What are the virtues of democracy?

October 29, 2009

Democracy has many virtues, it seems to me. But maybe the most important virtue, which hasn’t gotten nearly enough airtime in at least the discussions of democracy I’ve encountered recently, is the following:

Democracy, as an institutional form, makes it much much more difficult for the rulers of a political entity (exemplarily, a nation-state) to murder a substantial percentage of that political entity’s population.

This, it seems to me, is sort of the bottom line, w/r/t democracy.


18 Responses to “What are the virtues of democracy?”

  1. Carl Says:

    I’d like this to be true… but both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were nominally democracies, with formally populist political values. Is it possible this is one of those identity myths of democracy like the one where democracies never go to war with each other? Do we need to be more specific about what kind of democracy?

  2. duncan Says:

    Well you know – proper democracy, real democracy, you know…

    Slightly more sensibly, I guess I’d call Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia dictatorships, with some democracy rhetoric sprinkled like stardust on top. Democracy would be an institutional form that allows the ruling party or parties [or some other comparable section of the ruling clique] to be turfed out in an election – ideally an election in which almost everyone can vote. I guess it depends on other aspects of your political set-up how that operates.

    The point is that making political power dependent in some way – ideally quite a strong way – on citizens voting, creates a good incentive not to start murdering those citizens on a really large scale. It doesn’t create a comparable incentive not to start to murder other states’ citizens on a really large scale – people in the other countries can’t vote the guys ordering air strikes out of office. That’s why I think the “democracies don’t go to war with each other” idea is qualitatively sillier than the “democracies make their rulers’ far less likely to murder vast numbers of their citizens” idea.

    Not saying this is a particularly strong law, as it were. Just that it counts for a fair bit.

  3. duncan Says:

    Well – that it counts for a whole lot and is incredibly important, actually.

  4. duncan Says:

    But hey Carl! I thought you’d be on my side with this democracy thing?! 🙂

  5. Carl Says:

    Oh yeah, I am, but in a Winston-Churchill-democracy-worst-kind-of-government-except-for-all-the-other-ones kind of way.

  6. duncan Says:

    Yeah okay – but I don’t think “makes it much much more difficult for the ruling class to murder a substantial percentage of a political entity’s population” is a particular utopian standard, no?

  7. duncan Says:

    Sorry – that was grouchy.

  8. Carl Says:

    Lol. Well, see, feudalism also has a pretty good record of not murdering big chunks of the population, for the similar reason that the livelihood of the political elite is tied to said population. This is not utopian at all, for sure. And just as this fact did not stop the persecution of Jews and other minorities on occasion, I don’t see anything in the votiness of democracy that would keep alien others (e.g. illegal immigrants) uncontingently safe. I can’t imagine a political system of any kind that would contemplate its own extinction rather than shit on outgroups. And I can certainly imagine populist democracies magnifying that risk under certain mobifying conditions (“They took er jobs!”) in which an undemocratic political elite might take a longer, flywheeling view. So I guess I’m not buying democracy as a magic bullet on this point, much as I prefer democracy to the alternatives for this and many other reasons.

  9. duncan Says:

    But Carl Carl Carl I’m not proposing democracy as a magic bullet! I’m really massively not! It’s there in the post – the claims of which are pretty minimal! I’m saying that democracy makes it much much more difficult for the ruling class to murder a substantial proportion of the population of the relevant political entity – not that it makes it impossible, or that the ruling class can’t murder plenty of people!

    It’s there in the post!

    I don’t know where you’re coming from here? (Sorry – I’m getting grouchy (and more than grouchy) again – but…) I’ve been advocating a Marxist political perspective on my blog, and your blog, and elsewhere. And again and again people have come back at me with the crimes of Stalinism – with the proposal that Marxist politics results, not necessarily, perhaps, but at least reasonably probably, in an oppressive political body – totalitarianism; mass-murder; genocide; all the political crimes of the twentieth century which we can never atone for, never forgive, never remove from our collective or individual consciousness, where they darken political thought. Grief.

    Now here I am making what I took to be a relatively uncontroverisal point – that democratic institutions are a good thing, because they massively reduce the likelihood of the ruling class of a political entity committing crimes of mass-murder against the citizens of that entity – and you’re giving me the counter-example of Stalin? wtf?

    Clearly the democracies we live in fuck up asylum seekers all the time – sometimes murder them, often effectively murder them, very often treat them brutally and viciously. Asylum seekers are not a substantial percentage of the citizens of the relevant political bodies – a) because they’re a very small percentage; b) because they’re not citizens. This is not an apologetic point! The treatment of asylum seekers in our societies is unforgivable! I’m saying that your counter-example of asylum seekers does not speak in any way to the minimal point made in my post, which was deliberately minimal, because I’m precisely not proposing democracy as a magic bullet.

    Why are asylum seekers treated brutally, within the body-politic? Because they fall in that marginal space where a democratic nation-state protects its political identity through the exclusion of those who fall outside its bounds. There is a fundamental violence in the creation and perpetuation of the political form of the nation state – a fundamental inequity and oppression – which I am not trying to downplay or evade here. But this is not the subject of my post.

