Democracy as a standard in itself, or not


A couple of things I’d been meaning to draw to readers’ attention. One, via Aaro Watch, is this entertaining take on the Scoop Jackson Society, a group of Cambridge nerds playing at being neocon intellectuals. Bruschetta Boy is onto something here with the home pub comparison, but personally their talk about aircraft carriers, EU naval bases in the Pacific and their detailed plans for Country X puts me in mind of kids playing Risk. I was always crap at Risk – while my opponents were sweeping across Europe and the Middle East, I’d be holed up in Kamchatka – but I’m fairly sure I could beat these geeks.

The other, from the Grauniad of all places, is a memorable skewering of Benazir Bhutto by the always readable William Dalrymple. This is worth pointing out because of Benazir’s high profile at the moment, and the extraordinarily easy ride she gets from English-speaking media luvvies.

It leads me on to think a little about democracy. Liberalism, and muscular liberalism in particular, do have this tendency to think of democracy as an end in itself, even a virtue in itself. This is wrong. Without wanting to get too deeply into the Debordian spectacle, it’s a confusion of means and ends. Democracy is a process, not an outcome and certainly not a standard. It may be the best available process for attaining desirable outcomes, but that’s about all you can say.

Benazir is a great example of this. She’s loved outside of Pakistan because she talks the talk about democracy, development and moderation. Also because she’s a Muslim woman who speaks fluent English and sounds modern. In this context, it seems almost churlish to point out that the Bhutto family are Pakistan’s equivalent of the Corleones; that Benazir’s elected government was guilty of corruption on a scale that would have put Roman emperors to shame; or that it was on her watch that the ISI created the Taliban.

Now consider General Pervez Musharraf, the famed diarist, talk show raconteur and occasional President of Pakistan. Whatever Musharraf’s failings, and they are many, he has led an incomparably cleaner and more effective government than his elected predecessors. I’m not advocating military rule, by the way. I’m just pointing out that “democracy” in Pakistan traditionally means the peasants get to choose which coalition of landlords robs them blind. Without a serious shake-up of Pakistan’s social dynamics, “democracy” there really is on the level of the Debordian spectacle. If you want additional evidence, just look at the House of Warlords in Afghanistan.

You can of course go closer to home. Unionists can, and do, argue that the old Stormont was democratic, and so it was in a formal sense. But it was also an instrument of sectarian supremacist power, and therefore in complete breach of any kind of social contract that might exist between government and citizenry. That does mean, though, that the process of democracy is not sufficient – you need to bring other standards to bear.

Imperialism, of course, recognises this. You can be the President of Venezuela, or Belarus, or formerly Serbia, and still get branded a dictator despite winning multiple elections. Meanwhile, a handful of NGO types bankrolled by the NED can become the “democracy movement”. This is usually justified by reference to human rights, and there is usually some truth involved – Zimbabwe really is a hellhole – but this leads us to the Cold War ideological meaning of “democratic” as “pro-Washington”. And, for all their bumming and blowing about rights and “democratic geopolitics”, let’s be honest, this is what the Scoopies are all about – obeisance to Imperial power, dressed up in the language of idealism.

Coming soon, if I can summon up the will, a glance at the latest Decentiya.


  1. ejh said,

    September 8, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Also see the use of “democratic” as applied to the trade union movement, where it means “holds strike ballot which votes no”. Either of these things might be a good thing in itself (especially the former) but I was an activist in the old CPSA during which things happened that would make any principled democrat’s eyes pop out – if they knew about them, which they did not because CPSA was run by the Right which was all the papers wanted to know.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 8, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Some of the East European “democrats” are a rum bunch as well… but I’ll get to them presently.

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 8, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    Hmmm… Perhaps we should refer to variable geometry in relation to democracy as well. But I’m fairly certain that most beyond the decents would accept that ‘democracy’ per se wasn’t in any sense sufficient, hence the North couldn’t be representative, even if it were ‘democratic’, and the centralisation of power through democratic means was in itself an injustice. Which means representation is one aspect, the upholding of agreed rights another. Does alternation of power come in there as well (I ask this as we face into two decades of FF rule in the South). What about social rights?

    On the other hand, democracy has to be the start of the process. Otherwise there is no legitimacy to any act or series of acts.

