Friday, August 19, 2016

Democracy As Privilege and Responsibility

To me, democracy, of late, has been a disappointment. Or, to be precise, I have been on losing side of the argument all too often in the last couple of years. For example, the Indian electorate in 2014 voted overwhelming to bring in a Hindu Nationalist government: This was due to a combination of voter fatigue with the previous administration, which proved to be inept and corrupt at the same time, but I did not want a Fascist leader, which Mr Modi most certainly is, to be India's Prime Minister. Also, I was on the losing side of Britain's EU referendum, where the British electorate apparently voted for a closed economy and inward-looking society. And, indeed, like everyone else, I am now bracing for Trump victory in US Presidential election; whether or not that eventually happens, I wouldn't, like many US voters who will vote against Trump, feel elated about a Hillary Clinton presidency either, as she is only the lesser of the two hard-to-like candidates.

Despite these disappointments - and I did ask myself whether democracy is really worth it at the emotionally charged aftermath of the EU referendum in Britain - I find it difficult to accept the other alternative: A China-style Technocratic system! Dambisa Moyo, among others, argue that Africans should perhaps choose such a political model over the Western Liberal Democratic option, as if autocratic misrule would be a new thing in Africa. But, more ominously, many European states and even India, voted for 'Development' over 'Democracy' in recent elections. As Greece's Yanis Varoufakis would argue, while 'democracy' was a pretencion all along, the global Financial elite is now ready even to stop pretending to be democratic.

One could survey the world at this very moment and conclude that democracy may actually be on the back-foot and - Varoufakis may indeed be right. Even the democratically elected leaders like Mr Modi, and contenders such as Mr Trump, though they treat China as the competitor and perhaps the enemy, embrace the Chinese technocratic model. They, and various democratic leaders across the world, treat 'development' as the main goal. In fact, there is a consensus that the legitimacy of democratic governments come from economic prosperity of its people: Historical evidence seems to bear this out, right since the coup in Iran in 1956 which deposed the Middle East's first democratically elected government.

It is perhaps this narrative that Varoufakis is questioning, and we should too. Is democracy a means to an end, which is 'development' or even more ephemerally, economic growth? Or, if democracy is such a precious thing, should be an end in itself?

Now, while we casually equate development with economic growth, they are two different things. Apart from definitional differences, the most crucial difference between them is that economic growth is blind to quality of economic activities and whether they actually make life better. The pursuit of economic growth seeks to keep the social pecking order exactly the same, even if it is unequal, unjust or plainly corrupt, and in fact, any aspiration to change the social order, however urgently needed (think of India), is actually counter-productive in the pursuit of growth. 'Development', on the other hand, gives at least equal weight to qualitative aspects of economic life, and tries to measure, however imperfectly, whether life is getting better. The pursuit of development, in many cases, makes it necessary to change the social order, and, in the least, a mechanism to hold the elite accountable. And, that, if we come to think of it, is democracy. These rights to vote, of free speech, of holding the administrations accountable and various legal provisions that uphold this, were not given by God or some benevolent ruler, but were fought for and won: We must not forget that democracy, in itself, is development, and a precondition of a fair social order.

The leaders selling a technocratic vision equates growth and development, as do the media and academic literature making 'economic growth' the principal object of democracy. This sleight of rhetoric creates a self-destructive model: It makes growth the government's responsibility! While that may have worked in an industrial order, which was, at its core, extractive - it pooled cheap labour into processes to generate a surplus - but not as useful in the participative economic models which are emerging now. People like Mr Trump and Mr Modi are making promises of making lives better by executive action, and yet, in today's economies, driven by innovation and participation, they can not do anything unless the people themselves take the responsibility. And, indeed, this is why many technocratic solutions have failed, and even China, which may have performed a miracle of growth in building an industrial economy, may eventually falter in making the transition to the innovation economy.

Democracy - and the evolutions it has had in the last two hundred years - has been the greatest marker of human progress, but we have now taken it for granted. Not only we have forgotten that democracy is development, we have also missed that, in a democracy, nothing is given from above, but everything has to be worked for and earned. The elite may be doing what they have done always and promised salvation- now the earthly kind rather than divine - but being a democratic citizen is about being an adult: We should treat democracy as a privilege, a precious one, which comes with the responsibility of owning our futures and working for it.




 


No comments:

Popular Posts

How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

Creative Commons License

AddThis