston says, democracy is 'a beginning, not an end.' It is one of the few systems that contains the potential for its own improvement."

True, and as long as the important things are put beyond the vote I'm all in favour of it.

What things do I mean? How about this Bill of Rights for a start. :-)

Posted by PC : 5/17/2005 11:39:00 AM

"by utterly ruthless application of accountability mechanisms if necessary."

Now you're talking my language!

In reference to the problems with minorities and majorities in a democracy I have posted on that subject, by way of today's Washington Post piece by Kissinger.

Posted by t selwyn : 5/17/2005 12:18:00 PM

Two points:
1. Is democracy in function/reality getting more effective or less? It can only function if individuals are informed, yet the standards of the MSM, which many (most) individuals rely upon for information are dropping as corporate profits are ratchetted up (think 'embedded' journalists and recycled stories).
It can be actively circumvented by power interests via information control, and we see media manipulation becomes ever-more sophisticated, as media ownership becomes increasingly narrowly owned.
Should power be allocated depending upon how many party-zombies can be roused to the polls? The low turnout in the UK was indicative not of laziness but of utter cynicism as to the value of the process.
I don't have an alternative, but I have very deep doubts about the state of democracy.. in NZ less so than, say, the US, by the virtues of MMP and restrictions on electoral funding.
2. It is important how democracy is defined. It's been argued the reason we currently discuss democracy in terms of "one person, one vote", as opposed to a definition like 'government by representation of the will of the people', is because this definition suited the interests of the US in the Cold War ie the US had an electoral system, but socialism (even communism) is in idealogy some ways more 'democratic' than laissez-faire capitalism. How democratic is it just to have a system of periodic voting, when a government can sell Telecom against the wishes of 90% of the population? Or if there are two main relatively indistinguishable parties (as in the US).
I think the system of voting should be treated as quite a small piece of the democratic puzzle.

Posted by huskynut : 5/17/2005 02:15:00 PM

At the risk of sounding ancient, Marxism covers this territory pretty well, if you ignore totalitarian nutcases like Lenin and Mao. Economic power is more important than government power, and if democracy isn't extended into the world of of money and work, it has pretty strict limits. The currently unanswerable bit is how you could do it - ie, without killing a lot of people, and without wrecking the economy in the process. Lenin and Mao certainly did a great job of showing what not to do.

Agree with Berlin Bear re East Germany. Many of the East Germans are nostalgic for stuff like full employment, decent child care and straightforward access to abortions, not Stasi informers. Democracy seems to provide them with the opportunity to vote for Tweedledum or Tweedledee, or waste their vote - much like other Western countries. West Germans with a few clues are aware of just how far down the Soviets drove East Germany, and aren't that surprised that rebuilding it is a ferocious drain on their economy. Those without a clue would just like the Wall back.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 5/17/2005 05:24:00 PM

Pre-democratic societies had many problems: unstable economies, frequent and bloody wars, insecurity of food supply and an unhealthy and uneducated populace to name but a few.

Many of these were the result of the minority that held power disregarding the interests of the disenfranchised majority.

Today, those issues have been largely removed - most established democracies have stable economies, have avoided sending more than a small professional force to war for over thirty years, have few cases of starvation and provide at least some level of access to education and healthcare to all of their people.

All of these Good Things have been accomplished at reasonably little downside to most people (yes, having a stable economy requires some form of market capitalism, which disadvantages the poorest, whilst healthcare and education require taxation, disadvantaging the richest).

However, people remain discontented. Increasingly, the things they want can only be delivered by doing down others. For instance, some people seem to want an absolutely crime free society, which would require a police state. Increasing levels of health can only be delivered by coercing those who choose to live unhealthy lives. Some people's recreation choices are other peoples public nuisances.

I think this is where democracy is getting battered today - one answer is the "European" approach of setting basic human rights above day-to-day decision making and using these as a guide.

Posted by Rich : 5/17/2005 05:32:00 PM

At the risk of sounding ancient, Marxism covers this territory pretty well, if you ignore totalitarian nutcases like Lenin and Mao. Economic power is more important than government power, and if democracy isn't extended into the world of of money and work, it has pretty strict limits. The currently unanswerable bit is how you could do it - ie, without killing a lot of people, and without wrecking the economy in the process. Lenin and Mao certainly did a great job of showing what not to do.