    Still, take the ‘democratic’ template and apply it to 32 counties and perhaps we see other potential problems as well.

  4. Wednesday said,

    September 9, 2007 at 8:01 am

    Surely the perfect example of this is Russia. Yeltsin’s regime destroyed the economy, concentrated power in little regional fiefdoms and put the state at war with one of its constituent republics – not to mention little things like shutting down Parliament and sharply curbing minority religious rights – and yet as far as the West is concerned it was a beacon of democracy compared to the current regime, which (quite understandably, in a Russian context) enjoys the support of upwards of 70% of its people.

    And no list of dodgy Eastern European “democrats” would be complete without Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko, who also pulled a dissolution trick he had no constitutional right to pull. But hey, he’s “pro-Western”. Just imagine Putin or Chavez trying that one.

    But anyway, a lot of academic types who study conflict situations will argue that democracy is sometimes the worst possible process for attaining stability. It’s a fairly obvious argument if you think about it – elections by their very nature foster competition, not co-operation. And of course where the conflict has an ethnic component an election offers all sorts of inflammatory opportunities. Yugoslavia’s a good example of this. Some would also point a finger at the Six Counties, not without some justification.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 9, 2007 at 11:24 am

    True to a point. Surely it would be equally reasonable to say that both Yeltsin and Putin are in their own ways less than perfectly democratic – and both have acted in ways that centralise power with themselves and exclude others from it. The level of internal popularity is interesting, but not necessarily convincing as an arbiter of their respective legitimacy (although I accept that’s probably not the point you were making).

    In any case at some point the legitimisation through democratic processes is necessary to underpin all else otherwise we see political structures fold back to ‘l’etat c’est moi’ thinking by individuals or groups. Incidentally I think that it can be an indirect legitimisation whereby referenda seek to determine say the ‘least unpopular’ route. And beyond that the old socialist idea that the maximum number of people are given the opportunity to exercise their democratic participation is surely somethingthat neither Yeltsin or Putin buy into. The nature of that representation can assist in ameliorating ethnic or other divisions.

  6. Wednesday said,

    September 9, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    The level of internal popularity is interesting, but not necessarily convincing as an arbiter of their respective legitimacy (although I accept that’s probably not the point you were making).

    Well, to some degree it is. If the people feel that their leader is doing the job they elected him to do – and his high approval ratings would indicate as much – then it’s hard to argue that there is anything undemocratic about it in that particular respect. It may be, like the old Stormont regime, the sort of democracy that leads to outcomes which could be described as “undemocratic”, but I think if you go down that road you could make a fair argument against the existence of real democracy just about anyplace in the world…and then the word itself would be meaningless.

    In any case at some point the legitimisation through democratic processes is necessary to underpin all else

    Agreed, but we tend to assume that the best point is the starting point and perhaps that’s not always the case.

    The nature of that representation can assist in ameliorating ethnic or other divisions.

    Well, yes, that’s the whole basis of the notion of power sharing in conflict-torn societies. But again we come back to the means to the end vs the end in itself. In power sharing what you want is a government that is “representative” in the sense that everyone who identifies with a group involved in the conflict can consider themselves represented as a member of that group. Elections aren’t the only way to achieve this, and may not be the best way, if they end up polarising the society to such an extent that you wind up with a government composed of extreme elements who can’t work together, alongside increased ethnic tensions on the ground (you can see where the Six Counties example comes into this).

    And you’re right about Yeltsin and Putin not being democrats in the old socialist sense, but of course, they’re not socialists either.

  7. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 9, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I guess I’d put it this way. I don’t consider Putin is undemocratic, in the sense that yes, he is clearly supported by the majority of the people and yes he has won elections. Yet the system that he has in part constructed (in the sense that political pluralism is weak, oppositional viewpoints are restricted, etc, etc) is one where his democratic legitimation is in a natural corollary weakened. In some respects he seems to have bent the ‘rules’ quite far yet short of snapping them. That the outcomes might be better for Russia that this is so is a difficult one to weigh up. Putin is better – to my mind – than Yelstin, but then what happens next time out if we get someone who because oppositional voices and centres have been weakened under Putin pushes it further again? And funny you should mention Stormont because while the nationalist/Unionist split isn’t analogous to Russia there is a clear sense that the state harbours power to itself, as was the case under Stormont. In the end a situation may develop with a lockout of all oppositional forces as we see in various states around the globe which put on the mask of ‘democracy’ but are anything but.

