Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
The rise of democracy
The author is a Lecturer in Political Science, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi.
Democracy has always been a threat to order. Four centuries before the beginning of this millennium, Plato indicted the city-state of Athens for handing over power to the people, for they had neither the inclination nor the training to run their lives. From the 5th century BCE (BC), Athenian democracy gave citizens equal rights to participate in decision making and to hold public office; it was based on the ideal of equality among citizens. One small caveat though - not everyone was a citizen. Only native Athenian men over the age of twenty were eligible for active citizenship. Not the 60 per cent of the Athenian population who were slaves, certainly not women, and not the so-called "immigrants" whose families had settled in Athens several generations earlier. But Plato looked on even this highly restricted citizenship with dismay.
Two centuries prior to Athenian democracy, there were republics in and around the foothills of northern India, set up by Aryan tribes of the plains rebelling against the orthodoxy in the monarchies. Historians of ancient India have pointed out that in the transition from tribe to republic they lost the democratic pattern of the tribe, but retained the idea of government through an assembly representing the tribe. The Buddha's tribe, for example, was a kshatriya tribe, the Sakyas, who elected their chief by rotation from different families. Despite repeated attacks isolated tribal republics continued to survive till the 4th century CE (AD).
About twenty centuries later, the 16th century CE (AD) saw the beginnings of the radical changes that were to transform Europe from feudalism to capitalism. Over the next two centuries democratic revolutions were to sweep the countries of Europe and the British colony of America with the heady slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, challenging the entrenched power of the Church and the feudal aristocracy. At the heart of the political transformation was the struggle between the old aristocratic elite and the emerging bourgeoisie, which had so far been excluded from power. This meant that the objective of democracy was to end the absolutist regimes, but to replace them, not by the rule of the mass of the people, but by the propertied middle-class male. The greatest fear of the American founding fathers for instance, was the replacement of monarchy, not by a minimalist state protecting property rights, but by "the rule of the mob".
Historically, the rise of liberal democracy has been intrinsically linked to the growth of capitalism; indeed, it has been argued that modern democratic ideas grew initially in order to facilitate the growth of capitalism. The key notion of the individual invested with rights to his (not her) body and property emerged at this time, replacing the idea of the self as an extension of the community. The free individual, as opposed to the serf bound to the landlord's land, was as necessary for capitalism, to create the mobile labour force required for capitalist industrialisation, as the individual right to property was. Legislation like the Poor Law Reform Act in Britain in 1834 stopped aid to the poor, thus forcing them to sell their labour for whatever wages they got. But at the same time, the conflict of the bourgeoisie with the old elite meant that there were also laws which benefited the poor, like the Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846), which removed restrictions on import of corn into England. These restrictions had ensured high prices of food, benefiting the landed gentry, but were disadvantageous for the emerging manufacturing elite who wanted to ensure cheaper food to keep wages down. Expansion of voting rights however, took the form of enfranchising the new middle classes alone, the financiers, manufacturers and merchants.
Max Desfor/Associated Press
And women? Feminists have argued that the bourgeois public sphere was inherently masculinist, its misogyny was not merely an incidental feature. In other words, the problem that feminist activists of that period faced was not simply one of getting rights extended to women. The very notion of the individual as the rational, free being, excluded women, who were understood by their nature, to be incapable of rational thought or physical control. Thus the justification of the situation and lower status of women made the shift from earlier arguments about divine will to "scientific" arguments about nature. The female body was interpreted by male philosophers as out of control, bleeding periodically, penetratable, too close to nature. This is how liberal philosophers of the social contract, from Rousseau in the 18th century, to Rawls in the 20th century, are able to legitimise modern civil government as having originated in a contract between rulers and ruled. Yet they exclude women, or any notion of gender inequality from their idea of the contract. That is why in the liberal democracies of the West, women were always the last to get the vote - working class white men, then black men, and finally, women. It was as late as 1938 that British women, for example, were enfranchised.
