Thursday, 7 March 2013

WEIRD Democracy

(WEIRD series introduction; Education; Industrialisation; Riches; Conclusion)

This is going to get a bit confusing. I'm quite a critic of Western democracy, but I think most people are still relatively in favour of it (or at least take Churchill's line that "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."). I'm now going to argue that all these opinions are based on a bad concept of democracy, and that when you dig deeper, you do get to a value that can be prescribed universally along with the rest of the WEIRD set.

Let's start with the problem: do you actually feel represented by the people you voted for to represent you? The answer, in all likelihood, is 'no', and with some justification.

Our periodic-vote, representative system of democracy (of which the governments of all the major Western nations, as far as I'm aware, are versions) has two problems: political campaigns are expensive, and we rely on the mass media industry to tell us about them. In essence, money and screen time are the biggest influencers of the results. The rich and well-connected are much more likely to end up in office, and if the last five years have shown us anything at all, it's that most of them simply don't understand what life is like for those less fortunate.

It's not universally true. But the very fact that we need news stories like that one underlines the point very nicely.

There's a clue to the underlying issue if we go back to that Churchill quote, specifically this bit: '[D]emocracy is the worst form of government'. It's when we think of democracy purely as a method of choosing our leaders that we get problems. In philosophical circles, it's oft-discussed, somewhat tritely, that the ancient Greeks who 'invented' democracy did not employ our concept of representation, instead allowing all citizens (though not all people) a vote on policy matters - this works when you've only got 30-60,0000 citizens, but not for a country of 60million like Britain. But there is something useful to take from the Greeks; they coined the term 'democracy', which comes from demos (people) and kratia (power/rule). 'People Power'.

Doesn't actually sound a lot like democracy as we know it, right? How many times have you felt powerless in the face of your government recently? For me, pretty much everything I've been aware of my government doing from the decision to go to war in Iraq onwards has been something I'd rather they not do.

What I'm getting at is this: true democracy, true people power, looks more like

This is a point well-made in this article that I linked right at the start of this series;
"If WEIRD college students aren’t voting in large numbers, for example, and feel profoundly alienated from politics, isn’t it problematic to think of ‘democracy’ as shaping their attitudes? I’d be more inclined to say we should examine the landless farmers in Brazil I worked with while studying the Landless Movement to understand ‘democratic’ populations. They had long community meetings modeled on the labour movement or anarchist movement to come to decisions. I doubt my university students in the US had experienced anything nearly as ‘democratic.’"
Are we really that democratic in the West? By some measures, voter apathy is at an all-time high. We feel disenfranchised, even if technically we're blessed with the most open franchises in history. Heck, for the first time in a very long time, the UK government is a coalition, and it's one that no-one who voted for any of the parties involved ever imagined they were voting for.

The point is, we're not engaged. Democracy is engagement with the dictates and processes of society. It's about knowing what's happening in your society and the world as a whole, understanding how it will affect you, and taking steps to change things whose effects you're unhappy with.

If education is about the ability to make judgements about a value and to hold some values as one's own, and industry and wealth are about the ability to act on value judgements, we can see democracy as the crucial final step of harmonising our judgements and actions with those of others. It's about setting limits on our freedoms so that we don't transgress the freedoms of others. It's also about coordination - if you aren't able to do something by yourself, you can engage with others to find like-minded people to work with.

A favourite refrain of post-modern cultural relativists is that some cultures (apparently the Chinese in particular, or at least so I'm always being told) favour authoritarian governance to democracy, and that may be the case in terms of a system of governance, but I don't believe it's the case more widely. You can have democracy in our sense under an absolute ruler provided that ruler can be induced to listen to his/her people (and, lest we get all high and mighty about our democracies, how often do our leaders listen to us?).

All through this series, I've been out to demonstrate that there's no risk of oppression by cultural imperialism in prescribing these values for all cultures. In fact, I've been trying to show that the WEIRD values are the best way to prevent oppression. And democracy, fundamentally, is (should be) about finding compromises that everyone can accept - policies that everyone can endorse and thus no-one feels oppressed by (note: there's a difference between 'not getting everything you want' and 'oppression', something far too many radicals on all sides would do well to remember).

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