The Democracy Manifesto: Re-imagining Democracy in Our Time

What is The Democracy Manifesto? A global conversation involving academics, civil society and social movement activists from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America, has set out a credo for our fast-moving times, followed by responses from four of the participants as they continue their conversation in the public domain.
Bishnu N. Mohapatra
11 May 2011

The Democracy Manifesto

The Arab democratic upsurge of 2011 inspires democrats all over the world. It has fired up the imagination of all those struggling for self-rule under authoritarianism. It also gives hopes to those engaged in deepening democratic practices everywhere. To all those who see democracy as a shared journey of humanity, it provides an occasion to reflect on what democracy means. This is a moment to re-imagine democratic ideals and practices in our time. 

1- Democracy as a political principle and as a form of government has expanded to nearly all corners of the world. It is recognized now that every human being must have an effective say in the decisions that affect their life. The notion that every government must respect this fundamental principle has greater acceptance than ever before. The ideal of self-rule has begun to fire up peoples’ imagination all over the world.  Democracy may not be a form of government that is experienced globally, but it has become an aspiration that is shared across the globe. This aspiration takes different forms. The ideal of popular self-rule has multiple readings.  Theses will depend on which people are being talked about, what understanding of self is being invoked and what  is accepted as self-rule.  “ The people” could mean all the citizens of a national state, the citizens at a region or locality, or the planet’s entire population. The self could be seen in terms of the individual citizen or in terms of a social community. Self-rule could be interpreted as voice, consultation, consent or consensus in any authoritative and binding decision-making process. A standard understanding is that democracy means free and fair elections, but it can also take other forms. 

2- The globally dominant notion of what democracy means, however, does not reflect the journey of democracy. The prevailing orthodoxy about democracy  draws upon the limited experience of a small part of the globe. Selected facts of European and North American history have been turned into abstract principles. One of the many strands of western political thought has been assumed to be the sole repository of the normative imagination for democratic practices in different societies at different points of time.  An idealized notion of western liberal democracy hegemonizes the democratic imagination. It is assumed that capitalism and modernity have an intrinsic relationship with democracy. This hegemony of the western experience and imagination may not always affect popular struggles that are being waged in the name of democracy all over the world. Yet, it does constrain the translation of popular aspirations, practices and struggles into a set of norms, institutions and theories in the Global South. It also constrains the deepening of democracy within the global North. 

3- Enriching our democratic imagination in line with the expansion of democracy would involve several things: widening our conceptual apparatus to accommodate diverse languages and idioms of democracy;  enriching our normative standards to reflect multiple histories and traditions of democratic thinking; and  correcting our explanations to account for radically different experiences and trajectories of democracy. Reimagining democracy along these lines is one of the most pressing ethical and political tasks of our times. It is imperative not just for democrats in the ‘aspiring’ and ‘new’ democracies, but equally in ‘established democracies’.

4- The prevailing orthodoxy on the democratic imagination assumes that democracy is strictly the gift of western civilization.  Yet, an honest genealogy of democratic ideas and practices must acknowledge that these are rooted in multiple trajectories. Ancient Greece was but one of the sources of democratic imagination. The ideas of democracy can be traced to Buddhist Sangha, Ganatantra traditions in ancient India, Islamic traditions in many societies and practices among the indigenous communities across the world. Much of the modern ideology and language of democracy has spread to most parts of the world from Western Europe and North America. Many of the well-established democratic institutions and practices in today's world were secured first in Europe through a series of popular struggles. The gains of these struggles are now part of our global human heritage.  Yet the western legacy is neither singular nor unambiguous.  For every advance in democracy, there is also the history of denial of democratic rights. Besides, the history of the expansion of self-rule for one's own citizens was inextricably woven with the history of denial of self-rule to larger subject populations outside and ethnic minorities inside the territory of a ‘democratic’ state. For most of the world, the contemporary practices of democracy are neither a direct off-shoot of the various ancient traditions nor an imitation of the modern west. The democratic aspiration spread to most of the world by way of anti-colonial struggles and the various movements for self-determination and self-rule in the last two centuries.

