We have to admit it. That democracy is a flawed system within a bigger political pool consisting of systems which are even more flawed is a fact. That we live within a flawed system out of necessity or the lack of a better alternative – as all the other systems are thought to be worse – is disconcerting, to say the least.
The core of democracy is representation. It is a system of governance where the people are represented by representatives who are elected by the people. These representatives then form a government. The government than governs the people. A state is then formed, consisting of the government and the people it governs.
In theory therefore, the people are actually governing themselves. The representatives, who are elected by the people, are the voice of the people. The state therefore is the manifestation of the people’s wishes and desires, expressed through the government which consists of the representatives chosen and elected by the people. Abraham Lincoln, in his famed Gettysburg address, thus aptly described his government as “a government of the people, by the people and for the people”.
Karl Marx has his utopia, which is a nation where the people work as one towards achieving a common desire. Where individualism and individualistic needs and objectives are suppressed all in the name of the one and only desire, namely the desire of the state, the one state, so to speak. Utopia is therefore not unlike an ant colony. Or a bee colony. But Marx forgets that the suppression of individualism and individualistic needs and objectives is a denial, and in fact is a transgression of liberty which the state is supposed to protect in the first place. How could liberty be protected by mass suppression?
The obvious flaw in Marx’s theory of a utopian society makes democracy a very alluring alternative. If at all, it pushes to the fore the false notion that liberty is the product of democracy, when in fact democracy is just but one of the many (flawed) ways of protecting liberty. Liberty is not caused by democracy. It rather is the cause for democracy.
That brings us to some sobering thoughts. Can liberty be usurped by democracy? Is it possible for a democracy to destroy liberty in itself? In that event, what will happen to democracy? Can it exist without liberty?
The obvious flaw in the theory of democracy, to my mind, is the emphasis it gives to the voice of the people who form the majority. I am of course mindful that the utilitarian principle by Jeremy Bentham posits that an act or policy which brings the most happiness to the greatest number of people would be a good act. Such act, being good, would jurisprudentially, at least, be legally justified. If we take that position to its logical conclusion, the Bosnian massacre would then be a good act. It could then be argued that it was an act of the elected Serbian government which presumably had the support of the majority of the Serbian people. It could further be argued that the objective of that act was to establish a new territory and border thus giving the greatest happiness to the greatest number of the people. Never mind the rights of the Bosnian minority. They were terrorised, tortured, raped and murdered – close to being annihilated – all in the name of the sovereignty. Was that an acceptable act?
Here lies the biggest weakness of democracy, namely, the trampling of minority rights all in the name of democracy. Viewed from this perspective, democracy is no better than the law of the jungle, where the strong survives and the weak obliterated. If the law of the jungle dictates the right to rule on physical strength, democracy dictates the same on the strength of numbers. The end result is the same, namely, the trampling of minority – the weak – rights.
Let’s face it. The rise of the state to the extent of it overtaking democracy itself is a real threat. We have seen this over and over again. There will come a time, in many civilisations, where the state becomes the goal rather than the means to the people’s goals and dreams. The end result would be absolutism, where finally the powers centred onto a tiny little dot, namely a figure head or a council of some sorts. The cycle would then continue for a new and fresh struggle for liberty. When achieved, that liberty would again found a democracy. And a new state would be born.
In modern times however, the rise of the state and the taking over of the people’s voices and rights, is much more refined in its operation. It is much more insidious. Democracy lulls people to sleep, especially when that democracy perceivably delivers what it promises, namely, the protection of liberty and materialistic deliverance. Under this model, the sole, or at least the primary, objective of the state would be the maintenance of power within the ruling elite. With that objective, the state or the government would go about “colonising” the minds of the people through state controlled mass media, spin and propaganda machines.
“A vote for us is a vote for a safer nation”, for example. It could have easily been “a vote for us is a vote for the nation”. But the word “safer” is insidiously crafted in that spin. The message is subliminally implanted. Soon the mind of the people would be colonised. It will be set. It is not safe to vote for somebody else. Power is maintained. Objective achieved. Liberty is supposedly protected, when it is in fact shaped, moulded and controlled.
The colonisation of the mind is but the most insidious and most debilitating form of repression. It is non violent, at least not in a physical way. It operates below the surface. It attacks, invades and conquers the sub-conscious. And all this takes place in bright daylight, without realisation. Meanwhile, the achievements of modernisation, materialistic possession and physical development serve to opiate the masses into a deep sense of security and achievements. Soon the people are taken over by a serious addiction. An addiction to the way of life which has been planned, organised and served by the state.
“Another project by your benevolent Government”, shouts the signboard. Or “a vote for us would ensure political stability and development”. Which is another way of saying “without us, there won’t be any stability and development.” Which means, you will lose whatever you are having now and you will be in trouble. And the conclusion is, “you have no choice but to vote for us!”.
Colonisation of the mind is then complete when the people get used to their everyday lives. A life courtesy of the ruling elite. Courtesy of the state. And the people would then be lauded by the ruling elite for their wisdom in choosing a government who made it all possible. The people have, by this time, been a victim to their own liberty. They are entrapped and enslaved by the very liberty which they seek the state to protect. It is ironical that democracy could therefore be a premise to absolutism which ultimately ends with liberalised slavery.
Ibn Khaldun, in “Muqadimmah” observed that the communal spirit – assabiya - would band together people from different tribes into a political force. He however noted that as success being achieved and unbridled wealth and good life followed, the people would lose their strength and their ability to fight. Even national security would be taken care of by foreigners as the people would not even want to be soldiers anymore. The leaders would be bathed in opulence, corruption and greed. The good life would soon consume the whole state and that state would soon crumble. It will then give way to newer state which was controlled by another tribe or a group of tribes who were as hungry as the first tribe. The whole cycle would then repeat itself throughout history.
Closer to our time, Herbert Macuse in “One Dimensional Man” would lament the fact that the materialistic world in the post-industrial era would soon reduce the people into some kind of zombie. He would draw a portrait of a “comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom” society where all the technological means provided by our civilisation to free the individual from toil and ignorance would be perversely used to enslave us. The result of all this would be the birth of a one dimensional man, a man who is a happy, enterprising creature who “cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action” than the one he inhabits. He takes his post-industrial world as a given, and seeks to thrive within its sturdy factual boundaries. The one dimensional man regards society’s dazzling array of lifestyles and career options as examples of free choice, rather than what they truly are – false needs that confine his consciousness.
Finally, under the conditions of a mass society, “the multi-dimensional dynamic by which the individual attained and maintained his own balance between autonomy and heteronomy, freedom and repression, pleasure and pain, has given way to a one-dimensional static identification of the individual with the others and with the administered reality principle.”
Be that as it may, democracy, with all its frailties and deformities, is still the best bet that we have. We must always bear in mind that democracy is not about the right to vote or to elect our representatives. It is about our wishes, desires and needs as a member of a society. When we vote and elect, we are appointing a person in whom we would entrust such wishes, desires and needs. That is what democracy is all about.
Democracy can work and work well if, and only if:
Let’s not allow the wolf, whom we have chosen to protect our lambs from growing too big and ferocious so much so that it starts eating the lambs which it was supposed to protect in the first place.
We are the shepherd. We decide.