"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Monday, March 27, 2006

Martin Jacques and 'styles' of democracy

Martin "I'm no longer a Marxist but economic determinism still gives me the horn" Jacques is at it again in the Guardian's "comment is free" thingy. The good news is he managed to get through an entire article without drooling over China's economic growth; the bad news is he's still talking in an ahistorical and wildly generalised fashion.

Martin Jacques has been irritating me for many years now. Does anyone remember the stuff he produced for the now defunct "Marxism Today"? Or those weird articles in the Guardian where he talked about how British society was now "egg-shaped", rather than a pyramid? (I'd give you a link but the Guardian's archives don't go that far back.) And I still haven't forgiven him for his role in setting up Demos - something I think any sane person should have the grace to be embarrassed about.

In this piece he repeats a phrase used by a number of critics of regime-change in Afghanistan and Iraq - "western-style democracy":
"The belief that western institutions, values and norms were of universal applicability, in the here and now, blinded the proponents of western-style democracy to the importance of history and culture; it marked a return to the western arrogance of the colonial era, when such attitudes were the common sense of the time."
Infuriatingly vague, isn't he? When exactly in the 'colonial era'? Which western countries is he referring to? And what colonies is he talking about? They all disappear into Martin Jacques' sweeping, ahistorical abstractions. And he doesn't, of course, explain what he means by "western-style democracy". Here's Norman Geras on the subject:
"It's not clear what exactly Jacques means by 'western-style' democracy, but we have enough experience of the variations - in democratic structures and processes - across different genuine democracies to know that there isn't a single binding model. We also know that countries can call themselves democracies when, on any reasonable definition of the term, they aren't. The German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea come to mind."
I've often had what is perhaps an uncharitable thought regarding the use of this term by people like Mr Jacques and Our Maddy of the Sorrows - namely that they don't have the courage to say they don't believe that some societies (i.e. ones where brown people are the majority) aren't suitable for democracy so instead they try to suggest that 'democracy' - generally understood to be at the bare minimum a polity that facilitates the appointment of rulers by a majority of the people in periodic, competitive elections - is a culturally-specific product like MacDonald's or Coca-Cola that the evil Americans are trying to foist on the rest of the world.

But uncharitable it may be because democracy - being what political philosophers sometimes call a "hurrah" word - often suffers from "concept inflation" as people attach other desirable features of a polity - such as economic equality, or most frequently, liberty - to a concept that is like motherhood and apple pie - which is to say no-one dare be seen to be denigrating it in any way. In other words, Jacques et al may simply be thinking that "western-style democracy" is a cipher for a "western way of life".

But the question remains outstanding: what do they understand non-western notions of democracy to be about? If it does not mean the right to participate in periodic elections to choose your leaders, what does it mean? And what does Jacques mean when he talks about the "culture and history" of these countries not being taken into account? The history of colonialism? Haven't they heard of a place called India? The history of civil conflict and violence? Haven't they heard of, um, Europe? Yes they have - but these tend to take a dim view of this continent these days; it comes second only to the United States in the badness league. Or do they mean tribalism? Haven't they heard of a country called Scotland?

On history, the Jacques and the Buntings haven't got a leg to stand on - so I suspect what they really mean is religion. Now, religion - if it expresses itself theocratically - is always and everywhere inimical to democracy, this is true. So what is their view of this? Do they think Afghanis and Iraqis like being told what to do by clerics more than anyone else on the face of the planet? And if so, what evidence do they have for this? There was none the day the Taleban fell, that's for sure - quite the opposite.

All monotheistic salvation religions have an impulse to express themselves theocratically; it is one of the three ways that they can adapt to their understanding of the world as essentially evil. But historically if they disengage themselves from this option - which historical necessity eventually demands that they do - salvation religions often contain an ethos that is highly-conducive to the development of democracy.

Islam has always struck me as being like Calvinism in a number of important respects: they both have the sovereignty of God as their central idea; as a consequence, they tend to be unrelentingly predestinarian; they are both strongly scriptural and within this runs a strand of individualism that leans firmly towards the elimination of magic and by extension the elimination or down-grading of a priesthood that performs rituals and maintains icons; and they often value individual interpretation above cleavage to an ecclesia - leading to a corresponding tendency to factionalism that stands in contrast to broad church movements like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy.

In short, Islam - like Calvinism - can in no sense be described as liberal. But as much as I dislike predestinarian monotheism, I understand these to carry the germ seed of democracy that professes equality at its centre. Calvinism preaches equality from the dismal basis that all are equal in the eyes of God - that is to say, equally depraved. It is the reason why in the Church of Scotland has no bishops and has no leader, save a 'moderator' who has an elected tenure of only one year; it is the reason that we have had women ministers some time before the Anglican Church even considered allowing a priest with mammaries to dispense the sacraments; and it is the reason behind the fact that the congregations of the Church of Scotland have been electing their parish ministers some time before we were electing our politicians.

So what is left of the Jacques analysis of "culture and history" being an obstacle to the expansion of democracy? There is, as far as I can see, none whatsoever - save the disposition towards theocracy. And since Mr Jacques is so fond of historical determinism, why will he not accept the wisdom of ages and of nations - that theocracy fails, it always fails, it can do no other than fail because it does no justice to the human condition? Because has this condition not testified down the ages that there is no salvation, no perfect society, no organisation that has escaped the human stain and the corruption of motives thereof, no movement that is free from fault or blemish? Maybe in the next life - but not in this one; so says History, so says Lady Liberty - and it is with this life we are concerned.

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