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How democracy changed

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The perception of democracy as the tyranny of the largest, lowest class of people has persisted since Plato, but in the shadow of a new concept of the state, the twentieth century has changed our definition of democracy.

It is gratifying to look back on a prior post to recall a thought and to find that I’d recorded something worthwhile. How clever I was.

It is much more gratifying, however, to look back on a prior post and find the opposite—that something I wrote is clearly in need of revision. How far I’ve come.

As long as this revision process is not futile in its infinity, or infinite in its futility, it seems that something must have improved between then and now. Or maybe not,* but I like to think so.

Operating under this assumption, I ought to revise a prior post, which suggested that the concept of “democracy” has changed significantly over time—but without explaining what really seems to have changed. Clearly, and as I so aptly noted, one of the defining differences between Plato’s “democracy” and modern “democracy” is the strange method of sortition. Sortition, or casting lots, was a trademark of the ancient concept of true democracy. It was the means by which the demos acknowledged the equality of men. To instead cast ballots (as in ancient Athens) was considered aristocratic, oligarchic, and—generally—preferable.

I’ve explained all of this already, with the implicit conclusion that today’s democracy differs only in that one regard—that it chose not to employ sortition as its means. And yes, while this certainly is a practical difference, it is only superficial, and perhaps misleading.

What is so interesting about the “democracy” of the last sixty years, the democracy of today, is its moral weight—its near-universal acceptance as a superior form of government. This is in direct contrast to Plato’s experience. Was it when sortition was suddenly outmoded, then, that we all became modern, electoral democrats, simply redefining an aspect of the term? Was this why we were now in possession of  this “highest form of political or social organization” (UNESCO, 1951)? Or this “worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill, 1951)?

One need only to refer to the Framers of the Constitution of the United States to see that it was not so simple. The Framers were suspicious of democracy because, to them, it meant the “tyranny of the majority.” This was not Plato’s democracy that the Founders spoke of, either—it was ostensibly modern democracy. Electoral democracy. Clearly, sortition was not the problem that they had in mind. The problem was that there was still a class of people, the “majority,” who would tyrannize the minority—with votes. This “majority” was unequivocally the “lower class,” and the conventional political wisdom at the time was that if someone had to be a tyrant, it ought not be the lower class.

But today, seemingly having brushed off those early concerns, democracy is no longer associated with the dangers of the tyranny of the lower class. Our modern conventional wisdom, and American elementary school education, suggests that the reason that these dangers disappeared—which were once a central concern for both Plato and the Framers and many in-between—was because of the “checks and balances” set up by the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly, much of the subsequent stability of the United States’ system can be attributed to that clever balance of powers, but history should disabuse us of the notion that democracy’s class-association simply disappeared. Especially by overtly assigning an aristocracy to limit the destructive capacity of the common people, as the Constitution did.

The Jacksonian era (1830s) may be the best example of the persistence of the theme of “class rule.” Jackson’s Democratic party saw itself as the expression of the will of the common man, the producer, who was naturally at odds with the unproductive banker-and-speculator class, the plutocrat, who was represented by the Whigs. It was significant that Jackson’s party line worked.

If anything, the rapid industrialization of the Reconstruction Era and Gilded Age, up to the turn of the century, only widened the chasms between the owners of capital and the working class—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—and enforced the class-rule fears of democracy. Indeed, it is difficult to view these developments independently of contemporary Marxism-Leninism, which foresaw and encouraged the revolution of the productive working class against the idle owners of capital.

But try as it might, the world never gave birth to a true proletarian revolution as Marx would have had it. Neither did the Jacksonian Democrats, nor the later Populists, ever come to tyrannize the tycoons. The twentieth century instead brought forth a class of technocrats who could deliver on the former promises of the Whigs—economic prosperity, cryptically redistributed to all (nineteenth-century Reaganomics). Except these were now the Democrats delivering on these promises, harnessing the taxing, banking, oversight, and coercion capacity of the state as never known before. What could be called “distributive politics” began, and the state’s beneficent oversight did not—indeed could not—limit its “distributions” to any particular class. Everyone, from the poverty-stricken worker to the successful corporate industrialist, would have their affairs arbitrated and rectified, in some capacity, by the state.

