The Promise and Peril of Democracy

by Ashish Kothari1)

The grand drama of national elections across the world, filled with promises that each party makes of bringing paradise on earth and promptly forgets them once elected to power, hide a deeply troubling phenomenon. There is something pathetic about the human condition, if our fate (and that of the planet) is dependent on a few individuals who rule over us with our willing consent.

Lets go back to basics. Democracy = demos + cracy, rule of (or by) the people. The power to take decisions is inherent to each one of us, it is part of being human. And if politics is about the relations of power, than being political beings is part of our human nature. And yet, the seduction of liberal democracy has been such that we are willing to give up our inherent power, ostensibly so we can go about living our lives while others take over the decision-making for us. In theory, we convince ourselves, we have the power to change them through elections if they don’t do what we want or need; but as we know, that is not necessarily the case. And even if we do manage to vote another person or party into state power, they too may fail to do what we want or need. The chances of this being the case if we are already on the margins of society, even if by dint of sheer numbers we form a substantial part of the population and manage to influence the elections, is especially high.

Some governments have been better than others at pro-public welfare policies, constitutional and legal reforms, and social safeguards (such as free or cheap healthcare and education) for many impoverished or marginalized people. Whatever I say below should not be taken to belittle such gains, and certainly not to argue that there is no difference between a progressive (leftist, feminist, green) party and a right-wing party being in power, all other things being equal.

The problem with electoral politics

But lets look at fundamentals again. A considerably reliance of liberal democracy is on elections, where those who get the majority (with variations on the theme) form the government.

Liberal democracies have pursued fundamentally faulty economic growth models that underlie modern ‘development’ and globalization, responsible for the ecological and climate catastrophe the planet faces.

Electoral politics reveals many faultlines, showing how elections can be actually undermine democracy in its true sense. In many other parts of the world such as India, politicians get elected even if they have only 20% of the vote, with the rest of the electorate split amongst several opponents; or even if they have no majority but, as in USA, gain enough voting blocks. Modern electoral processes are extremely costly (the 2020 USA elections were projected to cost about US$14 billion), and since most countries do not have a public fund for this, it is mostly really rich folks or parties who get voted in. In 2019 in India, for instance, out of the 542 members analysed, 437 (80%) have assets of Rs. 1 crore (10 million) or more, i.e. they were amongst the richest 5% of Indians.

Secondly, political elections bring out the most competitive aspects of our personality, that too in spiteful, divisive, often violent ways. Given the power that comes with the post, there are very high commercial stakes of winning. Elections have also encouraged or engendered the most blatant instances of fraud, manipulation (now increasingly on ‘social’ media), bribery, corruption, intimidation, across the world. A systematic review of Pakistan and India shows how much these are seeped into the very nature of electoral politics.

In many countries this hostile competitiveness also runs along historically prevalent lines of hierarchy and discrimination and division; race in USA, caste in India, and gender and class everywhere. This is not a distortion of electoral politics, it is hardwired into its DNA; after all, if its about winning at any cost, why not exploit available lines of division? Trumpism and the religious polarization in India’s 2019 polls are stark recent examples.

Elections also give credence to majoritarianism. The belief that the majority is right is a dubious proposition at best, downright dangerous and divisive at worst. The fact that minorities may have talents, knowledge, skills, and abilities to aid in decision-making and governance, and special needs that any decent society would have to be considerate towards, are ignored or set aside.

Parties that ‘capture’ power in liberal democracies, inevitably centralize power at central or provincial levels. The notion that the public is supreme, that the electorate is the one whose bidding is done by the elected, has rarely if ever actualized. Day to day decisions including crucial ones that impact a large number of people, are predominantly taken by elected politicians and the bureaucracy serving them, with little or no involvement of the electorate. Some countries have systems like referendums to provide greater public participation in crucial decisions, but these are limited, and suffer from the same problematic politics of majoritarianism.

Democracy, development and environment

Given that liberal democracy and the nation-state system that it supports has arisen and spread at the same time as modern capitalism gained a global foothold, there is a very close relationship. Indeed, such democracy is eminently suited to exploitative economic regimes and relations, providing a convenient garb of legitimacy. If the party running such a government then finds it ok to be funded by corporations, openly or in a hidden manner as in the case of India’s recently established electoral bonds, this too would seem to be entirely acceptable. No wonder than that social movements challenging the actions of corporations and their government cronies are automatically labeled not only anti-development but also anti-national, seditious, or in some cases, ‘extremists’ who can be legitimately thrown in jail (or, frequently, simply eliminated). This is the case not only in right-wing governments, but in left-wing ones too; for instance, Rafael Correa’s ‘revolutionary’ left party in Ecuador went hammer and tongs after civil society groups like Accion Ecologica and several indigenous people’s organisations, for opposing destructive mining operations in their territories.

Liberal democracies have pursued fundamentally faulty economic growth models that underlie modern ‘development’ and globalization, responsible for the ecological and climate catastrophe the planet faces. The money required to fight elections, and then to prop up centralized state systems, is not possible to generate in ecologically sustainable, socially non-exploitative ways. A global economy based on nation-state competitiveness, requires ruthless exploitation of nature and of labour, and the continuation of patriarchal, racist, and casteist relations. Finally, nation-state boundaries and the ‘nationalism’ they are founded on or engender, artificially block ecological and cultural linkages, and do not enable sensitive, sustainable governance of landscapes that are dependent on such linkages. In the South Asia region, for instance, the division of the subcontinent into several nations has severely disrupted river flows, or wildlife movements, or the nomadic patterns of pastoral communities, with negative consequences for millions of people and for future generations.

