Democracy: Form and Essence
by Prof. Dr. Türkkaya ATAÖV
“Democracy” is expected to be, in the final analysis, “the rule of the people”. It is generally defined as a process of administering power for the freedom and the equality of all citizens but proclaiming, in the meantime, the prevalence of the will of the majority. It is adorned with a variety of formal attributes, often in partial or total isolation of the actual socio-economic conditions. Hence, the operative state of affairs may well be a far cry from the description in high-sounding constitutions. For an all-embracing comprehension of “who gets what, when and how”, it is necessary not only to read the laws of the land, but also their immediate connection with - even dependence on - the sub-structural realities of these formations.
Since the British (1688), American (1776), French (1789), and Soviet (1917) Revolutions, mankind has become accustomed to phrases like “periodic elections”, “secret ballot”, “parliamentary representation”, “restraints of a second chamber”, “separation of powers”, “federalistic balance”, “states’ rights”, or “dictatorship of the proletariat for applying democracy in favour of the working majority.”
Some of these traditions, rules, and procedures do indeed help to safeguard or promote certain rights. Some legal instruments may even be revolutionary. For instance, in the words of the eminent historian Arnold J. Toynbee, the Turks aimed “at nothing short of an out-and-out conversion” of their country. It was “as revolutionary a programme as has ever been carried out in any country deliberately and systematically in such a short a span of time.” He added: “It was as if, in our Western world, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the secularist scientific mental revolution at the end of the seventeenth century, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution had all been telescoped into a single lifetime and been made compulsory by law.”
Toynbee even described the Turkish general election of 1950 as a landmark that signified “a turn of the political tide in the world as a whole.” Turkey had moved then from a one-party to a two-party regime “by consent, without violence or bloodshed.” The party that had for almost three decades held a monopoly of office accepted the will of the electors, first by letting them vote freely, and secondly by taking the adverse vote as a signal for the hitherto dominant party to retire from office and let the opposition take over the government. I am assuming that Professor Toynbee was not personally interested in who won the elections, but only in the victory of the constitutional spirit.
Instrument of the few?
Some thinking individuals and organized groups throughout history, however, have refused to be the idol worshippers of formal democracy -- or of socialism. Although it does not follow that we throw the basic beliefs of democracy and of socialism on the scrap-heap, libraries are full of works and the annals of history abundant in human experience revealing the hard kernel and lack of freedom hidden under the silver-tongued shell of formal equality and liberty. There is no harm in being dissatisfied with the sweet-sounding shell. Democracy is not a present only for the “worthy” few and their immediate entourage loyal to them.
Framed with a constitution and embellished by political liberties, suffrage, and representative bodies, the whole arrangement may be a coercive instrument of that powerful few. That instrument may be used, moreover, to suppress the rights of the popular masses. The machinery, democratic in form, may bar the people from participating in governance. Hence, formally proclaimed rights may well be totally inoperative.
This dichotomy may even bring a society to the doors of an overt or covert dictatorship of the most reactionary, chauvinistic and imperialist elements of a particular socio-economic order. This is the case when the powerful group is no longer able to pursue its policies via the usual democratic methods. Such systems were established in Italy (1922), Germany (1933), and in some other countries. Often reducing human nature to biological features and dividing races into “higher” and “lower” ones, they justified social inequality, exploitation and aggressive wars. As the Harvard Professor V.O. Key, Jr. convincingly exposed in his famous compendium on southern politics, even the electoral process in the eleven American states from Virginia to Florida came close to that for a number of decades beginning with the 1920s.
European fascism during the inter-war period was an extreme case. Anti-democratic deviations in some societies are less unambigious. In some countries, dominant socio-economic entities make the crucial decisions and apply them in an absence of effective opposition without any need for semi-military formations marching in goose-steps, for photographs of top decision-makers adorning public buildings or for systematic attacks on religious, racial and ethnic minorities. Even if these standard forms are not present,. democratic institutions may still be eroded. The weight of any anti-democratic rule is felt when it is realistically established whom it serves, how it stands on its feet and how it disseminates its power.
Democracies are expected to safeguard the rights of all citizens, not only those who constitute the racial, ethnical, religious or political majorities, but also minorities of every brand. As Rosa Luxemburg, a socialist, eloquently expressed in her critical book on the Russian Revolution, “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be - is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” The pursuit of “harmonious politics” may often lead to similar consequences. In some societies, customarily considered democratic, discrimination may return with a vengeance. If a lot has changed in the United States, especially in the southern states, an awful lot also stayed the same. In Mississippi, where African-Americans constitute 36 percent of the population, they make up about 75 percent of prisoners. There are tougher places to be black than that southern state. Poverty, low levels of education, and high prison rates among blacks in the country cannot be explained by racial genetic inability or unwillingness to seize opportunities. Some whites are just peddling false goods.
The political parties of some Western democracies, whether sitting at the apex of power or expected to oppose those who do so, are often to be found within a narrow spectrum. Closely interacting with other components of the political system, the main contending parties may collectively constitute the major lever which enables the dominant force in the society to maintain and further its influence. A society in which power over essential aspects of life falls outside the command of the public cannot be described as a democracy. The figures that show the growth of the Gross Domestic Product do not indicate the distribution of wealth. Similarly, the notion of growth in some Third World countries may mean the boost of profit only of a single individual who operates a utility company. The total debt of the developing nations, on the other hand, exceeds their total spending on health and education.
What is missing in all these deviations from democracy is the popular control of the otherwise “silent majority” in the street over the ruling few. Without a full share in wealth, the masses experience declining living standards and are armed to fight the wars of others. They should enjoy, instead, direct authority in decision-making and management in their execution. The Soviet model of command from above was also poles apart from the vision of freely associated producers having attained mastery over their own labour. Consequently, perestroika released the accumulated tensions, and glasnost revealed them to the world. What was “buried” should be appropriately described as the remnants of the Stalinist model.
The alternative of a democracy complete with its essential contents cannot be dead as long as its formal counterpart lives on but fails to meet the pursuit of the masses. Just because a country has started out with an authoritarian - or a democratic - regime does not mean that it is bound to continue in this manner. The forces of civil society constitute the principal vehicles for the growth of democracy. To utilize relevant tools requires civic literacy, that is, the capacity of the citizens who compose the fundamental unit of the political system, to accumulate knowledge about the rules of governance and indulge in conscious action.
(DIPLOMAT - August 2005 - Ankara)