So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three. – E.M. Forster, On What I Believe, 1938
It’s nearly 2013 and I am watching the New York sky darken with snow outside my workroom window. For some reason I’ve remembered that almost exactly 10 years ago, in December 2002, I was stuck in the bare concrete office of a garage somewhere on England’s Salisbury Plain while the mechanics scoured Hampshire for a Fiat wiper motor. There was nothing to read but a two-day-old tabloid. The headlines were about Hans Blix’s latest verification mission to Iraq, in search of weapons of mass destruction.
My journey, like others in that car, ended with a bodge that sort of worked. As for Blix’s journey, we know where that ended. Was it fated to do so because the USA and Britain wanted to invade Iraq anyway? Pass; but what we probably can say is that the Western invaders of Iraq, whatever their ultimate agenda, felt that they were bringing democracy to Iraq and that whatever they did could not, therefore, be wrong. The democracy agenda has also been embedded in other Western interventions from Malaya to Vietnam, and most recently in Afghanistan. Yet it has also motivated some of the greatest indigenous rebellions against authority, from 1848 to the Arab Spring. People have paid a high price to achieve democracy, and an equally high price for having it imposed upon them. In view of this, perhaps democracy should be asked to state its case more often.
Democracy is generally understood as the election of representatives by the whole community, which may dismiss them. It also implies basic rights of speech and of combination. I deeply believe in the case for democracy. But I also believe that, in a fast-changing world, conventional definitions of democracy will not do. I start with the argument as to whether democracy helps people lift themselves out of poverty, or whether they should do without it until they have done so. The latter view has been widely held on the Left but was also espoused by the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.
Democracy and development
Like democracy, development has many definitions. There is a basic split between those who envisage industrial growth along Western lines, and those who see development as a process by which people may realize their potential. But one may (or may not) lead to the other.
Is democracy compatible with development? For some, Amartya Sen’s view – crudely stated, that freedom is development – would end the debate. And, as Sen has pointed out, the Lee thesis is fundamentally flawed: We are poor; we need other things more than democracy; therefore we cannot have democracy. Where is the logic in this?
But democracy had mixed blessings initially in Eastern Europe, where the UN once claimed that declining life expectancy in the 1990s had prevented 10 million men from reaching the millennium. Adrian Leftwich, of the University of York, has suggested that democracy is inherently anti-progressive because its existence requires broad agreement between the major forces in society, who will set conditions for that existence. Leftwich has used failure to secure land reform in South Asia as an example. But he could also have used the emergence of oligarchs in Eastern Europe, and the extent to which their consent has been needed to keep democracy afloat. Moreover, as J. K. Galbraith has pointed out, producers, rather than consumers, may set the economic agenda. He also points to arms manufacture in the USA: “This is not a detail,” he wrote in 1971, “it is half the Federal budget.”
It is unsurprising that many in developing countries feel there is no ‘default case’ for democracy. The Chinese leadership clearly does not think so. “I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy,” Lee Kuan Yew told an audience in the Philippines in 1992. Western commentators have sometimes agreed; the economist Karl de Schweinitz argued in 1959 that poor countries must “limit democratic participation in political affairs” to progress economically. These arguments have usually been pragmatic rather than ideological, but Marxism has provided a theoretical basis for this view. So has utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham argued that the greater good of the greatest number was incompatible with the doctrine of the Rights of Man, which he therefore condemned as “nonsense on stilts” (though he was not against the use of the law to grant rights; he simply dismissed the view that they were inherent).
This implies a conflict between civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. In fact, there is no such conflict, as I will argue later on. But first let us consider the empirical evidence as to whether democracy leads to development or vice-versa. It is actually quite weak either way. As Michael Todaro of NYU and Stephen Smith of George Washington University have pointed out, there are countries that have scored badly on the UNDP’s Human Freedom Index while seeing high per capita incomes or rapid growth, while democracies such as India enjoyed neither. It has been argued that this paradox arises because some non-democracies have been economically liberal, while India (for example) was not. But India has done better of late, while the Asian tigers ran into trouble in the late 1990s. Sen has argued that transparency would have prevented the banking collapse that triggered the meltdown. (Although again, Sen was writing in 1999; democracy was no defence against the subsequent Western banking crisis.)
