Deconstructing Democracy: Introduction.

Anita’s post below on raising democratic children was meaningful to me because I was primarily raised in authoritarian societies, was involved in anti-authoritarian activities in my youth and first got to vote when I arrived in the US to attend university (under Nixon!). Later as a single parent I worked hard to raise my kids in what I liked to call a “triangular” social democratic family (Dad and two kids with a reasonably equitable sharing of household rights and responsibilities given our respective life positions). Although we do not agree on many issues, I can confidently say that they are both politically engaged.

I spent a large part of the Reagan years living on and off in Latin America studying processes of authoritarian demise and democratic (re)constitution, spent the early 1990s working in and out of the US government, then decided to emigrate to NZ once the kids were old enough to fend for themselves. In NZ I initially found one of the two freest places I have lived in (along with Uruguay), but then unhappily watched the corrosion of democratic values in both political and civil society over the next decade. I am now again involuntarily living under yet another authoritarian regime (not quite as murderous as the ones of my youth), and having written previously about the dilemmas of democratic consolidation in post-authoritarian societies, I have time to reflect from afar on what the term means to me, with specific reference to NZ.  Once I finish the current book project I am working on, I intend to write a book about the subject of democracy in transitional societies, and to that purpose have begun to deconstruct my thought on what democracy involves.

Over the next few blog posts I will sketch out my preliminary thoughts on the issue (these are too long for one post). The reason I do so is not so much as a self-indulgent attempt to see what the thoughts look like on paper, but because I think that sometimes people who have lived their entire lives in a democratic society lose sight of what that really means and what it involves. Perhaps it takes someone who has experience with both dictatorial and democratic systems to cast fresh light on the latter. That is my purpose here.

To begin with, we must separate “democracy” into its procedural and substantive dimensions. Procedural democracy refers to the means (procedures) by which political power is acquired and maintained. Substantive democracy refers to the three dimensions on which democratic societies are reproduced: institutional, societal and economic. I explain each in turn.

Procedural democracy is characterised by free and open competitive elections between self-constituted political actors awarded equal legal status and free from interference from the state, with an unencumbered right to vote shared by the entire adult population of citizens (and in the case of NZ, permanent residents, of which I am one).  This much is the obvious procedural minimum–there is more with regard to how the selection of incumbents of political decision-making positions is accomplished. But the key points are the freedom of expression, preference and competition embedded in the concept of procedural democracy; and the fact that elections, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic worth. By themselves elections are just a procedure, or as a Chilean observer once commented, a type of “secular communion” held at regular intervals by the electorate to consecrate their commitment to the political form as well as to select those who shall temporarily rule.

That is where substantive democracy comes in. Elections without institutional, societal and economic underpinnings are all procedure and no substance. Ferdinand Marcos held (and won) regular elections, as did the PRI regime in Mexico and Brazilian military regime of 1964-1985. The country where I am currently living has regular elections as well, but the outcome is pre-determined: the ruling party always wins. Thus, what matters most for the constitution and consolidation of democracy is not holding elections, but the substantive reproduction of democracy in its institutional, societal and economic dimensions.

Institutional democracy refers to the organization of the state apparatus and collective actors, the rules that bind them, and the forms of interaction they engage. The guiding principle of institutional democracy is transparency, equality and accountability. Institutions, both public and private, big and small, operate in away that minimizes preferential bias or ascriptive intrusions in their governance and outputs. The notions of polyarchy and pluralism apply here. Good representation of the concept is the notion that “justice is blind” or that collective agents and public officials are responsible (effectively answerable) to their principals. Needless to say, even in an advanced liberal democracy like NZ, the reality is somewhat less than the ideal.

That may be due to difficulties at the societal level. Societal democracy refers to the inculcation of notions of consent, concession, compromise, collective interest, equality, solidarity, individual rights, mutual consideration, egalitarianism and legitimate exchange. This promotes general belief in tolerance, respect for difference, non-hierarchical outlooks and negotiated solutions in the pursuit of mutual second-best collective outcomes (as opposed to self-interested first choice maximization of opportunities). It also promotes a (relatively) high degree of public participation in politically-oriented activity (including participation in the type of demonstrations seen in Auckland the past few days). This is what distinguishes democratic from authoritarian societies. Yet here too the ideal is not matched by reality even in the most mature of democracies–but it remains an aspirational objective.

