Liberal Democracy and Its SlippagesClose
Liberal Democracy and Its Slippages
Let me at the outset express a sense of very great honor at the invitation extended to me to conclude this magnificently conceived series of lectures on the problematic and the problems of liberal democracy. Some of the scholars who have participated in this series, and others who have been unable to do so for a variety of reasons, have at one time or another been a kind of role model for many of us; to find myself now placed in their ranks is a privilege that far exceeds any that I have yet been accorded.
It also gives me a reason and an opportunity to engage in a measure of selfquestioning by enabling me to look at my own location in a "third world" society. I must ask myself whether such location is the only vantage point available to me today for looking at problems that are increasingly transgressing boundaries laid down by history. The easiest course open to me would be to blame imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism, etc., for hindering the universalization of democracy and its implementation in large parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America with some persuasive reasoning. I hope to avoid that course because I always find it less than satisfying, at least for myself, for it looks at the world from a static rather than a dynamic stance. A half century ago, when a large part of the world was still reeling under colonial dominance, I would have happily held it responsible for all the ills of my society. Today, when the possibility of unprecedented growth by developing societies through their own initiatives and efforts compressed in a couple of decades has been demonstrated to be patent, blaming someone else for our own failure seems to me to amount to an alibi. I would, instead, endeavor to confine myself to the parameters of the problematic constituted for this series of lectures: to look at various joints in the conception of liberal democracy that makes its whole project unrealizable, therefore unrealized in full measure.
The Search for Equality: Diverse Histories
Let me begin with the simple enough proposition that the quest for democracy is premised upon the quest for liberty and equality. Both liberty and equality are centered on the individual; it is the liberty of the individual from constraints imposed by the state, society, and the community and it is the individual's equality with other individuals irrespective of the status derived from birth, class, or any other social benchmark that is liberal democracy's goal. When the French Revolution created perhaps the most evocative and the most enduring of all slogans comprising three most powerful words — liberté, égalité, fraternité — the energy embedded in these words was perceived to have had universal resonance. The ideal of liberty and equality being inscribed went far beyond the boundaries of France and French society. It encompassed what it perceived were universal human aspirations. It has remained democracy's abiding goal.
In some profound ways, the French Revolution saw itself self-consciously and aggressively making a break with history by setting itself apart from it and in assuming the representation of universal human egalitarian and therefore democratic aspirations. The 14th of July 1789 was not yet another day in history when yet another king and queen were overthrown and were soon done away with; this was seen to constitute the beginning of a major turning point not merely in the future of France or Europe, but of the whole of humanity. In one of the emphatic breaks with history, the Revolution was to declare that "feudalism stood abolished from this day ..."1 Such a brash "abolition" of history also created several sources of tension, which has not yet found a resolution.
Indeed, if the French Revolution created this tension self-consciously and assertively, the same could be said, though in a milder form, about the entire gamut of political and social thought in Europe, centered on the question of equality and the individual, manifest and mediated through democracy and through the rapidity of historical change. The celebration of "progress" in history in Europe, encapsulated in the notion of linear time, counterposed to its antithesis, changelessness symbolized in cyclical Oriental time, was central to most 19th-century thinking in Europe. From the Magna Carta onward to the English Civil War, on the one hand, and the evolution of the theory of social contract on the other, the roots of liberal democracy have remained firmly located in European soil even as the tree has branched out far and wide. The universal validity of liberal democracy, rooted in the European soil, seems to me to be based upon the negation of urges for equality in a much wider segment of human history and in varied forms that have been around for much longer than the past couple of centuries in Europe.