However, it may be that empirical evidence will not in itself tell us much, simply because all such evidence is rooted in a given set of circumstances. Thus the postwar era saw Western democracies buying manufactured goods from the benevolent despotisms of Asia; had they not done so, would those despotisms have exhibited self-sustaining growth? Perhaps not; that demands a domestic mass-market and that in turn implies a distribution of wealth. The poor must win this through the political system. (I'll return to that below.)
Moreover, since Lee took power the world has changed. Innovators are less willing than others to live in a stultifying system, and the growth in IT has made innovators even more important. In his 2000 book, From third world to first: The Singapore story 1965-2000 (2000), Lee himself eventually accepted that a more open society was needed for this reason. Creativity also drives the evolution of the social framework. As Sen wrote in Development as freedom (1999), “Our conceptualization of economic needs depends crucially on open public debates and discussions.” John Stuart Mill also took this view. “If any opinion is compelled to silence,” he wrote in On liberty, “that opinion may, for aught… we know, be true.” In his 1856 work L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, De Tocqueville described how the administration of pre-revolutionary France was paralysed by the sale of offices: “It is obvious that none of these pernicious institutions would have survived long had free discussion of them been permitted,” he wrote
Lee has remained convinced that Singapore required discipline earlier in its development. But, as Mill once argued, the form of government seemingly best suited at a certain stage may be inappropriate if it unfits society to the next step. Stalinism provides evidence of this, and much of the Middle East remained frozen in time until the Arab Spring. “The despotism of Augustus,” said Mill, “prepared the Romans for Tiberius.”
But this is a purely utilitarian defence of democracy. Perhaps that’s enough. Bentham, for example, would have thought so. Is it?
No. Any form of human organization must be underpinned by morality lest it be subverted. E.M. Forster, whose belief in democracy was qualified, commented that “no device has been found by which... private decencies can be transmitted to public affairs. As soon as people have power they go crooked ... because the possession of power lifts them into a region where normal honesty never pays. ...The more highly public life is organized the lower does its morality sink ...whereas primitive tribes were at all events restrained by taboos.”
Democracy, then, has to provide a framework for the mobilisation of social capital. For democracy to do that, we must see it not in terms of the way we relate to the State but to the way in which we relate to each other. Thus Hobbes’s mechanistic analysis of human motivation led him to conclude that we are bound to submit to the sovereign power; 300 years later, Mill, with his subtler view of free will, sees a more complex relationship. A modern British writer on development, UEA’s Ken Cole, has argued that all analysis of human behaviour reflects an a priori view of its motives. “In the understanding of human activity there are always coherent, alternative explanations, which fundamentally reflect different beliefs in human nature,” he states (Economy-Environment-Development-Knowledge, 1999). This is logical, and implies that democracy will bring few benefits to a cynical or rapacious people. A quick glance at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index confirms this. Democracies do better, but there are several at the bottom of the heap. So perhaps the right to vote will not in itself produce more in the way of development, or freedom, than benevolent despotism. Democracy has to be something more.
The key arguments so far, then, are as follows:
- There is no clear correlation between democracy and development.
- Creativity drives development, and it is less likely to flourish under despotism.
- Some benevolent despotisms have undergone rapid growth, but often by selling to democracies, rather than generating internal markets.
- Liberal democracy may not in itself provide a framework for real development or for a functioning state.
The first of these points is self-evident. The second is not, and is important, but is impossible to examine in a piece this length; where are we to find the evidence – in numbers of patents granted, or in the Renaissance and the Medicis? (PhD, anyone?)
I’m going to look instead at the second two points. In the next few paragraphs I will look at the way in which economic rights have been secured through free debate and the right to organize; and how this has led to the development of internal markets and sustained growth. This is the second dimension of democracy, beyond the simple right to vote. In the final section, I’ll consider a third dimension: forms of democracy that do mobilise social capital, so that people feel their world belongs to them.
Labour, freedom and growth: A case study
Freedom, said Marx, begins once basic requirements have been attained. So does the consumer economy. You cannot live by making goods no-one can afford, so if most people are poor, then most people remain poor. Change requires an external stimulus; cheap raw materials, perhaps, or a lively foreign market for a basic good of which you do have a surplus. This opportunity must then be used to raise living standards to the point where domestic consumption can replace that external stimulus with endogenous growth. For this to happen, people must produce enough to generate a surplus over those basic requirements.