    Why didn’t the ruling classes of feudalist society commit mass-murder on the scale of the twentieth century? Fundamentally, because there wasn’t the option. In the twentieth century there were massively more complex and far-reaching political and economic forms of social organisation than there were in feudalist times. (Also much greater technological killing-resources.) This is obvious! Rulers weren’t more brutal in the 20th century! They simply had a larger reach – because of the development of larger-scale social and political bodies and powers.

    If we want to go back to feudalism, that’s fine – we can get on board with Milbank’s political project or whatever. But it’s fucking untenable. The world’s population is massively larger than it was under feudalist modes of economic organisation – those structures simply could not sustain survival living standards for a huge percentage of the world’s current population, let alone decent living standards. Whether we like it or not (and personally I’m fine with it) we are dealing with complex, profoundly mutually embedded sets of social and economic networks, which require extremely complex and large-scale modes of political organisation and management to sustain.

    What should those political forms be?

    I’m saying they should be democratic, because that’s pretty much the only way you have a fighting chance of evading large-scale mass-murder. This can be a ‘least bad’ option, if you like – but that’s my claim. Is it wrong?

    Again – I’m really puzzled where you’re coming from here. You’ve been critical of me in the past for downplaying the crimes of Stalin – I don’t agree with this criticism, but I understand where it’s coming from. This post is, obviously, criticising totalitarian, authoritarian, non-democratic modes of political organisation, because of their tendency to produce mass-murder – which I thought was the whole point of much of the anti-Marxist critiques. (Again – I disagree with those critiques, but I get it!) Now, though, you’re telling me that my minimal assertion of the virtues of democracy is naive in some way? Because Stalin was really pro-democracy? I just don’t understand where you’re coming from.

    Apologies for the tone – if I were less busy I’d wait this one out, and come back with a more measured response – second or third thoughts. But I’m racing to pack up my possessions before the moving van arrives, so you’re getting this straight, for better or worse.


  10. Carl Says:

    My bad. Carry on.

  11. Drew Says:

    Hi Duncan,

    I think I’ve thought along similar lines… not that its impossible, not that it can’t go wrong, or that it doesn’t screw around some groups, just that it’s more difficult to be monumentally evil.

    Seems to me that it’s connected to its institutional form: you can have a good dictator – but there’s no insurance that the next dictator will be so nice. But democracy addresses itself to it’s own perpetuity in a way that a dictatorship doesn’t.

  12. duncan Says:

    Thanks Drew! Yes – exactly.

  13. Duncan,

    You wanted to defend democracy as a form of government by saying,

    “… I guess I’d call Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia dictatorships, with some democracy rhetoric sprinkled like stardust on top. Democracy would be an institutional form that allows the ruling party or parties [or some other comparable section of the ruling clique] to be turfed out in an election – ideally an election in which almost everyone can vote.”

    And, the point of such a form of government would be that it would constrain the ruling parties from murdering massive numbers of the population. If they could be voted out of their positions of power, then they would be more circumspect about the killing.

    It seems to me that neither democracy nor the ‘rule of law’ are going to keep the ruling powers from doing what they want to do. That is, the reason they are the ruling powers is that they have the wherewithall to force people to obey them. That is, they can hire thugs to break your legs or the legs of your children, for example. If the rulers want to steal someone’s valuables, and they have the thugs available, they of course will go for it. The strength of a democracy, or of the ‘rule of law,’ is only as great as the weak can resist the thuggery of their rulers.

    Therefore, whether or not we can see the practical virtues of democracy in any particular case is a matter of seeing the weak have the ability to force the rulers to avoid hurting them.

    You said that the Nazi or Stalinist states were only token democracies. I have to say that these United States are pretty much the same. The Bush people as well as the Obama administration have continued much the same policies in continuing the wars, the financial giveaways, and the civil liberty take-aways, showing that the vote of the people in any of our elections does not and probably cannot kick the rulers out if they threaten the people (i.e., the weak) So, by your definition, we are not a democracy.

    So, yes democracy has virtues, but there are no practical examples available.

  14. duncan Says:

    But the United States has a dramatically different institutional set up from both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia (which, to be clear, had dramatically different insitutional set-ups from each other, too). For instance – there are actual elections, in the US. Highly critical though I am of much of U.S. politics (including the way those elections have often operated and been understood) – there are huge huge differences, which count for a huge huge amount, on the ground. For instance – for all the manifest viciousness of much of the U.S. ruling class, there are no organised death camps murdering millions of U.S. citizens, in the U.S. Little details like this matter.

    Or: criticisms of U.S. institutions gain nothing by making the extremely stupid claim that there are no significant differences between U.S. democratic institutions and the ‘democracies’ of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

  15. duncan Says:

    I’m really quite depressed by how controversial this claim seems to be.

  16. […] exactly the same way, but surely these two are related:  The cruelty reported by Gibbon, and the virtues of […]

  17. Susan Says:

    Luckily for our rulers, they don’t need to murder us. They can just enfeeble us (through overwork, economic stress, lack of affordable and effective health care, bureaucratic treadmills that sap our energy without producing results, junk food, the sirens of consumerism, the time and money required to pursue our interests through the judicial system, etc.), so that we’re simply too exhausted, distracted, and demoralized to create any problems. Plus, as long as we’re alive, but enfeebled and desperate, we create a surplus labor pool. That works much better for the rulers, doesn’t it?

  18. duncan Says:

    Well it depends on the rulers’ goals I guess, but yeah, basically, it does.

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