Apart from the restrictive nature of citizenship which was only gradually expanded, one of the powerful critiques of liberal democracy has pointed to the purely juridical, or legalistic nature of its rights. Freedom of contract, equality before the law and the right to vote are all severely restricted in the absence of economic democracy. As a saying in 19th century England went, "Everyone is free to sleep under the bridges of London, from the King to the pauper." Of course, in time, socialist states found themselves struggling with the strangely posed conundrum of "a full stomach versus a free press." There were many, from Alexandra Kollontai in Russia to the architects of the Prague Spring, who thought the two were not only reconcilable but in fact, were necessarily related. But these were the tendencies which faced historical defeat.
Anthony Camerano/Associated Press
What marks the democracy of the classical Greek city-states as different from modern democracy is the individualism that marks the latter. Thus the central idea of modern democracy as it evolved in the West is that "I" am this body and that my "self" stops at the boundaries of my skin. Although this seems an entirely natural identification to the modern mind, it is in fact, as we have seen, only about 400 years old and has specific cultural moorings in the experience of the West. In non-Western societies such as ours, this notion of the individual, separate from all other individuals, as the unit of society, is still not an uncontested one. For instance, the great conflict generated by the debate in urban middle-class homes over "love versus arranged marriages" is precisely about whether people "belong" to themselves or to wider communities. And the fact that democracy has entered these societies before the notion of the individual took root means that our democracy - in Asian and African countries - takes very different shapes than it does in the societies of its origin.
Liberal individualism never became the uncontested core of anti-imperialist struggles for democracy. Whether Gandhi and Ambedkar in India or African socialists like Nyerere and Nkrumah, most nationalist leaders constructed national identities, not through the idea of individual citizenship but through that of national communities - caste, religious, ethnic groups. Their language of politics remained non-individualistic. And yet there remained always a tension between the community, defined in different ways, as the bearer of rights in post-colonial democracies and the individual. This tension is evident in the Indian constitution, for instance, where the Fundamental Rights protect the rights of both the individual and the religious community. Sometimes this leads to contradiction between the two - as when equal rights for women as individuals comes into conflict with religious Personal Laws, all of which discriminate against women. Similarly, the demand for reservations in representative institutions on the basis of group identity - women, castes or religious communities - fundamentally reshapes the conception of political representation at the core of bourgeois democracy, that of "one-person-one-vote." Other features of democracy as it evolved in the West have undergone mutation too. For example in post-independence Africa, very often the only state which met the requirement of having a multi-party system was apartheid South Africa, all the parties being white, while Tanzania and Kenya were among those one-party states which experimented with building a new model of democratic dissent within a broad platform.
The point is not that we have failed the test of meeting the standards set by western liberal democracies. Indeed, in those societies, the assumptions of a homogeneous, individuated citizenry are in any case under attack, not only by the immigration of the last three decades, but - like the Welsh and the Scots in England - by indigenous community identities hitherto rendered invisible by homogeneous "national" identities. The point is rather, that democracy has travelled a long way and taken many shapes, often unrecognisable in terms of the criteria set by the Western experience. Many confident assumptions about democracy are having to be painfully rethought.
In India as in other postcolonial societies, the most difficult task is to ensure democracy within communities while permitting communities to retain their identity within the larger whole. For instance, would a Hindu's identity be compromised by non-Brahmin women doing a priest's work? To permit caste and gender restrictions to continue is to keep democratic norms out of the community. But if external (legislative or judicial) intervention were to ensure changes, then what of "community identity"? In the immediate aftermath of independence, maintaining a balance between internal and external democracy was envisaged by national elite as the task of the state, basking as it was in the glow of legitimacy shed by the anti-imperialist struggle. It is this legitimacy which is increasingly being called into question, whether by women's groups opting for internal reform within communities rather than a State-legislated civil code, or by communities displaced by the state's "development" projects.
If we can no longer depend on the state to be the creator and protector of a democratic public sphere, the task of democratic forces is more complicated, more unpredictable but at the same time more creative than we have envisaged.
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