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Exporting Democracy

While commenting on another piece. Anthony suggested that this topic probably needed to be a new thread.  This threadstarter is Anthony's second piece to be published on Webdiary.


Exporting Democracy
by Anthony Nolan 

 It appears to me that bringing a democracy into being requires more than parliamentary and other institutions. It requires citizens to fit the bill. In other words it requires citizens who are capable of acting as agents within a demos. No small requirement.

The history of Western modernity is the history of the development of particular kinds of subjectivity within the citizenry in which a self reflective capacity is a key feature. Citizens of a democracy  need to be other regarding, sophisticated, self aware.

I do not think that the people of Afghanistan are of this order. Nor of any other Muslim state. I do not think that the people of China are of this order as yet either. The people of India are on their way to developing deomocratic subjectivity but the situation is fragile and they are too often dragged back into pre-modern and communal mind sets. Numerous African states would also fall into the category of 'not yet capable' of being democracies. Certain South American nations are making their way towards that end.

The history of the development of democracy, from the French and English revolutions onwards, shows that it is no easy undertaking. It is a bloody struggle to create both the insitutions of democratic social life and people capable of placing a concern with rational democratic processes at the centre of institutional and individual life. It is a constant struggle in Australia as well to defend and advance democratic practice.

What I am getting at is the impossibility of establishing democratic conditions by fiat or by force. There needs to be a will towards that end from within the history and culture of the country and the people themselves. Islam is a countervailing force to democratic modernity.

So why then bother with Afghanistan at any level? Social conditions of existence in Afghanistan may be distasteful to democratically oreinted men and women in Australia. they certainly are to me. But it is beyond my authority to do anything about them except offer refuge to those who seek to escape.

I no longer believe that we can export democracy and think we must learn to live, like good post-moderns, in world simultaneously constituted by premodern and modern conditions and attitudes. As to Afghanistan as a locus of terrorist training - well, of course it is. But so is the CIA.

The only meaningful way to combat terrorism is to assist in creating social conditions in which fear, ignorance, poverty and oppression are marginal experiences. A long task.

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OK then

There appears to be common agreement about the difficulty of "exporting" democracy which I guess is shorthand for attempting to impose democratic institutions and practices on countries unready for them.

I am still of the view that democracy is that system of self governance that allows for maximum individual freedom and has the greatest potential for collective security.  One thing it allows that sets it aside from the old socialist model (USSR) is the articulation of new needs as they arise.  In other words as individuals and groups discover unmet needs, be they material needs or needs for cultural recognition, then democracy allows for the organised expression of that  need.

One way to promote democracy is through dialogue.  Like the sort of dialogue we have here at Webdiary.  It seems to me that where forces or agents within undemocratic nations request (non-military) assistance then then it is incumbent on democratic citizens elsewhere to provide it.  Through dialogue, for instance, or through material means.

One thing we ought to oppose is, I think, allowing Australia to host things like arms fairs (another thread) so that the agents of Governments who put people like Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest can come here for a holiday. 

What I am getting at is that there are numerous ways that citizens can  promote and defend democracy.

FDR and the New Deal

Michael de Angelos: "Exporting democracy ?. Not a hope in hell. The USA doesn't even know itself what it is anymore. Bailing out Fannie May etc ?. I believe it's called "socialism"."

I thought it was "propping up capital". Oh, well...

American democracy is an interest not a gift

Ian MacDougall: "Hopefully, things will keep improving in Iraq. When the British Guardian says things are getting better there, then you know it's really getting better, big time".

I don't doubt things are getting better, how much democracy has to do with it, I don't know. Personally, I think it's been a waste of US taxpayers dollars, and these types of interventions will need a big future re-think.

The problem is that American officials (or saviour) take an oath to serve American interests. That's the facts of life, and spending hundreds of billions on supplying democracy to somewhere most Americans care little about makes it highly debatable it is in America's interest.

The public rhetoric may be for democracy to spread across the world. I doubt though you'd one person, yes, not one person in the State Department that would seek to push for such a thing in say Saudi Arabia - one amongst a few others. For good reason. It wouldn't be in the American interest. Probably not even the world's interest.

America can only act as a shining light, it shouldn't and it can't make people go toward that light. There isn't any shame in understanding and communicating one's limitations, and indeed one's interests.

I hope McCain doesn't fall into the trap.

In the future

Ian MacDougall: "When the British Guardian says things are getting better there, then you know it's really getting better, big time."

I'm looking forward to John Pilger's upcoming documentary on this in which he will outline his long-held view that the international community should have overhtrown Saddam Hussein much, much earlier. And how Dick Cheney tried to stop the invasion.

Eventual credit for the liberation of Iraq will, in the documentary, be given to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

George Bush Jnr will be ridiculed for having wasted resources in Afghanistan and not having moved more decisively against Saddam.

Bob Brown will remind us how he called for the US to intervene in 1991. And indeed, he did.

Germaine Greer will contrast the bright future of Iraqis with the bleak future of Australians. She will reveal she'd been living in Iraq at the time of Saddam's downfall and was actively involved with minority politics and community arts there.

