Tuesday, November 29, 2005



Talking down democracy

I've been paying some attention over the last few days to the media kerfuffle surrounding Don McKinnon's reported comments at CHOGM. Given that McKinnon claims to be a victim of sloppy journalism, I thought it would be useful to go straight to the source: the text of his address. According to this, he said:

Democracy and development, as we know, are two sides of the same coin. One of the questions people are beginning to ask, though, is whether building a democracy is really the road to prosperity. Does democracy put food on our tables, clothe our children, put roofs over our heads and give us a future?

There is no single answer, no single roadmap, no single 'one size fits all'. What is important is that a democracy must meet the aspirations of all the people so that they can participate and exert an influence. It is on that foundation that one can best build a sustainable economic platform.

On one level, this is obvious, banal stuff. Democracy doesn't put food on the table - that's not what it is for. And there's certainly no single model of democracy (despite what the Americans say); the thriving democracies of India, Canada and New Zealand show that there are a multitude of different implementations. But McKinnon was going beyond that, and actually talking down democracy and lending support to the Commonwealth's less democratic members - and that is not what the Commonwealth stands for. The 1991 Harare Declaration is very explicit on this, stating:

we believe in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief, and in the individual's inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives

This requires a lot more than merely being able to "exert an influence", and by seeming to limit democracy to that level, McKinnon was betraying the ideals he is supposed to be defending.

What about the wider question? McKinnon's comments have spawned a pair of editorials in the Herald defending democracy (and in Mike Moore's case, arguing that it delivers better results than authoritarian regimes). Against this, there's also a post from Aaron Bhatnagar defending (some forms of) authoritarianism as the path to democracy. Aaron points out that democracy requires a hell of a lot more than elections, and that what's really important is the cultural infrastructure beneath it (the rule of law, freedom of press and assembly, and last but not least, respect for democratic outcomes). In successful democracies, this cultural infrastructure has generally developed under less than democratic governance - our own path to democracy (most of which took place in the UK) took us through absolute monarchy, censorship, and widespread political repression as well as civil war, dictatorship, revolution and a severely limited franchise (which we universalised in New Zealand long before they did in the UK). And often, the problem in so many countries where democracy is struggling is the lack of this cultural infrastructure. They have the legal forms of democracy, but the participants don't believe in it, and so we see things like we are seeing in Kenya or Uganda or Ethiopia right now.

Where Aaron goes wrong is going from this to supporting authoritarians. And he does this by shifting from the "narrow" view of democracy in the Harare declaration to a "wide" view which is simply the old right-wing canard about prosperity being a necessary condition for democracy (a case strongly refuted in the editorials linked above). He cites the examples of Brazil and South Korea - authoritarian regimes which produced stunning economic growth and eventually yielded to democracy - as supporting

[the] wise point that economic stability and subsequent prosperity plays a major role in ensuring the promotion of democratic governance.

But this is simply ignoring history. Both the military regimes Aaron cites so approvingly were established against existing democratic backdrops; they didn't "promote" democracy so much as return to it - having suppressed dissent, undermined the rule of law, and tortured, beaten, murdered and massacred democrats in the meantime. Aaron's "wide" view then looks increasingly like an attitude of prosperity for some at the expense of freedom for all, his "wise point" like nothing so much as the prewar admiration of British and European conservatives for the "economic miracle" of fascism, and his support for the "right" kind of authoritarians, who produce a liberalised economy and provide "security" (for who?) like the modern version of "making the trains run on time".

9 comments:

Interesting to see the righht wingers watering down democracy in favour of capitalism. I think we've reached the point where the New Right is nakedly curtailing democratic rights and freedoms (often under the guise of the 'war on terror") when, really, all that is happening is that ruling elites are adopting ever more repressive methods to coerce the lower orders. Back to the Middle Ages!

Posted by Anonymous : 11/29/2005 03:24:00 PM

Idiot, I'm suprised at your hostility towards McKinnon's comments. To me they sound like the sort of thing George Monbiot would say about how democracy is not really democracy unless people have the economic means to particpate -

"What is important is that a democracy must meet the aspirations of all the people so that they can participate and exert an influence."