In some important ways, human history has been a site for the repeated assertion of egalitarian urges which have at times manifested themselves in religious, and at others in secular ideologies. Historians have seen the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century B.C. in the foothills of the Himalayas as a movement of protest against the Brahmanical Hindu orthodoxy which was predicated upon social inequalities derived from one's birth. Renunciation of wealth, status, and power by the initiates, the ordained monks, was the high-water mark of the assertion of complete equality in the common assembly, the sangha. Renunciation, as opposed to deprivation and short of an armed uprising, has been in every religion the most powerful form of protest against the high and the mighty, against unequal access to resources whether economic, cultural, or spiritual. And I would like all of us to appreciate the force of renunciation as a mode of asserting equality not only by those who are deprived of wealth and power but by those who actually possess it in ample measure. The search for equality is thus a humane quest which has as much appeal for those at the higher rungs of the social order as for those perpetually rendered unequal by that same order; it is, then, not always a quest by those born into misery. The fact that Buddhism made the sangha the exclusive preserve of men and thus did not envisage gender equality need not persuade us to underrate the strength of the egalitarian urge that has made it such an indelible presence in our common human history. In modern India, it still remains an inviting form of search for social equality for those who are at the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy.
In Islam too, in one face of it, the mystic, Sufi face, protest against distortion of the egalitarian ethos of Islam by the Muslim State, normatively if not always empirically, found expression in the renunciation of wealth and power and the creation of a distance between the sources of wealth and power and the Sufi order which was the site of protest. In the history of Islam, the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the first four of his caliphs, Abu Bala, Usman, Umar, and Ali, is universally constructed as the golden age, when piety and truth prevailed and an egalitarian ethos permeated the community, even though the reality was that three of the four caliphs had been assassinated in internecine feuds within the community. As Islam spread out of Arabia and brought under subjugation vast territories with varied histories, piety, truth, and equality became the first casualties. The conquest of Iran, with its age-old structures of imperial grandeur and governance, came as the turning point when equality became completely inconsistent with the governance of huge empires. The State was thus perceived as the chief agency of the distortion of Islam, when conquest and subjugation of the conquered people became the driving force. In protest against this distortion, the Sufis adopted the mode of renunciation of all worldly possessions and cherished penury in lieu of wealth, humility in lieu of power, and love in lieu of subjugation. Developed to its apogee in medieval Iran and India, Sufism became a universal phenomenon in the Muslim world and is still a living force in many regions, even as its protest against the State has greatly subsided. In the history of Sufism, the Sultan / darvish (Ruler/renouncer) dichotomy has been normatively a durable one, though it has not been short of shared spaces between them. Even as the Sufi's renunciation is an individual act, its association with protest against the institutions of distortion of egalitarian ethos, especially the State, has always evoked larger societal reverberations.
Several religious expressions, especially those centered on a monotheistic imaging of God, such as Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism, have been instrumental in major social upheavals, primarily moved by their egalitarian appeal to those denied equality in the social set up in which they were located. The concept of social equality is innate to the notion of monotheism, in which a single God being the creator of all humanity also cares for everyone in equal measure and is equally accessible to all. Indeed, in some extremely powerful ways, monotheistic religious identity establishes equality among believers by becoming the single cementing bond and displacing other internal cleavages, such as those of wealth, status, caste, etc. This is one of the chief motivating forces of what tends ultimately to merge in what we call religious fundamentalism. Osama bin Laden is an extreme example of this merger; there are many other more moderate examples. In present-day India, the unfolding of the ideology of Hindu nationalism by the ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blends two contradictory motivations: the lower castes in the Hindu community experience an upward mobility when appeal is made to their Hindu rather than their caste identity; and this is cemented through the identification of all Hindus with the very modern phenomenon of nationalism. Those at the receiving end of social cleavages experience an upward mobility through these bonds, and those at the higher rungs experience a sense of "nobler meaning" in dedicating, or even sacrificing, their lives for the shared religious community than merely seeking a materially well-appointed life for themselves. The number of highly educated, qualified, and successful professionals who get involved in what are perceived as acts of terror, at times inspired by religious fervor, as on September 11, at others by the desire to change the world into a better one through violent revolution, has often surprised liberal commentators everywhere. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were cult figures for youth around the world in the 1960s; for the liberal establishment of the US, they were anarchic terrorists, even if the term was then not in use. For, they defy all basic assumptions of liberal democracy which are centered on the supremacy of the individual to the exclusion of other commitments. To the "terrorist," the other commitments are his own medium of establishing "democracy" of the faith in opposition to the privileging of the individual, including himself. Is liberal democracy equipped to resolve this tension in any other manner except through a head-on collision with it, as it is doing in Afghanistan today, playing out its assumption of the inevitability of its ultimate triumph the world over?
