This is the title of a new book by David Graeber (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), one of the most prominent scholars and political activists of the present generation.
Ever since the concept of ‘rule by the people’ as opposed to ‘rule by an élite’ was devised in Athens thousands of years ago, the idea of democracy has become the hallmark of the highest social aspirations. The fundamental quest, according to David Graeber, is of a fair, free and just society. He carries us through the meandering pathways of an ideal which has not always been in the form we know it today in the best of circumstances.
From Athens, the idea of democracy has travelled across the world only to be idealized in the American way of life which places individual freedom at the very heart of the social project. The struggle for democracy has gone through various revolutions, the French popular revolt of 1789 being one of the centrepieces of the gradual evolution towards one form or other of the democratic society, as opposed to autocratic government.
There were echoes even here in Mauritius (then called Ile de France) during the French colonial occupation of this major upheaval to give power back from the self-serving governing élite to the people. Even so, local power centres here ensured that there would be no giving-back power to the people to run the affairs of state as that was not the material which slave-centred colonial societies, such as Mauritius, were made up of.
While it took centuries for the sprouts of true democracy to start burgeoning up with the termination of British colonisation in 1968, it would be utter bad faith to negate that this was indeed a momentous event which at last moved us up the ladder of representative government. It is the springhead of many of the liberties we enjoy today, notably the freedom of speech, freedom to criticize and the freedom to engage in diverse activities.
Some complain that we lost Diego Garcia in the process. Maybe, because we could not resist the arm-twisting of the much too-powerful British Establishment which took off that territory from us under duress and which we could reclaim lawfully if we acted unitedly at some time in the future. This is the promise democracy holds out to all who truly believe in it. But, for the time being, I have been trained as an economist and it makes me somewhat cynical on occasion: I accept that everything comes at a price.
Although David Graeber cannot but concede that power has been grabbed and retained in a democracy like America by the wealthiest, giving most Americans a feeling of being “disengaged, voiceless and disenfranchised”, he feels confident that the current situation may really be only some sort of a beginning of the true democratic project. He holds out the view that democracy is born of a resilient spirit and that the democratic idea can still bounce back and triumph over various forms of power concentrations which make it serve the objectives of the concentrators for the time being rather than that of the masses for which it is really designed.
Democracy will beat them all if you give it a chance
From the ‘Arab Spring’ of two years’ ago to last Wednesday in Turkey, when the authorities decided to block social networks (Twitter and YouTube) in advance of local elections, democracy the world over has been jolted by pressures of all types. In a case like Turkey, 45% of votes cast on March 31st went in favour of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP against 29% to the Opposition despite “multiple corruption allegations swirling around him and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) – and on his angry, intolerant, dictatorial leadership style”, according to The Guardian. His party won.
The newspaper surmises that this election may ironically have dealt a blow to democracy which young Turks in particular have been aspiring to. The disappointment with a leader accused allegedly of illiberalism, jailing of opponents and an increasing display of authoritarianism is understandable. But democracy is a longer-term project. It has destroyed several bastions of oppression. Give it time. It will do the job for which it is designed.
The march to democracy probably begins with education. Education acts as a leveller par excellence. It brings down barriers of artificial and self-serving social compartmentalisation dressed up as veritable institutions to grab and retain essential power over all the rest. Breaking down barriers takes time, no doubt. But look at the results we have achieved here in Mauritius by pushing for educating our children since colonial days against innumerable obstacles and exclusivism of the country’s education project of those days. It has been the best leveller I can think of. It has created ambition among us as a nation. As other democracy-advancing social projects fall into place, such as the provision of universal health care, access to jobs, removal of inequality, etc., the blind oppression exerted by market forces tending to reinforce the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ becomes less pervasive.
The democratic society falls more neatly into place the less governments rely excessively on things like consumption taxes such as the VAT which emphasize things like inequality. Situations of the sort help create the feeling of helplessness among peoples who feel they can do nothing against rising prices, low wages, inaccessible housing, insufficient job opportunities and, above all, a political space riddled with crony capitalism for the privileged few associated with the wielders of power. Oppressive dictatorial regimes, coupled with growing economic and social distress for the masses, created the ‘Arab Spring’, not only in the Middle East but also, in a dormant stage, in other places like Venezuela, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey, etc. Once the balance tilts too much to one side, the democracy project automatically gets back its strength to fight up the oppression exerted by the rulers.
The main question is one of time. In several countries in Africa notably, rulers have perpetuated their reign and that too, not always for the better welfare of the population in general. But non-democratic countries also face the phenomenon of a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique.
According to The Economist, the “50 richest members of China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $ 94.7 billion – 60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress”. The paper goes on to state that “many democratic experiments have failed recently in that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on other essential features of democracy. …The most successful democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism – the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases.”
It has to be said to the credit of the leaders and the people of this country that Mauritius is a concrete example where “majoritarianism” has not been allowed to ride roughshod over the larger interests of the country; it may even have gone too far in accommodating minorityism to the extent of even providing for the latter sections constitutional guarantees for parliamentary representation through the Best Loser System.
To come back to the oppressive contexts mentioned earlier, it is true that if an autocratic ruler assumes power for too long, a whole generation may see its chance to evolve towards democratic rule elude it, irrespective of which political regime is in place. Democracy however offers a better chance of redress with its automatic checks and balances. The advance of communications and international connectivity will no doubt minimize self-perpetuation by rulers and herein lies the hope that democracy may come back with a vengeance.
Previous generations would have considered it as a mere flight of imagination if they were told that even people with a low dose of education could at any time of day or night not only communicate and transmit views to each other anywhere in the country but also to the farthest outreaches of civilisation. Cheap mobile and fast internet has made this a reality. Democracy may spread out just the same in different variants across the planet but it will be democracy all the same, with power in the hands of the people to stand up and overturn corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments.
* Published in print edition on 4 April 2014