By PaanLuel Wel (Washington DC, USA)
John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
November 1, 2010 (SSNA) — The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent demised of the Soviet Union marked the height of democratic triumphalism in the history of modern time. Though principles underpinning democratic government have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, it was only the emergence of the modern day nation state system of government that democracy finally took roots and flourished. Currently, nearly three quarter of the world nation states profess some forms of democratic government ranging from the Western liberal democracy to the semi-quasi democratic ones in the developing countries. Not only that, even authoritarian’s countries such as China or Iran regard themselves as adherents of democratic government.
Democracy has many critics, both in the past as well as today. While it proponents such as Abraham Lincoln see, in democracy, a government of the people by the people and for the people, critics in the like of Thomas Jefferson only perceive democracy as a tyranny of the majority—nothing more than an angry mob, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine. This view is also reflected in the words of Sir Winston Churchill who once quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.
Even in the ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy, or the mighty Roman Empire where the concept of republicanism was born, many acclaimed philosophers —Plato, Niccolo Machiavelli or Thomas Hobbes were very critical of the many inherent flaws within the democratic system of governance. This is mainly because the fundamental principles of democracy—unlimited liberty and freedom for all—often make democracy prone to degenerate into anarchy and lawlessness which is detrimental to the very existence of the entire society.
In spite of the success and popularity of democratic system of government around the world in our modern time, democracy is still susceptible to the manipulation of unruly politicians and political leaders who are ill-bent to use democracy as a cover to create disorder and chaos in the society. It is certainly the case for those with hidden agenda, ruthless pursuit of power and wealth, which often time run contrary to the tenets of the democratic government. According to the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, the very success of democracy—the celebration of unchecked freedom —spell the death of democracy itself. Factions baying for power would arise within the democratic government. And because these factions only see democracy as a tool to be used to ascend into power, their squabbling and abuse of democratic principles create chaos and disorder in the system.
The abuse of democracy is exacerbated by the fact that the core principles of democracy are susceptible to the influence of rogue elements. Consequently, the country becomes ungovernable due to the unruly behaviors of the various power-hungry politicians jostling for power. Eventually, the citizens charge with maintain democracy through electoral process began to lose control of the country as wealth and factional fighting become the determinants of the public lives. Voters apathy set in and the system become dysfunctional.
Democracy eventually degenerate into anarchy and lawlessness as unscrupulous political leaders take charge of the country and start purging the voice of dissent from within. Therefore the opponents of democratic system of governance such as the Chinese Communist party oppose democracy because the principle of unrestrained freedom and liberty breed chaos and anarchy which ultimate undermine and short-circuit smooth economic growth in the long run.
Whereas Plato disparaged democracy for its susceptibility to chaos and disorder, Niccolo Machiavelli, on the other hand, criticized democracy for its weaknesses as a system to gaining and maintaining power. In the Prince, Machiavelli went out to explain how a prince can acquire, control and maximize his power over rivals. Democracy, on the other hand, is the rule of the majority. Though a prince can utilize democracy as a mean to gain power, it becomes a source of anarchy and lawlessness once the prince is in power.
Since politics, in Machiavelli view, is just but the means by which prince impose his will on the people, the liberty and freedom prized in democratic government would be an encumbrance to the acquisition and maintenance of power by the prince. If anything, democracy would plant the seed of instability and discord. This is the philosophy mostly adopted by the authoritarian regimes across Africa. Little wonder that President Salva Kiir of Southern Sudan was reportedly studying The Prince by Machiavelli.
Moreover, the fact that Machiavelli overarching concern was the attainment of order and lawfulness in regard to safety make democracy a lesser choice for his project of governance. But that does not mean he was totally against some nuance form of democracy. His championing of a combination of the principles of the principality, aristocracy, and democracy in his other great work, The Discourse, demonstrated that he was not a sworn enemy of democracy.
In fact, his opposition to democracy can be gleaned from the fact that he take human to be more prone to evil than to good and therefore cannot be trusted in politics. His view of human as being self-centered animals stemmed from the fact that he was living in an era of warfare among various principalities in the Italian peninsula. Hence, the prince preservation of his power, and by extension the principality, was paramount in as much as it create fundamental elements of safety, order and lawfulness. Like the political philosophy of Louis XIV of France—I am the state, Machiavellianism has the leader as the state and the state’s laws are his precepts.
In the footstep of Machiavelli, the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, voiced his opposition to democracy on the ground that democracy permit reckless freedom that tend to undermine the preservation of law and order in the community. Hobbes advocated for an enlightened authoritarian government with absolute powers that would be able to exert itself on all in order to bring about peace by punishing law breakers. Though democracy was never a license to break laws in his views, its unlimited foray of liberties eventually turns out to be the precursor of unlawfulness and chaos. This would turn society to the state of nature where it was a war of all against all.
In The Leviathan, Hobbes argues that because human fear death and desire peace of mind free from daily anxiety, there is a need to seek self preservation by means of social contract. In order to realize that, Hobbes contends, everyone should give up all freedom and rights, those intrinsic components of democracy, to an absolute sovereignty, or an authoritarian government. In return for giving up their individual rights and freedom, people will be assured of their safety by getting rid of the security problems since the central authority would guarantee their collective security. Therefore, in the opinion of Hobbes, the fundamental principles of democracy—personal liberty and unrestrained expression for rights and freedom—are the source of anarchy in the society.