    I completely agree with your point about powersharing etc…

    Yeah, they’re certainly not socialists.

  8. Wednesday said,

    September 11, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Putin is better – to my mind – than Yelstin, but then what happens next time out if we get someone who because oppositional voices and centres have been weakened under Putin pushes it further again?

    Well, I’m not sure that all the assumptions underlying this question are accurate. People I know (westerners) who live in Russia strongly dispute the common western media portrayal of the place. They say dissenting voices are heard regularly and that the relative weakness of the opposition is more to do with its failure to persuade the Russian people that they aren’t, in fact, better off under Putin.

    There was an interesting poll about this in the Washington Post over the summer. While Putin got support from the usual 70%-ish majority, only about half said that they would “definitely” or “probably” vote for his preferred successor. That’s probably no higher than a popular president in any other country would get, and seems to me to indicate that the Russian people are still capable of weighing up their options and coming to their own decisions.

  9. Cian said,

    September 12, 2007 at 9:17 am

    Or democratic as applied to much of South America, or indeed the US. Is it a democracy if the overwhelming majority of the population want single payer health care, but don’t get it?

    I think what is normally meant by democracy by elites, is a system where the elites can choose leaders (through newspapers, lobbyists, whatever), and check the power of leaders. They’d have a property based democracy if they could, as it is they have the next best thing (this is particularly true in the US), representational democracy.

  10. ejh said,

    September 14, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    I saw this on Crooked Timber: it goes on (at no short length) about how the Economist has reported Russia entirely inconsistently according to democratic norms but entirely consistently according to the rule “the free market is always good”. It’s a bit of a strange web-magazine though…

  11. Wednesday said,

    September 14, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    Yeah, the eXile is always worth reading. Dig up Taibbi’s stuff on the Litvinenko affair while you’re there.

  12. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 15, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    I know what you’re saying W – and you’re right about his popularity – but it does sound like an argument for the status quo which we could as easily apply to Ireland or indeed the US. And how does that address my point regarding the possibility that in less benign hands the concentration of power might lead to much less beneficial outcomes.

    Surely the point isn’t that we simply accept power concentrations, as with Bush or Putin, but that we seek to critique them. And the structural elements of the Russian polity – and in particular the relationship between the Kremlin and political parties, a relationship oddly enough not that different to say Forza Italia under Berlusconi (who was also remarkably popular), seem to be such that the full exercise of decisions might be more difficult than is suggested.

    Incidentally, I’m not simply judging this on the western media portrayal which has generally been equivocal – if not hostile to Putin. I’m thinking in particular of Prospect, Foreign Affairs [which granted takes a very US centric view] and other international policy journals. Nor, as I’m sure you noted am I hostile to Putin, in fact I’d strongly support aspects of the re-nationalisation program.

  13. Ted The Red said,

    September 17, 2007 at 8:26 pm

    Back to Bhutto you Bog-trotters. My daughter recently came back from Bhuttoland and her report is nothing like what you will find in our truth-loving papers.
    She says
    Everybody seemed to hate Punjabis and thought of themselves as Baluchis, Sindhis, Pushtu etc. Again this is not apparent in the Press reports.

    The most horrible part was in the Sindh. After the cyclone, her disaster relief job, people were living in 45-50degs heat with upturned traditional beds for shelter. But their situation was appalling before this. There is a caste system in operation whereby neighbouring villages are different castes (not very Islamic) – but best device to prevent united peasant uprising. People have no land rights and have to give 50% of the harvest to the wealthy landowner. They can be evicted at any time so are not too bothered about building a good house thus they are easily blown down in any cyclone. The landowners are not interested in providing education or healthcare. There is scabies, diarrhoea, glaucoma (by the looks of it), 80% women are pregnant and right now too dehydrated and malnourished to lactate, malaria is on the rise etc. She had never, never seen poverty like it even compared with the Kashmir earthquake victims. This is Bhutto country. You can travel for five days without leaving the land of Mrs Bhutto, that saintly campaigner for democracy. A few very rich families own it all, (Bhuttos and relations) taking half the crop of these wretched people so no wonder they are rich. But they all love their landlords and vote for them or whoever they are told to.

