Democrazy-2

This is the Second in a two part piece. Please read the previous post: Democrazy-1 before you read this. 

Unhappy with the pain and suffering that many of these practices entailed, and viewing the unfairness and injustice that it caused as avoidable; a few people, statesmen, philosophers and thinkers grappled with the problem of creating societies that were not just conventionally moral (in that it controlled or limited the more primitive, sexual and violent tendencies of its citizens) but even fair and just. Most notable amongst these were the Greeks who had the weird idea that a state could be governed by the citizens themselves. Despite the right to citizenship being limited to free men and men of property, or dare we imagine, even because of it, this system survived for almost two centuries.

Historically speaking, democracy was an extraordinary experiment in that it gave a voice, for the first time ever, to people regardless of tribal affiliations, family ties, brute wealth or brute muscle. This experiment in democracy, however limited, lasted only until a powerful despot, first King Phillip II and then his son, Alexander of Macedonia conquered the greater Greek regions. Goodbye to justice, equality or the demos itself!

For the next couple of thousand years, few people anywhere imagined that there could be stable societies that didn’t, also, treat people like recalcitrant children. Most agreed that since people were evidently unable to manage their uncontrollable passions and baser instincts, they needed to be kept under close watch under the mostly benign gaze of their elders, betters or the divinely favored. People, for their own good and that of the larger community, had to be kept in line and out of trouble. This was best achieved through exhortations to lead the moral life; promised inducements in the hereafter, rewards given in this life; threats of eternal damnation; public humiliations; torture, or at worst (and here human creativity and imagination knew no bounds), through death by lynching, burning, or stoning. Sometimes, just sometimes, to help you see the error of your ways, your whole family or village was burned down- an early and effective demonstration of the power of learning through modeling or, even, experiential learning!

After a millennium and half of this, democratic stirrings were again experienced, albeit amongst the elite and sporadically. It took shape first in England as a revolt by the aristocracy against the monarchy. Then in France the revolution was prompted against the excesses of the aristocracy. Finally, property owners and traders in the American colonies rose up against the English monarchy for taxing them without allowing them representation in the (English) Parliament. Through many fits and false starts, in some of these countries, the dangerous and radical idea of a self governing citizenry took hold. It didn’t happen everywhere in a similar fashion and it was almost always prompted by the self interests of groups that were able to challenge the powerful. Most importantly, even when the seeds of self-governance were sown, all the values and principles of what we, now, consider a democratic society, were not always evident.

For the longest time, given that these countries were mostly illiterate and emerging from feudalism and tyranny, and recognizing that most people had little appetite or skill to engage in rational discussion or debate, the idea and practice of democracy itself was reduced down to its simplest form; where citizens would have the right to elect, through the mechanism of one man, one vote, leaders who would be best equipped to represent them. Initially, much like the Greeks, it was first only men of property or landholders who could vote. Then this right was given to free men but not slaves; and then men of education but not the unlettered, and finally in the 20 th century after much heart ache, protests and misgivings from fathers, husbands and patriarchs in general, women were also granted this right. It was now only a matter of time before, in many of these predominately European and North American countries, every adult citizen (adulthood being defined as over the age of 21 or 18) was given the right to vote. Universal suffrage was a radical idea that enfranchised every adult regardless of station, gender or wealth; or, for that matter, education. This looked like an idea that had finally come of age, a victory for equal representation and through it fair treatment and justice.

Even as we celebrate this historically extraordinary notion that all men and women (and tomorrow those who self-identify themselves as being neither or both) are able to vote, we must ask whether the right to vote, and thereby elect our representatives who can make decisions on our behalf, is what being democratic is all about. Furthermore, we should ask ourselves if universal suffrage alone is a sign that the values of a democratic society exist in a country.

Some of the questions that we could ask are:

  1. What does the vote confer on the ordinary person who is not part of the ruling elite?
  2. What value does the individual vote have when some groups have extraordinary access to resources that allows them to unduly influence or even manipulate the electoral process?
  3. What does the vote mean to individuals or minorities whose views might, seemingly, never become popular enough to be accepted or accommodated by the majority?
  4. What protection is available for those who might be in the minority, particularly when it is in conflict with the majority?
  5. What is the social and political contract that must be entered into by individual citizens and competing groups in a democracy?
  6. What are humane and just ways of enforcing this contract when those in power (or even at the margins) subvert or pervert this contract?
  7. Is it possible to have a functional democracy when some stakeholders do not share core democratic values?
  8. Is it possible to have a functional democracy when groups, in trying to capture electoral power, do so by compromising and subverting democratic values?
  9. How do you ensure that citizens in a society share or develop the core values that are necessary to sustain a democracy?
  10. What, apart from voting, should be seen as a basic requirement and responsibility of a citizen?

