Monday, November 16, 2015

Textbook Democracy?

Snapshots from Samuel Zalanga's take on Democracy:

All the people talking about democracy based on textbook or academic definition should square that with how democracy functions in the U.S. concretely and then see how it will work effectively in countries that have in many respects less resources. It is not wrong to start with the academically defined ideals of democracy but we should proceed to the trenches and see how things work. Even in ancient Greece, their democracy was full of contradictions. They denied many citizenship, and the democracy survived by colonizing other human beings. Socrates was sentenced to death through a "democratic process" that was not inspired by the pursuit of justice but envy and hate. This means democracy is not necessarily incompatible with the promotion of hate and envy, which have other consequences on society.

I will surely want a functioning democracy, but what I mentioned about people being more concerned about conditions that guarantee them their welfare is well-documented. There is a Nigerian Professor who wrote a preface to one edition of this book written by Professors A. B. Assensoh and Yvette Alex-Assensoh: African Military History and Politics: Ideological Coups and Incursions, 1900 - Present. I forgot his name, but he made a very important point when he said the greatest dictator in Africa is "POVERTY." 

Many people in this forum did not or have never had an encounter with POVERTY. I am not blaming or accusing them. But such an encounter, if it is a serious one, can change one's perspective. I am sorry to say that poverty is the worse type of dictator of a human being's life. It takeover your mind, body and soul. It can kill. It can dehumanize you. I experienced it when growing up. 

I will argue that because of poverty, the average intelligence of many Africans is lower than what it should be. I say so because all the conditions discussed in the literature that help in nurturing a person's intelligence and enabling it to flourish are negated by poverty. Poverty is a serious problem in Africa. In many respects, it is chronic poverty. 

 It is good to have democracy but I still maintain that if democracy will not produce true dividends that address the basic needs of human beings, such people will prefer authoritarian regimes than that. Of course there are different types of democracies. The classification are there in the literature. The substance of majoritarian and proportional democracy are for instance different even in developed countries.

Note that even under colonial rule which we describe as oppressive, there were many areas of Africa where people's day to day lives were not directly impacted by colonial rule because of indirect rule. By and large most of them continued with their normal lives. Of course in the case of Nigeria, Lagos was a colony. In the same way, there are many authoritarian regimes that often in terms of the day to day functions, people pursue their normal lives and they do not notice any serious or notable difference. Of course the elites who are trying to compete for power will not experience that probably.

 For those that are from Nigeria, I will encourage them when they visit the country to visit some rural people or ordinary communities and ask them about how democracy is helping them. I did that and democracy for many ordinary Nigerian is organized robbery and deception. There is no emphasis on the provision of public goods; getting something depends on personal access or patronage which if you are not part of the machine, you will suffer. 

I was in Kenya two years ago and spoke at the chapel of a boarding school at Kibera. I was touched by the determination and maturity of the young men. But one of them told me that things have not been working, whether it is democracy or the simplistic idea that prayers are working, when people continue to do the wrong thing everyday. If anyone here wants democracy to be sincerely embraced, they should rather invest their energy in examining what can distort democracy and undermine it from helping people to address their basic needs. This is the great challenge. 

In my assessment, we will be underestimating and disrespecting the rationality of ordinary Africans, if we just assume that they should embrace democracy for its own sake when it is not working towards truly addressing their basic needs and human dignity. Indeed, we should be surprise if they did that, when it is not working for them. What is wrong with that. Is democracy God or their grandfather? It is about the substance of the political process, and not some general sweet claims. 

This challenge today in Africa is not an academic one of just making a case for democracy without substance or dividends. The challenge is a practical and moral question. It is not just about having a good constitution. It is about the mechanisms of getting the results of good governance that creates an enabling environment for citizens to pursue their aspirations. 

If Kagame as an authoritarian leader can provide that, Rwanda will do better than African countries that have democracy but doing nothing to promote the living conditions of their people. This is not making a case for authoritarianism, but it is about observing how things operate on the ground. It will be unfortunate for anybody or any country to think of making their president more or less permanent like in Zimbabwe. 

