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The Survival Manual | Chapter 4.

Democracy and Civil Society.

THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule



Statue of Ramesses II "The Great"THERE HAVE BEEN NUMEROUS schemes and dreams of how best to govern human societies. Amongst these are aristocracy (rule by the best), plutocracy (rule by the richest), oligarchy (rule by the few), autocracy (rule by an absolute leader), kleptocracy (rule by thieves), bureaucracy (rule by officeholders), communism (rule by the Party), republican (rule by ordinary individuals), monarchy (rule by a king), and democracy (rule by the people). Each has its advantages and disadvantages. If we take a very rapid tour through some of them we can see where we now are and the possible paths ahead.

Hunter-gatherer societies, which dominated the planet for most of human history, had no instituted rulers. Individuals decided for themselves what they would do, though they might pay attention to an older and more experienced member. He or she had no way of enforcing his will but might persuade a small group to follow.

With the domestication of animals and plants leading into tribal societies, it was possible for people to become temporarily richer and more powerful during their lives, so they are called ‘Big Men’ societies. There might be chiefs or elders who could exercise some control, largely through distributing wealth to their followers. They were self-made and only marginally different from commoners or small men (and women).

sg150-man-slugWhen civilisations emerged around ten thousand years ago, instituted stratification and government became possible and the era of divine or semi-divine rulers emerged. In the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, the Indus Valley and the Yellow River, there arose absolutist rulers, Pharaohs, Emperors, Kings, who directed armies, raised taxes and acted as mediators to the gods. This form of absolutist government, with the rulers lifted on to another plane, what nowadays might be termed despotism, or in its milder form absolutism, has re-emerged from time to time through history in new guises. It can be found in the absolutist monarchies of the eighteenth century in Europe, or the Communist and Fascist regimes of the twentieth.

A little under three thousand years ago some of the small city states in the Greek peninsula, in particular Athens, experimented with a new form of governmental system, rule by (some of) the ordinary people or ‘democracy’. The cities were by our standards small and the proportion of those eligible to vote also small. In Athens, a city reckoned to be between 250 and 300 thousand at its peak, only free male property holders, between thirty and fifty thousand at the most, were politically active. Excluding women, slaves and the poor, this was about one in ten. They could participate, listen to speeches and arguments, and take part in making decisions about how to proceed.

This ideal of a meeting place, Agora, where people argued in public in oral debate has been an inspiration ever since. It was partially adopted into Roman government during the early, Republican (‘Res Publica’ – public things), phase of the Roman Rule. The Republic was overthrown after several centuries and Rome moved to an Imperial, absolutist, rule.

Meanwhile, in China, the Qin Emperor in 221 B.C. unified China and started to institute a system that has dominated that vast empire since – rule by an educated elite of civil servants, a bureaucracy based on examination success, experts who advised and ruled as Mandarins under an Emperor who held Heaven’s Mandate.

Another main form of rule, which we call feudalism, is where power is devolved down a chain of contractual agreements of service and protection. The King or most powerful warlord devolves land and power down to his nobles, and they do the same to inferior lords and so on down to ordinary people. This system emerged in the West in the thousand years after the fall of Rome from the fifth century A.D., and in Japan from about the 12th century.
Hence there were various sub-units, the Lords in their manors, the merchants and manufacturers in their towns, the monks in their monasteries, the teachers in their universities, each of which had a great deal of control over their own lives. There were numerous strong bodies or corporations in which the individual could find protection, what we term ‘civil society’.

Another system was implemented by Mohammed and instituted in Islam, where power of a military, religious and political kind was unified into the hands of one or two individuals. Yet it was not highly centralised since great stress was placed on individualism, equality and contract. Primary allegiance was to Allah. There was little civil society as all forms of grouping – cities, churches, universities, kinship and economic groupings – were given little or no power and sharia law did not recognise more than the very simplest of corporations. Yet it was not a highly centralised, absolutist, system either so that it fitted with none of the other four categories of imperial, feudal, bureaucratic or democratic rule.

