Friday, November 09, 2007

Tired Democracy or Just Tired of Democracy?

The Economist complains that the world is suffering from something like "democracy" fatigue. We are not tired of the form of government, but of the word and the idea. The word democracy is being overused today to the point that it has almost no meaning. To say that a society is democratic anymore is like saying "Hi. How are you?" upon greeting someone--its something socially pleasant, but we're not really interesting in hearing about all the good and bad things going on in someone's life when we ask that. Today, to say that a society is democratic or a leader is democratic doesn't mean much; after all, brutal regimes exist which have as their official names "The People's Democratic Republic of _____" and world leaders claim the mantle of democratic reformers while clamping down on civil liberties.

The Economist recommends that we do away with talking about democracy and speak of socieities and leaders in terms of different values. Instead of democracy, we should measure a society in terms of: 1) being "law governed"; 2) free, and 3) having "public spiritedness". As the Economist points out: "Better terminology means clearer thinking, but it does not guarantee victory. Nearly 20 years on, the gains [of democratic renewal around the world] of the heady and happy late 1980s are looking troublingly fragile and temporary."

In looking over this list, I immediately thought how it bore some resemblance to the list of attributes which Pericles gave to Athenian Democracy in his Funeral Oration. So I looked over the speech again and realized how really different, and impoverished this modern conception of democracy seemed by comparison.

According to the Economist, to be law governed is to refer a society in which the law is the supreme authority (the "rule of law" in other words), especially over executive powers. Pericles thinks this is an important part of democracy too, but immediatly after talking about the rule of law, he mentions another aspect that is absent from this modern description. He says that it is important that all citizens be equal before the law (isonomia). It is true, of course, that Athenian democracy was notoriously unegalitarian--women and slaves were not given any kind of rights or civic regard. Equality only applied to male heads of households. But equality is notoriously absent from the Economist's description of values that we should honor today when we talk about democracy. And the way that the Economist describes this value, its hard to see how it might be different from plain "law and order". A society can be very rule governed and still not be a good society--laws do not automatically mean that justice is present. Brutal dictatorships might have more rules on the books that freer societies. As Roman orator Tacitus put it: "The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws."

For the Economist, freedom means the abilty to petition government, complain, and not be afraid of government persecution. This does, in fact, seem like an important value to have in modern societies. It forms the centerpiece of our Bill of Rights. Pericles argues that freedom (eleutheria) is crucial to democracy as well. I won't go into the great debates about the different between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns, i.e. the difference between negative and positive liberty, but just say that for the Athenians freedom meant more than just being left alone by government, but the capacity to be a self-determining individual. And sometimes this required government to assist a person to determine their life, either by providing opportunities for the development of their virtues or public assistance so that they could partake in the civic conversations about the law.

Finally, the Economist writes that democracy must involve public spiritedness. This is more than blind patriotism, but the view family ties and selfish gain are not as important as the community good. This would be a sentiment that would make Pericles happy, but he does not talk about mere public spiritedness. He believes that citizens ought to have an orientation to the public well-being, but also that they actively engage in politics and political deliberation. He says that in Athens, the view is that a person who says he is too busy to come to the political forum is not successful, but a failure. Democracy, requires that people be public minded but that they also walk the talk, get involved, and make spaces for involvement by others, especially in terms of those places where deliberation about public values can take place.

The Economist gives us a very thin notion of democracy that seems to leave out values we ought to consider important parts of modern societies and encourages us to get public minded while not saying very much about how we ought to think of our participation in political self rule. For my money, I think a more fruitful discussion comes from this amazing women, Grace Lee Boggs. Check out her ideas on the requirements of citizenship for a modern age.

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At 10:07 PM , Blogger Dap said...

So is the Economist piece representative of something?

Is it true?

At 12:24 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

I think its probably representative of the way in which neoliberal types think about the utility of democracy. I'm sure its something Thomas Friedman would endorse.

At 6:32 PM , Blogger Dap said...

...i.e., just enough democracy to allow wealth to move.

Maybe it's just based on perceived rational self-interest; it is The Economist after all.


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