The ambiguity: the case of democracy

Absence of specific programmes for all these – democracy and democratisation at all levels and in all institutions and organisations – make demand for democracy a script for a comedy. All discussions on democracy turn into idiotic slogans and statements and fail to design a system capable of delivering a humane development if these aspects are not considered while trying to build up a system named democracy or extending support to a system claiming to be democracy, writes Farooque Chowdhury

003THE Great Financial Crisis, the Occupy Wall Street rising, Wikileaks and Snowden exposure, imperialist interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria, the economic and political developments in Greece, and the ongoing string of revelations in the US politics take away all ambiguities related to democracy, development and state. With broad and fundamental connections and character the incidents and processes — parts of democracy and development — being witnessed by the contemporary world are significant with far-reaching implications and helpful to comprehend issues of democracy, development and state.

No ambiguity: Ambiguous and confusing narratives of democracy and development are vigorously sold on the market despite the reality of repeated exposures by the merciless incidents and processes mentioned above. However, the time is still dominated by the forces that try to benefit from confusion they create. Nowadays even the conservatives like to ‘challenge the status quo’. Carly Fiorina, a runner for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States, expressed similar views while she was discussing her foreign policy expertise in the first debate in early August. (The Washington Post, August 9, 2015, ‘Distinguished pol of the week’) Isn’t the tact uncovered?
With the same tact, a part of academia and media massively and persistently propagate that (1) democracy and capitalism are synonymous, (2) democracy is the normal and natural political form of capitalism, (3) democracy cannot be conceived without capitalism, (4) democracy is an integral part of capitalism, and (5) the issue of development conceived within capitalism can ensure people’s interests, their entitlements, their empowerment, and their freedom of choice. Their propaganda tries to show:
1) democracy is class-neutral;
2) its universal form fits all societies, economies and interests of all classes; and
3) the issue of development can be perceived and implemented without taking into consideration the issues related to class and class conflicts within a political system including democracy.
But variations in democracy do not support the propaganda. The bourgeois democracy is fully exposed today with the political developments in the advanced bourgeois democracies. Former US president Jimmy Carter’s response to a question about his opinion on the US Supreme Court’s decisions in the 2010 Citizens United and the 2014 McCutcheon that allows the pouring of unlimited secret money, including foreign money, into US political and judicial campaigns tells a lot about the type and character of the democracy.
The former US president said: ‘It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or being elected president. And the same thing applies to governors, and US senators and congress members. So, now we’ve just seen a subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect, and sometimes get, favours for themselves after the election is over…. At the present time the incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody that is already in Congress has a great deal more to sell.’ (The Thom Hartmann Program, Jimmy Carter’s interview, July 28, 2015) Any careful reader in any peripheral society will see the same image around.
The US ‘story’ was started long ago. Charles Austin Beard’s illustrious book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States says: ‘The economic corollary of this system is as follows: Property interests may, through their superior weight in power and intelligence, secure advantageous legislation whenever necessary, and they may at the same time obtain immunity from control by parliamentary majorities.’ (ch vi, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1921) Beard’s survey of the ‘distribution of economic power in the US in 1787 and property holdings of every delegate to the Constitutional Convention of that year led him to conclude that at least five-sixths of the delegates stood to gain personally from the adoption of the constitution, mainly because it would protect the public credit and raise the value of the public securities they held.’ (Beard, Charles A, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1968). Chapter V ‘The Economic Interests of the Members of the Convention’, of the book presents the survey in detail and says: ‘The overwhelming majority of members, at least fifth-sixths, were immediately, directly, and personally interested in the outcome of their labours at Philadelphia, and were to a greater or less extent economic beneficiaries from the adoption of the constitution.’
The next chapter ‘The Constitution as an Economic Document’ says: ‘[T]he concept of the constitution as a piece of abstract legislation reflecting no group interests and recognising no economic antagonisms is entirely false. It was an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake….’
‘At the close of [the] long and arid survey’ that he conducted his conclusions include:
‘No popular vote was taken directly or indirectly on the proposition to call the convention which drafted the constitution.
‘A large propertyless mass was, under the prevailing suffrage qualifications, excluded at the outset from participation (through representatives) in the work of framing the constitution.
‘The members of the Philadelphia Convention which drafted the constitution were, with a few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system.
‘In the ratification of the constitution, about three-fourths of the adult males failed to vote on the question… either on account of their indifference or their disfranchisement by property qualifications.
‘The constitution was ratified by a vote of probably not more than one-sixth of the adult males.
‘The constitution was not created by “the whole people” as the jurists have said….’
Now, there is the famous study in the US: ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’ by Martin Gilens, professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin I Page, Gordon S Fulcher, professor of decision making at Northwestern University, in Perspectives on Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association (Vol 12, Issue 03, September 2014 doi:10.1017/S1537592714001595). Their multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impact on policy of the US government while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