5- Enriching the democratic imagination requires questioning the simple-minded democracy/non-democracy binary canonized by the dominant orthodoxy. As democracy becomes the most sought after regime label, the quest for self-rule is reduced to a contestation about the latter. This promotes binary, either-or, thinking over a graded understanding of the spectrum from democracy to non-democracy. The dominant orthodoxy’s focus on classifying a country either as a democracy or a non-democracy encourages façade democracies. This binary distinction has resulted in an excessive focus on the threshold of when a non-democracy turns into a democracy.  This summative and static judgment performs the function of putting some ‘established democracies’ beyond reproach. This artificial binary construct must come to an end.  Democratic practices may exist in apparently non-democratic regimes. Established democratic states can embody a vast array of non-democratic practices. There is no "finished product democracy" and there never will be.  The aspiration for democracy is open-ended. Each fresh step opens new horizons.

6- The dominant orthodoxy espouses teleology. Democracy is the ultimate and inevitable destination. This often leads to thinking in terms of stages or pre-conditions to the ‘transition’ to and ‘consolidation’ of democracy. Yet, there are multiple sequences and routes by which different political regimes come to be democratic. The route taken by democracy in the west is but one sequence of many. In turn, there are multiple trajectories within the west itself. Material prosperity and cultural uniformity are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for democracy.  We also need to move away from an instrumental and determinist view of the outcomes of democracy.  Democracy leads to different outcomes in different historical settings.  Democrats need to be aware of the dysfunctions of democracy, and not just in 'new' or 'developing' democracies. The case for democracy cannot rest on dubious and instrumental grounds such as its purported usefulness for desired economic outcomes. Democracy must be cherished for its intrinsic value, for what it means to human dignity.

7- Reimagining democracy requires a fundamental shift. There is a tendency to assume that democracy is an attribute of political regimes rather than that of political practices. This leads to privileging form over substance, to making too much of formal political institutions and to reducing democracy to electoral democracy. An emphasis on practices would require a more careful and painstaking sifting of the substance of political action, its contextual meaning and its consequences.  This also enables us to think of democracy beyond the formal domain of politics. Practices within the domain of the family or the market, for example, need to be viewed in terms of the extent to which they enable or constrain self-rule. Democracy needs to be thought of as a way of life.

8- Questioning the dominant orthodoxy also leads us to the search for an appropriate level of analysis. There is a need to move beyond a fixation with the national state as the natural unit within which one thinks about self-rule. The locus of national power is no doubt the principal level of struggles for self-rule. But to focus exclusively on it side-steps the colossal inequalities among and within nation states. The latter deny vast numbers of people across the globe an effective voice over decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. The quest for democracy must go wherever effective and binding decision-making occurs.  Shifting sites of sovereignty require that we begin to think of inter-national relations as an arena of democratic contestation. The same could be extended to the level of continents or other groupings of nations. At the same time, the unit of analysis needs to be extended downwards, to regional and local units, for this is the level at which most citizens experience self-rule or its absence.  

9- The idea of democracy is becoming global, and it acquires multiple meanings. As democracy becomes a global aspiration, it attaches itself to different and often competing values.  This entails a conversation with pre-existing cultural values. Many of these values are contradictory to the democratic ideal; they must go. Some of the pre-existing values are not fully compatible with democracy; they must change. At the same time, the idea of democracy itself does and must undergo a change.  As the idea of democracy is interpreted and re-interpreted in different parts of the world, misunderstandings and misuses will arise. Therefore democracy is and will remain a contested concept.  This contest is resolved by entering on a case by case basis. It cannot be resolved a-priori by insisting upon an original, all-encompassing definition of democracy.  The demand that democracy all over the world must conform to a fixed definition first worked out in one part of the globe is inherently undemocratic. The ideal of democracy requires a respect for the democracy of knowledge. Knowledge production is not limited to some privileged sites, some societies or some period in history. The ideal of democracy has emerged from a dialogue of the various expressions of self-rule in human history. If democracy is anchored in reason, dialogue is the custodian of reason.

