The Democracy Debate

By Stefan Gilbert: What do we mean by democracy, specifically in the African context? and, What is it that Idasa is trying to do when it espouses the statement, “building democratic societies”?

We discussed this at Reflection Week and I would like to pursue it further.

The first point is probably the easiest, and we can rely on theory and history to clarify what democracy means. In its origin, it is a Greek word, meaning “rule by the people”. Just for the sake of comparison, the other forms of governance with similar origins are oligarchy (rule by the few), aristocracy (rule by the anarchy (no rule). A more modern concept that is also worth mentioning is “meritocracy” (rule by merit). Communism, socialism, fascism, dictatorships, plutocracy, etc. are more modern phenomena, the first two of which speak more to political economy and the way in which resources are distributed. I am sure none of this is unfamiliar, but I believe in starting with the fundamentals.

It has often been stated that, of the above forms of government, “democracy is the best of the worst.” In other words, there is no ideal political system, but we haven’t come up with anything better then democracy. There are two other points that stand out in my mind, these are (1) the origin of democracy, the Greek City State, was in fact not very democratic; (2) Jean-Jacques Rousseau once stated that a democracy ceases to function once a population goes beyond 200,000. Let me explain these further.

The Greeks, when speaking of democracy, referred to rule by the citizens, which we take to mean the people. In fact, the number of citizens in most Greek City States often formed the minority of the population. Citizenship was a privilege that allowed you to participate in the politics of the State. Most of the population, including a large number of slaves (that sustained the often luxurious lifestyle of the citizens), were excluded from participation in politics.

Secondly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s statement that a democracy ceases to function once the population exceeds 200,000 was, in part, referring to the Greek City State and Swiss Cantons of the time. This statement came within the context of a discussion around a concept called “general will”, which stood opposed to the idea of individual will. His argument was that the general will was an idea that emanated from a shared interest or concern of the population. These shared interests or concerns allowed those that govern to act in a manner that truly represented the “will of the people.”

Today, in most countries, like South Africa, we celebrate a political expression of complex democratic relations in the form of pluralism. This is an expression that defines modern democratic societies where a host of interests compete for attention in the political arena. These plurality of interests do not in all cases share any common thread, and in many cases, may stand in opposition to each other. In my view, pluralism has formed and perpetuated a situation in which the game is defined by peripheral politics. In other words, there is a political centre where power resides, and a periphery of interest and interest groups that all seek to gain entry into the centre. Civil society organisations form a significant part of this diverse group on the fringes of the political centre. The competition for scarce resources, i.e. funding, also defines and exasperates this situation for civil society.

Coming back to the Greeks for a moment, and putting aside the full participation of the “people”, one can also state that what they practiced was a form of “direct democracy”. In other words, all of the citizens of the country could participate directly in the decision making process. As populations grew, and this no longer became possible, we began to see the emergence of “representative democracy”. Again, there are many arguments for and against this form of democracy. One, for example, is that in modern states it is logistically impractical for everybody to participate in all decision making. Citizens are thus relegated to practice their political person on voting days. National referendums are also exceptions, which is a form of direct democracy that remains in some states. Another argument for representative democracy is that ordinary people aren’t necessarily interested or informed enough to take decision that may affect the population as a whole. Even more controversial, would be the statement that people are often not sufficiently educated, or don’t possess the mental sophistication, that would allow them to make decisions deferring immediate benefits for long-term or postponed benefits.

Be that as it may, we can now come back to the idea of the General Will as expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In ALL modern democracies we have some degree of representative democracy. This is a fact. We can’t all sit in parliament and deliberate on decisions that need to be taken. The premise is that people hand their political decision making powers (their sovereignty) to people they believe can best represent their interests. As we know well, this is often a problematic assumption, as many politicians have problems distinguishing between the interest of the people and their own, personal interests.

The point is this, in practicing representative democracy we often fall into a trap that stands in complete contrast to the fundamental precept of the General Will. This Will, as JJ Rousseau argued it, is a common expression of the collective good; it is consensus writ large. In modern democracies the best we can hope for is often the realisation of political decision making around the “lowest common denominator”. In other words, the pluralism and diverse interests often contrast so sharply that the only possibility for agreement is on issues that don’t speak directly to or address the specific point of interest of any particular interest group. Thus, the best we can hope for is not consensus, but compromise. To borrow the idea of another quote, the common good is not very common.