But note that the 11th hour on Sunday is still the most segregated hour in America, after more than 200 years of democracy and Enlightenment and more than 2000 years of Christian teaching of love. But it sounds very uncaring to just tell people to go for democracy when it is not addressing their needs. Just look at the statistics of poverty or income inequality in the U.S. for decades and then ask yourself, where did democracy go?

I remember Winston Churchill saying democracy is the worse form of government but for the others. I am not against democracy, but freedom of expression is not enough because it is misleading. Check the documentary film "The Persuaders" and see how corporate media manufactures truth. How can one have true freedom of expression in a media system that is dominated by corporations with their own corporate agenda and often they want to manipulate people's thinking. You may have the formal freedom to express yourself but there is no guarantee that your voice will be heard. 

The authors of the book "Poor People's Movement" based on U.S. history show that the democratic system under normal circumstances ignores the poor. It is only when the poor or socially marginalized manage to do something so crazy that they draw public attention and then some of the elites pay attention and start thinking of making concession. Otherwise the system just ignores them.

I will subsequently send information that I will encourage all those who want to pursue this issue seriously to read. I want them to answer one question: why with all the democracy in the U.S., yet, over the years there has not been only widening social inequality but the bottom fifth or so of the population have lost grounds in terms of what they earn as part of national income for decades. Is that what democracy should be or are we also experiencing "repressive de-sublimation?" Meanwhile the few at the top have become even richer. If democracy has CONSCIENCE per se, and after more than 200 years, why can't its conscience force it to amend these ugly realities that clearly indicate that American "democracy" is not working for all.

We can start with academic definitions of democracy or our personal wishes, but for me as a social scientist and sociologist in particular, empirical data and reality is very important. Whatever I believe as a starting point I will check the empirical world to see whether it holds.

I am also amaze at how some people embrace the talk about democracy in a very simplistic way and ridicule authoritarian regimes. Let me even push an argument further. The U.S. government especially in the South was up to 1964 an authoritarian regime, with rigid social structure based on what looks like a caste system. In theory it is a democracy, in practice, certain people were denied civil rights because of rigidity in the social structure. Women were denied access to certain spheres of the society. Blacks suffered segregation. Laws denied Blacks their rights. The U.S. presumably started making effort to become a true democracy since 1964 and unfortunately, when you watch the documentaries above, there is a silent takeover of citizens rights by corporations and ruling class interest. If it were not because of the push back of some civil society groups, the situation would have been worst. 

I will encourage anyone interested to explore Herbert Marcuse's concept of "REPRESSIVE DE-SUBLIMATION" which he developed to characterize a situation where people on the surface are free, but in reality, through the process of the way the system operates, they are repressed. The average American citizen has no time to figure out what is truly happening in the country. Even some professors do not. They are too busy. 

The ordinary American is bombarded with information and to even know the truth he or she will spend an inordinate amount of time to do that, and the system keeps him or her extremely busy working many hours for sake of increasing productivity, paying the bills etc, such that he or she is so tired. When he or she is tired, the little free time he or she has is spent resting or looking for entertainment provided by the same corporate system that kept him or her busy. 

The corporate media analyzes his or her mind with some lifestyle consumption that encourages him or her to work harder until they die pursuing something called "The American Dream" which for many has become a nightmare. C. Wright Mills long ago talked about how the media conditions the citizen on what to expect, what not to etc. etc. There is nothing I have said here in critique of American democracy that Robert K. Merton did not say in his theory called "Social Structure and Anomie." I read it as an undergraduate and thought he was calling for a socialist revolution, but the author of the piece said, it was just a liberal critique of American social structure.
The problem sociologically is, what factors can enhance or make accountability realizable and what can prevent it? Are there things we can do to increase accountability? One can list many in the context of Nigeria or Rwanda. In a sense, what this means is that it is not enough for us to throw the concept of democracy out there as a solution without paying attention to the process and specifics. People who are powerful and feel entitled to privilege will always try to circumvent accountability using many reasons: religion, gerontology, patriarchy, security as in Rwanda, etc,. etc. In the literature, one major thing that can make authoritarianism work well is if the autocrat is committed to a sense of vision for his or her people. 

