Democracy is not a human right: but one possible expression of equality, which is a human right and need

We launch the first in an occasional series of openDemocracy meditations on the question: Is democracy a human right? This reply begins with Mandy Rice-Davies, lingers on the unfinished business of the Cold War, and returns via Confucius, Mohammed and Darwin to the digital revolution which has us in its grip
John Jackson
4 November 2010

In the final chapter of his challenging book - Setting the People Free - John Dunn asked four questions. The last of these was “Why did the Strong (broadly those who have benefited most from capitalism) select the word ‘Democracy’ to name the form of government which has served them best of all?” If he had asked Mandy Rice-Davies that question she would perhaps have replied, “Well, they would, wouldn’t they?” This streetwise response gestures at the self-interest involved, but avoids the question and, as John Dunn has done, leaves the answer hanging in the air. Why has that word ‘Democracy’ become so potent? What does it now conjure up in the minds of those who are asked by politicians to join them in supporting, or at the least accepting, continued rule by those same politicians who enjoy the authority bestowed by that form of government? Could those politicians do without having the flag of Democracy nailed to their masts?


Confucius and Darwin - Wikipedia commons.

I grew up in a liberal household in the 1930s. My parents read The Times and the column written by William Connor (Cassandra) in The Daily Mirror. They were preoccupied with survival in the difficult circumstances of the recession sparked off by the Wall Street crash, but also took an interest in politics. I was “a little pig with big ears” and listened to their conversations. The headlines are still in my memory. They disapproved of some remarks by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIIIth. They were worried that so many of their acquaintances in the London suburbs approved of Mussolini for getting the Italian trains to run on time. They wanted the League of Nations to work and were dismayed by its failure to stop the Italian conquest of Abyssinia. They loathed Oswald Moseley, anti-semitism and the ‘colour bar’. The word Democracy was used (I only remember it being used once in my hearing) to describe a Utopian notion that was unlikely to work in practice. I doubt if they ever considered deeply what Democracy was. Probably it did not seem very relevant to what most concerned them. It was plainly not a very potent word: at least not for them.

There are still very few people who consider what Democracy is but there is little doubt about the potency of the word today. One reason for this, most probably, is the rapid increase in material living standards in the countries of the ‘democratic’ west and the extent to which news and evidence of this has spread rapidly thanks to modern communication methods.

During the 1980s I was a director of the company, initially broadcasting programmes for a short period each day by low- powered satellite, which eventually became Sky. In the mid 1980s we were contacted ‘informally’ by the Bulgarian embassy in London. They wished to know whether it would be possible for our ‘footprint’ to be enlarged so that our programmes could be received in Bulgaria. In fact the power of the satellite was too low for that to be possible but the (astonishing) inquiry told us that the iron curtain was beginning to disintegrate. We thought then that knowledge of what the people of the western democracies had, in terms of living standards and freedom to behave and misbehave much as they wished, was creating irresistible pressures from within the eastern European socialist states for economic and social change. It did not enter our heads that that pressure would result in the adoption of a particular type of government - unless that type of government could clearly be shown to be a necessary precursor for material gain.

How far the subsequent and rapid adoption of forms of representative democracy in the former Soviet bloc stemmed from popular will, and how much from pressure exerted by countries, particularly the United States, making this a condition of economic aid and trading links, is unclear. However the social and economic consequences of Mikhail Gorbachev and his supporters yielding to the unavoidable gave further credibility to the idea that representative democracy (of a particular kind), economic success and substantial personal liberty were all linked together. Neither of the last two could be enjoyed without the first. This highly improbable proposition, which is widely believed, has done much to give what people call ‘Democracy’ great allure and has gained it much ground. It has also fuelled the understandable complaint, particularly by those who do not approve of the will of man being placed, apparently, above that of God, that its materialist promoters are greatly satanic.