Agree with Berlin Bear re East Germany. Many of the East Germans are nostalgic for stuff like full employment, decent child care and straightforward access to abortions, not Stasi informers. Democracy seems to provide them with the opportunity to vote for Tweedledum or Tweedledee, or waste their vote - much like other Western countries. West Germans with a few clues are aware of just how far down the Soviets drove East Germany, and aren't that surprised that rebuilding it is a ferocious drain on their economy. Those without a clue would just like the Wall back.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 5/17/2005 05:32:00 PM

Apologies for dumbass duplicate posts

Posted by Psycho Milt : 5/17/2005 05:33:00 PM

People seem to form an alliance of convenience with democracy - argely because they think democracy will result in their aims.

In reality democracy like capitalism is good at doing some things and bad at doing others. It is therefore pretty obvious that perfect democracy doesn't solve the problems of democracy.

> It can be actively circumvented by power interests via information control

Your worst problem is not that it is the very nature of powerful media and the effects it has without any design. One of many examples is how media will pay a lot of attention to certain types of disaster and not others. Big business might be part of the reason but a vastly bigger effect is that of viewers and their attitudes.

As to marxism being democracy - the problem is to make equal in power/money/freedom one must restrict people. It is a constant battle to maintain equality.
Marxism is doomed to failure unless it can defeat its opposition by military force, or it uses a highly poluted form of marxism, because it lacks pragmatism. the same is true for perfect democracy of course.

Posted by Genius : 5/17/2005 07:27:00 PM

Most people are not all that bright, politically aware or all that nice.

While the average of oppinions produces good decisions on some topics - on other topics it produces very stupid oppinions.
For example I remember a survey where the majority of palistinians supported the use of chemical/biological weapons on israelis.

that really comes under all three
catagories mentioned above. A perfect democracy in palestine would thus have been a very ugly thing indeed.

Sometimes democracy is good sometimes it is bad, sometimes it makes smart decisions sometimes ridiculously short sighted ones - rather like capitalism.

Posted by Genius : 5/17/2005 08:12:00 PM

Democracy, in my juandiced view, is merely a method of settling disputes between communities with different interests with out resort to bloodshed.

One-person-one-vote is not quiet enough to achieve a balance of power and influence between the various groups that make up a society. Hence I'm a supporter of unionism and of State interference in particlar areas.

Posted by Sock Thief : 5/18/2005 08:27:00 AM

I disagree with Genius: most people are nice.

Most people may not be all the bright, or politically aware. But they are nice.

The problem is when they are part of group that's trying hard not to see other people as people, but as "undermensch", or "heathens". Usually that's the result of a persecution complex: and often that in turn is a result of persecution.

But even someone who thinks the govt should just nuke those bastards will usually stop to help a little old lady across the street if asked, walk out into a cold and stormy night to find the lost kitten, and stick $5 in the Salvation Army appeal box.

Hobbes was wrong. Outright nastiness in humans is not normal, it's a deviation from the norm.

Posted by Icehawk : 5/18/2005 11:15:00 AM

Icehawk, I think a better way of putting things is that people will behave in an unpleasant manner in particular circumstances. Violence is a strategy that remains as an option even if dormant for some time.

Take Yugoslavia. For many years there was relative peace between the various ethnic and religious groups. Same with Rwanda.

Hobbes was right. The State prevents people resorting to violence to solve disputes. Hunter-gather societies were far more lethal, on a proportional basis, than the States of modern Europe - even taking into account the events of last century.

Posted by Sock Thief : 5/18/2005 12:12:00 PM

OK,
It depends on your standards of nice...

And violence is one of many negitive strategies that can be used by individuals in a society and hte state adds value every time it creates a strategy to discourage such negitive behaviour - such as collusion of large firms or theft or violent crime or hard drug distribution (or even less obvious negitive strategies) etc etc.

Posted by Genius : 5/19/2005 06:24:00 PM