As I watched the scenes of revolutionary protest in Egypt and the reluctance of democratic western nations, self-claimed champions of democracy, to support the will of the Egyptian people, I started to ponder why the use of the term ‘liberal democracy’ has always made me feel uncomfortable, even though I am opposed to dictatorships, one-party rule, and other systems of governance that deny the participation of citizens. In contemporary political rhetoric, democracy is often seen as the gold standard. Yet, those who uphold it at home and cite it as a reason to pursue warfare, when confronted with people power, are left bumbling. The humanity and dignity of the Egyptian people are at odds with geo-political interests - even when exposed to the full glare of international attention. It seems as if the empire has no clothes.
These events force us to consider the relationship between liberal democracy, empire, global economic dominance, and social Darwinism. The Nigerian scholar Claude Ake, in his book ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’, considers democracy within the history of colonial and post-colonial Africa. Writing of the North’s attitude to democracy in Africa, Ake notes that:
‘Even at its best, liberal democracy is inimical to the idea of the people having effective decision-making power. The essence of liberal democracy is precisely the abolition of popular power and the replacement of popular sovereignty with the rule of law (p.130).’
The evolution of democracy since its origin in ancient Greece has been well-documented and its variants have occupied political philosophers, especially with regards to its manifestations in western societies. Ake discusses how western social science constant clarification of the meaning of democracy has ended in redefining it to the detriment of its democratic values. For example, in the protective theory of democracy, the people are protected from the state through a vibrant civil society. Political stability is dependent on people surrendering participation and political apathy is interpreted as a sign of people being content with rulers.
Ake is critical of the political conditionality of the 1990s and the emphasis placed on multi-party elections, however manipulated, as the marker of a democratic state. This crude democracy is, however, undermined by the political authoritarianism of structural adjustment and poverty reduction and growth strategies, and the continued militarization of African societies through the sale of weapons and military policy interventions such as AFRICOM. Such forms of democracy reinforce the idea that those who reside in developing countries have less right to the benefits of development. As the Caribbean writer, CLR James, points out, Africans in the diaspora have for centuries known the limitations of bourgeois democracy.
Ake concludes by outlining the sort of democracy that Africa needs:
‘…a democracy in which people have some real decision-making power over and above the consent of electoral choice…a democracy that places emphasis on concrete political, social and economic rights as opposed to a liberal democracy that emphasises abstract political rights…a democracy that puts emphasis on collective rights as it does on individual rights…a democracy of incorporation (p.132).’
For Ake, the only way this democracy can be achieved is if Africans take hold of the process; not the elites who, he argues, have ‘ceded the initiative to the international development community’, and appear to ‘neither knowing what to do about the mounting crisis nor being in control of events…they have been weakened by their sheer lack of control, their poverty of ideas, and their humiliation’ (p.132).
To effectuate democracy, one has to address policies of development and ideologies of militarism that leave the masses of people unemployed and impoverished, whilst the elites accumulate wealth through facilitating contracts with multi-national corporations and the purchasing of weapons. Despite the billions of aid that Egypt has gotten from the west, the majority of its people continue to live in impoverished circumstances. Development aid, in this instance, is to sustain an autocratic regime that subjects its people to the will of global and regional hegemonic powers, at a cost to their well-being. It’s instructive that the 2010 Human Development Report for Egypt, notes:
‘…the most striking and unusual finding of this Report is the extent to which youth are excluded from political and civic participation, especially since the definition of youth for this Report is 18-29 years [numbering 30 million], at which time youth are legally empowered to vote and make important social decisions (http://www.undp.org.eg/Default.aspx?tabid=227).’
The report refers to the state of limbo most youth find themselves in, what it terms ‘waithood’ - waiting to start a living, to have the resources to become an adult. This feature of contemporary life is not peculiar to Egypt and, though the report refers to cultural and political factors that contribute to this state, it fails to acknowledge the economic reforms that have destroyed the structures that sustained the societies. The mix of state retreat from social welfare provisioning, privatised education, reduced public sector, and high unemployment, combined with economic policies of extraction, have destroyed the future prospects of young people.
Proposals to include young people through creating separate political institutions fall short because they are envisaged within an economic system that marginalises them. True development and democracy are two sides of the same coin. Both have to be participatory to be effective, and at their core is the principle of self-reliance and direct action by the people - as primary agents of change.
Recently, I watched again an episode of the late Basil Davidson’s 1980s series on Africa. This particular episode focused on early African communities and how they mastered the continent.
Davidson considered the systems of governance that worked and created stability in these communities. It was a system where the communities came together to ensure the survival of each and every member, what people in Africa term ubuntu. This is how the historian, Walter Rodney, in his book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, understood the concept of development; as being dependent on ‘the coming together of the societies in the struggle against natural hazards and to protect their freedom; on this basis humans developed tools and organized their labour to enable social development (p. 2).’ The personal development of the individual is intertwined with that of the collective.
Capitalist development, with its focus on individual choice, may have appeared to deliver material benefits to many in the industrialised countries but this came out of the struggle of the working people fighting for better living and working conditions. Such struggles, what Karl Marx termed, class struggles, are on-going, and are bound to intensify in the late neo-liberal era, as the safety blankets in some welfarist societies in the west are pulled away. As David Harvey and Samir Amin have shown us, inequalities and uneven development are inherent to the capitalist system. Accumulation by dispossession in the global south and former colonial territories continues apace, assisted by comprador elites. Such practices are set to intensify as a result of the economic crises that have recently beset advanced capitalist economies.
Advocates of social justice in Africa and everywhere have to sharpen their tools of analysis to provide directions for non-violent revolutions and to think creatively about the sorts of socio-political organisations that will provide genuine representation. The focus on ‘community’ by international development institutions has sought to de-politicise and de-mobilise transformative collective actions in many states. While the old ideas of socialism may have lost their relevance and organising power after 1989, the principles of collective action, social justice, and popular participation remain as rallying cries for revolutionaries. The lesson from the recent uprisings in North Africa is that the quest for human freedom can never be extinguished.
The Tunisian and Egyptian peoples’ call for an end to dictatorship, military brutality, and their assertion of the right to self-determination forces scholars of social justice to think through how to operationalise democratic principles like those outlined by Ake and long articulated in the philosophy of ubuntu. The people know what they want, but, as social scientists, do we know how to give them what they want?
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* Dr Patricia Daley is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Oxford, and Chair of Fahamu Trust.
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at Pambazuka News.
Ake, Claude (1996) ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’. Washington DC: The Brookings Institution.
Amin, Samir (2010) ‘Ending the Crisis of Capitalism or Ending Capitalism’. Pambazuka Press.
Davidson, B. (1980s) ‘Africa: Mastering a Continent’. Channel 4, UK
Harvey, David (2006) ‘Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development’.
Grimshaw, A. (1992) ‘The C.L.R. James Reader’. Oxford: Blackwell.
Rodney, Walter (1972) ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. London: Bogle L’Overture