THROUGH THE LAST 500 YEARS in the West, some of the smaller entities, nations or city-states, preserved and even expanded the idea of democracy. The Italian city-states such as Florence, Venice and Sienna, had a large measure of self-government with many male inhabitants playing a part in ruling themselves. The same happened with the Dutch from the middle of the sixteenth century. The same was the preserved tradition in England.

The roots of modern democracy are widely acknowledged to lie in the peculiar system that grew up from Anglo-Saxon roots in the sixth century onwards, through the medieval parliaments, the contests of Crown and Parliament in the seventeenth century down to the constitutional monarchy where Parliament is sovereign today. Of course, for almost all of this period, ‘democracy’ consisted of males who were relatively independent property holders, that is to say, as in Greece, perhaps about one in ten of the population.

Yet the electorate was gradually extended in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century to include all adults. In the United States all of the population, including black people, were not given votes until the 1960’s.

The law was based on widespread participation in self-government through the juries and attendance at courts and taking on local offices such as constables.

Alongside the formal Parliamentary system there was an enormously powerful system of civil society institutions. From the local government run by parishes and county agencies, the powerful vested interest groups of lawyers, clergy, merchants, down to numerous clubs, pubs, and organisations, people ran much of their own lives. The law was based on widespread participation in self-government through the juries and attendance at courts and taking on local offices such as constables. Most people in England from the late medieval period in England had a large measure of self-government. This was the system which was taken to America.

The system worked reasonably well in its restricted, semi-democratic, way in a Britain with around forty million, almost exclusively white, inhabitants by the First World War. It also worked in the thinly populated United States with about 100 million inhabitants at the start of the First World War. People could feel in control of their own lives, making the decisions which affect them in much of the Anglosphere, even to a certain extent in the non-white part of the British Empire, especially India. The ideal of rule of the people, by the people, for the people, was, it seemed, the noble outcome of the Greek inheritance.

SUCH A SYSTEM WAS NOT without its enemies. On the right, that is where there is centralisation of power into the hands of one or a few individuals, the absolutist monarchies of the eighteenth century throughout most of Europe and Russia, followed by the Napoleonic conquests, threatened the system. Later the threat was resurrected when all of the western part of the European continent became Fascist only two generations ago. Fascism means ‘bundling together’, the destruction of all lower sources of power, all civil society or elective democracy. All devolved power is bundled back into a centralised power held by a small group of absolute rulers.

The other challenge was from the left, where, inspired by Marx’s ideas that the miseries of mankind were caused by private property and hence inequality and the capitalist system which controlled the State, so that the cure would be communism – a return to communes or communities. This was a dream of universal freedom, sharing, equality, the end of alienation and repression. It was immensely attractive.

The tragedy was that eliminating private property and the State did not eliminate the need to have a system of power and control, or some method to allocate resources in the absence of a capitalist market. The nightmares of Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot, the return to ‘Year Zero’ and mass extermination on a scale even greater than Hitler, was the result. Communism does not work. But many are now asking whether democracy, the rule of the people by the people, is working either. Are the fears that mass democracy will lead to elective dictatorship coming about in the much larger and more impersonal worlds of the early twenty-first century?

THE PROBLEM, AT ITS SIMPLEST, is one of scale, to which is added many other pressures. The feeling that your vote counts made some sense when a few thousand or even 100,000 chose a member of Parliament or a member of the House of Representatives. One might know, or was able to visit, one’s representative, lobby them and receive replies to one’s letters. So it made sense up to roughly the First World War. It also made sense when we knew only a limited amount about the machinations of those who had been elected. With the full exposure of television and other modern media, with a more general undermining of respect for authority, the feet of clay are all too visible.

When we are faced with the diversity of modern Britain, with over sixty million inhabitants, or even more so the United States with 320 million, let alone the thought of introducing democracy into China with 1.4 billion or creating a real democracy in India with a similar population, how can it work? And how, even if it works there, can it be introduced into the many parts of Africa, South America, Pakistan or elsewhere, which face manifold problems of poverty, endemic corruption, sectarian violence, high illiteracy and poor education, and little tradition of civil society?