Hobbes assertions can only be appreciated by understanding his primary assumption. He believes that in the state of nature, everyone was entitled to everything he could land his hand on. In the absence of an authoritative government that is powerful enough to enforce social contract between individuals, justice, law and order would be an illusion since there is no inherent justice in nature that people can refer to and respect. Justice, wrong and good, is all product of the social contract which is only valid as long as it is enforced by a powerful sovereignty.
Thus, according to Hobbes, democracy is but detrimental to the preservation of peace in the society because it breeds discord and take man back to the rule of the jungle where man recently escaped from by seeking sanctuary in absolute government that can enforced social contract rules. To the ears of the Chinese rulers or the Russian oligarch, this is a sweet music that cannot be far from the truth of their world perspective.
In developing countries across Africa where the competition amongst political parties to win power could be severe, political environment is highly volatile and undemocratic. Thus, democracy becomes a double edge sword in developing world where there are no strong rules of law, democratic institutions, and civil societies. Unsurprisingly, Electoral process has been turned into a zero-sum game tribal warfare where politicians substitute parties for tribes. Regrettably, an otherwise healthy partisan competition is turn into something that is reminiscent of the old tribal wars of the past. These supremacy tribal battles have made electioneering years synonymous with the traditional warring seasons among tribes. It is so ingrained in people’s minds that whenever election year approaches, people are naturally prepared for the worse.
The longstanding hate and mistrust among ethnic groups, Southern Sudan for example, make democracy a recipe for conflict rather than a solace and refuge for the tormented. This abuse of democratic system has resulted in contested elections that precipitate violence and civil unrest during the last year general election. Instead of promoting peace and development in the developing world, democracy fuels ethnic and tribal divisions since it legitimizes differences as separate political groupings battle it out on tribal or religious grounds. Worse still, manipulative re-election politicking produces many policies that are not necessarily in the interests of the State or the people these politicians represent or serve. Rather, the policies, if any, are all machiavellistic: tailored toward acquisition and maintenance of power by hooks and crooks. Sacrosanct democratic principles such as the universal suffrage end up being abused than served.
So if democracy was so much a demon not long ago, you might be wondering, how did it become so indispensable in our time? Well, many factors like the Reformation that weaken papal’s powers on Europe, the explosion of scientific enlightenment, and technological advancement propelled the ascension of democracy. Furthermore, many other philosophers, John Locke for example, unlike Plato, Machiavelli or Hobbes, were great advocates of democratic system of government. The American Revolution, the French Revolution and the American Constitution were immensely influenced by the writing of John Locke, among others. Locke supported democracy because according to him it is the only form of government where individual rights and freedom can be exercised and respected.
Democracy, dissimilarly to other forms of government, prides itself on the fact that the governed control the government. Therefore, the actions of the government are aimed at the fulfillment of the desires and aspirations of the governed majority. Hence, Locke reckons that the political authority and the justification for its existence rest on the voluntary consent of the subjects under it. Thus, the legitimacy of the government is based on this social contract between the governed and the governors, electable by the majority to serve their interests. Because Locke holds the view that there is justice in the state of nature, unlike Hobbes, he reasons that humans, being moral agents, can agree, though social contract, to the formation of a central government that can advance the protection and preservation of their natural rights. And because such government is a product of a voluntary consent of people whose natural rights would be protected, it is therefore justified and a legitimate government. People would be submitting to it because of the benefits accrue unto them but not out of coercion or enslavement.
However, there is a limit to which the submission must go. For instance, a government that has failed in its duties to discharge justice and good governance as envision by the people would stand dissolves. People have no any more legitimate obligation to obey it since it has failed them by breaching the tenets of social contract. Therefore, people would be obligated to not only withhold their tacit consent but also to advocate for a formation of an altogether different democratic government that would obey and serve them.
Proponents of democracy maintain that because a democratic system of government can renew itself by discarding bad leaders that do not serve the interest of the people, it is much superior to other forms of government advocated by Plato, Hobbes and Machiavelli. Even though democracy is prone to abuse by unscrupulous politicians as it is apparently now in many part of the world political theaters where election are either sham or bitterly disputed, the people themselves know what is best for them in that, through election, they can still control who get into the office and for what purpose.
Nevertheless, the fatal flaws inherent in a democracy does not mean that we are going to witness the end of it any time soon. It is very hard, in a fully democratic societies, for a leader to overlook, once in office, the campaign promises he made in pursuit of his other hidden agendas. The mechanism of impeachment ensures that getting into the office is not a license to overturn the rule of law. Though some countries have been overran by groups that first professed democratic principles on campaign trail and later turn out to be an authoritarian’s body, it is highly unlikely to be the case in countries with deep-rooted democratic institutions.
Whereas others might see the very successes of democracy as its eventual cause of its self-destruction, it is also true to argue that the success of democracy create a society where only democratic principles are the cultural norms expected of all political players. It is for this reason that democracy is the main system of government in this 21st century.
Mr PaanLuel Wel, a concerned Sudanese student studying in the United States, can be reached at [email protected] or through his blog: http://paanluel2011.blogspot.com