But although the belief in that proposition is part of the story, there is, there must be, more. Does the word ‘Democracy’ resonate in some way with the notion that we are all born free and equal? In our own country the Levellers of the seventeenth century gave expression to this. The treatment of the leading Levellers  by those who were seeking to establish their governmental authority suggests that the notion was feared because it might prove too popular. It might appeal to those who believed in ‘natural rights’. It is unclear why the word ‘natural’ is appropriate and from where those rights, if they are more than figments of our own imaginations, stem. It is not clear why we should have rights of any kind. However, the ideas that we are free to think what we wish, free to express those thoughts and, particularly, are the equal of all others with the freedom to choose with them, if we wish, the way in which we are governed, strike chords which lie deep within us. There are differing ways of giving practical expression to those ideas.

Do those ideas have validity for all humankind? The Strong may enjoin us to accept that they do, but only if those freedoms are used to produce a result which they approve of, particularly a governmental system based on their concept of representative democracy. And only then – see Hamas – if it elects those they can do business with.

But one way of testing whether the Strong are correct is to delve into the history of alternative ideas that have caught the human imagination and been accepted as ‘right’ if not ‘natural’ for extensive periods.

Alternative ideas

China has given the world great science, exquisite art and very interesting ideas of how humans should live their lives and organise themselves. Unfortunately it has given us other less desirable things such as public execution by slow slicing - a punishment that was only abandoned early in the twentieth century. For the last two and a half thousand years the aspirations of the people of China have been strongly influenced by the teachings of K’ung Fu-tzu, Confucius. The teachings of others, sometimes quite dominant, have needed to demonstrate substantial compatibility with Confucianism if they were to command lasting respect. As Rayne Kruger pointed out in his highly condensed, but deeply informative, history of China, All Under Heaven, Confucius did not talk of natural rights. He talked only of duty - to the ruler and to the family - and of one privilege only, that of serving the people.

Confucius taught at a time when a belief in a past Golden Age, when all rulers were noble and all the people happy, was taking hold in the popular Chinese imagination. Confucius believed that rulers, all of whom reached their positions by birth or arms (he never questioned the rightness of this) should be guided by humanity and justice in the exercise of authority over their dutiful, mainly agrarian, subjects. The subjects themselves discharged their (undefined) duty to the state primarily by the way in which they conducted their personal lives and recognised the need for reciprocity. The revolutionary idea that Confucius introduced was that rulers should appoint the officials who were to advise them, exercise authority on their behalf and administer justice, on the basis of their demonstrated merit and that all (male) subjects could aspire equally to this privilege of public service. But if aspirants were to have an equal opportunity to demonstrate the necessary merit to deserve selection, they needed education. This education was what he provided - to any male who asked for it - in his schools. He taught the lessons of history - “believing in and loving the ancients” (the Cultural Revolution was a violent denial of this) - together with practical information, guidance in personal conduct and the importance of observation. In particular he taught his students to watch and listen and to suspend judgement on what struck them as dubious. Confucius did not attempt to alter in any way the feudal system which determined where the authority to govern came from. He did attempt to make the lives of his fellows better by improving the quality of the resources available to those who governed them. Confucius was doing this at approximately the same time that the Athenians were developing their form of democracy. Although Confucius himself never achieved high office and died a disappointed man, what he advocated had better consequences for more people than was achieved for the Athenians. It certainly lasted longer.

The Chinese never developed the idea of a God of the sort that Abraham believed in, so their Eden was necessarily earthbound and without a supreme being above all temporal rulers. None the less, Confucianism finally permeated ideas of Paradise on earth in a way that provides a convenient stepping stone to the revelations of Muhammad and another culture which has also given the World great science, exquisite art and interesting ideas on how humans should live together and organise themselves – Islam.