As we have seen with the recent attempts to force democracy at the point of a gun . . . it seems to be very inappropriate, as yet, in many parts of the world.

Democracy worked reasonably in eighteenth or nineteenth century Britain and America because they were relatively affluent, cohesive, peaceful and with vibrant local institutions and civil society. Yet, as we have seen with the recent attempts to force democracy at the point of a gun in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, it seems to be very inappropriate, as yet, in many parts of the world.

So we currently live in a world with many threads, systems and experiences from recorded history. Each system has its merits, but even democracy, as Winston Churchill put it, is the worst of all systems, except for all the rest which are even worse. Yet it is even questionable whether, in the present circumstances democracy, apart from being an ideal, is indeed the least bad of systems. It is not too difficult to argue that the sudden application of democracy to faction-filled places, most obviously the belt from Nigeria to Pakistan, has been a disaster.

IT IS PERHAPS NOT SURPRISING THAT the largest Empire the world has known, that is the British Empire, should have sought to impose its own governmental system, based on that in a small island, wherever it went – though with huge modifications when it met large native populations who were largely excluded. Nor is it perhaps surprising that when the so-called democracies of the Anglosphere defeated the fascist regimes of Europe and Japan, and successfully confronted the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China, they should attempt to spread their own governmental system as far and as fast as possible. Democracy was equated with economic development, human rights, education, and freedom. So, especially after the collapse of the Soviet alternative and the opening of China to market capitalism, democracy seemed what the world needed and within sight.

Yet many people can see that some alternative to historical democracy needs to be devised and that the same is true in India and China. A system invented on a small island in western Europe is not necessarily the solution for mankind. It is tempting to quote Alexander Pope: ‘For forms of government let fools contest. Whatever is best administered is best.’ But before we leave it at that, it is worth considering some possible paths from where we are now to where we would like to be.

ceremonial flags of the John Frum Cargo CultAS WE LOOK BACK ON THE CHAOS and failures of the democracy project of the last thirty years we may wonder what went wrong. For an anthropologist familiar with cargo cults in Melanesia, it looks as if the neoliberal democratic crusade was like the idea held by certain remote tribesman. They had seen, or heard about, airplanes which landed and spilt out wonderful goods or ‘cargo’ at airports. The trick was obviously to build a landing strip and the planes would be attracted to them and unload their bonanza. The strips were built, in the same way as the ballot boxes and voting slips were distributed, and people waited. But neither the planes, nor recognisable democracy appeared.

The analogy reminds us that democracy, like laden planes, only works within a certain context. It will only work once you have a floor, an under-carpet and a ceiling to protect you from the elements. Just throwing the outer mechanisms of democracy, the ballot boxes and the assemblies, into societies with totally different histories, laws, customs and social structures is bound to lead to some pretty strange and contorted outcomes. We can see them all over the world, and particularly now in the Middle East, Africa and South America. Even in North America, democracy seems to be being derailed in a presidential race which exposes the detachment of the mass of Americans from their political system.

SO WHAT CAN ONE RECOMMEND? Here, thinking principally of how China, with its huge population, could develop a system which best gives its citizens a feeling of participation and freedom, I will suggest four things – the rule of law, the power of civil society, the control of corruption, and the genius of scale. Let me elaborate on each of these briefly.

In its classical sense, the ‘Rule of Law’ means that the law is above all individuals and all are equally subject equally to it. The private interests, factions, and power hungry are accountable to the law. It also means that law is universally applicable to all – men and women, old and young, rich and poor, religious, and ethnic groups.

In other parts of the idea, all are equal, with equal rights and freedoms, in the sight of the law. The judges are outside the political, economic, ideological control and can act as impartial umpires or referees. The individual has a right to be tried by his or her peers, that is by equals, and cannot be subjected to arbitrary arrest. All disputes must be settled by law and not by physical or other violence.

