Friday, 11 April 2008

Good riddance to democracy?

In an article in today’s Times, Gerry Baker highlights the danger he sees facing Western Liberal Democracy:

[...] Today China, with its vast store of US Treasury bonds has American prosperity in its grip. Russia, with its stranglehold on continental energy resources, can intimidate Europeans. That's why George Bush would never boycott the Beijing Olympics and why the Europeans, in a cringing genuflection to Russian “concerns”, recoiled energetically last week from proposals to expand Nato.

Meanwhile, the global struggle against Islamism weakens the resolve, resources and unity of the West, while Russia and China deflect jihadism's ambitions through useful accommodations with its practitioners in Iran, Syria and Palestine.

Above all, we in the democratic world, fattened by prosperity and complacent in the inevitability of the victory of our values, are more prone than ever to the corrosive luxury of self-questioning: the sort of domestic posturing that results in a mayor of London extolling the virtues of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez.

[...] We shouldn't forget that the outcomes of the struggles between liberal democracy and its enemies were no more predetermined in the 20th century - look at where we stood in 1940 or 1979 - than they are today. It was only thanks to the resilience of Western populations and brilliant statesmanship that our values triumphed then.

Who can be so confident, surveying the state of morale and leadership today, that such a triumph is inevitable in this century?

The question I find myself asking, though, is whether we should care about the threat to the West quite as much as Mr Baker clearly wants us to.

First, we need to remind ourselves that Western governments are not, in fact, democracies in the technical sense. Rather, what we call democracy is representative government elected on the basis of a universal franchise. The difference may be dismissed as technical, but in reality it is vast. True democracy aims at expressing the will of the people, and thus bases decision-making not on the principle of 50%+1, but rather requires a greater majority in proportion to the significance of the decision. Representative government, on the other hand, elevates the significance of interest groups, lobbyists, parties etc, to the extent that frequently not even the representatives get to express their will, as we almost saw in the vote in Parliament over Human Embryology.

What has happened in the West is that ‘democracy’ has become shorthand for ‘morally good’ and ‘democratic society’ thus means ‘good, as opposed to bad, society’.

But here we may ask the question, ‘Good for what?’ Notoriously, the West now faces potential economic meltdown which will affect not just industries and institutions but individuals. In the UK, we have ruinous debt, teenage violence and a wholesale rejection of marriage. Our standard of living has improved enormously, but there is little evidence to suggest the same is true of our appreciation of life. At the same time, we have an increasingly intrusive government both from our own parliament and that centred in Brussels.

Instead of liberty, we now have ‘liberalism’ in the sense of a system which seeks to moderate, evaluate and regulate the course and outcome of our individual lives in the service of ends decided by those in charge. In education, for example, the key principle is not that people’s minds should be expanded or their capacity to enjoy life enhanced, but that they should be able to be fed into, and thereby to feed, the economy. Yet if economic success is the measure of a successful social policy, then it is China, not Great Britain, that points the way.

Our social system is only worth preserving if the system itself preserves what is worth preserving — and it is highly doubtful that those in charge of the system can give us any clear indication of what that might be. Instead, we have forgotten that prosperity can bring servility and it is to the advantage of our leaders that this remains so.

Of course there are worse possibilities. England is infinitely preferable to Zimbabwe, for the time being at least. But in Zimbabwe things can surely only get better (at least eventually) whereas here, without any change in our social system, things can certainly get worse.

So whilst I have no intention of moving to one of the less ‘democratic’ parts of the planet, I am not greatly enthused by the moral and political principles applying in the part where I live now.

‘War,’ is used to be asked, ‘What is it good for?’ The same might now be said of Western Liberalism, but not in quite the same, catchy, way.

Revd John P Richardson
11 April 2008

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