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Thursday, October 13, 2005



Seamus Milne has a good comment piece in the Guardian today. In it he quotes Charles Clarke as saying that he could not think of any situation in the world where "violence would be justified to bring about change".

Of course, he means, except for state violence. More specifically, he means Western state violence or the violence committed by their proxies. Outsourced, legitimated violence.

That was the first piece of unreflexive idiocy from the Government for today. The second came on Newsnight last night.

Jack Straw said that a desire for democracy burns in the heart of every human being. This is utter twaddle, and more than that, dangerously wrong. Look, Jack and I might agree that democracy is the best form of government, but the nature of our opinions on this matter differ in an important respect. No, not simply that I have a functional mind.

You see, I have noticed that my belief in democracy is a product of my historical and social position. Had I been born in the 17th century I doubt that I would have a desire for democracy. Democracy is a human invention, and its development and acceptance as the pre-eminent form of government is a product of history. It is not some essential part of ‘human nature’. We are not born with a desire for democracy. Very many people around the world do desire democracy because they live in the 21st century and are the recipients of several centuries of Western thought. But this is not destined to remain the same forever, it is not some kind of ‘end of history’. Since its invention, people have, to greater or lesser degrees, rejected democracy; from the 1930s in Germany, through the support for strongmen in Asia and Latin America, to the reaction against the most democratic British decade, the 1970s.

He say that he is not an ahistoricist. He might argue that he acknowledges that the belief in democracy as the best form of government, a belief that we both share, is the result of historical, social and political ‘development’, and our contingent position within this. He might, though, argue that democracy is not simply the best form we have now, but the absolute best, the best that we will ever achieve, the pinnacle of human political development. I would say that to argue this is as similarly ahistorical, being nothing more than the fool’s defence of the ‘now’ that has been made since there first was a ‘then’ to look back upon.

Norman Mailer has written, “democracy… is the noblest form of government that we have yet evolved” and warns that is demands constant protection and promotion. I agree with him, and I think democracy should be worked for, argued for and promoted, as I do socialism. But I do not think that it is some essential part of human nature. Seeing it so is not just the mark of a man too dim to be in government, but is a recipe for the imposition of democratic ‘forms’ of government (not democracy, which by its very nature results from active participation) at the barrel of a gun. If you believe that democracy burns in the heart of every human being, it is an impossibility that some people might choose to reject democracy. Those who do so will cause confusion that can only be met with force. You cannot persuade them of the merits of democracy, you cannot build the institutions of civil society that support democracy. You cannot do either of these as to do these makes no sense; democracy burns in the heart of every human being – it needs nothing but the removal of tyrants. Nonsense, and from government, deadly nonsense.

[This was post #100 at BBB]

Excellent post Andrew! Was it Churchill, who, to badly paraphrase, said "Democracy is awful, but it's the best thing we've got". This simple-minded attitude of "democracy is the be all and end all of government" is also dangerous because it overlooks exactly what "democracy" is. To me, democracy is not just certain procedures set down in government, or the right to vote or something. It's the idea of citizens playing an active role in that government: ideas like free-speech, active participation, thought-full arguments of policy etc. are central to, and even perhaps are the definition of, democracy. To forget this is to lead down the path of suggesting that just because people can vote, they have "democracy" (e.g. Afgahistan or Iraq) or that government can ignore the views of anyone but themselves (increasingly, it seems, this country). As you so rightly say, democracy is not perfect, and we constantly should be looking to improve it.

One of your best.

the most democratic British decade, the 1970s

The decade where two democratic governments were toppled by trade union barons? What on earth do you mean by this?
Peter: whether you think it good or not, and regardless of the effect of this democracy, the 1970s were the decade in which active participation in politics by the people of Britain was at its highest.
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