Not only did the state begin to serve as a referee, and perhaps a dividing screen, between the classes (minimum-wage laws, working-conditions legislation, industrial and banking oversight); but it also conspicuously raised the lowest standards of living. Both the material wealth distinctions and the relational animosities between the haves and the have-nots shrank considerably. An all-inclusive social group emerged—those who were in thrall to a powerful state.

Class, while it would certainly persist, would not play a similar role in elections after this modern variety of state emerged. American lower-class interests, in the aftermath of these changes, became many, varied, and politically heterogeneous. Today’s political parties, it can be noted, reflect this change, whereby a young Cleveland machinist and a retired D.C. defense-industry CEO are voting for the same party. Even granted our modern, industrialized, urbanized context, this development would seem strange to Plato and John Adams. This is most certainly not the democracy that they knew.

But it is this strange development toward a twentieth-century democracy which has understandably won the imagination of the whole world, and which now also threatens to plunge whole societies into the factionalism and class war that democracy—absent a strong, liberal state—has traditionally fostered.

Our collective misunderstanding of the meaning of “democracy,” with what meaning remains in the word, will only strip it of all descriptive power and make it all the more certain that such mistakes will be made. The twenty-first century is sure to be ripe with them.


*From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by the same door where in I went. 

Written by M. James

September 5, 2013 at 3:31 am

Posted in History, Politics

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Prospects for a liberal Turkish society

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The following was written as a guest post for Atatürk’s Republic, a collaborative blog that seeks to follow Turkish news, politics, arts, and culture.

Most liberal-minded individuals, if asked to choose between a multi-party and a two-party system, would choose the former. After all, liberal democracy is all about freedom of choice, and choosing between chocolate and vanilla is simply not satisfying when one might prefer pistachio, cookie dough, or “Karamel Sutra.”

But what most people do not seem to understand is that representative democracies are designed to be deliberative bodies, the essence of which is “settling.” Without “settling,” the liberal concept of value pluralism goes out the window, and with it, the very basis for our conception of a free and fair society.

If the voter refuses to “settle” on chocolate or vanilla, and instead prefers everyone to have a broader range of options, one of two things will happen:

(1) Once the voting is over and done with, the vast array of flavors will seek to mix themselves with whatever will give them a strategic advantage in legislation. Pistachio will mix with “Karamel Sutra,” and the sweet-and-sticky combination will satisfy neither pistachio- nor caramel-lovers. The concept of political parties as principled factions is lost completely when the principles are cast aside for expediency, as inevitably occurs in this case.* What’s more, banana and rocky road will be ignored completely.

(2) Chocolate will acquire a tyrannical rule owing solely to vanilla-lovers’ slight preference for a variety of other flavors, which will never attain a majority—and if they do, it will be dishonestly, by coalition. The party that is capable of organizing itself and sowing discord among the opposition will acquire, and keep, power.

In the first consequence, the purpose of the political party (democratically forwarding principles at the state level) is lost in a mindless scramble for power by majority. In the second, the state becomes as tyrannical as in a de jure “one-party system.”

This is one arena in today’s politics in which we cannot practically hope to expand the scope of individual freedoms. In order to maintain the classical liberal, laissez faire idea of “freedom from” (which is necessarily prior to the expansion of “freedom to” in a liberal state), the multi-party system must be shunned in favor of a two-party system and the citizen must take it upon himself to begin the “settling” process by choosing from a limited number of representatives.

Paradoxically, the severe limitation of choice necessitated by a two-party system is characteristic of a much more liberal, democratic system. It not only protects the people from tyranny and maintains the possibility of value pluralism, but it also entrusts the people with beginning the all-important, essentially liberal “settling” process that continues in the legislature.

Because this is not obvious to the average voter, a two-party system must be somehow (overtly or otherwise) established from above by strong tradition, or a constitution, in order to establish a liberal, democratic state. Only if a liberal tradition is pre-existing, if the power of the legislature is severely tempered, or if a country is ideologically homogeneous, can a multi-party system survive as “liberal.”

Of course, my interest in exploring this problem lies in the Republic of Turkey, which has a large, heterogeneous population, a powerful parliament, no tradition of liberalism to speak of, and a multi-party system. Predictably, Turkish society and government are grossly (visibly) illiberal.

