The dark side of liberal democracy

The dark side of liberal democracy

| Opinion | Fri, July 13 2012, 8:28 AM
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Paper Edition | Page: 6

It has been more than a decade since Indonesia reconstituted its democratic politics. Despite various problems, such as ethno-religious violence, rampant corruption and widening inequality, the country has enjoyed a series of relatively peaceful elections, sound macroeconomic stability and international recognition.

Nevertheless, one big question remains unanswered: Are we sure that our current form of electoral democracy is enough to answer our problems?

Liberal democracy, or more accurately, a functioning electoral democracy has been seen as a “panacea” since the demise of dictatorships — from fascism, Stalinism, and authoritarianism in the East and in the West.

Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed how electoral democracy alone is not enough; ethnic conflict, economic inequality and elitism are some examples of the problems faced by electoral democracies with immature political institutions, wide economic gaps and a lack of democratic political culture.

These problems reveal the darker side of liberal democracy; as in the case of communist and fascist dictatorships, liberal democracy cannot be detached from the problem of violence and the peasant question.

The problem of violence simply means the extensive use of violence especially against the former regime, the monarchs, albeit through different means and to different degrees, by the state in each regime, whereas the peasant question reflects the unavoidable dilemma of what to do with the peasantry: Whether to gradually marginalize them from the political processes or rapidly exclude them once the state has enough repressive power. Both these choices represent the repressive and exclusivist tendencies of modern political regimes, including liberal democracy.

This is exactly the argument that Barrington Moore Jr., a renowned political sociologist, makes in his Social Origins of Dictatorships and Democracies (1966).

Even before the emergence of postmodern critiques toward modernity and democracy, Moore started to pose the question of violence and exclusion in liberal democratic societies.

Moore’s thesis is quite simple: different coalition patterns between the three dominant social classes — the landowners, the peasants and the bourgeoisie — will lead to different political regimes.

Trade-oriented landowners and bourgeoisie paved the way for liberal democracy in England; the domination of reactionary and conservative aristocratic landowners led Japan and Germany to fascism; and the alliance between
a revolutionary-oriented bourgeoisie and a large peasant population laid the foundation of communism in China and the former Soviet Union.

Though these countries may have had different political regimes, they were unable to solve the problem of violence and the peasant question.

In fascist and communist dictatorships, the state, which claimed to fight on behalf of the peasantry, extensively and violently repressed the peasantry and rural population in general through collectivization, misleading industrial policies, forced labor, gulags among other things.

However, liberal democracy also faces the same problem. In England and the US, the peasantry and rural population were gradually excluded from politics at the same time when these countries were maturing their democracies.

With regard to violence, think about the bloody French revolution and the marginalization of native Americans.

If these cases do not provide strong enough evidence, think about the American Civil War, a war between the North and the South over the issue of slavery and the rights of African-Americans to citizenship.

As a matter of fact, the problem of marginalization and violence have continued to provide a recurring repertoire of resistance struggles in major Western democracies, starting from the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and student activism, through the late 1980s to 1990s with the rise of neo-liberalism and the end of the Cold War and into the 2000s with the rise and fall of the War on Terror and the global financial crisis.

What is happening in Indonesian politics these days is also related to this fundamental problem of electoral democracy worldwide.

It is important to note that I in no way totally reject electoral democracy. In fact, as a student of political science, and in agreement with most political scientists, I would argue that electoral democracy is still the best possible political system among several that are far worse.

Democracy is a messy process, and yet its messiness makes it function durably.

Nonetheless, we also have to admit to and face its dark side; its inherent tendencies toward violence and exclusivism.

Some theorists, such as O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986) argue that this is the “temporary” cost that we have to pay in the context of developing democracies, especially in the case of newly emerging and transitioning democracies.

From the aforementioned narratives of Western democracies, we also know the inherent tension between institutional stability and inclusion of “the other” in liberal democracy.

We totally understand this point. However, that does not mean that what we need to do is to wait until this “transition” period is over. The repertoire of struggle for a truly deliberative democracy should be continuously propagated by robust and dynamic civil society and citizens’ activism.

In our case, this requires our politicians and political scientists to move away from transactional, exclusivist and patronage politics as well as using political analysis as a mere devotion to statistics and punditry, respectively.

Our middle-class citizens, especially the urban ones, might consider leaving their comfort zone of complacent middle-class life and face the reality of messiness in our democratic system and the various social injustices in our society.

What we need is to confront the dark side of democracy and make it a viable mechanism for the protection of human rights and economic and social justice. The choice is either to realize that goal or make the current situation even worse.

The writer, a graduate of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and Ohio University, is due to start his doctoral studies in political science at Northern Illinois University later this year.