Democracy…. Quo Vadis?


By Basilio G. Monteiro, Director, IICM

To govern oneself is the ultimate aspiration of humans regardless how utopian it may sound. Democracy can be an effective form of government only to the extent that the public (that rules it in theory) is well-informed about national and international events and can think independently and critically about those events.

Around 325 BC, Plato in The Republic engaged Socrates to reflect about the governance of the city. After describing the just city, Socrates identifies four forms of governance: timocracy, the honour-driven individual rules that sort of government; oligarchy, ruled by individuals driven by greed; democracy, ruled by idealistic individuals, and tyranny, ruled by an individual driven by lawless appetite for power to create the society according to his/her own image. Each of these forms of governance is worse than the other, with tyranny being the most wretched form of government, and the tyrannical individual the most wretched of human beings. Unfortunately, since our city is human and all human things inevitably degenerate, these four constitutions are not presented as mere theoretical possibilities; they are presented as the inevitable stages of degeneration that the just city will pass through over time. Given the waves of the empires and the colonization for the most part the last two millennia, Athenian democracy and Plato’s discourse on the Philosopher King, remained an academic exercise.

Democracy is a beautiful idea, a noble aspiration, which eludes any definitive definition. Definitions of democracy are controversial in theory, and the prospects of democracy in actuality are dangerous to the special interests that want to take charge of the government and often do (Paul Woodruff). Democracy promises us the freedom to exercise our highest capabilities, while it protects us from our own worst tendencies.

Plato’s critique of democracy is thought-provoking. His description of democracy’s single-minded pursuit of freedom at the expense of other goods, and of the sort of people who tend to gain power in such a system, should give us pause. Is the loss of personal freedom really beyond sacrifice? Or might we actually be better off giving up freedom to gain order and harmony in return? We shrink from the idea of living in Plato’s Republic because we are not driven by the desire for truth, order, harmony, and the good of the society as a whole.

In modern times Winston Churchill apparently was not enamoured by democracy, and he is known to state: Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst from of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. (From Churchill by Himself, 574). Nonetheless, the end of World War II, which brought about de-colonialization, ushered in a movement for self-determination. USA took upon itself as its manifest destiny to promote to the ends of the world its experiment with democracy, which has generated unenviable prosperity and progress.  Democracy as a form of governance was and continues to be romanticized and presented as a solution to fulfill desirable political goals, promote and protect rights and create wealth and provide security. Democracies, governance by the people and for the people, which come in different forms and different constitutional arrangements, portends to offer that opportunity. However, human greed and the need to accrue power never fail to subvert these noble aspirations. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and vestiges of colonialism almost erased, some form of self-determination and self-governance was widely embraced. It was the age of grand expectations: democratic states not only fulfil desirable political goals, and protect rights, they also bring wealth and security. Fukuyama and others claimed that democracy is the highest, implicitly final stage of political development, which will usher in economic growth and peaceful international order.

The number of countries considered as ‘democratic’ by basic electoral and constitutional criteria have risen considerably. However, the explosive developments in the information and communication technologies have thrown a wrench in the democratization euphoria, and are stoking the worse instincts of those with tyrannical and fascistic proclivities. Digital media have opened up apparent democratic processes and in general has generated the democratization of information, where almost every one with a device connected to wifi is a content producer, distributor and consumer – all at the same time.      

Liberty has its limits and this tension between liberty and its limits is a perennial battle among those governing and those being governed. John Stuart Mill attempted to delineate when the authority of society can rightly limit individuality and the “sovereignty of the individual over himself.” Mill’s answer is that society and the individual should each receive control over that part of human life that it is particularly interested in.

There is an expectation that democracy, in some ways, is an attainable goal, a political and constitutional order which, once achieved, could be permanent. This is, of course, a modernist illusion, since democracy is a system which, as much as any other, can itself evolve or dissipate. Enormous efforts have been afforded to the spread of democracy, particularly after WW II and the collapse of the Soviet system; however, democratic politics within the apparently established democratic states is undergoing a shift towards autocracy. Political forms are never static and often degenerate if they are not nurtured. There is an evolving recognition of the diversity of regional culture and willingness to explore new forms of cultural and minority rights within historically colonial states.  Contemporary diversity, brought about by immigration, inter and intra-sates, promotes re-thinking about the enhancement of democracy in developed societies.

