Democratic failure: festering lilies smell worse than weeds

Anatol Lieven
26 October 2005

“We must keep firmly in mind that democracies can fail.” The barriers to democratic progress in the world today are far deeper than Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton allow, while Roger Scruton’s depiction of “the west and the rest” is equally flawed, argues Anatol Lieven.

I have to endorse most of what John Dunn argues in his response to Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton’s article “Democracy and openDemocracy”.

Barnett & Hilton express a set of noble aspirations about democracy and its spread in the world with which I am wholly in agreement. I honour their intent. And indeed, it is the duty of everyone to work towards the kind of world they describe: one of an “open-minded, democratic citizenship” capable of “empowering the powerless and checking the powerful”.

We shall do so much more effectively, however, if we do not suffer from too many illusions about how easy, or even likely this is going to be. And as a description of democracy’s historical vicissitudes, present nature, and future challenges across most of the world I must say that their account seems to me deeply flawed.

Anatol Lieven is responding to the openDemocracy article by Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy”

Also in our debate on “Opening democracy”:

Roger Scruton, “Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton”

John Dunn, “Getting democracy into focus”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work in support of democracy and keep it free for all

In truth, Barnett & Hilton’s description of democracy really only applies to western democracy during a few balmy decades after 1945. Those decades were closely associated with a period of unprecedented and seemingly unending economic prosperity unlimited by ecological, demographic or resource constraints; and also with a European generation that had been so scarified by the experiences of Nazism, Stalinism and the second world war that they possessed deep internal barriers to political extremism.

Neither of these factors were inherent to democracy – even to western democracy – but were historically contingent, and may well now be coming to an end. For that matter, even during those decades the picture of democracy as a defender of civil liberties and human rights did not apply to the colonial or neo-colonial wars waged by France and America in Vietnam, France in Algeria, and Britain in Kenya, any more than it does to the United States-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

What the authors mean by democracy is really liberal-pluralist, social-market democracy that possesses the ability both to generate and to redistribute wealth, a vibrant and tolerant civil society, and a judiciary that manages to combine independence from government and mob passions with the basic confidence of the people. Even where democracies or semi-democracies have existed in history before the later 19th century, they did not conform to this picture.

Athens of course was quite different, not only in its savage treatment of women, slaves and metics, but also in its insistence on conformity to communal religious and moral values – as Socrates found to his cost. For many centuries, the most democratic institutions in Europe were probably the urban guilds, which were also a central component in the development of representative bourgeois institutions in Europe. But the guilds not only operated an economic closed shop, they were bitterly hostile to outsiders in general, foreigners even more, and Jews most of all.

From the late 18th century, the rise of mass politics and the origins of democracy in many countries was closely associated with the rise of nationalism, often of a highly aggressive and intolerant kind. That was true not only in Europe and across the colonial world but in the United States. There, the politics of Andrew Jackson and his followers combined democratic reform and hatred of the oligarchical elites with a cult of “toughness, maleness and whiteness” (Michael Kazin), territorial aggression, violent hatred of foreigners, support for black slavery and Indian dispossession.

This tradition in America was and remains (as represented by figures like John Ashcroft) genuinely committed to democracy and the rule of law. In this sense it does not resemble the old autocratic European right. But it believes strongly that democracy and the law can only be safely exercised by civilised (in the past, white) men, and cannot be entrusted to aliens or internal dissidents.

The case for pessimism

Concerning the present, there are two key problems. The first is that the economic prosperity and the institutions necessary to create liberal, pluralist, social-market democracy cannot actually be generated by most of the world’s societies and economies at this time. The second is that, as Roger Scruton points out in his rejoinder to Barnett & Hilton, democracies also require at least some basic feeling of common nationhood and loyalty.

Lacking all these things, at best, these societies will produce “democracies” that are more or less of a façade behind which something else goes on, as in most of Latin America and Africa. At worst, they will simply collapse again, as democracies have done again and again in so many countries over the years. How many times has this happened in Pakistan, for example, since 1947?

The paths by which societies build up the economies, the legal structures and the representative traditions necessary to create stable pluralist democracy are however historically immensely tortuous – as the crucial historical example of Britain demonstrates better than any other. Throughout the 18th and the earlier part of the 19th century the British Protestant, aristocratic and mercantile oligarchy’s treatment of the mass of the population (without even getting into the questions of Ireland or slavery) was every bit as vile as the behaviour of many “third-world” elites today. If however they had been overthrown by a mass “democratic” uprising, would Britain’s modern economic and political success and world model still have been possible? I very much doubt it.

We must keep firmly in mind that democracies can fail. And this applies not only to weak, impoverished pseudo-democracies in the developing world, but western democracies too. Any democracy, like any governing system, can and will collapse if faced with an existential challenge that it cannot meet. As we should remember, Nazism, Italian fascism and Japanese militarism were all the products of failed democracies (or in the Japanese case, constitutional oligarchies). At present, we in the west may be facing two such tests, on the results of which could depend the survival of our democracies.

The first test is whether we can integrate into our systems huge and growing immigrant and immigrant-descended populations with radically different cultures, and (at least in the case of many Muslims) religious-political allegiances. On this will depend the extent of the future terrorist threat to our societies.

The second test is whether we can modify our consumption habits sufficiently to ward off ecological catastrophe.

