The Emerging Cracks of Democracy
Winston Churchill has often been quoted for saying,
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.
But, as much as we may respect this great man, I think the time has come to examine his claim that democracy is truly the best out of every other form of government, especially in the light of recent events in Europe and America. I shall examine first the ideological element, and second the practical element.
The Ideological Argument: Does Democracy overcome Alienation?
It is interesting to note that Hegel, as early as the 19th century, though may have been a supporter of the formation of a democratic branch within the state, did not advocate universal suffrage. One of his main arguments is that if you give everyone a vote, you will create voter apathy, because an individual will feel his vote is meaningless when it is only one in millions, and when he votes for only one person in a large assembly. This, if nothing else, demonstrates his amazing prophetic insight and philosophical genius. We can see this most vividly in our own country, where people are politically apathetic because, after all, all they have is a vote, what difference can it make? In most Western states where voting is not compulsory, voter apathy can be more starkly seen in the low percentage of voter turnout who all feel that their votes will not make a difference.
Thus far from “giving everyone a part” in government as is often the propaganda spread by pro-democracy advocates, it alienates everyone instead.
To add on to this argument, we need to unpack what does “having a vote” means. To have a vote means to be able to choose… what? The fact is that having a vote simply means to be able to choose between one of the dominant parties. But as an American monarchist complained, what value does having a vote means to him, as an anti-war right-winger, when he is forced to choose between George Bush and Obama? Far from so-called “empowering” the voters with government participation, democracy becomes a mere tool for legitimising pre-existing power structures, it is as if simply because we “voted” for some party then they claim the right to “represent” us and rule over us.
Britain is an especially interesting case study of what I shall call the paradox of democracy. On one hand, democracy, as an ideology, is meant to be representative of the interests of the people. On the other hand, a democracy must also govern, that’s what they are elected for anyway. Yet, as we can see in Britain, these two needs will inevitably come into conflict. As a voter, you vote for the party which best represents your interest and your values. However, in order for your party to govern, they need to command a majority or a significant proportion of votes in parliament, and how else can they do this, but by compromising on the very ideology or values on which they have been voted on in order to garner the cooperation of the opposition? Thus, this systematic inter-party collusion has rendered practically meaningless the distinction of the three parties, as lots of Britons now say, they’re all the same! And if there is no difference between the three parties, then what exactly are you voting for? The fact is that there is no such party that can truly represent our interests or values and we are forced to choose between compromises.
So, the question becomes, what value your vote? Democracy is ultimately just a farce for legitimising power, and a very effective one at that.
The Practical Reality of Democracy: More Competent and Accountable Governments?
Another major propaganda of pro-democracy advocates is that a democracy will make governments more accountable to the people and make them more honest. Really? As a monarchist argues,
Even assuming that elections genuinely represent the wishes of a majority of a country’s population, (which is quite unlikely!) one should consider whether the typical path to power of a president is really morally superior to that of a king. Politicians, even the relatively honest ones, are obliged to engage in a relentless pursuit of funds and to frequently make promises to voters. Conflicts of interest are inevitable; campaign pledges are likely to prove impossible or contradictory and consequently may be broken—the whole system invites corruption. The successful politician, especially if he is not independently wealthy, must be a smooth talker and a frequent compromiser and deal-maker, willing to sacrifice principles for politics. He must be willing to step on others to get ahead, constantly attacking his rivals. If a politician is not dishonest or mean-spirited at the beginning of his career, he runs the risk of becoming so as he immerses himself in the real world of politics. The hereditary sovereign is free from all of this. The fact that he did not have to do anything good to earn his position also means that he did not have to do anything bad. Some kings may not be admirable anyway. But while monarchy offers at least a chance that a decent and well-meaning person will achieve the top post, democracy virtually insures such a person will not.
If campaign pledges and promises will inevitably be broken, in what sense of the word can you hold your elected leaders accountable? As a Jon Stewart show recently showed, Obama before he was elected, promised an end to the detention camps, upholding civil liberties, the return of rule of law, etc. But now not only has he not close down that base, he retained the Bush policy of moving prisoner’s beyond the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, and has now even authorised assassinations of their own citizens who are deemed a threat to national security! And this nation DARES to lecture the rest of us about human rights! The sheer hypocrisy! The sad fact is that, the minute a leader gets power, he must break his promises, how then can we hold them to account? What are we voting for? The whole system is corrupt and simply a farce.