Muhammad gave Islam the foundation stone of a supreme, all- seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God - the true God revealed to Abraham. He taught his followers to reject the corruption of the works of Abraham’s God, first by the Jews and then by the Christians. He also gave Islam the notion of the Perfect Man. All men have the same and equal opportunity to achieve perfection and earn their place in Paradise (a celestial concept) by the way in which they follow what was revealed to Muhammad and is set down in the Qur’an. Those revelations, refined and explained by thoughtful Islamic scholars, require, broadly expressed, obedience to God, just, honourable and compassionate behaviour and the understanding that, in the main, daytime is for work and effort, individually and with others, and the night is for worship. Muhammad did not talk of natural rights either. He had much to say about duty.

The notion of the Perfect Man was the focus of much elaboration by those Islamic scholars. One of these, Al Farabi, was singled out by Kevin Rushby in his book titled Paradise and, interestingly, sub-titled A History of the Idea that Rules the World. Al Farabi, writing only three centuries after the death of Muhammad, explained in his book - Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City - that happiness in Paradise (the ultimate goal and culmination of the perfect life) was best achieved by participating in the society of a small city state. In that state there would be no supernatural phenomena and mystical union with God was “old women’s talk”. Everything was ascertainable by reason, but those who could not reach perfection through reason would be assisted by symbols - images and ideas communicated by prophets through revelations. A conversation between Aristotle, Confucius and Al Farabi would have been interesting: they would have found much to agree, and disagree, upon.

Confucianism, Islamic teachings and the system now called (representative) Democracy have many differences. But they have two interesting things in common. They all relate to the way in which people, as individuals, live together and they all acknowledge the notion of equality of opportunity of a very particular type – that is, equality in the possibility of holding high office by demonstrating merit based on education; equality in the opportunity to achieve ultimate happiness by living the perfect life; and equality in the right to influence the choice of those who will rule you.

Darwin to the rescue? 

It is unlikely that the Strong embrace and promulgate the word Democracy because of its association with equality of opportunity as the bedrock of the best possible form of social organisation. Is it more likely that (as many suspect) they do so because, in its representative form, it permits substantial degrees of social and economic inequality to flourish (to the benefit of the Strong) whilst society as a whole takes quiescent comfort in the belief that all is well because it enjoys the benefits of political equality?  Why might equality, particularly political equality, be so important, so fundamental to the desirable human state as to be seen as a natural ‘right’?  And is it only meaningful if allied with another such ‘right’ – freedom?  That is what the Levellers believed.  We are all born free and equal, they said.  This conjunction gives equality of opportunity its potency.  However, opportunity can be taken or declined and we all are free not to exercise our rights of equality.  But is it always right to use freedom in that way?  Was this why Confucius and Muhammad laid such emphasis on duty?  Whilst equality, with or without freedom, gives no advantage in Darwinian terms (survival is based largely on advantage – inequality), some possible answers to these questions can be gleaned by adopting a Darwinian approach.

There is no doubt that modern man, homo sapiens, is programmed genetically to behave gregariously - as a social animal. This has come about entirely accidentally. The mutants that were our genetic ancestors, who bonded together in tribes, did better in an environment over which they had little control than those who did not. Gregarious behaviour is instinctual - as opposed to rational - behaviour. The odd, and unique, thing about homo sapiens is that its members are also driven to behave as a distinct individual with a personality quite separate from that of the tribe. This oddity also has a genetic origin, more remote and of a different kind. Individuality is not instinctual, it is rational. We have evolved, again entirely accidentally, with a brain of a size and structure which gives us a capacity for prescience. Those of our ancestors who had larger brains and the beginnings of prescience did better, albeit as members of a tribe, than those who had not. With the possible (and very limited) exception of some other species of great ape, we are unique in this respect. Prescience is the basis of intelligence. Without it one cannot reason. With it one can understand, learn and forecast cause and effect. One can contemplate joy, pain and death (and life after death). One can imagine and conjecture. One can think in the abstract. It is this, and only this, capacity for prescience that gives us personality and ego. It drives our desire to be individuals. It is humankind’s huge advantage: it is also its great curse.