This sounds idealistic and it is certainly not easy to institute. China is trying to incorporate this ‘rule of law’ by various serious reforms today. We have to recognise that such a process can have serious implications for a one-party state where political power is dominant over all of life. For the rule of law means sharing power with non-party officials who are independent. Yet without such a system, democracy in the wider sense of imparting a sense of security, freedom, self-fulfillment and self-government is not possible.

Consequently, those who advocate the ends – democracy – must pay close attention to the means – the rule of law. Until there are independent judges, a uniform and universal law, individual rights and responsibilities, protection of the individual by juries which decide guilt and innocence, there cannot be the kind of democracy which many yearn for.

alexis_de_tocquevilleTHE SECOND UNDER-CARPET IS CIVIL SOCIETY. The state is strong and would like to control almost everything, the lone individual is weak and unable to stand up to it. Yet when individuals form into teams, associations, groupings with real power and independence from the state, then they become empowered. This is the wider meaning of democracy in Alexis de Tocqueville’s sense.

Tocqueville was not concerned with ballot boxes in his account of English and American democracy, but with civil society or associationalism. He knew that if a country consists of thousands of independent subgroups – local government organisations, educational organisations, religious groupings, businesses, city authorities, clubs and trusts and many more, then power is shared. These associations give people a sense of participation, they train people in democratic skills, they mediate and, if necessary, oppose tendencies towards the monopolising power of the state. That is why they are hated and destroyed in the build-up to communism, fascism and within some of the more extreme Islamic states.

The presence of these numerous intermediary bodies is a constant undermining of the powerful state. This is why Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan advocated their abolition. Attempts to abolish the associations failed because they had become deeply embedded in the British legal system. Anglo-American law recognises that there can be bodies, corporations, which are set up by private individuals who join together in a common purpose, sinking some of their individual power into mutual support. Belonging to them gives satisfaction, protection and support.

If democracy is to flourish in India, China, or South America, or to revive in North America or Britain, civil society, public and common activities, have to be encouraged. And it is essential that they are protected by an independent judiciary. The state will try to subvert them as a threat, so they need powerful defenders. As they grow they may become overweening, as in some huge international corporations, particularly in America, which are more powerful than most governments. Yet they should, within reason, thrive if we are to survive.

A THIRD UNDERPINNING IS THE control of corruption. Corruption, in one dictionary definition, includes the ideas of ‘impairing integrity, virtue, or moral principle … loss of purity’. It is the infiltration, poisoning, degrading, polluting of purity. In other words it means that a body is invaded by another body. At its simplest it is mostly used to describe where an ideal of separation is not held to.

Modernity consists of the separation of wealth, power, society, and belief, but where this modernity is threatened then there is ‘corruption’. Economic decisions are corrupted by using kinship connections. Political decisions are corrupted by economic lobbying. Economic decisions are corrupted by political power or religious ideologies. Academic integrity is corrupted by the use of influence or money. When the supposedly individualistic, meritocratic, equal and level playing field is secretly invaded by other actors with concealed powers, then we have corruption.

When the market, law, or political system itself is highly inefficient, over-bureaucratic, or too weak or too strong, corruption may be the only way to get things done.

It takes many forms as we know. When the market, law, or political system itself is highly inefficient, over-bureaucratic, or too weak or too strong, corruption may be the only way to get things done. Without the ‘informal’ or black economy, much of the world’s formal economy would collapse. Without the ‘connections’ which dominate in much of the world there would be very little activity. So there are degrees, and even some necessity for, limited corruption in an imperfect world. Yet if the scale is too great or the nature too extreme, then it becomes dangerous and debilitating.

There are several known cures. One is to pay all key employees a decent, living, wage so that they do not have to dabble in forms of corruption. The police, teachers, government officials, judges, and many more are usually paid so little, even in booming economies such as China or India today, that they have to spend much time and energy in trying to raise money through informal means. To solve this problem is a circular, bootstrapping, operation. In order to afford to pay decent salaries the state requires the money which can only be amassed when corruption is diminished. Where do you break into the circle?