She'll bring out a book of high format, fine resolution colour photographs of young Iraqi men bathing in the Euphrates. As a gesture of support. You know.

Saddam Hussein's execution will be heralded by Noam Chomsky as an example of revolutionary justice, and his capture by the Iraqi Communist Party will become a well know 'fact', frequently alluded to on TV news shows like Lateline.

It's all a fantasy

Exporting democracy? Not a hope in hell. The USA doesn't even know itself what it is anymore. Bailing out Fannie May etc? I believe it's called "socialism".

Democracy isn't all it's meant to be

Nobody can export "democracy", not the United States or anyone else for that matter. Understanding of democracy is not even a constant - in those places that call themselves democracies. The simplistic nature of "exporting democracy" is the greatest Bush blunder. It's never worked and it was never going to work.

Most decisions made in peoples lives aren't through a democratic process. That doesn't mean democracy makes a poor form of government - it means that it's not perfect. Though, it's probably the best of a bad bunch.

When you're in a place and you're hungry, fearful, and that place is beset with turmoil, democracy isn't high on ones list of priorities. Understandable I'd think. The United States and every country for that matter should deal from their own bias and interests. That doesn't mean a common bias and interest cannot be found. In fact for the most part it is found. It's called transparency.

Setting ones self up as the saviour of the world isn't a wise move. The next United States Government will spend a lot of time (I'm predicting) lowering a lot of those overly adventurous bench marks. Which won't be a bad thing.

Democracy cannot be exported?

Paul, "Nobody can export 'democracy', not the United States or anyone else for that matter.... It's never worked and it was never going to work."

Perhaps. Though German democracy staggered around a bit before finally being helped to its feet after WW2. Japan likewise.

Hopefully, things will keep improving in Iraq. When the British Guardian says things are getting better there, then you know it's really getting better, big time.

A young man growing up in the Arab world is inclined to give his primary allegiance to his tribe, or seek the patronage of some local warlord. Much the  same process took place in Europe at the start of the feudal era. Saddam Hussein's career is but an extreme example of this phenomenon.

European history is of numerous small princes giving way to larger ones and then centralised monarchies, which as time progressed became constitutional (Britain, Scandinavia, Holland, Spain) or elected (the US, France, Germany, Russia), with most real power passing to elected governments as the economies became more complex. Occasionally, attempts are made to restart feudalism (eg the Chicago Mafia, Russia), but in the modern industrial context are marginal.

Iraq, for all its chaos, may emerge as the first genuine democracy in the Arab world. Which will mean likely hostility from all other Arab regimes. Iran and Iraq may form a partnership in future in which each assists the other in this regard.


Democracy at the point of a gun

Anthony, I think you are correct: democracy cannot be exported. It certainly cannot be imposed by an invading army. It takes a cultural change; religion is nearly always anti democratic. Most religions say it is "my way or no way" God said so. Why is that an atheist could never become the president of the United States?

Religion does unite people and often makes them so sure of their convictions that they are willing to die and kill to force their opinions on to others. Religious leaders use religion as a tool to control the uneducated masses. It is almost impossible to force one to change religion at the point of a gun.

A change of culture is what is needed, democracies need to be open and inclusive to succeed. Most people are under the influence of religious leaders who preach their way is the only way. If we spent more money on education and raising living standards than we spend on weapons of war we may be able to export democracy.


Although I enjoy - more or less - our way of life, there does not seem to be a great deal about it that reflects the will of the people.

For example, I believe that in any great endeavour, such as going to war, the will of the people is not necessarily reflected. And, certainly not consulted.

Democracy is supposedly reflected in our turnout to the polls every so often. However, our (general?) cynicism towards politicians reflects our disillusionment with any real idea that they will carry out our will.

Certainly, western governments provide a "free-er" environment for their citizens than do other regimes, and therefore I wholeheartedly endorse them. But, I'm not sure that they are truly democratic - or even close.

Simple home remedies?

I like them, know few, wish for more. Can you supply them, Ernest William?

What a shame

G'day Anthony. Some of my attitudes may be in conflict, but I believe that we are just a little disingenuous in our American led purpose of deciding what is best for the rest of the world. Especially now that "democracy" is just a marketing word.

Surely the democracy that we were taught is indeed diametrically opposed to the way in which the leader of the "free" world is demanding.

I believe that some of the customs of the people in various areas of the world in which only modern scientists (or oil vandals) would bother to visit, is that which has lasted a hundreds of years before the American Rebellion.

Countries, not the least of which is the US, have been making fortunes from historic material and human endeavour for centuries. Does that mean that we think only the disasters are worth recording? Not at all. For example, did we learn anything from the Ancient Greeks, the Athenians, the Romans, the Persians and many of the Semites of the Middle East? If we don't it is our fault, not theirs.

The destruction of 10,000 years of history in the Iraq Museum by the American military was as evil as the Vandals in Rome.

In Australia we are so proud of our young history that developers build typical villages to allow our young to appreciate the way things were, and learn by it.

As an aside, the simple basic home remedies of my grandmother are still there for us to consider. I hope you are also that lucky.

Cheers Ern G.

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