Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Paul Ginsborg's Democracy: Crisis and Renewal

Democracy: the idea comes from ancient Greece (where it was practised as direct democracy), then languished for aeons, resurfaced in the eighteenth century in a new form (that of representative democracy), made steady progress in the nineteenth century, and then caught fire and swept the field in the twentieth. It is now the dominant vision of the political good; even the most undemocratic regimes in the world utter democratic pieties or aspire for the fig leaf of rigged elections to cover their shame. Democracy rarely fulfils its intrinsic potential, but neither is it corrupted as easily as more utopian systems: it is both fragile and tough. It can be mostly procedural – limited to elections – or it can deeply permeate a society’s thought and everyday life. And though it can seem the most natural and practical of arrangements, yet it also requires a faith in human beings that amounts to a kind of idealism.

Indeed, it is idealism that animates Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, a new book by the historian and political theorist Paul Ginsborg, because, when interpreted statistically, democracy is not in crisis but is flourishing like never before. In 1926, Ginsborg writes, only 29 countries in the world had broadly convincing democratic credentials. But by 2000, 120 of the 192 nation-states of the United Nations could be said to be democratic. Communism, the greatest adversary of liberal democracy in the twentieth century, has collapsed except for one or two tenacious redoubts. Even though various kinds of dictatorship still prosper all over the world, not a day passes without democracy taking a small step forward, whether in China or Cuba.

The crisis, then, that Ginsborg detects in many of the world’s established democracies (among which we should include India), comes from within. And to help us make sense of what may be going wrong and how these troubles have been anticipated at different stages in the history of democratic thought, Ginsborg summons the spirits of two of the greatest modern political thinkers, the nineteenth-century contemporaries John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. Although neither man stood for democracy as we understand it now (we must remember that a concept seemingly so self-evident as universal suffrage is a fairly recent reality, and that these men lived under a different democratic sky), and there were many differences between them on the subject, both were integrally involved in the project to make all men and women “active subjects in both politics and society”, and in that this is one of the ideals of democracy they were both democratic. Much of what they had to say in their time with respect to democratic ideas remains relevant to present circumstances.

In Ginsborg’s reading, democracy is being undermined today by a complex of interrelated problems. Firstly (and this is a kind of paradox), liberal democracy has its roots in nineteenth-century European liberalism, which held that every adult citizen deserved, on the one hand, greater autonomy and private freedoms, and on the other, a right to vote and participate in representative government. But in many modern nation-states, politics and the political class have now become excessively professionalised; politicians are seen as being of a different breed from normal citizens. At the same time – and this is perhaps more serious – citizens have increasingly retreated into the private sphere, and are often involved in politics only to the extent of bemoaning its quality. Thus democracy has been “hollowed out”; it is not vigorous, but operates on a kind of autopilot. “Where politics does survive,” writes Ginsborg, “it has become media and personality politics, to be viewed rather than experienced”. Democracy is representative, but not participatory, when ideally it should be both.

Secondly, consumer capitalism has profoundly affected the rhythms and emphases of our lives, which are increasingly organised on a work-and-spend axis. The better-off classes are rich in comforts but often perceive themselves to be poor in time; the logic of choice and self-interest, while beneficial in many ways, has also produced what Ginsborg thinks to be “an extraordinary passivity and disinterest in politics”.

This crisis was foreseen by thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, who wrote in 1819 in his essay “The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns”: “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily”. The history of modern democracy is one of the (on some occasions mortal) struggle to expand the circle of enfranchisement to include all adult citizens. Therefore, by taking for granted what has been won for us at great cost, we open the door, however slightly, to a time when we may not have it again.

Lastly, in many of the world’s mature democracies, politics and big money have joined hands, and election spending has spiralled to preposterous levels. This not only makes a charade of democracy’s putative egalitarianism, it also makes it vulnerable to the Marxist critique of the state, which charges it with being the preserve of a particular class and of entrenched economic interests. The “classic liberal distinction between the political and economic spheres”, of the kind maintained by Mill, and today by his more determinedly ideological modern-day followers, can ignore serious issues about the relationship of democracy and economics.