From two different Turkish liberals in a period of two days, I heard the complaint that Turks vote on (a) emotions and (b) “lifestyle.” Kurds vote for Kurds (actually they don’t, but that’s a different story—they do still vote based on lifestyle), Anatolian Sunni Muslims vote for Anatolian Sunni Muslims, nationalists vote for nationalists, etc. Because of this fragmentation—this variety of flavors—no responsibility to compromise is ever placed on the voter. The result is an instance of consequence (2) above, where one party dominates the state. Half of Turkey may not want to have vanilla, but they couldn’t—and will never be able to—agree on chocolate.

And with a party in power that benefits from the disorder of the multi-party system, it is fairly unlikely that a two-party system will be enforced from above in the form of a new constitution, or otherwise.

What’s more, because the last decade has shown Turkey’s material success to be tied to economic, but certainly not social, liberalism, it is to be expected that Turkey’s near future will be characterized only nominally by “liberal democracy.”

If Turkish citizens are never confronted with the spirit of “settling” between the many flavors that they prefer, and are never themselves faced with the idea of value pluralism, they will never become liberal democratic citizens. And what more is a liberal democratic society than the collective conscience of its citizens?


*Some would aver that an effective two-party system is necessarily unprincipled if the opposing parties wish to shape themselves according to shifting public sensibilities. There are two responses: (1) That this is acceptable because their principles shift in order to garner votes, but do not shift while they hold offices, and they are able to remain honest to their principles for a given term. (2) That the only principle that truly matters is a faithful attempt at maintaining a two-party system for its own sake, as a safeguard against tyranny.

Written by M. James

November 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

Democracy, dialectic, and subtle revolution

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From H.S. Maine‘s Popular Government (1885), Essay II:

The old Italian toxicologists are said to have always arranged their discoveries in a series of three terms—first the poison, next the antidote, thirdly the drug which neutralised the antidote. The antidote to the fundamental infirmities of democracy was Representation, but the drug which defeats it has now been found in the Caucus.

The “Caucus,” according to Maine, is “the agency, by which the representative is sought to be turned into the mere mouthpiece of opinions collected in the locality which sent him to the House of Commons….” Today, we can readily acknowledge this as an artifact of political “party.”

I found this quotation fascinating primarily because of the easy parallel that one can draw between “old Italian toxicologists” and so-called “Hegelian dialectics,” by which the zeitgeist formulates (1) an abstract idea, after which develops (2) its negation, and finally, (3) its “concrete” formulation. This formula is more commonly known as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”

When we run this through the subsequent filter of Marx, who advocated what is now called “dialectical materialism” (as opposed to Hegel’s “idealism”), we get this (from his afterword to the second German edition of Das Kapital, here):

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

By making Hegel’s dialectic purely material, Marx formulates a dialectic of, quite specifically, political economy. For anyone who wishes to hold on to Hegelian dialectic, though, Marx’s materialism as a “direct opposite,” or antithesis, of Hegel, may offer justification for Hegel himself if a subsequent sort of “synthesis” between the ideas can be agreed upon.

But anyway—returning to the parallel that I claimed I would make—observe how Maine’s assertion may seem to be influenced by contemporary Marxist thought on historical dialectic. Being that Maine is not too keen on the idea of “Popular Government,” the “zealots of democracy,” or the “Caucus,” the prospect of dialectic may seem appealing to him in this case. I will steal a line from Wikipedia by way of explanation (here, as before):

Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism, synthesizing Hegel’s dialectics, which proposes that every economic order grows to a state of maximum efficiency, while simultaneously developing internal contradictions and weaknesses that contribute to its systemic decay.

So, if party politics within a democratic republic (where democracy was the thesis and representation was the antithesis) is the concrete, synthetic, maximally-efficient, and final formulation of a political-economic order (democracy) in a materialist, dialectical conception of history, then it is the last stop before that political-economic order’s systemic decay, and subsequent revolution.

What is fascinating about this theoretical decay and revolution is that someone like Maine becomes the “revolutionary” in this case. This is a different kind of revolutionary than Marx described—he is one who openly scoffs at the proletariat, its corrupt tendencies, and the harm caused by its place in government. He is indignant, but he is also subtle.

Now, if the reader finds any of this—(a) the truth of dialectical materialism or (b) Maine’s interpretation of the development of party politics—convincing, more questions arise. What would Sir Henry James Sumner Maine’s revolution look like, if the system fell into decay? Could you tell if it were happening? Would the “contradictions” be visible? Would there be rallying cries or war? Perhaps economic upheaval? Would new terms be coined, or would the old ones simply be recast?

