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Is democracy for everyone?

By Nick Hayward

(What follows is largely a summary of an IQ2 debate held on Sunday, the 4th of October, as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The topic was ‘Democracy is not for everyone’: more information here. This is a topic I know nothing about: corrections and comments are encouraged!)

Well, is it? Some say no. Dr. Carmen Lawrence, former Premier of Western Australia, argues that monied interests, corruption and nepotism have undermined Western ‘democracy’ to an extent where it can no longer be described as a system ‘for’, ‘of’, or ‘by’ the people. Those prepositions serve instead ‘the corporations’ or ‘the wealthy’. Factionalized parties and opaque preselection processes foster anti-democratic institutions even within those larger political bodies that pride themselves on being democratic.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar, a now-retired Indian career diplomat, chimes in with an analysis that sees ‘democracy’ as an historically and culturally specific institution. Once a state has reached a certain level of economic development, he says, once its bourgeoisie has grown and its entrepreneurial class has reached a certain mass, political stability becomes the watchword and more authoritarian systems of government become unworkable. Democracy fills the gap; but without that base of prosperity, it can never function correctly. Maybe we ought to rethink exporting our democracy to countries that can’t support it.

The opposition perks up. Professor John Keane, author a recent book on democracy, argues with Derrida that ‘democracy’ is not something attainable: democracy is always ‘democracy-to-come’. And as an ideal, he says, it is the best weapon we have against hubris, the fault of every power-mad politico. No other system, says Keane, protects us so well from the caprice of the individual. The old arguments for democracy (the people know best! down with elitism! only the people’s government is legitimate!) are hackneyed, tired cliches (like the phrase ‘tired cliches’); similarly, modern opponents of democracy are more often than not the ones who would benefit were it abolished – the upper-middle classes, the capital asset owners, the philosopher-kings. Those grumblings we hear over monied interests are not a sign of decay, but rather the opposite – they are a sign that democracy is working how it should, allowing voices of dissent to be heard.

Amina Rasul, once the Phillipines’ Presidential Advisor, stands and makes the points that have been overlooked: what other system do you propose? If democracy is not for everyone, then what? And please, she asks, tell me whether or not that system would protect the rights we enjoy, the liberties of freedom of association and assembly, of religion, of speech, that many of us take for granted. ‘Democracy’ is not a petrified form (or a cookie-cutter, waiting to be pressed into the dough of un-democracy…mmm); it is above all a process, and one that can adapt quite easily to any number of cultural contexts.

The audience is cynical. A few people are surprised that no-one has mentioned ‘tyranny of the majority’; one person makes the point that democracy is not always the best way of doing things. Air-traffic controllers, for example, shouldn’t be expected to tally votes from the pilots they direct. Most others grumble about money in politics.

The pre-debate poll was slanted heavily in favour of the anti-democracy folk. A couple of hours later, almost everyone had changed their mind. What do you think?

(This debate was recorded, and will be broadcast on the BBC and ABC Fora, dates TBA. IQ2’s debates are always a lot of fun. The 2010 season is scheduled to start on the 9th of February with the topic ‘Popular Culture: We’ve seen the future and it is junk’.)