Indeed, this assumption itself poses a fascinating paradox. For, even as liberal democracy is posited upon secular values of nondiscrimination among citizens on the basis of their religious identity, its assumption of inevitable ultimate triumph seems to derive heavily from theological lineages, especially the theology of proselytizing religions, such as Christianity and Islam. A proselytizing religion, or for that matter any proselytizing ideology such as Marxism, must predicate itself upon the assumption of its possession of the finality of truth and its ultimate triumph. Both Christianity and Islam operate on this assumption. So, indeed, does liberal democracy.
The positing of universal validity of all the values of liberal democracy and its ultimate triumph is also derived from a second lineage, that of natural science mediated through 19th-century positivism. In assuming that social dynamics are as capable of reduction to a given mode of reasoning and to universal validation as the study of natural phenomena in the disciplines of natural sciences, positivism sought to erase the fundamental distinction between the study of the natural and the social: in one, the facts are given, objective and verifiable (and falsifiable) from the outside; in the other, facts are constantly culturally constructed, thus subject to mutation through human intervention and open to variable and ever changing validation. If universal validity is fundamental to one, variation and contentious diversity is the very lifeline of the other. Diversity, with a much longer history and a much wider spread of reach behind it, is threatened by the rather brief and rather provincial history of universal validity of liberal democracy.
The most recent experiment with the realization of social equality was that of Marxian socialism. Its failure and its disastrous results should constitute no deterrent to recognizing its value as an important part of the intellectual legacy of humankind.
In all these experiments, the individual identity has been subsumed, indeed subordinated, to the identity of the community. This too has been one of the means of achieving equality, by not allowing anyone to rise above the entire community's identity — religious community in other cases, the Party in the case of Marxian socialism. Liberal democracy, on the other hand, privileges the individual and ensures ever growing withdrawal of mechanisms of control over the individual, whether the family, the state, the church, or the nation.
Clearly then, "equality" and therefore "democracy" has been open to several forms of appropriation in human history. Privileging the Western liberal notion of democracy underscores its triumphal premise, which in turn creates enormous tensions vis-à-vis other forms and makes it extremely vulnerable. Its innate ambition of hegemony places it in an interminable conflict with a plurality of patterns of historical development across the globe, each with a legitimate claim to "democracy," and presumes its overarching presence in the ever changing global scenario. Huntington's vision of a "clash of civilizations" is one expression of that tension; the ground reality of events since September 11 is another.
A second source of tension lies in the universalist premise of liberal democracy and its innate hegemonic ambition within a given nation and between nations. The chief instrument of the realization of democracy has been periodic elections. The universal adult franchise, itself with a very brief history of no more than six or seven decades in the most advanced democracies of the West, is the medium which normatively ensures equality to all citizens. However, incapable as the instrument is of establishing a decisive democratic superiority of a majority vote of say 51 percent over a rival vote of 49 percent, the history of electoral democracies almost the world over has in any case been witness to rule by governments elected by a minority vote. What then would be the measure of democratic legitimacy of such regimes, which seem to form the rule rather than the exception?
Much more important, however, is the qualification introduced in the project of these lectures: far from being value-neutral in terms of a range of options in the realization of democracy, liberal democracy has integral links with the market and capitalism. The supremacy of the market and of capitalism's hegemony is liberal democracy's alter ego, as it were, and the assumption of its ultimate triumph is at work here too. The further assumption that the market is a great equalizer would find favor only with a group of economists and sociologists; history, especially of the past couple of centuries, points to the contrary lesson which has demonstrated the market as the instrument of differentiation and hegemonization within societies and between them. It impedes, rather than promotes, equality and democracy; it creates encompassing inequalities. It was the driving force of imperialism and colonialism for nearly two centuries before the Second World War. It has also been the field where the state has intervened decisively and used force to remove obstacles to market expansion within a nation and globally.
