Taking Democracy Seriously

By Richard Pithouse · 14 Jan 2010

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Picture: Frames of Mind
Picture: Frames of Mind

The democratic ideal, the idea that the people should rule themselves, is grounded in equality. It recognises that everyone is capable of thought and it is committed to the right of all people to shape society via free and equal participation in deliberative processes. Because democracy is a politics of equality it is a fundamental rejection of the idea that people should know or be forced to accept their place in society.

One way of containing the radical force of the democratic ideal has been to exclude various groups of people from the definition of the people. But the assertion of the rights of man in the French Revolution of 1789 was quickly followed by a clear call to vindicate the rights of women and then, in 1804, the affirmation of the universal right to freedom in the slave rebellion that brought the Haitian Republic into being. A genuine commitment to the democratic ideal does not tolerate any exclusion.

But another way of containing democracy has been to turn the rule of the people into a form of oligarchy, rule by the few, by removing real decision making from popular control and reducing it to a choice between competing representatives from amongst the elite. Democracy is an assertion of immediate equality. But when it is turned into an oligarchy of one sort or another equality ceases to be a foundational principle for political action by the people and instead becomes, at best, a goal towards which political action claims to move on behalf of the people. The people are returned to their allocated places in society and, aside from the act of voting, politics becomes a spectacle to be observed from a distance.

To say that liberal democracy generally ends up by enabling the rotation of elites is not to say that it is not vastly preferable to outright authoritarianism. But it is to say that the once radical idea of democracy has largely been made safe for elites and that this fact is the basis for much of the contemporary elite consensus on the value of democracy. It is instructive to note that when people have the temerity to elect the wrong people - representatives who, like Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti or Evo Morales in Bolivia propose to defuse power by opening society up to meaningful participation by ordinary people - local elites often seek to ally with imperialism with a view to the violent restoration of elite rule.

The form of democracy that was negotiated in South Africa at the end of apartheid made some largely empty gestures to popular participation. But the important experiments in popular democracy that had been undertaken in the trade unions and the United Democratic Front were put aside as formal equality before the law replaced the popular assertion of substantive equality. When access to the law is commodified any assertion of equality in law will never be realised in practice. When decision-making occurs through representatives accountable to party discipline substantive political choices will always be limited. And when the few opportunities for participation are open to 'stakeholders', rather than just people as people, elites will always dominate.

The idea that the limited democratisation achieved in 1994 would automatically deepen with the passing of time has proven to be just as much of comforting fantasy as the idea that poverty would be steadily rolled back. On the contrary the deracialising of elite rule has often functioned to improve its defences against popular power.

The understandable paranoia produced by the persecution suffered by ANC activists under apartheid has fed into the organisation's historical association with Stalinism, and its more recent embrace of nationalist and sometimes ethnic demagoguery, to produce a politics, which has some clear anti-democratic tendencies. The descent of a faction of the ANC into a politics of outright demagoguery and intimation may be the most visible threat to democracy from within the organisation but there are others. One is the long-standing assumption, sometimes backed with violence at the local level, that the ANC is the only legitimate organisational form for popular political participation. Another is the top down character of the party and the way in which its local Branch Executive Committees, often operating through other structures like Community Policing Forums and Ward Committees, exercise an iron grip on political life in many communities.

But the general elitism of electoral politics in South Africa has produced anti-democratic sentiments across all of the major political parties. The DA has been as brazen as the ANC in engaging in criminal acts against the poor, such as unlawful evictions. And while COPE or the DA will speak out against attempts by the ANC to raise its leaders above the rule of law they are both silent in face of the increasingly brutal attempts by the ANC to force the poor beneath the rule of law.

The power of money, sometimes tied up with attempts to legitimate white racism by masking it in the language of economic necessity, is also often anti-democratic. When it is assumed that development requires a non-negotiable commitment to the protection or even extension of the privileges of wealth there can be no substantive democratisation.

And then there is the plague of managerialism. Managerialism is anti-democratic because it is rule by experts. But it is also anti-democratic because of the nature of the expertise to which more and more of society, often including elected representatives, is subordinated. It would be one thing to have doctors run hospitals or professors run universities but its quite another to have these sorts of institutions run by managers bent on maximising efficiency rather than professionals who have chosen healing or education as a vocation. Managerialism claims to replace the time consuming deliberation and conflict of politics with the value free efficiency of best practice managerial expertise. But the price of that expertise includes its investment in all the dogmas of the day many of which are shaped by the demands of money rather than justice or any sense of the real value of human beings. Its constant striving for more efficiency is a utopian modernising delusion that is absolutely incapable of measuring let alone enabling the flourishing of the sometimes-mysterious interactions that make enabling social relations and institutions possible.

It's not unusual for critical discourses and practices to also take a substantively anti-democratic form. For instance when civil society assumes, implicitly or explicitly, that the representation of the will of the people is its professional role it roots its praxis in a deeply anti-democratic assumption. Some of the forms of leftism outside of the ANC that express powerful critiques of our economic and policy choices but respond to the assertion of the right of ordinary people to think their own politics with the same paranoia as the ANC are also anti-democratic. There are also growing popular threats to democracy. The recent turn to a popular and at times violent politics of ethnic communalism and social conservatism is, at least in part, a response to the failure of our democracy to be fully inclusive. But it is a deeply and dangerously reactionary response.

The recent struggles within the ANC have, together with the financial crisis, opened up the prospects for a more meaningful discussion of our economic choices. We need a similar discussion about our political choices.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Gabriel Campher
14 Jan

True leadership

Brilliant article.

We accept that 'democracy' demands equality, but we also accept that sheep must have a shepherd. The problem is that the shepherds in our current democracies are actually wolves in sheep's clothing. According to John C. Maxwell, the real shepherd (or true leader) 'wields power for one reason and one reason only - to serve'! That is, not to enrich him/herself, but to the benefit of the People.

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14 Jan

Memory Against Forgetting

Sometimes its difficult to remember what we were really struggling for in the 1980s. Sometimes its difficult to remember the euphoria of 1994.

But it is essential that we remember all of that because this society is not what we fought for - not even close. This is, as Gabriel says, a brilliant article.

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Leonard Suransky
16 Jan

Fine and Idealistic Article

Well done Richard. You have said it all. Realistically we are always going to be ruled by smallish elites...`the iron law of the oligarchy

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jean P.Fils-Aime
17 Mar


Oprah Winfrey on Trial.

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