Neither of these failures is certain, because the threats themselves may be less than the pessimists predict. But if these threats do prove existential, and we fail, then our descendants will not look back on liberal democracy with nostalgia and respect. They are more likely to spit on our graves. And it must be said that the present character of western democratic electorates is not very encouraging in this regard.

If one speaks of the millions of people who protested in Europe against the Iraq war, must one not also speak of the millions of Americans who believed and continue to believe the Bush administration’s lies about that war, because they were (very democratically) misled by parts of the free mass media, and also because (equally democratically) they were too lazy and ignorant to seek out alternative sources of information?

In the area of the mass media, it already seems even in the west the systems we live under are less democracies than veiled oligarchies, paying outward deference (like so many oligarchies before them) to a sovereign whom they secretly despise and whose failings they ruthlessly exploit and manipulate. The difference is that in the west today, this impotent, decadent, sodden, malleable sovereign is not a hereditary monarch, but the People.

Anatol Lieven is senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, Washington DC.

Also by Anatol Lieven in openDemocracy:

“Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation” (September 2002)

“America right or wrong?” (September 2004)

“Israel and the American antithesis” (October 2004)

“Israel, the United States, and truth” (October 2004)

Bush’s choice: messianism or pragmatism? (February 2005)

The west and the rest

I share some of Roger Scruton’s concern about the great difficulty of maintaining functional (and above all social-market) democracies in the long run without a real sense of national community and purpose. However, I must emphatically distance myself from the attempt to create a radical, black-and-white “clash of civilisations” between the “secular” west and the Muslim world. The only way forward is to find some way of living with our Muslim compatriots, and that involves accommodation and respect.

The European immigration policies of the 1950s and 1960s may well in retrospect seem a disastrous mistake, but let us not forget two things. First, they were arrived at by legitimate democratic means. Second, at least in the case of Britain and France, they were the product of our imperial conquest of Muslim societies. If we didn’t want Algerians in Paris and Pakistanis in London, then we shouldn’t have sent armed Frenchmen to Algiers and armed Britons to Lahore.

On “accepting Muslim countries into the communion of nations”, this is grotesque. Communion is something one does with fellow Christian believers, not with other nations. And if there is such a communion, Iran and Egypt were there long before us. Nor can lack of democracy be a reason for exclusion of states from such a “communion”, or we would have to kick out China.

This makes no sense historically – in terms of continuity and historical achievement, China is integral to human civilisation. It makes no sense in terms of the present – the existing “communist” regime, with all its faults, has been responsible in the past twenty years for one of the greatest advancements in human wellbeing (judged by numbers) in human history. And it makes no sense at all in terms of the future, when China will be critical to the success or failure of the human race as a whole to preserve civilisation in the face of the challenges facing us.

I fear that Roger Scruton also suffers from a certain confusion between governments and states, and between strict theocracies and religiously-dominated societies. In doing so, he also contributes to the view that democracy is obviously incompatible with theocracy in the strict sense – obviously, democracy has to involve at least the possibility of alterations of government.

However, Turkey in recent decades is rather a good example of how many of the forms of democracy (free elections, changes of government) can exist in a system where the fundamental cultural character of the state is fixed and defined by institutions that are not subject to “democratic” alteration, but which are accepted by a consensus of the people. The amusing thing in the case of Turkey of course is that this culture was defined as secular and, previously at least, much praised in the west. I can easily see Iran and other Muslim countries heading in some such direction in the years to come.

The fragility of American democracy

That brings me to America. Whatever the left may say, the US religious right is not aiming at creating an authoritarian “theocracy”. And whatever the right may say, the liberals are not trying to create a “liberal (or gay) dictatorship”. Nor however are either of these forces democratic in the sense of accepting the will of democratic majorities and seeking to change these simply by reasoned argument and campaigning in elections. Both want to fix their cultural rules on the mass of the population in ways that will be unshiftable by future elections.

“Roe vs Wade” did not reflect the will of a majority of Americans in the early 1970s. It was the decision of a Supreme Court packed with liberal judges thanks to the autocratic, essentially monarchical (in this regard at least) powers of the US president. Nor is the attempt of the Christian right to reverse Roe vs Wade democratic in this sense. They are trying to use the same monarchical powers to pack the court in the opposite direction, and to hell with what a majority of present-day Americans think and how they vote. Indeed, that is precisely the point. As far as Christian fundamentalists are concerned, since Americans who support abortion are by definition going to hell anyway, why bother with what they think?

Anatol Lieven’s argument about American national identity and American democracy is developed in his book America Right or Wrong: an anatomy of American nationalism (Harper Collins, 2004)

At present, and for most of American history (with the obvious exception of slavery and the civil war) such radical disagreements have been contained not so much by innate cultural tolerance as by profound and near-universal reverence for US procedural democracy, as reflected in the US constitution and buttressed by American civic nationalism. The historical longevity and tremendous success of the US democratic system has given it tremendous innate strength and even a quasi-religious aspect of transcendence.

Nonetheless, it is not divine or immortal. If in future it fails to protect the livelihoods of the American middle classes from immiseration, or their lives from nuclear terrorism, then it will fail. Then the deep cultural and racial antagonisms among Americans will burst forth in fury from the bounds of procedural democracy. And then there won’t be a clear dividing line at all between the US and the Muslim world.

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