And now we come back to what we, as Idasa, understand to be democracy and how we should go about promoting it. In my work, for instance, I need to focus on what I have to work with. This takes two forms, (1) the constitutionally mandated democratic institutions, and (2), truth be told, the lip service politicians give to the ideas of democracy. That said, in many if not most instances, these institutions are woefully inadequate and fall well short of realising the central precepts of – representative – democracy. This is the case in many countries, and also afflicts most African states. In dealing with democratic issues in Africa, a range of other issues are also introduced. The most prominent of these is the parallel form of political organisation found in traditional governance structures.

And now we reach, finally, the nub of my belief that public participation is more relevant than democracy. There is one bold fact that needs to be acknowledged. Formally and literally, traditional governance structures exist outside of the democratic political paradigm. Whether or not traditional structures are themselves democratic, or contain democratic ideas within them, is another matter entirely. When, for instance, someone wants to engage with a rural community but must first seek the permission of the local Chief, someone who is not elected via the formal democratic process, we are dealing with a situation that does not conform to the dictates of democracy, as expressed in law.

However, if the objective is pubic participation in the political process, then a more pragmatic approach may be necessary. This objective can encompass all forms and mediums for generating public access to and communicating interests to decision makers. What I am suggesting is that a rigid approach to promoting democracy, as defined by history and law, may exclude possible avenues that could lead to the improvement of lives for the people.

But the debate that took place at Reflection Week also highlighted one other issue, that of working or not working with the institutions of democracy. One perspective, as I understood it, was that the institutions are or have failed to meet the needs and interests of the people. This claim is not one I would dispute. However, in my view it does not follow that we should by-pass or disregard these institutions; that we should seek alternative means of improving the lives of people. The institutions of government are, even in nominally democratic states, are pivotal actors in any developmental process. To ignore them would, in my view, be short-sighted, for what people can do for themselves government can undo in the blink of an eye. But the central idea is really that what is needed is direct democracy; that representative democracy has failed. This too is difficult to refute, but is there an alternative?

On the other hand, what government can do with one decision can affect the lives of millions.

So, for what’s worth, I believe in strategic public participation and dialogue… and the democracy stuff will work itself out.

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2 Responses

  1. Stephan, you have an articulate point. I wish to add that there has never been a democracy in the history of the world. Classical Greek city states had an average of between 7 to 15 thousand adult males who were entitled to vote. The also had to participate in the military. Democratic function excluded client villages, slaves, women and non-property owning males over the age of 18 (age of majority). The practices were very democratic – rotating public office – elected officials- public justice- and entitled citizens to banish threats to democracy for a time.
    In a sense, democracy remains a qualified oligarchy and it is up to citizens to employ the right to further the good.
    The expectations democracy unleashes is part of the disillusionment we see in many democracies. In my own mind, democracy caters to a specific form of human agency, it is the passivity that turns democracy into the qualified oligarchy of which I made mention.
    Any pluralistic power arrangement is to me democratic if if meets some simple criteria – no one must be able to monopolise decision-making and outcomes indefinitely, there has to be an objective measure to which all people adhere in the resolution of conflicts and deciding on the good and everyone must be able to pursue a good, within reasonable bounds, without fear of exclusion. This to me is the essence of democracy – it is ultimately how we manage the relationships between people with different values.
    There is so much to democracy that even if we spoke on it for hours, we would never be able to come to a constitutionally comprehensive discursive consensus – but Stefan, you just about covered the foundations and future discussions should be able to build constructively on it.

  2. One can think of democracy as having three fundamental components: contingent consent – in other words, citizens consent to be governed but are able to withdraw that consent; bounded uncertainty – in other words the outcomes of the political contest and balance of forces is not pre-determined, but does operate within a finite set of “rules of the game”; and the constructed procedures that a society adopts in order to enable them to operate.

    I would add two other brief points:
    First – democracy is about two struggles – that of figuring out how the people rule, but also that of defining and describing ‘the people’. The first of these requires structure, organisation, constitutions, mechanisms; the second requires rights, struggle, humanity.
    Second – democracy provides the space in which a public or set of publics exists, and the space in which participation is possible. So while one might kvetch about the quality of a democracy, those who have lived or live without it know that they need it to be truly human.

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