Marx, on the other hand, was prescient in his understanding of how political and economic democracy must go hand in hand, and how, in a capitalist system, the worker is profoundly alienated from both the product of his labour and from himself, in ways that damage him or her and also the larger edifice of democracy (Marx’s diagnosis, though, was more acute than his proposed revolutionary solutions).

Ginsborg presents a number of responses to these issues of democratic destabilisation. Some of the best passages in his book are those which summarise Mill’s thoughts on citizenship as nourished in the soil of democratic freedom and openness. Mill imagined citizens as a group of “active and dissenting individuals”, self-disciplined, independent-minded, nurturing a strong sense of the meaning and worth of their individuality. “He loved eccentrics rather than conformists; he wanted everyone to make up their minds on the basis of information and deliberation.” Democracy had to be rooted in healthy disagreement and debate if it was not to wither, because “Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it” (We see from such sentences that Mill is so enjoyable not just because of the strength of his thought but also the marvellous rhythms of his syntax).

Although there is much talk now of the relationship between civil society and democracy on the one hand and the individual and democracy on the other, Mill also stressed the responsibilities in democracy of that other unit of social organisation, the family. Although the family in history had often stood for a system of authority, incarnating “the virtues of despotism, but also its vices”, the family might also serve as “the real school of the virtues of freedom”. Ginsborg takes up this theme:
Every family is different and each has its own individuality and history. Yet there can be little doubt that under modern consumer capitalism most families, for the reasons I have outlined, are overwhelmingly conformist (in Mill’s sense of the term) and self-absorbed. They are not, by and large, producers of active and dissenting individuals, nor do they contribute anything but a minimum part of their extraordinary energy and creativity to a public democratic sphere. It is as if, by a sleight of hand, they have been separated from politics. How to break through that separation, to release some of those energies so that they could contribute to the reinvention of democracy, is probably the greatest rebus of modern politics.[...] Families, civil society, and the democratic state need to exist in a mutually reinforcing equilibrium.
And here is Ginsborg again on the subject of individuals, time, and democratic participation:
The question of time in a society which is not time-rich but time-poor, and which is dominated by work-and-spend routines, is a very serious one. [But] it is not that individuals have no time, but that they are not accustomed to making time for the public sphere. Mill hits the nail on the head: “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and everything that is usual appears natural.”
Putting aside a few hours every week for matters of public interest could quite easily come to seem customary, especially if those who now hold political power in democracies thought such an objective worth of encouragement. Under the honeyed routines of consumer capitalism, to pass a great many hours in hypermarkets and shopping centres has now become quite “natural”. A priori there is nothin to prevent time spent in improving democracy from becoming a habitual part of people’s lives. Such a prospect does not offer material rewards, but quite possibly a greater meaning to life – something which is often deeply felt as lacking today.
Ginsborg highlights innovative citizens’ initiatives around the world, such as a township in Brazil that practices a kind of direct democracy, or a proposal by two political theorists in America for a national “Deliberation Day” before elections to foreground the importance of political debate. He points to how, in our internet age, communication and access to information have been greatly improved for those who are prepared to make productive use of technology, and how global civil society is coming together in extraordinary ways in transnational movements of protest or proposal.

Ginsborg’s book closes with a thrilling dialogue in which the ghosts of Mill and Marx are seen carrying on their running debate from “a cloud somewhere over Europe” (Mill is wearing walking shoes, as he has just returned from a long botanical expedition; Marx has “recently been promoted from Purgatory”, and is carrying a book, which he keeps annotating). They begin to talk, to reflect over mistakes they might have made in the light of current realities; Marx agrees that he made a mistake in interpreting the birth of capitalism as its death throes, and agrees that “the rate of profit does not fall”, while Mill admits that he mistook the virtuous consequences of competition, and “over-estimated the self-righting capacities of the market”.

