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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Democracy's corrupted version of itself is a bigger threat than totalitarianism: Tony Judt

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Tony Judt, one of the great intellectuals and thinkers of the 20th and early 21st century, died tragically and bravely of motor neuron disorder in August 2010.

He continues to haunt and taunt woolly thinkers from beyond the grave, thanks to the conversations he continued to have almost until his death, even when he could only breathe thanks to a machine.

This month, thanks to his interlocutor Timothy Snyder and the New York Review of Books, Judt is offering valuable thoughts about democracy, surely welcome when both the United States and China are choosing their political leaders in their very different ways.

"Democracy" itself is under fire in many parts of the world, for alleged and real failings. Indeed, the very philosophy of democracy has been attacked.

What does it mean?

What are the sufficient and necessary conditions for democracy in the days of instant Internet information, citizen journalists, netizens, tweeting and blogging nonstop?

Centuries ago it was clearer, involving the right to vote, and kick out the government. Even then, European critics attacked British notions of elections, where the elite gentlemen citizenry, but neither the women nor the unwashed masses, were permitted once every five years to vote whether they wanted to keep or change their member of parliament.

Nowadays, every regime claims to be democratic and the most dictatorial insert "democratic" into their country's title. Too many places have demonstrated myriad ways to manipulate elections including, but not limited to, preventing opponents from contesting, bribing and threatening voters, commandeering polling stations, stuffing ballot boxes, or just ignoring the actual votes and presenting a concoction prepared earlier, like a television chef who doesn't want to show the messy time-consuming processes in the kitchen.

Even with democratic elections, it does not mean that the rest of life is in any way democratic since elected members are free to form alliances, change parties, milk the corrupt fruits of office unchecked.

India is undoubtedly chaotically democratic at election time, but look at the mess that occurs between elections.

Japan is certainly democratic, but this has not stopped virtual paralysis of the political process and backsliding in the economy.

In the U.S., the much-vaunted champion of democracy (and let's forget the thugs and dictators Washington has backed in the interests of diplomatic or military expediency) the admission price for contesting elections is becoming prohibitive. Sadly, money is becoming corrupting and corrosive, both in the funds needed to run and in the pork barrel politics when elected.

In addition, American democracy has reached dysfunctional deadlock in the congress and in relations between congress and the White House.

One key recent law, for universal health care coverage, is being challenged in the Supreme Court and its fate will be decided by nine unelected judges whose reference point is a 224-year-old constitution adopted when the country had only 3.9 million people and none of the conveniences or hazards that people take for granted today.

Given the economic slump, widespread unemployment and loss of faith in government throughout the West, no wonder that critics have questioned whether democracy is worth it.

The Chinese, with commentators like Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X. Li among the most vociferous, claim that their system is better, as well as older and wiser since it delivers the economic goods and keeps the people happy.

Li unfortunately forgets the fundamental questions — by whose consent does government govern, and who keeps the government in check?

Tony Judt eschews grand idealism. Statements of the need for the world to be democratic or for human rights worldwide, he says, contribute "very little to either achieving its goal or adding to the rigor of the narrative."

Pessimistically, he believes that the world is at the end of an era that started in the late 18th century and continued until the 1990s, which he describes as: "The steady widening of the circle of countries whose rulers were constrained to accept something like the rule of law."

From the 1960s, Judt argues, this was "overlain by two different but related spreads: of economic and individual freedom. Those two latter developments, which look as if they are related to the first one, are in fact potentially dangerous to it."

He predicts that the 21st century will see growing insecurity brought about by excessive economic freedom and by climate change and unpredictable states.

Intellectuals and political philosophers will be forced to think not of better worlds but how to prevent worse ones, not of bringing democracy, freedom, the market to the Middle East, but answering questions such as "Was the Iraq war prudent, given the lost opportunity costs to achieve other things with limited resources?"

For historian Judt, constitutionality, the rule of law and the separation of powers came first, while democracy, in the sense of allowing all adults to take part in the choice of government, came much later.

He claims that democracy is less likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism or oligarchy than to a corrupted version of itself, not least because people don't care enough.

He cites falling voter turnout in European parliamentary elections even as parliaments have more powers.

I would argue that modern democracy has to evolve and grow to involve more than elections. The trouble is that most of the obvious routes are overgrown or jammed with traffic.

It is hard to think of a country where members of parliament or national assemblies have the wisdom and guts to challenge or even question the government on matters of principle.

Most of the conventional mass media have fallen for trivia or is blinded by stardust, even in countries like India which used to have a serious daily press. The blogosphere is crowded with siren voices, but it is hard to discern the thoughtful from the whingers and crackpots.

Judt concludes tamely about the need for "intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors."

Amen to that, but how to achieve it?

What a pity that Judt's fields were Europe and the U.S. What withering thoughts would he have had about China and Japan?

What kind of regime is it where one of the top 25 leaders — Bo Qilai — is sacked and just disappears days AFTER the annual parliamentary session?

China is no more exempt from bitter politicking and battles between politicians than Japan or the United States, but it carries the extra burden of refusing to face up to its past history.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.

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