10. Current definitions of democracy threaten to reduce it to an institutional checklist derived from idealized notions of the experience of a small part of the globe.  The ideal of democracy is seen to be synonymous with the historical form of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist societies of Western Europe and North America.  Often this is further reduced down to a few key institutional features.  Yet, the historical experience of democracy in most of the world provides overwhelming evidence against this approach.  More often than not, imported institutions do not produce the same consequences that they did in their home context. Similarity of form is no guarantee of democratic substance.  In fact, a search for familiar form is an invitation to cynical and superficial copying for extraneous gains. On the one hand, the experience of ‘established democracies’ shows that the appearance of a democratic form of government can very well go hand in hand with the de facto rule by experts, the dominance of corporate power, social control by private networks and  the decline of citizen participation. On the other hand, the experience of democratic success outside the global North suggests that a departure from the mandated institutional form is often a pre-condition for success.  Mass democracies of post-colonial societies tend to acquire depth through practices that may not have a legitimate institutional expression in the conventional wisdom on democracy.  Institutions are crucial to the formation and strengthening of democracies, but what institutions do depends on the context in which these are located.  We need to shift the focus from the form of an institution to its real- life consequences in a given context. Democracy is an ever-evolving principle that can take different institutional expression at different points of time in different societies.

11- Thus, the principles and practices of democracy have to be open to multiple sources of learning. There are several living 'traditions' of consultation and consensus making all over the world. Such local practices need to be 'critically transformed' in order to make them relevant for democratic practices today. New power sharing arrangements are being worked out all over the world in different contexts, in response to different needs. Various monitoring tools are being invented in different democracies. So far only a few of these appear on the radar of  the democratic imagination. The search for a richer democratic imagination requires that we look for practices, institutions, intellectual traditions and thinkers everywhere to help us reshape democratic theory.

12- The very notion of exporting democracy is inimical to the spirit of democracy. Democracy promotion can turn into democratic imperialism. Like all ideologies, democracy too can turn into a dogma. Strengthening democracy is about deepening the values which shape the principles of democracy within a society. The 'culture of democracy' of a given society is vital to building democracy. The idea that some people lack 'culture' and are not ready for democracy also goes against the principle of democracy.

13- To deparochialize the idea of democracy is not to privilege an Eastern or Southern view of democracy over existing Western or Northern views. To the contrary: it means universalizing our understanding of democracy and democratic practices. The insistence on difference and divergence is designed to synthesize the multiple experiences of democracy. This is a necessary condition for reclaiming the global heritage of democracy and for reimagining a truly global future for it. FROM SOUTH TO NORTH.

Of the various values that the idea of democracy attaches itself to, four deserve a special mention.  First, democracy requires individual and collective freedom, for self-rule cannot exist in the absence of a basic guarantee of freedom.  Any kind of coercion or violence thus goes against the spirit of democracy. Second, the idea of self-rule requires that everyone have an equal say in matters that concern them.  Democratic deliberations require a level playing ground, free from widespread inter- and intra-group inequalities. Third, the ideal of self-rule requires a recognition of communities that often constitute the self. Thus democracy requires respect for deep diversity. In a world where most political units contain diverse communities, any attempt at cultural homogenization is not in keeping with the spirit of democracy. Fourth, given that democracy requires maintaining the conditions for democratic deliberations for future generations, it implies an ethic of responsibility towards nature.


Introduction to a global conversation by Bishnu N. Mohapatra

Four responses:

Deparochializing  democratic imaginaries by Melissa S.Williams

Democracy a 'joint venture' of humanity by Laurence Whitehead

Globalization and democracy by Jorge Heine

This is democracy in practice by Anthony Barnett


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