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Democracy field notes

The Origins of Monitory Democracy

Ashis Nandy.

India’s most respected public intellectual Ashis Nandy recently appealed to his fellow citizens to recognise and deal with a spreading malady in Indian politics. He calls it ‘psephocracy’. The quality of political leadership and government, says Nandy, is compromised by the reduction of Indian democracy to struggles to win the spoils of office. 'The moment you enter office, you begin to think of the next election’, he notes.

The preoccupation with winning and retaining office has toxic effects. Incumbents dare not put a foot wrong. Underachievement is consequently rife; bold and imaginative political leadership withers. Far too much time is spent log-rolling coalition partners. Vast sums of campaign funds are raised through shady backroom deals. Patron-client arrangements called vote banks flourish, along with corrupt wheeling and dealing. Focus groups, targeted advertising and negative campaigning become regular techniques of governing. Parties degenerate into oligarchies hungry for electoral conquests. Party hopping, the strange practice of representatives switching allegiance to another party when in office, flourishes. So does behind-the-scenes lobbying. Under extreme circumstances, as Narendra Modri showed in Gujurat in 2002, politicians seeking re-election are even prepared to win office by stirring up communal suspicion and hatred, riots and pogroms.

Nandy exaggerates, but his point about psephocracy is pertinent. Using a rarely-used word from the OED, he puts his finger firmly on a degenerative disease found not only in India but in many other democracies, including (as we see from the current presidential campaign) the United States. The trend is uneven and politically contested, certainly, but Nandy’s attack on psephocracy prompts a vital question about whether and how democracy can be rethought, and be practised, so that it comes to mean more than electoral integrity, commonly called free, fair and clean elections.

The question isn’t new. It was in fact first raised and last debated in depth during the 1940s, a much-neglected moment in the history of democracy when political writers from across the political spectrum helped effect a Copernican shift in the meaning and ethical justification of democracy. The ideal of monitory democracy was born. It was a new historical form of democracy, one much more sensitive than its predecessors to the evils of arbitrary power. The new ideal implied nothing less than free and fair elections, but something much more. Democracy came to mean the continuous public scrutiny, chastening and control of power, wherever it is exercised, according to standards ‘deeper’ and more universal than the old reigning principles of periodic elections, majority rule and popular sovereignty.

Jem Butcher, 2009

The ideal of monitory democracy (a new term I’ve elaborated in The Life and Death of Democracy) was born of a moment of profound crisis when majority-rule parliamentary democracy tottered on the cliff-edge of self-extinction. By 1941, down on its knees, it seemed rudderless, spiritless, paralysed, doomed. When President Roosevelt called for ‘bravely shielding the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism’, when untold numbers of villains like Mussolini and Hitler had drawn the contrary conclusion that dictatorship, empire and totalitarianism were the future, only eleven electoral democracies remained on the face of the planet.

What’s fascinating about the 1940s is that the possible self-extinction of electoral democracy triggered a moment of ‘dark energy’: the universe of meaning of democracy underwent a dramatic expansion, in defiance of the cosmic gravity of contemporary events. Thomas Mann gave voice to the trend when noting the need for ‘democracy’s deep and forceful recollection of itself, the renewal of its spiritual and moral self-consciousness’. Others voiced puzzlement and shock at the way the electoral democracies of the 1920s and 1930s had enabled the rise of leaders (Theodor Adorno dubbed them ‘glorified barkers’) skilled at calling on ‘the people’ to mount the stage of history – only then to muzzle, maim and murder flesh-and-blood people in their name, so destroying the plural freedoms and political equality (one person, one vote) for which electoral democracy had avowedly stood.

Many 1940s commentators agreed that both the language and practise of majority-rule electoral democracy had been utterly corrupted, to the point where even the word democracy was wielded in ‘a consciously dishonest way’ (Orwell). Yet (they asked) how might democracy regain its integrity? Could it come to mean more than free elections?

Many agreed that a new form of democracy was needed, a type of post-electoral democracy whose spirit and institutions were infused with a robust commitment to casting out the devils of arbitrary, publicly unaccountable power. The Irish man of letters, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) captured the point. ‘A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people…who believed in a democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true.’ Lewis added that he was opposed to all forms of slavery because no human beings were ‘fit to be masters’. The ‘real reason for democracy’ is that human beings are fallen creatures, so that ‘no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.’

Hannah Arendt.

Suspicion of unchecked power prompted many political writers to reject the twin follies of sentimental optimism and blasé cynicism. Capturing the new spirit, Hannah Arendt called for active confrontation with the demons of arbitrary power. ‘The problem of evil’, she wrote in 1945, ‘will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe’. But what exactly did that imply in practice?

Political recommendations were often divided, for instance over the need to correct markets and redistribute wealth through welfare state policies. The typical pattern during this period was that those who strongly favoured so-called free markets against concentrated state power (von Hayek was an example) were not keen on democracy, whereas those (such as J.M. Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter) who reminded everybody that unregulated ‘free’ markets had imploded during the 1920s and 1930s, dragging down parliamentary democracy, were friendlier towards democracy. Some even recommended workers’ control of industry - the extension of the principle of elected representation into the heartlands of the market, as in fact happened with the invention during the 1940s of the German system of co-determination.

