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A Critique of Modern Democracy – Part 1


 
Written By : Senex
Paris, France
Photo credit – Alain Kugel

Each one of us is born at a particular point on the timeline of human history, and in a particular place with its unique culture both human and ecological. These factors, which are in constant flux, define us to a large extent. Not only how we live, but also how we think. Our very mindset and our world view is primarily a product of these two elements. They create the filter through which we view the world.

A decade ago I had read a short piece written by Ian McEwan, one of England’s best known novelists, describing how he had very recently found out that he had an older brother who had been given away in 1942 by his unwed mother for adoption. The brother, David Sharp, had been born an “illegitimate child” and would have been a great source of shame for their mother had he not been given away.  How the times have changed. Today, more than 50% of all children born in Northern and Western Europe since 2010, are out of wedlock. It has been a growing trend that promises to become the norm in the coming days. In less than half a century the way society thinks about one of its most important institutions, (marriage, and off-springs born of that marriage) has dramatically changed. In another generation even the term “wedlock” will have become an archaic word whose existence will have been relegated to the dictionary. Nothing is forever. Nothing is sacrosanct. Only when we truly understand that, are we able to step out of the prison of our individual timelines and our specific cultures.

Today, we are going to look at a very important institution that dominates the political spectrum across the world and everyone in it. It embodies every political value that humanity has desired and held dear for most of its recorded history. Freedom(s), equality, liberty, justice, rights, law, due process of law and more, are all to be found in this catch-all word democracy. For a better part of the 20th century, the Western nations (North America and Western Europe and its allies) have considered themselves to be democratic and the Communist countries and the rest of the under-developed world as undemocratic. Yet, we find staunchly communist countries like East Germany called itself “The German Democratic Republic”, North Vietnam called itself “Democratic Republic of Vietnam”, and North Korea calls itself “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” even today; while others like the Cuba and USSR called itself “Republic(s)”, which means government by the people (public), a synonym for democracy. This is obviously very confusing for anyone seeking to understand what the truth is. 

Yet, according to what we have established earlier, for most of humanity born in the “Free World” (another contentious term, but well established for us to mean the non-communist world or the Western world and its allies and protégés), this question might never arise or the thought ever occur. Why? Because it has been appropriated by the West for a long, long time. That is what been a prisoner of one’s time and culture means. If you were around in the 1960’s or earlier, the word “gay” would have meant happy, joyous, fun-loving, but today, its usage denotes homosexual, and only that. The culture has established that. It has similarly established the association of the word “democracy” and “democratic” with Western countries; and its opposite non-democratic, for the communist and now, Muslim countries. 

Few people in Europe or North America think of Iran as a democratic country, even if it is. If you ask any “Free World” citizen today whether they would consider a country that doesn’t allow women to vote, democratic, what do you think they would reply? Well, Iranian women have been voting since 1964,but the first Swiss woman only in 1971, while those in the Appenzell Innerrhoden Canton became the last women in Switzerland to gain equal status in voting with men as recently as 1991. Yet, I doubt if anyone in Europe or North America would think of Iran as a democracy ahead of Switzerland. This is how cultural mindset is formed.

Hence, whoever owns the narrative becomes increasingly important in today’s world. The modern day creation of mass communication and the American term “bully pulpit” came around the same time almost a century ago. The world of communication has seen enormous and unimaginable progress in terms of technology and literacy. There has been tremendous competition to control the world of ideas once people realized that whoever holds the microphone, has the lectern, owns the media has access to our ears and our minds. 

In principle it has always been the same. Even in times past we find Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, pleading with a hostile crowd of citizens, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” and once he had their ear he skillfully turned them around and made them dance to his tune. In fact, if we are to believe Shakespeare, all of Caesar’s murderers were on the run for their lives within hours of that speech. Men who desire power have learnt that it is a fickle mistress and can be kept in leash by those that control the narrative. Its importance has increased manifold in modern times when direct war between Great Powers had become improbable.  At whatever point of time man realized this he coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”, and found greater economy in addressing the minds of his fellow men rather than physically bending them to his will. Not that he has given up the former for the latter. At some level he has always retained brute force as the weapon of last resort. But as the destructive capability of his weapons became ever more powerful, he was forced to resort to diplomacy and “winning the hearts and minds” of people rather than apply brute force. Historically, we find at one end of the human spectrum, men (the vast majority) unwilling to let go of their primal animal instincts that depend on brute force, while on the other end, we have the more evolved minority, the thinkers and philosophers, idealists and spiritual leaders for whom the reason transcend brute force.

The shift from battle of brute forces to battle of ideas has been evident for a long time and seems to have been completed by the beginning of the Cold War. One can say that the Cold War was a direct result of this shift. The reason was quite simple. The two opposing sides: The American led, capitalist West and the Soviet led, communist East, were at loggerheads and yet direct war between them would result in (what had been named) MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction.

Like most systems in the Universe, human society too has binary roots pulling it opposite directions. We have ambitious individuals seeking personal power, stepping on the shoulders of others to climb to the higher echelons of the social power hierarchy, which is itself a result of the power struggle within any community. 

Its binary twin, the broad base of the people at the bottom of the totem pole, seeks to resist the oppression of the tyrannical forces at the top. Equilibrium of the system comes from the balance of the two.

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