That's not any indication of wanting to limit democarcy just an acknowledgement of that old addage about the legality of sleeping under bridges.

McKinnon 's line of reasoning is that if people's economic needs are not met then they will question the value of democracy, that's the point of the question - "Does democracy put food on our tables, clothe our children, put roofs over our heads and give us a future?". He's not asking the question, he's suggesting that that is what some may very well ask in a newly democratised country.

The "actually talking down democracy and lending support to the Commonwealth's less democratic members" bit is just unfair. He says and implies no such thing.

Posted by sock thief : 11/29/2005 03:50:00 PM

Sock Thief, McKinnon was talking about free trade being more important than democracy, and we have yet to see any poor, non-democratic nations having their wider populations empowered by free trade (Aaron's own examples of South Korea and Brazil are perfect examples of this, as SK became an Asian Tiger through state intervention, and Brazil has one of the most disproportionate income spreads in the entire world)

Posted by Oliver : 11/29/2005 04:23:00 PM

Without getting into the free-trade aspect of the argument (as I don't know the context of the speech), surely the basic Maslow principle human development principle applies: that unless and until peoples basic needs for food shelter et al are satisfied, they don't generally care a helluva lot about cultural niceties such as democracy.. given the choice between a benevolent dictator who delivers the goods and an abstract wishy-washy concept of democracy, they may simply *want* the dictator. As they 'grow up' (and that's not being patronising), they will seek to change the way they organise. That's how people grow, that's how societies grow. You can't impose democracy on a society before it's ready and desirous of it any more than you can make an individual assume responsibilities before they're ready for it.
There's nothing we can do (if we are not to be coercive) except provide a good example and support for change (as and when it is requested).
Maybe that takes 20 or 50 or 100 years of barbarity. We're generally so quick to judge others by our own societal standards (that includes on here), forgetting how barbaric our forebears were mere decades ago.

Posted by huskynut : 11/29/2005 06:42:00 PM

good post I/S. can you give jordan lessons in how to construct an argument based on principles rather than party lines.

pakistan. Not a democracy. Are its people better off?

Posted by sagenz : 11/29/2005 09:29:00 PM

McKinnon's comments, as posted here, do not in any way state that democracy is somehow less improtant than currently believed by the commonwealth; merely that there are more important things which underpin the good life that an open democracy can bring, like food and shelter.

He may be using that wise note to pimp free trade (aka slavery), an obvious bullshit tactic, but the stuff in the press I've seen about it is plainly misrepresenting this.

That people have then felt the need to defend democracy in return would seem to be a sad note on peoples understanding of basic logical argument.

Posted by tussock : 11/30/2005 12:08:00 AM

About whether the "Maslow principle human development principle applies"

The problem is:

(a) authoritarian regimes don't tend to deliver the goods. Zimbabwe, anyone?

(b) the desire not to have your door kicked in at 3am by the Death Squads comes in very low in the Maslow Heirarchy.

(c) historically this appears to be false: democracy historically arose in societies that were very poor by our standards: classical Athens, medieval Iceland, 17thC US, revolutionary France.

On a purely economic basis, authoritarians can do well at mobilizing increased resource use in the short term: look at Stalin and Hitler for examples.

It is hard, these days, to remember that when Kruschev said "we will bury you" he meant economically: in the 50s and early 60s the Soviet economic miracle was a given.

But authoritarian regimes tend to do very badly economically in the long term. They become corrupt. Productivity stagnates. And long term productivity is everything for economic growth.

Posted by Icehawk : 11/30/2005 10:30:00 AM

McKinnon is pushing a line that favours capitalist oligarchy - no pint in letting the lower orders vote because they'll only elect people who will fight for social justice and that will cut into the elite's wealth. No surprises - the man is an "arrogant born to rule prick" to quote Dr Cullen.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/30/2005 10:54:00 AM

The problem with globalisation as practised by the WTO is that governments hand people's sovereignty away.

Once this sovereignty over issues like trade barriers, education, health, and infrastructure is given away - it's very hard to take back.

So when unelected or stunningly corrupt governments are in power and sign up these agreements that are clear and obvious problems that McKinnon is willfully ignoring.

Posted by John Anderson : 11/30/2005 05:38:00 PM