In this overarching ambience of tension between diverse landscapes of democracy and the search for a hegemonic and universal concept, can one merely describe the state of things and leave it at that? Valuable as the plea for plurality may be considered, what if eruption of tensions between competing visions takes drastic forms as it did on September 11?
The events of September 11 and after are the most recent and the most explosive in their impact; these have been preceded by innumerable other events in the same genre but not of the same dimensions. What appears common among all these is a perceived tension between Western cultural hegemony and indigenous traditions, whether religious or other. Iran's Islamic Revolution under the leadership of Imam Khomeini was the previous major episode in this unfolding scenario, though the manifestation of tension there was entirely localized. Is a clash between these visions of society inevitable? Perhaps yes, to the extent that each is marked by the idea of triumph, which necessarily implies intolerance of the other. But, there is too in each of the varied traditions, whether religious or more broadly cultural, a very strong presence of tolerance of difference; and there is the force of the history of coexistence. The vision of increasing and almost forced uniformity globally as much as locally, which is the foundation of liberal democracy, poses an enormous threat to tolerance of difference and lends strength to resistance in many forms. The Afghan case is particularly illuminating. Through its long history of conversion to Islam, it has never ever been known for intolerance of other religions; indeed, in all popular images in stories — such as Rabindranath Tagore's short but celebrated story "Kabuliwala”2 — and in films, the Afghan male, usually the only Afghan character, always comes across as simple, fiercely loyal to whomever he owes loyalty, and very humane, his Islamic profile almost always remaining in the shadows, virtually unnoticeable. The Taliban image has no more than two decades of history behind it and came about in response first to Soviet communism's threat and more recently Western, more specifically US attempts to isolate Afghanistan from the rest of the world, first having abetted and armed the Taliban resistance, including its strong, aggressive Islamic profile.
Short of the threat of hegemonic uniformity, it is possible to envision a greater degree of tolerance of plurality everywhere. Both Christianity and Islam, the two most populous religious communities on earth, were fired by the proselytizing zeal for a few centuries after their birth; for long the zeal has reached its plateau in both and there is little evidence of attempts by either at bringing the world to its heels either before the altar or in the courtyard of the mosque. Tolerance of difference has become part of the existence of all communities and groups. The triumphal zeal of Marxian socialism, the chief proselytizing ideology of the modern age, too dissipated very quickly after the initial couple of decades. Those of us who grew up in the mid-1950s would remember Khrushchev's fervent call for "peaceful coexistence" between different regimes, even as Mao Zedong was screaming that "socialism was inevitable" for all of humankind. These two visions became the sore point of tension within the socialist world.
We might also ponder another paradox: the flag bearers of liberal democracy in the world we inhabit today, the US and the UK, have also installed and sustained the most outrageously dictatorial regimes over a major part of the globe. Iran was well on its way to becoming a mirror-image liberal democracy in the 1950s under Mossadegh, who, in his perception of his own nation's interests, nationalized the production of oil, when the US-UK combine overthrew him and installed a caricature of Westernization in the form of the Shah. This laid the basis of the Islamic Revolution under a little known cleric then in exile in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini. The Taliban would probably have had a marginal, virtually anonymous existence but for the support extended by the US in its battle against the Soviet regime. The recent history of many governments in Asia, Africa, and Latin America testifies to the same story of frontline liberal democracies turning bastions of support and sustenance to the most authoritarian regimes, where one would have expected an air of celebration at the advancement of democracy in any part of the world.