This is effectively what happened in Britain between 1700 and 1900, breaking the vicious circle between poor nutrition, low output, low income, low consumption and poor nutrition. J.D. Chambers, in his elegant 1972 summary Population, economy and society in pre-industrial England, credits a fortuitous break in cycles of disease, but also says: “One aspect of the Industrial Revolution… is that the labour force was not only very much larger but that it was worked very much harder.”
This needed better nutrition. In a 1990 paper, the future Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel pointed to “the exceeding[ly] low level of work capacity permitted by the [18th century] food supply… The increase in the amount of calories available for work over the past 200 years… increased the labour-force participation rate by bringing [in] the bottom 20% of the consuming units… [who had had] only enough energy… for a few hours of strolling each day – about the amount needed for a career in begging.” He concluded that improvements in nutrition and health had accounted for perhaps 30% of the growth in per capita income in Europe between 1790 and 1980.
So the vicious circle had been broken. But those who controlled food and wages did not permit this out of altruism, or because they had read Fogel. Chambers cites the way in which 18th-century labour combined to obtain better wages. Or as the filmmaker Michael Moore put it in his 1996 polemic, Downsize this!, “When the early unionists stood up to the companies, it resulted in a higher standard of living for all of us… Thanks to labor unions, we have… wages that allow even the most unskilled worker to purchase many products – which, in turn, gives more people jobs.” This process of collective bargaining could not have happened under the Ancien Régime. In effect, one type of human right secured another. In 19th-century Britain, freedom – albeit imperfect, the beginnings of liberal democracy – became more than its own reward. First, the increasing strength of the workforce increased output; and then their right to organize brought the consumer economy.
Free debate was central to this process. Ashton, in The Industrial Revolution (1948), points to the lively discussions on a range of social issues from serfdom in the Scottish coalfields to suppressing the slave trade. Brian Inglis’s absorbing account of the social reforms of the 19th century, Poverty and the Industrial Revolution (1971), describes the work of MP Michael Sadler in this debate. In 1832 he fielded a Bill to regulate abuse of labour in factories, but was unable to push it through, having lost his seat in the watershed election of that year. In the meantime, however, the evidence collected by the Bill’s Committee had been published, proving, as the Leicester Mercury put it, that “cruel over-working [of children] has in many places been practised… It is horrible, and an outrage on humanity, and decency…”Although Sadler was gone, the uproar forced the new government to pass its own 1833 Factory Act, which for the first time created an independent inspectorate. Britain never became a workers’ paradise, but that is not the point; rather, it is that democracy allowed the vicious circle of malnutrition to be broken and real growth to begin.
There are parallels in our own time. From 1994, the International Labour Organization cooperated with Indian unions to end exploitation of child labour in a range of sectors including construction, stainless-steel cookware, tea plantations and the brass industry. A side effect was that in the Lower House of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, questions asked about child labour increased in number from about 10 in 1992 to about 25 in 1994 and 37 in 1995. Another modern example concerns the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). On the face of it, it is useless, as it does not bind the signatory states to the observation of such rights. Rather, they agree to pass laws to make the rights conferred by the Convention justiciable – and they do not always do so. However, plaintiffs have used the ICESCR to establish such legal rights in India, South Africa and Switzerland (the South African case concerned housing; the other two, basic subsistence).
More dimensions of democracy
Liberal democracy, then, has its uses, allowing people to expose abuses and sometimes to move the levers of legislation. It also allows them to fight poverty and, in so doing, broadens consumption, making everyone richer.
But too often, democracy will be dominated by élites. In the 2000 US Presidential elections, candidates spent $343 million on their campaigns, while in India, large corporations provided 80% of major parties’ funding in 1996. In the 1992 Philippines Congress, 178 out of 195 members were allegedly millionaires. Thus people are forced to find their own dimension of democracy.