We do not want autocrats, whether it is Kagame or whoever, but the reality is that many African countries have a long way to go if we look at the situation on the ground. Authoritarian leaders that have a sense of honor restrain themselves from doing certain things, while politicians that do not have a sense of honor can create conditions that destroy many lives. It is not that one loves authoritarianism but given what happened in Northeastern Nigeria, for anyone that cares to listen to the real stories, what does democracy mean to the people? The people will prefer democracy of course, but, it has to work, it has to prove itself. That is why Thomas Hobbes said in The Leviathan that, without peace and stability, there will be no foundation for civilization. One does not have to be powerful before he or she can create havoc. They only need to be cunning as we saw with the insurgency in Iraq after U.S.declared winning the invasion.

Given the realities we face and the fact that some assume Nigeria is a democracy but actually it is in the ambiguous category, the time has passed when we can just be talking about democracy or check and balances in theory without paying attention to what specifically makes that possible. The average Nigerian politician feels once in charge, he or she can use his power and often, ignoring the constitution except in cases that are obviously unacceptable. Ideally, the citizens should rise up against that but in many cases as Charles Tilly argues, the process of modern state formation in Africa is different from that of Europe.
Part of my concern also is that we are discussing this as if there is only one type of democracy or authoritarianism. For instance in Africa, here is how one book I have classifies the types of democracies that we have: 

a) Liberal Democracy

b) Electoral Democracy

c) Ambiguous

d) Liberalized Autocracy

e) Unreformed Autocracy.

Some scholars add "competitive authoritarianism." There is a book with that title.

There are examples for each of the five types. But I do not have the time to provide further information. Each one of them has a problem. Kenya for instance is just an electoral democracy. I have attached a page that can help anyone interested to pursue the issue further. To understand why things are this way, we have to pay attention to the social context or structure of each society to know why things happen the way they do. Just focusing on the ruler as such, makes me feel like this is a kind of personality-oriented type of analysis since the focus is on the idiosyncrasy of a person called Kagame, and not the complex process that produced the person and the political situation.
I thought I will share the attached human development indicators for Nigeria and Rwanda. Given what Rwanda has gone through, and given how Nigeria has much more resources, and is blessed with a democracy that is presumably working because there is no a "Kagame," Nigeria should be doing exceedingly better.

Each report is six pages. I encourage the reader to print it out or open two screens so as to patiently compare the indicators. The impression one gets is that in many respects, Nigeria even with democracy is sometimes a big for nothing since her human development indicators are not necessarily highly better than that of many other countries. 

And in my assessment the result here is even looking better because Nigeria's human development indicators are better as a country, than when you dis-aggregate it by regions. If the North is only compared with Rwanda or other countries, the situation will look terribly bad. 

You wonder where all the democracy in Nigeria went with regard to human development. The Nigerian mass media is vibrant, there is fierce competition for power, no life president etc. But that these have translated into human development for all is not true. And given this, it will sound simplistic to just continue to be shouting democracy without going deeper into how to make the system really translate into concrete benefits for especially the poorest of the poor. Any government, whether authoritarian or democratic that fails to meets or attend to its citizens' basic needs and promote their human dignity will run into problems.
Although it is also true that often people who desire to lead a country have a larger than normal ego. Is that not true? Kagame needs to be held accountable. I am with you on that. But on the broader question of democracy equals development, and authoritarianism equals underdevelopment, the literature on these are far more complicated. I wish there were simple answers. I wish Nigeria was way ahead of Rwanda in terms of human development because Nigeria has been more democratic than Rwanda. I want some empirical data to be part of the discussion. The human development figures of some parts of Nigeria if dis-aggregated make democracy for many meaningless. The real question and challenge is how to make democracy really have dividend for all the people and not to argue the cease abstractly.


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