The point here is not to take delight in the irony of the situation, but to ask a basic question: What part of the universalizing ambition of liberal democracy operating in one part of the world yet has space for dislodging liberal democratic regimes in other parts and installing utterly authoritarian ones in their place? The supremacy of "national interests" of states in a position of dominance, like the US, would be a quick and a good explanation, for sure. But clearly, when "national interests" come into conflict with the universal and indivisible legitimacy of liberal democracy, what conceptual flaw allows the "national interests" to drive a hole into it? And, what are its sources of strength that might allow it to place restraints on regional interests on behalf of universal values?
Let me conclude my first plea here: the positivist assumption of the objectivity and the finality of one universal vision, with triumphal underpinnings implicit in it, which lies at the base of liberal democracy, needs to be scrutinized very critically and space for the plurality of visions and their mutual tolerance needs to be enlarged exponentially where historical and cultural experiences of all segments of humanity become part of the process of a shared but diversified human future. We also need to evolve a large range of institutional forms for realizing democratic aspirations, with electoral democracy being just one of them.
The Search for Alternatives to Personal Acquisition
Let me now turn to my second plea. One of the premises of equality and democracy is economic equality, not in the sense of ensuring the same level of income or economic resources to all citizens, but more in the sense of minimizing economic disparities between regions, groups, families, and, in the end, individuals. The great French historian Marc Bloch once movingly remarked: Can a small man ever be free? It is equally important to note that the only brief time in human history when humanity experienced equality of resources — and even gender equality — was in the early period of the hunting-gathering stage, which in a sort of idyllic image came to be referred to as "primitive communism" in Marxian literature. In the first edition of the Communist Manifesto in 1848, its authors Marx and Engels had declared that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle." Engels later amended this in 1888 after Marx's death five years earlier, and the statement now read "all written history is the history of class struggle."3 This was a clear and succinct admission that prior to written history, that is, prior to the division of society into distinct and antagonistic classes, humanity had experienced the state of "communism" when equality at all planes, including gender equality, had prevailed, even though it was primitive inasmuch as nature rather than humankind or society had ordained it. This was the part of the hunting-gathering stage when the concept even of private possession, far lower in scale than private property, had not yet evolved. The egalitarian experience of this stage encompasses the whole of humanity, and its universality therefore is unique, never replicated again. I believe it is perhaps the dormant universal memory of this experience that erupts again and again in different segments of humanity in a variety of modes as manifestations of egalitarian urges. It was the same idiom of communism, now socially created through the development of technology and therefore at the point of culmination of "progress," that Marx and Engels envisaged as the end of history.
However, Marx and Engels committed a major error in reducing the great complexity of human behavior to a single base, i.e., the economic infrastructure. The assumption remained fundamental to Marxism that once the economic infrastructure changed, mediated through class struggle, every aspect of human behavior — culture, politics, religion, philosophy, everything — would change to keep in correspondence with the economic transformation. In his celebrated Preface to The Critique of Political Economy, Marx had repeatedly emphasized the correspondence of the "superstructure" to the base. As economic infrastructure evolved from one stage of development to the next in a linear movement, from Primitive Communism to Slavery to Feudalism to Capitalism, etc., the political, social, and philosophical realms must also keep changing in correspondence with the moving infrastructure. "The religious world is a reflex of the real world," Marx had declared in volume 1 of Capital.4 Two worlds were being constructed here: the real world, namely, that of the economy, and its reflex, that of religion and culture. If the real world had an objective existence, the reflex could make no such claims and it must change keeping pace with the "real world," as its reflex. When after Marx's death Joseph Bloch wrote to Engels and inquired with a touch of complaint whether he and Marx hadn't gone overboard in underwriting the economy as the sole moving force of all social progress, Engels' response of September 21, 1890, became a classic rejoinder by Marxists around the world to all further questions in this genre. Yes, Engels conceded, Marx and he had had to go all out to place emphasis on the economy because so gross had been its neglect by Idealist philosophers, their "adversaries." "We make our history ourselves," he asserted, "but in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one."5 The repeated emphasis on the economy as the ultimate determinant of the state of society's being established it as the irreducible premise of Marxism. The search for the ultimate determinant — the last instance — teleology thus greatly simplified what by any stretch would be an extremely complex process.