Sometimes they do. One morning in March 1999, an inscribed slab appeared at the entrance to Kamyapeta, an area of 25 villages in Visakhapatnam, in India’s Eastern Ghats. The slab proclaimed Kamyapeta to be a self-ruled republic. This reflected 50 years’ frustration at the refusal of the Andhra Pradesh regional government to connect the area to the outside world with a bridge, so that residents could move their produce to market. In fact when villagers had approached government officials, they had been driven off by the police. After this act of independence, however, the government started building the bridge. In 2002 the prominent Indian NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment, claimed that as many as 1,500 villages in the poorest areas of India might have declared themselves republics and taken control of natural resources. Also in 2002, UNDP reported that the participatory budget-setting programme in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre had seen the share of households with water services rise from 80% to 98% and those with sanitation from 46% to 85%.
But such processes are not a ‘magic bullet’. They can complement more conventional forms of democracy, but they can’t replace them. As de Tocqueville put it in 1856: “It is unreasonable to suppose that local liberties can be created at will, or maintained for any length of time, when general liberty is extinct.” In other words, we will always need functioning democratic structures at the national level.
Moreover, de Tocqueville’s statement is more relevant than ever because both liberal and local democracy are increasingly subordinate to a further dimension – the transnational economy. Between 1980 and 1996 the growth of world trade averaged 6.7% per annum. Since then things have speeded up somewhat. According to the World Trade Organization, total exports of commercial services were worth $1,609,100m in 2002, and $3,846,700m in 2008; after a hiccough following the 2008 crisis, they rose to $4,168,800m in 2011. Merchandise exports rose from $6,492,000m to $18,255,000m over the same period. The WTO states that these two categories grew by 11% and 20% in 2011 alone. This has been accompanied by huge flows of foreign direct investment (FDI). The UN trade organization UNCTAD estimates that FDI flows globally rose from about $13.4m in 1970 to over $54m in 1980 and $207.4m in 1990, to over $1,400,000m in 2000. In recent years there has been some fluctuation (UNCTAD puts FDI flows at a bit over $1,520,000m in 2011). However, the future may see, not contraction in FDI flows, so much as changes in their direction. Could this provoke an extinction of general liberty that would render local process irrelevant?
Globalisation has focused many people’s minds on the governance and increasing power of global institutions. However, a more pressing consequence may be that transnational corporations, as employers, can invest and operate in countries where employees have no rights. The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, argued that such companies could not easily operate in such environments as their own staff will be harassed; in any case, they would be subject to public opinion in their own markets. This may be only partially true – multinationals are adept at subcontracting, and regulatory mechanisms can be very weak; in any case, 33 ILO member states have still not ratified the 1948 convention on the right to organise.
This may mean that horizontal relationships across national boundaries may become more important that vertical structures within the nation. As the sociologist William Robinson and others have pointed out, individuals’ participation in production may now define their social development, with little reference to their nationality. Indeed some global corporations have their roots in the developing world now, and this has been taken as evidence of a transnational bourgeoisie. The inevitable implication is that people’s experience and interaction should be studied in terms of global class structures. Thus empathy will flow from a middle manager in Surrey to his colleague in Valparaiso while a garment worker in Cambodia will make common cause with another in India, and national mechanisms for decision-making will wither away.
Or will they? Global class-based politics is not a new idea, but as some theorists have realized, managements form transnational links but workforces do not – they are competing for jobs. However, circumstances may force this to change. Trade apart, the global ‘tragedy of the commons’ in resource use means that global governance will have to develop to some extent. This alone means that different forms of identity are bound to emerge, whether they are class-based or not, and through those identities people will develop into actors in the global political arena. Perhaps ironically, it was the anti-globalisation movement that was been one of the first manifestations of this, but social media has brought us more, and looks likely to change the way we think about politics and democracy in ways that we are just beginning to suspect.
Social media enabling a horizontal, global, class-based politics? That is one hell of a new dimension for democracy. Could Lenin’s dreams come true at last, thanks to Facebook? And would they be Lenin’s dreams, or those of an international consumer middle class? But perhaps that’s for another day...
I believe in democracy. But it won’t survive if we persist in understanding it simply as a vertical relationship between ourselves and our government, elected or no. It needs, first, to stand on a moral foundation; and second, to function through horizontal as well as vertical mechanisms.
Which brings me to social capital – the extent of people’s interaction in society, and its impact on governance. But that, too, may have to wait for another day.
Meanwhile, happy new year. And if you’re looking for a Fiat wiper motor on Salisbury Plain, good luck.