Thursday, March 3, 2011

Course of Democracy in the West

One of the most acclaimed revolutions in modern political history, the French Revolution in the period 1789–1799 was the first attempt at popular democracy. This began with a violent overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of an Assembly in 1789. A constitution was drafted proclaiming equality of all citizens, establishing basic human rights, and putting an end to feudalism and the hegemony of the Church and nobility.

However, what followed was no different from what has been happening in poor African or Asian nations upon introduction of popular democracy amidst poverty.As in many poor democracies today, and maybe even in the prosperous ones, rumor and ignorance played a significant part in popular politics. Even in the storming of the fortress of Bastille, popularly seen as a symbol of despotism, in reality only seven inmates were allegedly found. Likewise, in the rural areas, poor vagrants scouring for food and work were mistaken for armed agents of landlords hired to destroy crops and harass the common people. And thus the peasants, gripped by a panic, “the Great Fear,” attacked the residences of their landlords. Easily aroused, the crowds stormed Parisian jails, mutilating and murdering over a thousand prisoners who were no mutineers but were just serving time for petty crimes.

Such forms of mob fury based on rumors are common occurrences in poor democracies of our times, too.

The revolutionary government was also a machinery of war. While Austria and Prussia had shown little interest to intervene in France’s affairs, radical politicians like Brissot exaggerated the Austrian threat to the revolution and used this fear psychosis to generate support for declaring war on Austria. Many French-style revolutionary wars followed all over Europe.

Ultimately, democracy sabotaged itself and growing anarchy, violence and poverty led to a coup that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power in 1799, leading to a military dictatorship with powers more absolute than even most kings had enjoyed before.

While much poetic significance has been attached to the Revolution, in effect it bred the same chaotic factionalism, violence, mob rule and loss of human rights that we see in the myriad poor nations that turn to popular democracy today. (Though it must be added here that France did lead the intellectual movement and development of the Western political philosophy and the French intellectuals continue doing so, often quite open to new ideas and encouraging of the unconventional).

Spain is another country that chose a direct shortcut to universal suffrage over slow and steady evolution This was tried with disastrous results in 1873 and then again in 1931, the second time leading to a civil war and the ascent of Francisco Franco.

A much more pragmatic and long lasting form to democracy was given shape by countries like the US and the UK, which gradually extended voting rights in line with economic development. Universal suffrage became a reality only when the middle class had already formed a majority.

For democracy to work and be progressive perhaps the presence of a middle class as the majority is a pre requisite - as was also theorized by Aristotle. While less critical of democracy than Plato, Aristotle too classified democracy as a bad form of government and polity a good one. He believed a democracy of the poor as the Greek society was also, back then, will tend to pull down everything. He believed in a middling factor between the insensitive upper class and the hopeless lower class for a government of many to function in a good manner.

As seen in our times too, democracy where the poor form the majority does not work and leads to subversive use of people power which is easily usurped by the wrong elements not unlike Robespierre and Danton.

The Days of the French Revolution, Christopher Hibbert

The Politics - Aristotle

Democracy on Trial, All Rise! Chapter 1 Democracy Amidst Poverty - the Forbidden Fruit