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Democracy gone to seed?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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July 28, 2009

LONDON - The confused situation in Honduras where an elected president, Manuel Belaya, has been shown the door by the army and the supreme court is not so easy to solve - as the Western and the Latin American countries seem to think - with their shout: “Obey the rules of democracy!” To many, not of the West’s persuasion, it seems that the West once again is being holier than thou. Anyway, is democracy such an intrinsic wonder or sacred belief?
“Democracy”, wrote historian Norman Davies, in his monumental study “Europe”, “has few values of its own: it is as good or bad as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4 it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.”
The Nazis in three out of the five elections they contested increased both their popular vote and their election of deputies. In time they became the largest party in the Reichstag. Despite the party’s street violence and murders of opponents the chancellor, Franz von Papen, decided to make Hitler chancellor and himself his deputy. Two years later Hitler called a plebiscite to approve his elevation to the new position of Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor. He gained 90% of the vote.
Maybe Berthold Brecht was right. We have to change the people.
Democracy was a Greek idea. It did not last even there and it was forgotten for two thousand years. Some of the thinkers of the Enlightenment resurrected the idea, blending their classical knowledge with a romantised idea of ancient Athens.
Not all of them were so taken by these new thoughts. De Tocqueville wrote about “the tyranny of the majority”. Edmund Burke called the democracy of the French Revolution, “the most shameless thing in the world”.
Democracy returned to the world stage during the struggle for American independence and the founding of the American republic, although at first the Greek idea was anathema to its leaders. Next it appeared in France, born amid the struggles of the French Revolution and its turbulent aftermath.
At the end of the Second World War, there were only six practising democracies in the whole world. Before the war democracy was never the norm and only became more widespread in Europe because of the resurgence of liberal values that tried to make sense out of the carnage of two horrific world wars, and because of the creation of the precursor of the European Union. Later, in the 1960s, there was the birth of the human rights movement, led by the founding of Amnesty International, now one of the world’s most influential lobbies. The presidency of Jimmy Carter pushed the idea of democracy to the fore, especially in Latin America and Africa.
Modern day democracy is in many ways a poor shadow of the Greeks’. The Greeks made everyone equal before the law and enacted a meritocracy. As Pericles, Greece’s greatest orator, said, democracy is also about taste, responsiveness to beauty, sobriety of judgement and respect for wisdom, discretion and generosity. The Greeks’ code of ethics, as the philosopher Bernard Williams has argued, was enforced not by the sense of sin but of shame, and often shame at not living up to these high values.
Plato, who didn’t approve of democracy’s commitment to the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, strongly disapproved of democracy. He believed that in the best form of government philosophers would rule.

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In newly liberated America democracy had its detractors too. The most influential was James Madison who believed that America was too big for effective democracy. Over the centuries, democracy has continued on its onward path giving America a strong sense of self-esteem. But in France the early ideas on democracy - supported strongly by Robespierre - ended with the dictatorship of Napoleon and before too long the restoration of the dynastic monarchy. Only later did democracy slowly emerge in practice.
Today, there are many examples of the weaknesses of democracy. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and Russia where democracy has advanced in recent years, there are side by side in the same country horrific abuses of human rights and widespread corruption. In the U.S. of President George W. Bush Jr. torture was carried out in secret and even now President Barack Obama prevaricates about bringing its initiators to justice. Recently in Britain a good part of the legislators has been shown to have been corrupted by over-claiming on expenses. How the U.S. and Britain can believe they can persuade the non-democratic world to be more democratic sometimes beggars belief.
No one who has studied the course of democracy can dare claim it is here to stay. Like in France not very long ago, in a time of a crisis yet to be faced by most of the democracies, a Charles de Gaulle figure, wise, just and incorruptible, may take power in his own hands, and the people will welcome it.
If we want democracy to continue we will have to fight for its integrity - we always have to remember Churchill’s argument that democracy is the worst system, apart from all the others.


Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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