The second cure is transparency and accountability. If corruption is regularly exposed by whistleblowers or the media and, when exposed, punished by the courts, it is a disincentive. This, again, is what the Chinese and many others are trying to do. But again, if taken to extremes, as in the American taxation system with its systematic erosion of trust and time wasting (and lawyer and accountant funding) forms, it is not effective. Ever greater regulation and prosecution undermines trust and adds to the friction of bureaucracy, of which many living in over-bureaucratic societies are aware. It also leads to a state of permanent anxiety and insecurity at the threat of anti-corruption drives, which are often used as political tools and are widespread now.

Nevertheless, once we have recognised that corruption is not an isolated evil, or even something inherently criminal, innate in human psychology, but is due to a systematic set of arrangements – a poorly integrated market, the underpayment of officials, the lack of trust, the weakness of law, over-bureaucratisation, then we can do something about it.

FINALLY THERE IS THE ‘GENIUS OF SCALE’ which has been used to describe Cambridge and its Collegiate system. Human beings work best and feel happiest if they belong to a community of just a few dozen or a few hundred people. Humans evolved in small bands and feel in control and involved when we know each other personally. The ‘imagined community’ of vast nation-states or Empires is difficult to identify with.

The problem is that organisations get bigger, as do states. For example Cambridge University was perhaps ten times as big at the end of the 20th century as it had been a century before. Yet because of the college system, where new ‘communities’ could be created by a number of new colleges in the second half of the 20th century, Cambridge could retain its feelings of intimacy and community. The same is true of many organisations; regiments in an army; houses in a boarding school; departments in a business organisation; sporting or other clubs. There can be many of them, often in simulated opposition, each has a strong sense of identity and belonging and self-government.

The more we can foster sub-groupings with an identity, the more people will feel a sense of shared purpose and self-control.

If we extend this idea to the problem we face with building democracy and self-government in the agglomerates of the United States, India, China or even Britain, we can see that the more we can foster sub-groupings with an identity, the more people will feel a sense of shared purpose and self-control. This overlaps with, but is not the same as, civil society. This also links to the final idea on how to govern the huge nations which have emerged, whose size has put so much strain on conventional participatory democracy.

This is the idea taken from Adam Smith related to the function of the state. His ideas might be encapsulated also in the idea of the genius of scale in another form – namely that decisions should be taken at different levels by those who are affected by them, or their delegates, according to their scale.

This has long been the tradition in Britain where decisions were localised. The church decided how to mend the parish roof or bell, the parish council decided on the footpath and the lighting. The manorial courts decided many small economic and legal matters. Yet things at a higher level, involving a whole county, were decided by county level bodies, the justices, the country gentry and others, and so on upwards to Parliament. The same is true in the federal United States.

Finally the State would only deal with those matters which concern all the inhabitants, for example the defence of the whole country, relations with other independent countries, very large infrastructural projects, national laws. It would act as a ‘night watchman’ does in the factory – not interfering with the ordinary machinery and people, but making sure that there were no fires or burglaries.

Something like this obviously exists in all huge agglomerations of the federal kind, whether the United States, India or China. There is a tendency, as is reported of China, for the state to exist in a top-down manner where, while in theory delegating power to lower levels, in fact almost all decisions, even at the lowest levels, have to be referred upwards for approval. We can see this pattern throughout Chinese history where, because of the top-down power structure and the insecure position of those at lower levels, it was essential to guard yourself against being accused of making the wrong decision. It is still true that a local headmaster or other local official can be sacked, a talk cancelled or a newspaper shut down by the highest levels within the centralised Communist Party in a way that is more difficult, if not impossible, in the Anglosphere.

What is required is trust, and the apportionment of responsibilities to the appropriate level. Also needed is training and inducements to people to become involved in their own self-government, often as part of their un-paid civic duty. It does not come naturally or easily, but as with all the other paths, if we have some idea of where we are heading, what needs to be done, then we can, with Confucius, take the first step which may lead us on a long, and hopefully fruitful, journey.

Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule

Alan Macamacfarlane_lect150farlane FBA, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.

Alan Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for the Fortnightly.

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