    She had never seen anything like it and had never been exposed to so many extremes over such a short time. She then went to Karachi on the sea coast of the same province. There she ate at the restaurant attached to the Alliance Francaise with possibly the best food she had ever had. She said the contrast was too disgusting and is somewhat sharp about Mrs Bhutto.

    Her father comments that this description will be perfectly familiar to Hibernians interested in their past.

  14. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 19, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Except that we never voted for our landlords, preferring to burn their houses down instead. Perhaps this political innovation could be exported to Bhuttoland?

    Last year I was walking past the famine memorial in Dublin (near the IFSC) and heard a couple of D4s say ‘why didn’t they just eat cabbage’. I should have grabbed them by the collar and fecked them into the Liffey.

  15. Wednesday said,

    September 19, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    it does sound like an argument for the status quo which we could as easily apply to Ireland or indeed the US. And how does that address my point regarding the possibility that in less benign hands the concentration of power might lead to much less beneficial outcomes.

    Well, part of my point is precisely that Russia isn’t really a million miles away from Ireland or the US, or anywhere else really. A lot of what we would accept (however reluctantly) as the expression of the will of the people could be interpreted in an equally sinister fashion. I was struck by this when reading the recent TASC report into democracy in the 26 Counties. The report notes the number of important decisions that are made by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, but refuses to consider these as anti-democratic, on the grounds that the Irish people have endorsed this decision-making process in successive referenda. Obviously I’m highly critical of that position and I’m certainly not arguing in favour of the Russian way, either, but I don’t think the latter is objectively that much worse.

    You’re right about the dangers of the concentration of power, but as Yeltsin’s regime showed the diffusion of power has its own dangers. I think the nature of power as it’s construed pretty much everywhere in the world provides ample opportunities for bad people to do bad things. The basic point I was making is that the West’s criticism of Russia isn’t so much to do with the concentration of power per se as with the fact that it’s in the hands of people who aren’t pro-Western. That may not be the case with the liberal-left, like Prospect (not sure where you’re going with the Foreign Affairs reference!) but given the general Europhilia of the liberal-left I’m not sure they’re always the best arbiters of democracy anyway.

  16. ejh said,

    September 19, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    and heard a couple of D4s say “why didn’t they just eat cabbage”.

    You sure that wasn’t an ironic remark? You were there and I was not, but one would like to think that some degrees of crass stupidity were still out of reach.

  17. Phil said,

    September 19, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Heard on an open-top bus touring Dublin:

    Was the war with Britain or England?

    and (from the same person)

    So why did they have two rebellions?

  18. Idris of Dungiven said,

    September 19, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    ejh, I’m afraid it looked like an irony-free zone from where I was standing.

    Phil – I take it this was one of our fellow countyrmen then? And the two rebellions, 1798 and 1916?

  19. Phil said,

    September 19, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    I have no idea what the ‘Britain or England’ question was about (the speaker was English & not known for their political acuity). Being English (mostly) myself, I can almost think myself into the mindset of someone who could ask the ‘two rebellions’ question, but not quite.

  20. WorldbyStorm said,

    September 19, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Wednesday, let’s put it this way. I was watching when Ahern squashed SF in the Dáil re speaking rights etc. That was within a fairly liberal democracy where there are strong oppositional forces in the media, in politics and arguably within the culture. I was sickened by what he said, how he said it, and the after effects. And that’s the point. If that is the situation in Ireland, as regards a (and let’s be honest whatever our affiliation or our sympathies) fairly minor party, then I can only begin to imagine what it is like in larger polities which are not quite as liberal or indeed democratic, without entirely being neither.

    I could go on about how both the US and Russian power structures are Presidential with all the attendant distortions (i.e. identification of state with President) that entails…

    It’s not a question of being europhiliac [although for all its faults individual nation states still exercise considerable autonomy within the EU, vastly more than proto-national states within Russia], or even liberal left, it’s basically about power relationships and how we as oppositional forces respond to same.

    Or as the saying goes, meet the new boss, same as the old boss… and it doesn’t matter where you are really, it is the same boss.

  21. October 2, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    […] The funny thing is that a couple of weeks back I was thinking about him on foot of an interesting discussion on Splintered Sunrise on democracy and the thought struck me, ‘what if he simply switched […]

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