26 May 2006

The Limits Of Democracy

There are those absolutists - and I acknowledge that I have been one at times - who under any and all circumstances, for any given situation, have a single, all-purpose solution: democracy, the rule of law, the will of the people. However they phrase it, it always comes off sounding like the sort of thing only a fascist or racist or unreconstructed colonialist could oppose.

But this one-size-fits-all prescription ignores the troublesome fact that democracy, as wonderful as it's been for some countries, hasn't worked out so well for many others. Most African countries, on gaining their independence from Europe, started out as Western-style democracies and rather quickly degenerated into totalitarian chiefdoms, one-party states, or in the worst cases like Somalia and Sierra Leone, a complete collapse of civil authority and a lapse into outright savagery. Zimbabwe, once one of the richest and most successful African states, tragically appears to be headed in the same direction, its democratic mechanisms and regular elections notwithstanding.

Then you've got the democratically elected president of Iran threatening to do a Hitler on the Middle East, and of course there's neighbouring Iraq, which doesn't seem to have benefitted in the slightest from all that democracy so expensively and bloodily imported by the Americans and British. It doesn't get so much attention up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but Australia has been regularly having to bail out, with both cash and troops, failed states in the South Pacific. Fij, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and now East Timor have all shown themselves incapable of managing their own affairs, leaving their citizens to suffer from chronic insecurity and acute bouts of violence and anarchy which only the Australians seem able to bring under control. But even in Australia's own Northern Territory, culturally and geographically closer to New Guinea than to Sydney, a similar phenomenon is unfolding. Pressed by well-intentioned if not well-thought out liberalism to grant autonomy and self-government to Aboriginal communities, the government now finds itself having to contend with Third World-style chaos and deprivation.

The uncomfortable question begins to arise: are some people simply not ready for democracy? It's hardly such a radical notion; after all, it's only been in the last few centuries that democracy has been able to take hold and flourish anywhere, and its path hasn't always been smooth. It's been less than 60 years since Japan and Germany became fully self-governing states, and then only when it was forced upon them by overwhelming military power and the deaths of millions. So if we can accept that highly educated and sophisticated populations like the Japanese and Germans can fall victim to tyrants making a mockery of democratic principles, why is it so difficult to believe that largely illiterate populations, often only a generation or two removed from a nomadic or tribal life, in some cases not much more removed from practices like headhunting, cannibalism and slavery, might have similar difficulties?

It's the race thing, of course, that stops people being honest about the situation. Most of the world's failed or failing states are inhabited by black or brown people, and that's a rather inconvenient fact for the cultural relativists who refuse to believe that there is anything intrinsically valuable about Western cultures or values as opposed to those of other societies. To suggest that some cultures are "backward" is usually considered straight-out racist; even the euphemisms of "undeveloped" or "underdeveloped" seem to be falling out of favour. Today, all countries that aren't already rich and successful are "developing," even if they clearly aren't, even if they're undeniably headed into penury and starvation and brutal oppression as, for example, Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

The myth of democracy as panacea provides a convenient excuse for Western governments and individuals not to get involved. Instead we contribute to Oxfam or campaign to abolish Third World debt so its tyrants can start with a clean slate on their next round of shopping for Rolls Royces and armaments. It's true that the West sowed the seeds of many of the world's current troubles when it embarked on its wave of empire-building, but it's equally true that abruptly handing everything back to the natives and pretending that everything's okay because "We're all democracies now" has been just as disastrous, if not more so.

Solutions? They're neither obvious nor easy, but to continue down the present route guarantees only more hardship for the peoples of the developing world (see, I'm doing it now, too) and continued and greater blowback for Europe and North America as they struggle to cope with waves of refugees fleeing the corrupt, incompetent and failed states to the south. Pretending it's not happening will only make things worse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Adam described for me recently a column you wrote for MRR or some other publication back in the day in which you described a black man being harassed by punk kids on the subway, and then at the end reversed it and said that in fact, the older man was you, and the kids were black. Adam said your instinct in the first instance was "racist little bastards," but then once you hit with the reversal, you didn't know quite what to say...

Unfortunately, when people look at international relations through the lens of modern political correctness, a similar change of perspective (and perhaps loss of reality) happens.

If we were to describe two groups of people, murdering men, women and children alike, mutilating each other, poisoning each other, and facilitating the starvation of others when it gets them a bigger gun or a snazzier ride, and then to say that this was all happening in Canada, the outcry would be enormous, vocal, and no holds barred. They'd be called barbaric, monstrous, backwards, and every other manner of things not so good.

However, say that these things are happening in Africa, and suddenly you have to restrain yourself. Granted, a lot of this is because in truth, you have to consider culture when it comes to these things, but it all boils down to people behaving badly, regardless of color. But those on the far left simply can't call it like it is, for fear of being labeled a racist.

Africa is having a rough time because they're in a world between two worlds. Up until relatively recently, they've lived in a tribal world. A world where, yes, tribes competed for resources and thus often waged small scale wars on each other. And now, the Western World has shown up, and brought democracy and capitalism to the party, and the collision of these two worlds is, to put it bluntly, a big goddamned ugly mess. Small scale warfare is now done with big scale weaponry, and the competition has moved beyond resources necessary to survive to greed (which isn't all that different from, say, here, but we're not one cultural step away from tribal living, so the way we go about things is a bit different, although sometimes just as ruthless).

I don't claim to know how to fix it, but it certainly needs to be faced and acknowledged with the level of seriousness it deserves, and not poo pooed away because no one wants to say what no one wants to hear.

Maybe people need to remember that other people are suffering and dying while they argue about who's the bigger racist, which terminology is appropriate, and who to meddle with next.