Is there an alternative to liberal democracy?

There are many alternatives, some building on ancient systems of governance such as amongst many indigenous peoples, others that advocate more radical, even anarchic people-centred power. Crucial to all such forms is the recognition of our inherent power, but also the distinction between ‘power to / with’, and ‘power over’. In other words, we harness power to do good, to benefit all (including the non-human), rather than dominate others.

Several initiatives around the world have attempted to establish such grounded, responsible power. Perhaps the largest in scale are the experiments in radical, distributed autonomy and self-governance amongst the Zapatista in Mexico, and the Kurdish people in West Asia. In varying forms, neighbourhood or commune assemblies and institutions run local affairs, and are federated across larger landscapes. Mechanisms like mandatory representation of women and multiple ethnicities or marginalized section, and frequent rotation of representatives, ensure widespread participation and less likelihood of power concentration.

In India one of the earliest to say ‘in our village we are the government’ was Mendha-Lekha village in central tribal heartland; more recently in the same area a federation of 90 villages, the Korchi Maha Gramsabha, has moved towards relative self-rule. Indigenous peoples and other local communities in many parts of the world have also struggled for self-determination and self-governance in diverse ways that build on traditional systems. Such governance is based on a pluriverse of worldviews that respect all humans and the rest of nature, most of which have been suppressed by authoritarian regimes or disempowered by liberal democracies. Many are making a come-back. A number of examples for localized governance along with accountable representative institutions, are also emerging in cities, such as in feminist municipalism.

Though by no means perfect, such direct democracy can provide far greater levels of participation in decision-making to ‘ordinary’ people than do predominantly representative democracies. But struggles for social justice and gender equality and against racism, casteism, etc have to go hand in hand with radical democracy. In the Korchi Maha Gramsabha process mentioned above, the recognition that men have traditionally dominated collective decision-making, has led to a self-empowerment process amongst women. Sometimes, progressive policies or global human rights and social justice instruments can help with this. Also crucial are forums of dialogue and healing. And the democratic control of the economy, with localization for basic needs and essential services, a stress on the commons rather than on private property, and the central role of caring and sharing, also have to be part of the transformation.

Radical democracy works best when people can deliberate face to face. At larger scales, there is a need for delegated or representative institutions; and indeed it is at times from these that checks against local caste, gender, and other repression can come. But even such larger scale institutions can be made more responsive and accountable to the units of direct democracy on the ground, e.g. through the right to recall, nomination of delegates rather than (or additionally to) election of representatives, their frequent rotation to discourage amassing of power and wealth, complete transparency of finances and decisions. Movements in several countries have brought in policy and legal changes towards such accountability, such as a fundamental right to information, and social audit processes. But more is needed, such as the Right to Participate, and enabling local rural and urban units of decision-making to have financial and law-making powers. Some kind of elections may still fit into such a system (e.g. multi-layered system in Switzerland), but are not the dominant core.

There are at least four conditions for successful democracy. First, everyone has to have the right to participate, in decisions affecting his/her life. Such a sweeping right does not exist anywhere in liberal democracies. Second, people need to have accessible forums for engaging in political decision-making - physically proximate, free from fear, in a language and atmosphere that is understandable. Third, the capacity to participate meaningfully has to be facilitated in everyone; over centuries of centralized decision-making this capacity has been systematically destroyed in most of us. Finally, the most important but most difficult, the maturity and wisdom of responsible decision-making has to be infused, which would make people sensitive to the marginalized, to minorities, to not only other humans but also other species. This would be a genuine radical ecological democracy.

In an ideal sense, and in the long run perhaps, radical democracy would be about a state of statelessness.

Gandhi’s notion of swaraj, or some anarchist Marxist traditions, as also several utopian visions, have no centralized state as a governing principle. Such a future could be conceived of as millions of self-governing units, autonomous and self-reliant but also responsible for the autonomy and self-reliance of others (which necessarily means limits to consumption, and behavior oriented towards respecting the commons, the very essence of swaraj), inter-connected in cultural and material ways that do not undermine the self-reliance of any unit. Nation-state boundaries would dissolve, to be replaced by governance at biocultural landscape level. Such bioregionalism is gaining ground in various parts of the world.

But it is also important to look within ourselves. As citizens (especially those of us who are enfranchised, and privileged in some way), we need to examine our own responsibility for the mess democracy is in. Every few years, we willingly give over our inherent power to someone else to rule over us. If the Zapatistas and the Kurds and the Gond adivasis of central India have claimed, and in varying degrees achieved radical democracy, why are the rest of us not trying for this, including in cities? Admittedly, such governance is difficult, it needs our time and commitment, and we will then be squarely to blame if things go wrong. But we can also congratulate ourselves if the ends of justice are achieved. COVID, like all the other global crises we are going through, has shown us that self-reliance in all, with ecological sensitivity and social justice, is the only pathway to a just and sustainable future. Swaraj has to be an essential part of this, if, queuing up outside poll booths, we don’t want to keep deluding ourselves.