September 24, 2012


The Origins of Monitory Democracy (John Keane, 9/22/12, The Comnversation)

Although the political commentators of the 1940s didn't quite put things this way, they were calling in effect for the democratisation of electoral democracy. In the name of democracy, for instance, some writers flatly rejected the core axiom of electoral democracy, 'the will of the people'. The French Catholic philosopher and early champion of human rights Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) insisted that 'the people are not God, the people do not have infallible reason and virtues without flaw.' J.B. Priestley's BBC lectures (broadcast as The Postscript, on Sunday evenings through 1940 and again in 1941, and which drew peak audiences of 16 million, a figure which rivalled Churchill's popularity with listeners) repeated the point by asking: 'Who are the people?' His answer, with Hitler on his mind: 'The people are real human beings. If you prick them, they bleed. They have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sweethearts, wives, and children. They swing between fear and hope. They have strange dreams. They hunger for happiness. They all have names and faces. They are not some cross-section of abstract stuff.'

So, if 'the People', abstractly conceived, were no longer the imaginary source of legitimate power then it followed that the problem was to find in these dark and tumultuous times more down-to-earth methods of effectively placing constraints on the dangerous power of manipulative leaders. Nobody recommended a return to Greek-style assembly democracy; that option was seen as a failure of political imagination and practically incapable of meeting the challenges of the dark and dangerous times. Far bolder and forward-looking measures were badly needed.

Some political writers (Carl J. Friedrich, Bhimrao Ambedkar) argued for the primacy of constitutional restraints on arbitrary power. Others called for the re-injection of spiritual concerns into the ethos and institutions of democracy. Reinhold Niebuhr (the teacher of Martin Luther King Jr.) provided among the weightiest cases for renewing and transforming democracy along these lines. 'The perils of uncontrolled power are perennial reminders of the virtues of a democratic society', he wrote. 'But modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed, but also to give it a more persuasive justification.' He concluded with words that became famous: 'Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.'
In perhaps the boldest move, still other thinkers proposed ditching the reigning presumption that the 'natural' home of democracy was the sovereign territorial state, or what René Cassin, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dubbed the Leviathan State. So they pleaded for extending democratic principles across territorial borders. 'The history of the past twenty years', Friedrich wrote, 'has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that constitutional democracy cannot function effectively on a national plane.' Thomas Mann similarly rubbished attempts to 'reduce the democratic idea to the idea of peace, and to assert that the right of a free people to determine its own destiny includes respect for the rights of foreign people and thus constitutes the best guarantee for the creation of a community of nations and for peace.' He added: 'We must reach higher and envisage the whole. We must define democracy as that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man.'

This way of thinking helped inspire one of the most remarkable features of the Copernican shift of thinking about democracy during this period: let's call it the common-law marriage of democracy and human rights, and the subsequent world-wide growth of monitory organisations, networks and campaigns committed to the defence of human rights. The crowning achievement of the decade was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted in 1947/8, it seemed to many at the time a mere sideshow of questionable importance. Its preamble spoke of 'the inherent dignity' and 'the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family'. Against tremendous odds, the declaration (John Dewey pointed out) was a call for civil societies and governments everywhere to speak and act as if human rights mattered.

The fundamental re-thinking of electoral democracy through the lens of human rights had several long-term effects, some of them unintended, more than a few surprising. Today, networked organisations like Human Rights Watch, the Aga Khan Development Network, Amnesty International and tens of thousands of other non-governmental human rights organisations monitor power. They have helped alter the political ecology of actually existing democracies. They routinely deal with a wide range of rights matters including torture, child soldiers, the abuse of women, the monitoring of elections and freedom of religious conviction. They strive to be goads to the conscience of governments and citizens, and in this respect they solve a basic problem that had dogged electoral democracy: who decides who 'the people' are?

Since the 1940s, most human rights organisations and networks have answered: every human being is entitled to exercise their right to have rights, including the right to prevent arbitrary exercises of power through independent public monitoring and free association with others, considered as equals. Their reply has fundamentally altered the meaning of democracy, shielding it from the follies and pitfalls of psephocracy.

This would all have been much easier for them if they'd been able to ground their democracies on their religious faith, as we of the Anglosphere do, and if they'd understood that republican liberty is the guard against state power.

Posted by at September 24, 2012 5:10 AM

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