Knowing that a new “thesis” would only be met with “antithesis,” wouldn’t Maine publicly assert that, really, nothing had changed at all?

Written by M. James

October 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

Is “democracy” democratic?

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Plato, from The Republic, as quoted in a prior post:

And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.

From Wikipedia (here):

In politics, sortition (also known as allotment or the drawing of lots) is the selection of decision makers by lottery. The decision-makers are chosen as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates.

In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the primary method for appointing officials, and its use was widely regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.

The Athenian reasoning for lottery in democracy was that it more accurately acknowledged the equality of men. An election, on the other hand, was by nature oligarchic or aristocratic because it consciously selected someone “better” from the population of free and equal men. Not to mention that the kind of people who seek to sell themselves for election are probably bad representatives of the population. So, by casting lots, the Athenians actualized their beliefs in equality.

Understandably, people (including Plato) have frowned upon this form of government—as formulated by the Athenians—for the vast majority of history.

Here’s the problem: Absent an understanding of the tradition of democracy, people explain and justify modern phenomena by making comparisons between modern “democracy,” of which elections are a keystone, and Athenian democracy, which would unequivocally shun the idea.

In the original sense of democracy, then, our idea of democracy is not really democratic at all. Most would still posit, of course, that this is not a bad thing, as democracy in Plato’s sense appeared to be—in actuality—a government borne out by a mindless sort of class warfare.

I would like to suggest that this understanding of democracy’s pedigree may dampen, in some contexts, the supposed intellectual impact of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. People didn’t really change. Democracy changed.

Written by M. James

September 29, 2012 at 8:27 am

Pamuk and Ataman on Turkish identity

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In Orhan Pamuk’s 2002 novel, Snow, there is an enigmatic Islamist character named “Blue.” At one point in the story, Blue is attempting to publish a statement in a German newspaper—a statement appealing to the “West” for aid in resisting a small coup in Anatolia.

Ka, the main character, records one of Blue’s pronouncements:

Will the West, which takes democracy, its great invention, more seriously than the word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars? [He stopped here to make a grand gesture.] Or are we to conclude that democracy, freedom, and human rights don’t matter, that all the West wants is for the rest of the world to imitate them like monkeys? Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them? I have something to say to all the other nations that the West has left behind: Brothers, you are not alone.

Though Blue is primarily attempting to detract from “the West” by pointing out its inconsistencies, he unwittingly reveals his own inconsistencies by denigrating Western values with an appeal to Western values. His pride makes the situation even more ironic.

What Pamuk seems to be saying is that even when rebellious, Turks can find themselves working within Western parameters. Contemporary artist Kutluğ Ataman seems to agree (here):

Ataman said he always longed to return to Turkey, but he was skeptical of the art he sees in Istanbul: “A great majority of the work consists of imitations of Western gestures. Their reference is New York and London.”

Ataman doesn’t think Turkish artists have confronted the real source of their material, the thing they have to offer the world. He referred to an infamous recent incident, when a mob of Turkish men attacked gallery-hoppers who’d spilled onto the streets drinking alcohol in their fashionable clothes. The galleries were gentrifying the neighborhood, and the community, many Turks later told reporters, felt encroached upon and left out. To many other Turks, however, the attackers were religious types angered by the liberal lifestyle they’d been forced to witness: uncovered women, gay men, art, alcohol. In the center of Istanbul, Turkey’s two worlds came face to face, in a microcosmic dance of the confrontation happening all over the world: the West and the East, the rich and the poor, the comfortable and the angry.

Ataman regards such a confrontation as a brush with the “real Turkey.” “When I look at artists’ practice in Europe, I am not inspired,” he said. “If the artists here can engage with Turkey, they will be ahead of the rest of the world. Because the world is this. This desert.”

Written by M. James

May 25, 2012 at 7:43 am

Posted in Culture, Religion, Turkey

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Khan: Freedom to interpret Shari‘ah

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In Khaled Abou El Fadl’s collection of essays, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, which I reviewed here, there was one essay response in particular that I thought worth posting. That was M. A. Muqtedar Khan’s “Primacy of Political Philosophy,” as it is titled in the collection. In a slightly more primitive form than in the book (from Khan’s website), it is reproduced below.

I recommend reading the original post as well as Abou El Fadl’s essay before continuing.

