This was written a month or so ago for the last issue of Montage. Next issue should be out soon.
George W. Bush prescribed democracy and capitalism as the cure to all the world’s ills. Now capitalism has crashed and democracy has some explaining to do. Democracy literally means people (demos) rule (kratos). Rule by the people. The definition varies, but two core elements (as per Wikipedia) are that people have access to power and universally recognized freedoms and liberties. It means that people have access to the levers of power and the freedom to do something with them. Democracy, however, has been advertised as peace, prosperity and Baywatch all in one – delivered via an anonymous vote. And then we wonder why we end up electing the same feudal lords and ignoring our imported Constitutions. It’s because we’ve mistaken means for an end. Democracy is not a fish, it’s a fishing rod. If you try to eat a fishing rod you get splinters in your mouth. If you educate and empower yourself you can get more fish.
Democracy isn’t voting. Voting is how you choose representatives, but the people aren’t then supposed to eat their lunch packet and go home. In a democracy the people don’t just periodically choose, they rule. That means they need to stay involved in the political process through their elected representatives, the press, civil society, social networking and – if needs be – the street.
Yet in much of the Global South, democracy just means electing the same colour or feudal family that your family did and then going home. These people don’t have power, they just have a vote. The real power lies with the man handing out the lunch packets.
The result is a feudal system where people elect their lords and expect government jobs and support in return. The urban elites which could access power in other ways don’t vote at all, so you’re left with masses of voters with no access and elites with no votes. Neither group has real power, and neither rules.
Southern democracy has also failed because people lack the freedom to do much beyond vote. In the name of terrorism or growth free media and speech are largely restricted. This to public acclaim, from Sri Lanka to Singapore. Since democracy is advertised as being peace and prosperity, it becomes acceptable to take this shortcuts. Indeed, free speech and other fundamental rights often get in the way. Of course, this misses the point. The point is self-rule, not any particular result, and freedom is essential for people to rule themselves.
So what we’re left with is a situation where democracy is doomed to fail not because of what it is but because of how it’s understood. The people that understand don’t vote and the people that vote don’t understand.
The way out is to promote democracy not as a way to get richer, safer or more like the west but as a simple means to self-rule. And that means more than voting. People need to start demanding better after-sales service from their government as well. People need to channel their complaints about government into organizations and the will to run for office themselves. The elites need to start actually voting, and the masses need to start actually participating. If the elites think the masses are stupid they should educate them. If the masses think the elites are elitist they should talk to them on the same level.
Democracy is getting a bad reputation in the Global South because we’ve used it like lipstick on a pig. Inky fingers on dirty hands. Democracy is not peace and prosperity, and neither is promised. Democracy is self-rule, by the people. Any promises we make to are to each other. The question isn’t whether you want more money or more safety, though those things will come. The fundamental question is, do you want to rule?