Democracy, δῆμος + κράτος (demos+kratos) the power of people is a herculean task to manage and to make the best and most of it for the greater good. This power is held by ALL people as a collective and individually regardless of wealth, pedigree or social status; however, this self-governance, since the experiment in Athens, Greece, over 2500 years ago, has evolved in many iterations. The fundamental understanding is that we all know enough to decide how to govern our public life together, and that no one knows enough to take decisions away from us and do a better job deciding, reliably over the long haul. This demands that citizens be well informed and they actively inform themselves.

Information management/control is critical in managing any organization: who is informing and who is to be informed. In modern times the development of information technologies has opened a pandora’s box for better and for worse. Political and politicized knowledge has increased exponentially. The internet’s capacity to increase political knowledge is boundless; however, it is subject to manipulation and deception. The information cornucopia inhibits information acquisition and thus is not helpful to effective political participation. Information acquisition is the result of a deliberate, positive effort. The biggest challenge to the success of democratic governance is the mechanization of information, which is easily subject to manipulation and deception. The digital media as much as it seductively penetrates our lives, yet it is a golden leaf in the hands of cunning people. Citizens are unable to detect media bias and propaganda. James Madison, one of the writers of the USA Constitution made a poignant note: “nothing could be more irrational than to give the people power and to withhold from them information, without which power is abused. A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”   

Democracy is fragile and it is hard earned, but easily lost. It is easy to become impatient with the pace of change and imperfect democratic processes, and want to force that change along by undemocratic means. “The road traveled by those seeking emancipation can span decades, leaving the soles of countless feet and shoes cracked and worn. Yet, with bloodied feet and unbroken pride, believers march on because they know that their sacrifices will not be in vain” (Susan Page, US Ambassador to South Sudan). The democratic process is seldom smooth and often messy, even in countries with long democratic experience. It has proven itself many times over to be the best vehicle for self-governance and economic growth, the best way to nurture diversity and human rights in any country, the best way to ensure that all voices are heard in society. Perhaps, are some degenerating democracies too big to govern democratically?

The experiment of democracy was initiated with a small group of well-defined constituents – male, who owned property, residency in the city of Athens, and thus limited to less than a thousand “citizens.” It was a relatively homogenous group who shared similar values. It was a cohesive society, which allowed to build consensus. As democratic forms of government were adopted in many large nations with sizeable population, limited media platforms kept dissonant voices to the minimum, and thus a semblance of societal cohesiveness continued boosted by well-established feature of elections where various and opposing voices would have a chance to assert themselves. The increased re-location of population from their traditional and established communities to participate in the industrial economy forced diverse communities with diverse interest to co-exist, which brought pressure on the fabric of the society. The proliferation of digital media facilitated extensive and invasive manipulation of information, which makes nearly impossible to verify the authenticity of the message. Perhaps, the size of the population participating in the industrial economy with competing interest makes it ungovernable by way of indirect representative democratic forms of government. Diversity of interests, expectations, economic and political cosmovisions combined with the facility to create, produce and distribute information without gatekeeping is a formidable challenge for the idea of democracy movg forward.

James M. Buchanan (1919–2013), an eminent economist who won the Alfred Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986 and was considered one of the greatest scholars of liberty in the twentieth century, said it best: “Precepts for living together are not going to be handed down from on high. Men must use their own intelligence in imposing order on chaos, intelligence not in scientific problem-solving but in the more difficult sense of finding and maintaining agreement among themselves. Anarchy is ideal for ideal men; passionate men must be reasonable. Like so many men have done before me, I examine the bases for a society of men and women who want to be free but who recognize the inherent limits that social interdependence places on them.

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