Instead of saying that liberal values are at the heart of Shari’ah, and potentially leaving it up to government jurists (ulema) to decide what that means, Khan gets rid of the jurists entirely, forcing the demos to interpret Shari’ah for themselves—individually. Khan maintains that if the jurists aren’t kicked out, there will be an inevitable regression to a government where the jurists, the privileged interpreters of Shari’ah, rule. The only answer is to remove them from government.

It is tempting to read Khan’s argument as “Shari’ah is not necessary for Islam, so let’s get rid of Shari’ah and make way for democracy.” Unfortunately, Khan is careless, perhaps relying on Abou El Fadl’s prior explanation of Shari’ah. So to understand Khan’s argument, one must think of Shari’ah as unquestionably divine and perfect, notwithstanding its earthly interpretation and practice. Indeed, its earthly interpretation and practice is what Khan takes issue with, claiming that when there is a monopoly on interpretation of Shari’ah, democracy is not possible. Instead, there must be individual freedom to interpret Shari’ah. Unlike Abou El Fadl, who attempted to liberalize Shari’ah itself for the sake of assigning rights (acting all the while as a jurist), Khan encourages the liberalization of interpretation.

In the space permitted, I think that Khan makes a good case for not only (1) the necessity of individual freedom of interpretation for the success of democracy, but also (2) the Islamic precedent for individual freedom of interpretation. But it’s about time I allow Khan to speak for himself, and the reader to decide.

The Priority of Politics: A Response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”
M. A. Muqtedar Khan; Boston Review; Apr./May 2003

The Tyranny of Legalism

The Islamic intellectual tradition—which includes Islamic legal thought (Usul al-fiqh and fiqh), theology (Kalam), mysticism (Tasawwuf) and philosophy (falsafa)—is one of the most developed and profound traditions of human knowledge. In the area of political philosophy, however, this intellectual heritage remains strikingly underdeveloped. Read the rest of this entry »

“Islam” and the Challenge of “Democracy”

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Read something else.

Khaled Abou El Fadl says: We can’t be perfect, so why even try?

I recently had the opportunity to read Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Islam and the Challenge of Democracy—a lackluster essay on reconciling “Islam” with “democracy,” and some responses, bound together and cleverly disguised as a book.

The first thing you’ll notice—if you, for whatever reason, decide to read the essay—is that Abou El Fadl is fantastically imprecise. So imprecise, in fact, that by the end you won’t be sure that he’s said anything at all. One thing is for sure, though: The title of the book should be Islam and the Challenge of Some Particular Liberal Values.

My central argument … is that democracy—by assigning equal rights of speech, association, and suffrage to all—offers the greatest potential for promoting justice and protecting human dignity, without making God responsible for injustice or the degradation of human beings.

If you hadn’t guessed that he was targeting a Western audience already (and ignoring an Islamic audience), here’s your cue. According to Abou El Fadl, God can somehow be “made responsible” for injustice and the degradation of human beings. For a Muslim, the idea that we can “make” God responsible for injustice is—to put it lightly—absurd.

And when Abou El Fadl isn’t attempting theology, he’s attempting Islamic jurisprudence—and it goes equally well. Liberal values, he seems to be saying, can (1) be found in the Qur’an, and (2) serve as the basis for Shari’ah. Though I cannot dispute the former, the latter is quite a reach, and is a project unsuitable for a mere 34 pages of text.

He seems to recognize this problem at a certain point, and instead of actually reconciling Shari’ah with liberal values, he pulls a fast one.

…Shari’ah ought to stand in an Islamic polity as a symbolic construct for the divine perfection that is unreachable by human effort.

…the law of the state, regardless of its origins or basis, belongs to the state. Under this conception, no religious laws can or may be enforced by the state.

So, since we can’t enforce Shari’ah even if we try, we might as well enforce liberal values. Why? Because liberal values are actually at the heart of Shari’ah (never mind how he got to that conclusion), and that’s simply the best we can do.

Oh, and if you don’t like his argument, it all works out in the wash, because, as he concludes, “we will all have to answer, in the Hereafter, to God.” Is that the same God, I wonder, who is responsible for injustice when we’re not democratic?

Following Abou El Fadl’s essay are, generally, equally impressive, or trite, responses. I thought one of them—by M. A. Muqtedar Khan—stood out, though. So my readers don’t feel compelled to buy the “book,” I will post that response shortly.

Edit: The response.