The best point in their discussions is made by the older man. Just as virtue is proved not by theoretical knowledge of the good but by good actions, says Mill, so too democracy, which we understand to be “virtue in its political guise”, can be established only through regular practice at large and small levels. Ginsborg’s book demands that we be not just subjects but also agents of democracy.

And here is a roundtable of essays on and debates around democracy, moving from larger overviews to more specific angles: "Democracy: a short history" and "Whatever happened to democracy?" by John Keane; "Downloading Democracy" by Robert Conquest; "Democracy and its global roots" by Amartya Sen; "Democracy as a way of life" by Sidney Hook; "Democracy for all?" by James Q. Wilson; "Liberal education and mass democracy" by Leo Strauss; "The essence of democracy: not majority rule" by Minoo Masani"; "Democracy's Global Crisis" by Ralph Peters; "Is voter ignorance killing democracy?" by Christopher Shea; "The myth of the rational voter" by Bryan Kaplan; "Aunt Kobra's Islamic Democracy" by Reza Aslan; "Islamist Parties and Democracy" by Husain Haqqani and Hillel Fradkin; "Identity, Immigration, and Democracy" by Francis Fukuyama; "Democracy's Forgotten Dimension" by Vaclav Havel; and "Reinventing democracy" by Jose Saramago.

And here are two essays each on Marx and Mill respectively: "The poet of dialectics" by Francis Wheen (whose biography of Marx is one of the most entertaining books on politics I have ever read) and "Karl Marx, journalist" by Christopher Hitchens; and "John Stuart Mill" by Richard Reeves (who runs the thinktank Demos and has just published a widely praised biography of Mill) and "The Forgotten Philosopher" by Alan Wolfe.

And lastly, an old post that shows that Mill and Gandhi might have had much to talk about: "Ramin Jahanbegloo on Gandhi's concept of freedom".

1 comment:

Uncertain said...

A very interesting essay specially given the sociopolitical climate these days.

Does Ginsborg converse with Max Weber in his book? Many have argued that between Marx and Weber, the latter was a more sophisticated theorist of the state - granted the problematic nature of such an assertion.

Weber ofcourse pioneered the study of rationalization, whose most perfected form is the ideal bureaucracy, which was unleashed upon modern Europe as feudalism gave way to capitalism. He observed that the force of rationalization will unassailably, irresistibly, and relentlessly permeate every walk of life. From his perspective, it is no surprise that in the "most perfected state" (as Marx snorted at USA) the parties have got professionalized and corporatized to the point of undermining the spirit of democracy. Weber presciently noted that:

"Ofcourse one must remember that the term "democratization" can be misleading. The demos itself [..] never 'governs' larger associations; rather, it is governed [...] The generally loose term 'democratization; cannot be used here, in so far as it is understood to mean the minimization of the civil servants' ruling power in favor of the greatest possible 'direct' rule of the demos . The most decisive thing here - indeed it is rather exclusively so - is the leveling of the governed in opposition to the ruling and bureaucratically articulated group, which in its turn may occupy a quite autocratic position, both in fact and in form." (Essays on Sociology, 1910/1958)

The above seems to me to be as true of India as of the USA - though more obviously visible in India.

There are no easy answers to how one might rescue democracy from the 'iron cage of rationalization'.

On an unrelated note, you remark Marx's analysis was more 'acute than his proposed solutions'. What solutions were you referring to? Marx never really sketched a solution - to my knowledge. His central claim, grounded in dialectical materialism, was that at some point in the future the contradictions within capitalism will implode and a new order will emerge. And considering that Marx was a critic of humans becoming slaves to their creations (like religious texts, etc.), it would have been ironical if he had prescribed a new text for humans to surrender their power to. That's why I was surprised to see that line .. if Ginsborg has a reference to where Marx sketches a solution, could you please pass it on to me? Thanks.