Debunking the Democracy Myth

Thomas Collins

Wednesday, 08 February 2017

Democracy occupies a special place in our hearts. Conceived in Ancient Greece, debated over in the Magna Carta and fought over in the English Civil Wars; the right of the demos – the people – to have their say has always been a cherished ideal.

A political system devised for power sharing is in essence a good a thing. But I wonder if there’s a few myths -enshrouding democracy- that stop us from properly understanding it and using it to its full potential.

The main myth which I hope to debunk is the idea that ‘democracy unequivocally leads to a good society’.

When people were voting for Trump and Brexit, I think many removed themselves from the democratic process due to this maxim. It is the unspoken idea that because the system supposes to give us all a say, only good things can happen- the ‘good society myth’.

I wish to argue that it’s not a system which de facto leads to a better society. Why? Democracy can mask who has power and it can democratically elect abhorrent people with prejudice policies.

‘The form does not necessarily reflect the content.’

If we were more critical about democracy’s inherent worth: we would be better prepared to counter in-system democratic threats like Trump and Brexit, we would be better prepared to make democracy work for us and we would be more willing to look to the future towards a better political system.

Debunking the myth. Here we go.

What is a democratically bad society? One where you can vote but have no real power. I think if you look at democracy through the lens of history, it is easy to see that this is exactly what has happened.  

I see democracy as a concession rather than a victory. It was handed to us by a reluctant oligarchy who knew they could no longer maintain absolute power and so instead used democracy as a kind of appeasement. Unsurprisingly, power remained firmly in the hands of those who always had it, meaning that democracy is controversially little more than a public show subtly masking who has power. The old establishment never wanted any vote or real change. We’ve got the vote, but got no real change and even less power.

And so they’ve managed to pull off the world biggest hoax; we blindly accepted democracy as an adequate concession.

Look in the dictionary. Democracy is given as the antonym to oligarchy. Yes it’s an idea in opposition to an omnipotent ruling class, but to state it as the antonym is going too far, and shows how well we bought into this hoax.

The independence era in Africa marked a new day for the continent – great emphasis was placed on democracy as a shining beacon of hope for the future. When it didn’t all go to plan -and still today places like Uganda and Cameroon (who call themselves democracies) have leaders who have ruled for around 30 years-  did we question the model we gave them or instead blamed it on the Africans themselves?

Africa is an extreme example but the stranglehold some of their ruling classes have on power, is perhaps different from ours only in its ability to be detected.

The Democratic Republic of North Korea should be funny. Perhaps the joke’s on us.

You may argue that North Korea and Uganda simply aren’t democratic. That’s exactly the point I’m making. It’s a difference in degree rather than kind, and if democracy implies shared power but gives privileged power, then it is the fault of the system; of democracy. Maybe the form inspires corrupt content?  

This may sound like Trump and Farage -two sceptics who were suspicious of democracy- but if they managed to rock the establishment from the right after realising this, we should realise it and rock it from the left.

Also if democracy doesn’t always entail a better society, it should not be thought of as an end goal, but rather as a process which we are only half-way through.

Another reason why the ‘good society myth’ is false is because democracy initiates conversations around things that shouldn’t ever be discussed.  

Slavoj Žižek – philosopher and Marxist – says this: “I wouldn’t like to live in a society where I would have to argue all the time that rape shouldn’t be done. I would like to live in a society where, at the gut level, spontaneously, an unquestionable dogma, rape is out of the question”. Although obvious hyperbole, what he is saying is that through democracy we find ourselves arguing about things that shouldn’t ever be argued about.

Not just left or right but scarier things like racist legislation, neo-colonial worldview, workers’ rights, the NHS, women’s pay. I know democracy gives everyone a say (which as a premise is good) but going back to my first point about Trump and Brexit, if democracy can be given a voice of prejudice it simply can’t be the best system. Non-prejudice in all areas should be an unquestionable dogma.

Moreover, thinking about how democracy may be a smokescreen for behind the scenes puppeteers, the conversation democracy initiates may only serve to distract us from realising the truth of the smokescreen. Left or right. For or against. Yes or no. Is this rhetoric just the illusion of choice and the illusion of unfettered self-determination?

Democracy has the potential to be bad. So what should we do about it?

If we realise the ‘good society myth’ then we realise democracy needs work. From this point we can both work on democracy to make it better, and start thinking about democracy as a process which may lead to better political structures.

In terms of working on democracy, changing the first past the post system is a good start.

In terms of looking beyond democracy, I have some ideas about what a post-democratic or neo-democratic society could look like but I want to leave this question open ended, and see if collectively we can envisage a future political system that trumps democracy?

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  1. Posted by Dickie Bellringer

    This article raises some important questions about our attitude towards democracy and I would like to read what Thomas’s view of a ‘post-democratic’ or ‘neo-democratic’ society would look like.
    There is a particularly pernicious attitude towards democracy that insists that any democratic decision has to be right simply because it is made democratically. This attitude will brook no dissent about the decision itself and attempt to do so is met by the observation that the only reason someone criticizes a decision is because it wasn’t the correct decision for them. So, we have the victors in the referendum leave campaign branding those who criticize the decision as ‘Remoaners’. They have a point, of course, because the ‘Remoaners’ would not have been complaining had the result gone the other way. However, it doesn’t follow that any criticism of democratic decisions is invalid. Indeed, Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy goes one step further and claims that universal ‘suffrage tends to produce incompetent decisions’ and argues for some form of epistocracy or rule of the knowledgeable.
    All of which reminds me of Socrates’s famous question in Euthyphron which, with a little shoe-horning, can be expressed in this context as: Is democracy loved by the electorate because it may lead to the good society, or is democracy loved because it is the good society? If it’s the latter, then we have no independent notion of what the good society is because it is whatever has been democratically decided. If it’s the former, then we have to decide what the good society is independently of the democratic process. And, of course, it allows for the possibility that democracy may not lead to the good society.
    The trick is to create a democracy that is capable of making competent decisions about the good society without being self-defeating by guaranteeing a pre-determined result.
    Dickie Bellringer

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