In Britain this problem has become especially acute. It was exposed recently that parliamentarians have been abusing the expense system and claiming for all kinds of expenses irrelevant to their function as parliamentarians. However, what good did the exposure do? All the three major parties were deep in it, so in the end, no matter how much you exposed the faults of the parliamentarians, you can’t punish any of them for their misdeeds, you are still left with the need to choose between the three crooks! And the clearest evidence of the voter’s apathy can be seen in how Britain has ended up with a hung parliament.
On the role of Civil Society
In the light of the prevailing considerations, how can Singapore avoid the flaws of democracy which has been exposed by recent events?
The idea of a Civil Society is broadly that which occupies the “middle-ground” between the people and the State. A Civil Society are normally voluntary societies which are formed around some shared interest, purposes and values. Traditionally, civil societies have included the church, trade unions, business groups, etc. Hegel recommends, in contrast to democratic universal suffrage, that voting should be according to group affiliation or vocational interests; in other words, he thinks that a person should vote not directly as an abstract individual but indirectly as a member of a group. Hence it is the civil society itself, not a mass of individual votes, who elect a delegate to the legislature. Such a system, Hegel argues, has several advantages: it organises, directs and controls the interests of the people, who could otherwise turn into a violent mob; and it prevents indifference because the individual feels his vote matters as a member of a group that has much greater powers of representation than a single individual.
In Britain, the House of the Lords has often been understood to represent precisely these civil society (with the recess and retreat of the nobility in England), as it contains bishops from the established church, academicians, judges and business bosses. As the Archbishop of Canterbury posed to the House of the Lords recently on proposed reforms to the House of the Lords,
Given the historic role of this chamber as representing the interests of non-partisan civil society, will the minister give us some assurance that the proposals before us do not represent an increase in underlining the partisan character of this House?
We have seen how the partisan nature of universal suffrage and democracy leads either anarchy (as they can agree to get nothing done) or into collusion (which destroys the integrity of the party itself). While a Civil Society approach will overcome the paradox of democracy and reconciles the different interests and parts of our society into a unified organic world.
The Modern State and Singapore
A monarchist notes ironically that today, modern people are more docile than the people of the past, despite all the rhetoric that we have more “liberty” or “freedom”. While the powers of traditional kings may have theoretically been supreme, in practice they were usually rather limited—by the aristocracy, the Church, common law, and the need not to excessively antagonize the common people for fear of rebellion.
But today, because of the ideological lie that somehow the government is “for” its people and works in their interest, the people just stupidly say orh, and go about like sheep. A democracy persuades the people that their interests and those of the government are identical, making them far more complacent and accepting of government abuses of power. This is particularly applicable to war. When kings waged wars, the aims were always clear and limited, usually involving disputes over inheritance and land. There was no pretense that war would benefit everyone or serve “humanitarian” interests. There were no standing armies and no conscription; kings were obliged to recruit soldiers and regard their lives as valuable. In contrast, one of the most disastrous effects of the transition from monarchy to democracy has been the development of ideological or “total” war. Ever since then, up to the “humanitarian” bombing of Yugoslavia and the current war on terrorism and the “Axis of Evil,” democratic governments have recklessly broadened the aims of and rationalizations for warfare, resulting in conflicts of far greater destruction. Under the influence of the myth that the interests of democratic government are necessarily theirs, Western populations put up little resistance and succumb to war fever. The wars waged by democracies have turned out to “make the world safe” for nothing but more war.
Monarchs did not pretend to identify with their people and since entry into the top levels of government is restricted to the royal family, the clear distinction between classes promotes a healthy skepticism of state power. However, since democratic government is theoretically open to everyone, in a democracy the line between rulers and ruled is deceptively blurred, and people are less inclined to be vigilant. And because we are less vigilant, we become more complacent with government abuse, unlike people of the past who are able to see a sharp distinction between the ruler and the ruled, and so they watched their rulers carefully and made noise at perceived abuses by the state.
I believe that the emergence of a civil society will both overcome alienation and ultimately make the state more reconciled to its people, as meditated through a civil society which the people have a direct participation in. And I do believe that this is the direction which Singapore ought to work towards if we are to avoid the mistakes of the West.