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What are the conditions for a modern democracy?

May 6, 2013

Having presented a few academic prevarications and complexities, Bernard Crick lists “these factors as important for all forms of government: the role of the inhabitants, official doctrines, typical social structure, the nature of the elite, typical institutions of government, type of economy, theories of property, attitudes to law, attitudes to knowledge, diffusion of information, attitudes to politics.” (p.94) He goes on to consider these in terms of modern democracy as they contrast with autocratic and totalitarian forms of government. He writes:

  • Role of the inhabitants. Voluntary and individual participation is encouraged in modern democracies, but not compulsory. A person is free to act as a citizen or not, hence a discriminatory kind of loyalty. Only in time of war can the state mobilize all its inhabitants, otherwise people are free to move backward and forward between public and private life. To the liberal, just laws allow a maximization of private and commercial life; to the republican, a state is weak and private life incomplete without a high degree of civil participation. The contrast with autocracies is marked: they thrive on passive obedience and social deference (‘let sleeping dogs lie’); and with would-be totalitarian regimes that need to mobilize their inhabitants for social transformation.
  • Official doctrines. Allegiance in democracies is demanded and given by popular consent and on utilitarian and secular grounds; the state must demonstrate practical benefits in the here and now and not the hereafter. If authority is not truly a contract between rulers and ruled, yet commonly a contractarian language is spoken, as if rights depend upon duties. There is tolerance of diverse doctrines, so long as the behaviour which may follow does not directly threaten public [-p.95] order or the safety of the state. In most autocracies allegiance is a religious duty, the state and its rulers being seen as part of a divine order. In modern would-be totalitarian states allegiance is owed to an ideology claiming to be comprehensive and prophetic of the course of history, and even inner reservations threaten the safety of the state.
  • Typical social structure. All the ancient and modern authorities agree that a large middle class is essential (which is partly why Marxists used to reject modern democracy as a ‘capitalist, bourgeois sham’). Extremes of wealth in the hands of a few can threaten the normal polity and can threaten order. What is extreme is, however, always politically contestable. ‘Middle class’ need not mean other clear classes. The post-Marxist idea of a classless society is that of a middle class or bourgeois classlessness – the American, Australian, Swedish, Dutch, post-war German, and Blairite or New labour ideal, even if reality lags behind. Autocracies have highly stratified class or caste systems. Totalitarian regimes aim to be egalitarian but in fact develop a class system based on political and bureaucratic office-holding.
  • Nature of the elite. Usually a fairly stable political class enjoying some prestige, but sharing status with business, intellectual, and social elites, and open and penetrable to varying extents by candidates from educational institutions partly designed to recruit talent and encourage mobility. The extent of mobility and openness is perpetually debatable, both for intention and result; and the relative prestige of the political elite now seems in or in danger of decline. In autocracies the elite is usually self-perpetuating and exclusive, and in totalitarian regimes it is in theory a meritocracy based on perfect social mobility but in practice more often a self-perpetuating inner party served by a relatively large and more genuinely meritocratic outer party.
  • Typical institutions of government. The parliament, the assembly, [-p.96] the congress, all elective, debating in public and reported, and in a multi-party system. Nearly always there is some devolution of powers to or continuation of old powers in local or regional governments. Systems of elections are almost infinitely variable and contestable. (In Britain ‘first past the post’ can be called undemocratic, certainly unrepresentative; but the answer is then that to ask ‘is it democratic?’ is the wrong question; the right one is then said to be ‘does it contribute to clear, good, firm government?’) In autocracies the court or the palace comprise a visible, awe-inspiring, and usually militarily defensible society within a society. There may be internal politics within the palace walls, but not in public. There may be rival courts for short periods of time […] The typical institution in a totalitarian state is the single party.” (pp.94-96)
  • Crick also considers the other factors listed above. Under Attitudes to knowledge, he writes: “Again contrast makes modern democracy clearer. In autocracies knowledge is seen as a unified instrument of political power, part of the ‘mysteries of power’ or the unpublished ‘reason of state’ that is shared by the ruling elite but not to be questioned or debated publicly. Scientific and moral truths are confused and censorship is a necessary institution of state. In a modern democracy knowledge is seen as fragmented, related to problems not necessarily connected. Most moral truths are seen as relative in application, open to public debate, and distinct from scientific truths. There is official patronage of independent centres of learning and of the dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge has to be spread and remote from censorship if this kind of society is to work.” (p.97)
  • Also interesting to me, under Diffusion of information, Crick writes: “Proclamations are typical of autocracies, newspapers of modern democracies. With no regular news, rumour and gossip become social institutions in autocracies, as does the spy as eavesdropper and the buffoon as safety valve or covert satirist. The growth of newspapers and their freedom from state control parallels [-p.98] the growth of the democratic franchise. Printed materials outpace oral communication and rumour as the source of public information. The effective working of democratic regimes comes to depend more and more on people having access to reasonably accurate information about how the state is run and on the state being able to assess public needs and reactions reasonably accurately. Hence the objective need for neutrality and objectivity in official publications, in stark comparison to all knowledge being seen as either propaganda or as secrets of state in totalitarian regimes.” (pp.97-98)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Bernard Crick (c2002) Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford

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