The study results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. The empirical study, first of its kind in social sciences in the US, found: ‘The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ The study said: ‘The preferences of economic elites (as measured by the [study] proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.’
The scientists tested, first of this type, each of the four theoretical traditions — EED, BP, MED and MP — in the study of US politics. Until recently it was not possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. They used a unique data set that included measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues during the study period 1981–2002.
The study findings indicate: ‘In the United States… the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.’ [emphasis in the original] The research essay concluded with the following sentence: ‘[W]e believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.’ (Are peripheral societies free of this observation?)
Recent findings and incidents show the advanced democracy
today is much in favour of the propertied minority classes than those days. A close look at the US politics, especially elections in the political system takes away all confusion, and supports the above claim.
Advanced capitalist democracies are appropriate cases for debate on the issue of democracy today as democracies in variations in the periphery actually are under-developed that make the debate on bourgeois democracy inconclusive. Moreover, democracy or similar systems and arrangements in peripheral societies without experiencing bourgeois revolution or its type, and without developing their political arrangements and institutions are not comparable to advanced bourgeois democracy.
Hotchpotch business: There is lumpenocracy or lumpen-democracy, democracy for lumpen interests, characterised by immaturity, inefficiency, near-to-absolute dependency, unaware about self-interest, incapable of even carrying out its businesses with bourgeois tact, utterly unstable — sometimes behaving to a standard below mediaeval level including carrying out mediaeval style assassinations, murders and palace conspiracies, sometimes taking moves that ‘strangely’ touch the level of maturity but always lurk near the border of failure, always engaged with suicidal factional fights, always fighting for legitimacy but delegitimating ruling machine, failing to secure institutions/machine for class rule, sporadically resorting to populist measures. Lumpenocracies also are not the samples to study bourgeois democracy. Deliberations within lumpenocracies, especially within its legislative and other branches of its government most of the time provide a picture of a reality which is worse than a hotchpotch business, worse than to be despised.
Many tags: Donor-driven/designed democracy, which is funded by the so-called donors and is part of low-intensity conflict, and intervention-democracy and non-neutral position of these arrangements are starkly evident in countries that are experiencing or have already experienced these. American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts (eds Michael Cox, G John Ikenberry and Takashi Inoguchi, Oxford University Press, 2002) discusses the donor-driven/designed democracy. These two types of democracies, donor-driven/designated and intervention, a lot of other tags these carry, are not only for the peripheral countries. These have been/are being implemented in near-center countries also.
A group of theoreticians try to classify democracies into liberal and illiberal types, which do not show the class character of these systems. Democracies considered liberal behave in an illiberal way in actual terms whenever it feels the demand. In countries, political system considered liberal did/do not hesitate for a moment to resort to brutal repression and encroachment of minimum available, if any, democratic space for people, an illiberal act, whenever the interests felt threatened. These ‘liberal’ systems do not shy away from illiberal acts or being characterised as tyrannical. Recent exposures, and a careful examination of the systems claimed to be liberal democracy show the illiberal character of these systems. No democracy claimed to be liberal has behaved in a liberal way whenever it has faced a situation that it considered to be threatening to its power, authority and interests. Each of these democracies supports respective interests, constituencies, classes and factions within these classes/interests. Citing cases from Latin America Andre Gunder Frank writes: ‘[T]hese very liberals were the first to resort to repressive measures and even to military dictatorship to serve their economic interests. Such was the course of events in Porfirian Mexico, in the “banana republics” of Central America, and in the sugar producing countries of the Caribbean.’ (Lumpenbourgeoisie: Lumpendevelopment, 1974) In Asia, similar cases are many. Europe and North America are not free from the style.
Transitional: Peoples’ struggles in countries have helped emerge types of democracies which are transitional and experimental in character, and are defined in different ways. These include, as Leslie Sklair mentions in ‘The Transition from Capitalist Globalisation to Socialist Globalisation’ (Journal of Democratic Socialism, 1 (1), 2011), and Nadia Johanisova and Stephan Wolf mention in ‘Economic democracy: A path for the future’ (Futures, vol. 44, issue 6, August 2012), economic democracy that brings private firms, or ‘the economy’ under democratic public control, producer-consumer cooperatives playing a role in the generation, allocation and mobilisation of resources, regulation of market mechanisms and corporate activities, support for social enterprises, democratic money creation processes, reclaiming the commons, redistribution of income and capital assets; social democracy, as Atilio A Boron discusses in ‘The Truth About Capitalist Democracy’ (Socialist Register, 52, 2006) and Kathi Weeks discusses in The Problem with Work (Duke University Press, London, 2011), which along with regular election and popular participation in decision making process ensures universal access to employment, basic income, housing, health and educational services, and better living standards. The economic democracy, as Boron cites Gøsta Esping Andersen’s argument, ‘strengthens the worker and debilitates the absolute authority of the employers’. There is a political democracy, as Patrick Heller discusses in ‘Moving the State: The Politics of Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala, South Africa, and Porto Alegre’ (Politics and Society, vol 29, no 1, March 2001) that tries to find out effective ways for popular participation in decision making process, political representation and division of powers. Ben Selwyn refers a number of these in The Global Development Crisis. Ben Selwyn also mentions electoral democracy that regularly holds elections ‘but only acts to fill the posts of executive and legislative functions of the state who then serve “market forces”.’ Noam Chomsky in Deterring Democracy (Verso, London 1991) describes the arrangement as ‘Low Intensity Democracy’.