It is its great curse because the instinct to behave gregariously and the urge to express individuality are incompatible with each other. We are in a permanent state of disturbing internal conflict. ‘I’ and ‘We’ are at war with one another the whole time. Although the I and the We are incompatible and can never be completely reconciled, they can reach an accommodation one with the other. The balance in that accommodation will be influenced by other factors which will differ in the cases of different individuals and different tribes (communities). What provides contentment to one individual in one community may be insufficient in another case.

Democracy, Confucianism and Islam all provide flexible ways of enabling the I and the We in human beings to reach contentment through this accommodation which quiets the struggle between them. They do this by means of the idea of equality. That is where equality plays its catalytic role. The idea that I am equal with others in determining what is best for We has great appeal. The ideas that I am equal with others in the possibility of being selected to serve my ruler in the interests of We, or have the possibility of reaching Paradise by living a perfect life in which I am a part of We, in a rational and God- respecting community, also have great appeal. They reflect a satisfactory concordat between I and We and, crucially, the satisfaction of a human need.

Egoism and equality

John Dunn comes close to this conclusion in his discussion of the ‘Orders of Egoism and of Equality’ - another way of describing I and We. Those two orders are incompatible with each other also. They too need to reach an accommodation with one another. The Order of Egoism depends on an unequal distribution of the wealth and advantages produced by the economic system (capitalism) associated with it. For the moment the accommodation consists of the Order of Egoism allowing distribution and its consequences to be moderated (regulated) to an extent sufficient to prevent the mounting of a further revolutionary challenge to capitalism.  The Strong are confident in the continuity of quiescence.

But this situation is increasingly so out of harmony both with the I and the We within us, that it may well be unsustainable. Rationally there is no reason why the Order of Equality should not be dominant, as long as the consequences of that domination are tempered by sufficient inequality to enable capitalism to survive in some form. The present imbalance could in those circumstances be reversed-tilted the other way. That would entail a system of accommodation which could never create a situation of permanent stability. And that suggestion feels right. It is dynamic. Are there signs that the balance between Egoism and Equality is shifting? There are and the reason is that the notions of deliberative, including, participatory democracy (favoured by Equality) as distinct from representative democracy (favoured by Egoism) are on the march. And the drumbeat of the march is provided by the rapid expansion of mass, inter-active communication.

The digital revolution is, as Thomas Friedman has put it, flattening the world. In The World Is Flat he describes the ten forces which he believes have flattened/are flattening the world. One of these was the ‘uploading’ of community developed innovation, and Friedman cited the case of Andrew Rasiej who in 2005 based his campaign for election to New York City’s Office of Public Advocate on the proposal that New York City should provide a communications infrastructure so that anyone anywhere in the City could get access to high speed internet and cell phone coverage. The object was to reinvent civic life and reinvent democracy. Rasiej said, “Not only are you improving civic services and the quality of life, but you are giving people an opportunity to participate in the decisions which affect their lives in a way that is easy and where they see the results. People are disconnected from the political process because they think it does not connect with their lives.” He went on to say, “One elected official cannot solve the problems of eight million people, but eight million people networked together can solve one city’s problems. They can spot and offer solutions better than any bureaucrat.” Rasiej was not elected. He was ahead of his time and had thoughts which others, prominent members of the Order of Egoism and the Strong, found disturbing. But these ideas, providing a more direct way of accommodating I and We, have great appeal and are gaining ground. Deliberative democracy can give great legitimacy to representative democracy by determining its form and co-existing with it. But it must be more than talking: it must be participatory and enable people to make those who seek to rule over them engage in genuine rather than cosmetic dialogue.

If a move to these forms of democracy, and, particularly, the equality associated with them, is under way and the word Democracy is thought of and promulgated by the West more in those terms (but with no hint of assumed moral superiority) it will be interesting to see what effect it will have not only on the balance established between Egoism and Equality but also on how democracy is perceived in those communities which have for so long been influenced by the ideas of Confucius and of Muhammad. It could help all of us to live more easily with each other.

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Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

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