Indeed, any kind of totalizing explanation that seeks to ground it on a determinist base remains an inadequate explanation of the very multisided and very complex human behavior. I have no problem with a totalizing explanation without a determinist base to it. This is possible if we do not seek a last-instance explanation, if we do not construct a permanent structure of causal hierarchy. The Annales historiography developed in France, of which Marc Bloch along with his friend Lucien Febvre was the founder, seems to me to have overcome this problem of constructing a total history without a permanently structured causal hierarchy, by exploring moving conjunctures of causal explanations. It is possible to conceive of several others.
However, having said that, it is important to recognize that Marxism did question one of the basic assumptions underlying human history — that personal, or individual, acquisition of wealth is the only possible driving force of economic production. He recognized the tension between social production and individual acquisition, and he envisaged an alternative to it in the abolition of private property and the complete socialization of production and distribution of wealth. The recently collapsed socialist regimes, whose establishment had been inspired by Marxian theory, did seek to construct an alternative system of economic production where the driving force was not individual acquisition. The collapse of these regimes has been seen as a reinforcement of the earlier assumption of the exclusive validity of Capitalist ethos as the motive force of economic production and the end of history with this ultimate triumph.
I would like to make a plea for recognizing the value of this alternative even in its utter, indeed disastrous failure. In positing all history as the history of class struggle, Marx was basically seeking the end of history in a sense the very opposite of the meaning that has now been invested in the phrase by Francis Fukuyama, clearly delighting in the ironic turn. If Marx's denial of the self for society as the motor of economic production has proved disastrous, he had also visualized technology increasingly displacing human labor, and gradually human intervention in the process of economic production altogether. All human history has been marked by the production of subsistence as well as surplus through labor. Forms of human labor and its organization have come into conflict with technology, forcing it on to the path of development. This in sum, is the class struggle. The class struggle will end with technology having developed to the extent of rendering human labor unnecessary for producing subsistence and surplus and therefore rendering the question of labor for subsistence irrelevant. Classes and class struggle would reach their terminal point then, for there would be no need or space for private possession, much less of private property. It is then that human beings would be able to realize their innate finer faculties. As Marx had put it somewhat poetically in The German Ideology, it is "in the communist society where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes; society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."6 All the tensions of history, of class struggle, would cease in the state of communism, the end of history as we have known and experienced it so far, and the beginning of real human history.
Present in this dreamlike scenario is a great deal of the Christian vision of the paradise, where human beings will not have to labor for their subsistence, where there will be eternal peace and no tension. Indeed, a great many of the premises of Marxism, or for that matter much of modern rationalist thought, can be traced back to medieval Christian theology. But if we leave that question aside for the moment, Marx's vision of technology increasingly taking over the processes of production from human beings is no longer a wild dream, and we are witness to the progress of technology doing precisely that, if bit by bit, inch by inch. If progress of technology appears somewhat tardy, a good part of it can become explicable in terms of the Marxist argument of social relations of production — here the compulsive nature of individual acquisition — standing in the way, though surely this cannot be the sole explanation.
But my basic point is: Should the disastrous experience of Marxian socialism in our times terminate our search for an alternative — or perhaps alternatives — to personal acquisition as the exclusive guide to economic and social development? I do not have the competence to suggest what the alternative(s) could be and I do not think it possible for me or anyone else to think up one on the spur of the moment. But my plea is that we do not foreclose such possibilities and do not constrict human imagination, which is a resource far greater and far more valuable than all the wealth it has created in history. Marx did imagine one that failed. It is important to cherish our failures as much as our successes, a lesson that Capitalism does not allow us to learn. That, I think, is its chief limitation.
Harbans Mukhia. Liberal Democracy and Its Slippages. In: Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, Octavio Zaya (ed.): Democracy Unrealized. Documenta11_Platform1. Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit. 2002, pp. 394-404.