The last question that I have today is this: Does democracy expect too much from us, humans, or too little?

Democrazy – 1

Democracy is, amongst other things, an experiment in trusting people to make decisions that are good for themselves, their group and the larger collective.  How’s that going for us?

Democracy is either an extremely optimistic notion or one helluva crazy idea, or possibly both. Whoever dreamed it up either had to be stoned or completely oblivious of the tawdry material he was working with.  The idea that human beings would use reason to debate constructively with one another to make decisions that would be for the common good, is one that would have failed the most preliminary of tests, had it been tested, that is. Even in the most educated, sophisticated and well meaning of communities this would be a very tall order.

Here are some reasons why Democracy is an optimistic and crazy idea:

  1. Human beings are prisoners of their brain. The brain, as it has evolved through millennia is equipped to perform basic involuntary functions so we can breathe, pump blood, periodically cleanse the body of toxins and perform the other physiological functions to keep the body chugging along.
  2. The brain’s primary function is not analytical thinking, its’ main task was to keep us alive.
  3. Thinking conceptually and objectively does not come naturally to us and requires much training, something that most of us do not have the time or energy for.
  4. The chemistry and biology of our brain make us primarily emotional and reactive creatures that are particularly impervious to reason.
  5. We are inherently egocentric creatures that tend to, despite some capacity for altruism, be trapped in our subjective universes, mostly motivated by our own perceived needs, fears and anxieties.
  6. We are also sociocentric creatures that have been conditioned since childhood to privilege those who we know (our own kith and kin) over those that we don’t; and to view anything that is different from what we have grown up with as alien, dangerous and threatening. Bigotry, racism and sexism are, with rare exceptions, par for the course for social creatures.
  7. Democracy challenges us to transcend much of this and inspires us to listen to those who might disagree with us; negotiate with those who might have ‘harmed’ us in the past; collaborate with those whose needs might be different; and coexist with those we might find abominable.
  8. It might be easier to get all of human kind to climb mountain Everest without training or oxygen.Getting this biological, chemical, egocentric and sociocentric species to desist from killing each other and to “play nice” has been one of the problems that has occupied tribal chieftains, feudal lords, prophets, god men, monarchs, mafia dons, school teachers, parents, kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers; since we first stopped communicating primarily in grunts and realized that there might be some value in hunting in packs.

    Sure Christ, Mohammad, Gandhi, Confucius, Martin Luther King, Marx or Mandela, like reformers down the ages, demanded that humans challenge themselves to be better than who they are. Not all of them, incidentally, were democrats or even thought democracy was a good idea. They knew that the human material was mostly brittle, and, at best, unreliable. They didn’t wish to tax the meager capabilities of their human material beyond what could be fairly easily monitored and controlled. To that end they, or their followers (along with their propaganda departments, apostles, evangelists and enforcers), found creative ways to control the behaviors of the masses. To this end they distilled the leaders aspirations, dreams and wisdom to some basic tenets and commandments that they hoped would, if followed, create a less cruel and rapacious society. Sure, as incentives they sometimes promised paradise after life (Christ, Mohammad) and sometimes a kind of paradise even here on earth (Marx, Confucius). Knowing that rewards in the afterlife would have limited cache when faced with the immediate gratification that would accrue from indulging the dictates of the flesh and emotions, they also tried to control such transgressions through threats of hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation. These terrible visitations in the hereafter were augmented by punishments that would have painful consequences in the present life ranging all the way from simple cold shouldering to excommunication, exile, and even torture, stoning or death.

    Essentially, the template for stability and order in the old world was pretty simple: if you did what we told you to, everything would work out just fine.  All that was required from you was one simple thing, call it what you will, Belief, Faith, Obedience, Acceptance or complete and total Submission, whatever- as long as it was given not partly or in half measure, but wholly and completely.

    The secret to a good life, in terms of safety, orderliness and predictability was in following this template diligently. To do this you needed to have faith that the plan had been well designed, the tenets were sacred and what was needed from you was to follow the rules that would eventually help achieve your family’s prosperity, your personal salvation and world peace, preferably in that order. Most importantly, you needn’t worry your pretty head about the details or even the larger picture. Better people, more knowledgeable, capable and wiser than you, in the form of gods, prophets, monarchs, mullahs and patriarchs of all stripes had already put in the hard work. Your salvation was in dedicating your life to The Plan.

    In the next post I will examine ways in which human beings, starting with the ancient Greeks, challenged the historic assumption that those in power, the strongest, the richest, the most brutal or even the wisest had the right to determine how the rest of us lived.

    Meanwhile here’s a question for you:
    What are your thoughts on the balance between carrots and sticks to maintain order and harmony in society?