Although the political commentators of the 1940s didn’t quite put things this way, they were calling in effect for the democratisation of electoral democracy. In the name of democracy, for instance, some writers flatly rejected the core axiom of electoral democracy, ‘the will of the people’. The French Catholic philosopher and early champion of human rights Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) insisted that ‘the people are not God, the people do not have infallible reason and virtues without flaw.’ J.B. Priestley’s BBC lectures (broadcast as The Postscript, on Sunday evenings through 1940 and again in 1941, and which drew peak audiences of 16 million, a figure which rivalled Churchill’s popularity with listeners) repeated the point by asking: ‘Who are the people?’ His answer, with Hitler on his mind: ‘The people are real human beings. If you prick them, they bleed. They have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sweethearts, wives, and children. They swing between fear and hope. They have strange dreams. They hunger for happiness. They all have names and faces. They are not some cross-section of abstract stuff.’

Yorkshire writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestley, 1940.

So, if ‘the People’, abstractly conceived, were no longer the imaginary source of legitimate power then it followed that the problem was to find in these dark and tumultuous times more down-to-earth methods of effectively placing constraints on the dangerous power of manipulative leaders. Nobody recommended a return to Greek-style assembly democracy; that option was seen as a failure of political imagination and practically incapable of meeting the challenges of the dark and dangerous times. Far bolder and forward-looking measures were badly needed.

The chastening of power: Lemuel Gulliver trapped by the Lilliputians, from C.E. Brock’s drawing, 1894.

Some political writers (Carl J. Friedrich, Bhimrao Ambedkar) argued for the primacy of constitutional restraints on arbitrary power. Others called for the re-injection of spiritual concerns into the ethos and institutions of democracy. Reinhold Niebuhr (the teacher of Martin Luther King Jr.) provided among the weightiest cases for renewing and transforming democracy along these lines. ‘The perils of uncontrolled power are perennial reminders of the virtues of a democratic society’, he wrote. ‘But modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed, but also to give it a more persuasive justification.’ He concluded with words that became famous: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’

In perhaps the boldest move, still other thinkers proposed ditching the reigning presumption that the ‘natural’ home of democracy was the sovereign territorial state, or what René Cassin, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dubbed the Leviathan State. So they pleaded for extending democratic principles across territorial borders. ‘The history of the past twenty years’, Friedrich wrote, ‘has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that constitutional democracy cannot function effectively on a national plane.’ Thomas Mann similarly rubbished attempts to ‘reduce the democratic idea to the idea of peace, and to assert that the right of a free people to determine its own destiny includes respect for the rights of foreign people and thus constitutes the best guarantee for the creation of a community of nations and for peace.’ He added: ‘We must reach higher and envisage the whole. We must define democracy as that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man.’

This way of thinking helped inspire one of the most remarkable features of the Copernican shift of thinking about democracy during this period: let’s call it the common-law marriage of democracy and human rights, and the subsequent world-wide growth of monitory organisations, networks and campaigns committed to the defence of human rights. The crowning achievement of the decade was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted in 1947/8, it seemed to many at the time a mere sideshow of questionable importance. Its preamble spoke of ‘the inherent dignity’ and ‘the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. Against tremendous odds, the declaration (John Dewey pointed out) was a call for civil societies and governments everywhere to speak and act as if human rights mattered.

The fundamental re-thinking of electoral democracy through the lens of human rights had several long-term effects, some of them unintended, more than a few surprising. Today, networked organisations like Human Rights Watch, the Aga Khan Development Network, Amnesty International and tens of thousands of other non-governmental human rights organisations monitor power. They have helped alter the political ecology of actually existing democracies. They routinely deal with a wide range of rights matters including torture, child soldiers, the abuse of women, the monitoring of elections and freedom of religious conviction. They strive to be goads to the conscience of governments and citizens, and in this respect they solve a basic problem that had dogged electoral democracy: who decides who ‘the people’ are?

Since the 1940s, most human rights organisations and networks have answered: every human being is entitled to exercise their right to have rights, including the right to prevent arbitrary exercises of power through independent public monitoring and free association with others, considered as equals. Their reply has fundamentally altered the meaning of democracy, shielding it from the follies and pitfalls of psephocracy. But ever since the 1940s, as John Dewey noted at the time, the common-law marriage with democracy also produced discord. It exposed the utopian language and politics of ‘universal’ human rights to the real-world forces of a brand new form of democracy.

Monitory democracy turned out to be good for human rights. It did more than serve as a permanent reminder that who gets what, when and how should depend on the permanent public scrutiny of power, not just on bland talk of ‘the right to vote’ or contested elections and election statistics. Monitory democracy brought talk of universal human rights down to earth. It urged the advocates of human rights to think twice about embracing the pre-political rhetoric of ‘good governance’ and the ‘human right to development’. Most striking of all is the way the champions of monitory democracy have managed to table the most profoundly subversive but still-unanswered question of all: why should we give priority to human rights and privilege human affairs at the expense of the non-human domains upon which we human beings daily depend?

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