All these and other systems and arrangements, with whatever nomenclature these are identified, show a single fact: democracy as all other political systems is neither free from class contradictions nor class-neutral as all these move along respective class line, as all these are/were designed to serve class interests and ensure class dominance.
Historical period and institutions: The system — democracy — does not transcend specific characteristics of historical periods. ‘[I]n order to be meaningful, discussions of democratic [and developmental] prospects… require a real grasp of the historically generated and limited situation.’ (Bill Freund, ‘The weight of history: Prospects for democratisation in South Africa’, in Jonathan Hyslop, ed, African Democracy in the Era of Globalisation, University of the Witwatersrand Press, Johannesburg, 1999, cited in David Moore, ‘Zimbabwe 1997–2007: A democracy of diminished expectations or – Toward a political economy of renewal?’, October 24, 2007; also in David Moore, ‘The Weight of History, a Broad Sense of the Possible: Economic History, Development Studies, Political Economy and Bill Freund’, African Studies, Lance van Siddert and David Moover, eds, spl issue, ‘Festschrift for Bill Freund’, 65, 1, July 2006)
There is no single, universal design of democracy that fits all societies, countries and all regions of the world with their respective historical phases, levels/stages of development, all classes and class alignments in the societies. This fact invalidates (1) intervention- and donor-driven/designed democracies in societies and (2) perception or thesis that a particular type of democracy in a particular society is the standard or yardstick for all societies.
Institutions embedded in interests of non-people sector of society neither serve democracy of people nor development for people; but the institutions don façade of equity, equality and democracy, which are mostly misunderstood, confused by a part in society, and are sold among people by another part. The later part’s stupidity and shallow statements come to light gradually. Moreover, institutions carry mark, characteristics, limitations of historical period. At times, institutions starkly show their incapability to carry forward, materialise and safeguard people’s rights, interests, struggles for a humane life. This nullifies the institutions, and the time delivers historical verdict: ignore the institutions incapable to carry forward people’s interests, set aside the incapable institutions, replace the institutions with appropriate institutions, and thus a rationale for radical change is constructed.
These — the historical phase and institutions — are integral part of the questions of democracy and development in all societies. Mere slogans, and absence of critical analysis of these – institutions, historical perspective, etc — do not facilitate charting path to democracy and humane development as humane development requires humane institutions at all levels.
Political system crops up from economy, and economic system cannot operate without social relations. ‘[T]here is not an economic system that operates without being under any social relations. Thus, it makes no sense if we talk about the rationality and viability of an economic system without considering the context of social relations. For example, given the capitalist social relations, productive forces can be developed only if the capitalists are allowed to exploit the workers, and consequently only the economic system that allows the capitalists to exploit the workers can be “rational and viable”. This certainly does not suggest that what is “rational and viable” for capitalism is also “rational and viable” for any other society. On the contrary, capitalist exploitation, by repressing the creativity of working people, is a great obstacle to the development of productive forces.’ (Li Minqi, Capitalist Development and Class Struggles in China, Amherst, US)
Democracy is not a system which is free from an economic system, is not a system which can roam freely without taking into account its masters’ desires and no economic system is not without social relations; and these in turn shape the character of a democracy — who is served, who is safeguarded, whose rule prevails. This contention is not limited to national level only. Rather, this should be applied at regional, local and community levels, and in all types and forms of institutions and organisations including cooperatives, educational institutions, project implementation committees or bodies, water control structure management/maintenance bodies, NGO-organised and microcredit-driven groups, etc also. This all encompassing view provides a more realistic, full picture of democracy in a society. The full picture helps perceive the type, character and ownership of democracy, and its role — effective or ineffective — in the area for development in society.
Absence of an all encompassing view, focusing on only a particular area, narrowing down on only top and ignoring the ground or base is nothing but hypocrisy, nothing but turning into ally of the system, and nothing but exposing self-identity — cohort of the system. Absence of specific programmes for all these — democracy and democratisation at all levels and in all institutions and organisations — make demand for democracy a script for a comedy. All discussions on democracy turn into idiotic slogans and statements and fail to design a system capable of delivering a humane development if these aspects are not considered while trying to build up a system named democracy or extending support to a system claiming to be democracy.

Farooque Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance writer.

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