Part of the reason societal democracy is less than perfect is due to failures to achieve economic democracy. At an economic level substantive democracy involves a general agreement within society that favours political guarantees for maintaining a minimum standard of living and just compensation for productive labour. It includes acceptance of minimum health and welfare standards for those who are structurally unemployable (i.e., through no fault of their own). The means of achieving economic democracy are much debated, but the fact of its necessity is not.

There is a fair bit of argument about what dimension should come first. Does procedural-institutional democracy precede societal and economic democracy (as liberal theorists claim), or, as Marxists argue, is the process the reverse? Can it be imposed by external actors, and if so, on which dimensions? (I would argue that in most cases it cannot). The degree to which a society has moved towards achieving procedural and substantive democracy helps distinguish between liberal, illiberal, exclusionary, delegative and radical democratic systems. As an example, let us imagine that we can “score” democratic “value” points based on a continuum from least to most (please note that this is my subjective rating for heuristic purposes and does not use Freedom House or Transparency International scores). Generally speaking, arrayed on a scale of 1-10 (1=undemocratic; 10=democratic utopia), countries are considered democratic if they score above 5 on all dimensions (a minimum of 20 points). Moreover, that score is not static or immutable–it varies over time depending on socio-economic, demographic and political conditions. Thus, when I arrived in NZ in 1997 I scored the country as a 8 on a procedural level, 8 on an institutional level, 9 on a societal level and a 7 on an economic level. By 2007 my scores for NZ were 7.5, 7, 8 and 8 ( a net decline of 1.5 democratic “value” points). In contrast, I had the US scored in 1997 as 6, 6, 8 and 7, moving to 5., 5.5, 7.5 and 6 under the reign of George W. Bush. As for the country I am currently living in, the scores are 1.5, 5, 6.5 and 1.

The point is not to argue for the precision of these scores. The point is that democracy is a living, breathing entity, one that reproduces dialectically across the above-mentioned dimensions, and one that is susceptible to decline if it does not reproduce a minimum threshold of democratic “value” across them. In subsequent posts I shall elaborate on the five factors that need to be reconciled for this to occur. These are consent, uncertainty, contingency, entitlements and self-restraint. In the next post I shall address the issue of consent as the foundation of hegemonic rule, and of  democracies specifically. 

For the moment suffice it to say that I endorse Anita’s insightful remarks about the early political socialisation of children, as that constitutes a precondition for the achievement of societal and institutional democracy.

PS: Please feel free to weigh in. All reasoned views welcome–after all, I have a book project in mind!

6 thoughts on “Deconstructing Democracy: Introduction.

  1. I wish you all the best in your project, Pablo. Democratic societies are under constant pressure from authoritarian influences. It must be acknowledged that the reverse is also true. Please do your best to make the book accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

  2. Thanks Matt. I have to get through the security book first (the dislocations of the past couple of years has slowed progress on that front). But I am already thinking of the next project, hence this series of posts. My major concern with regard to NZ is the decline in civility of political discourse, growing lack of transparency in government and increased institutional manipulation by elites for self-serving or partisan purposes (on the latter you might check out Cactus Kate’s dissection of the NZX in some recent posts on her blog, which is just one example of the larger negative trend).

  3. Kia ora Pablo,
    I’m looking forward to the book too.
    I’m interested in your view about what happens to a democracy when external macro events interact with it. Obviously there are external factors which can cause a democracy to slip away from the ideal and move towards the autocratic state. I suppose i’m thinking of wars as an example, but more specifically colonisation.

    Can you have a democracy when the majority population may score above the line for the catagories you mentioned, namely procedual, institutional, societal and economic. But a subset of that population may score below the line, from their perspective. A extreme example may be slavery. The slaves don’t live or participate in a democratic society yet the larger society could be seen as having a number of democratic features, and perhaps could score above the democracy line.

    Colonisation or more specifically de-colonisation is surely on the spectrum with slavery at one end and freedom at the other. Is there a correlation between these degrees of freedom and the amount of democracy? If a person is less free does that mean they have less democracy?

    If one of the tenents of democracy is personal freedom, does an indigenous, disadvantaged, colonised people actually live in a democracy? For them there is less freedom than for the majority. I suppose when the minority is 1% or 2% it is perhaps not such a major consideration but what if the minority is 30% of the population?

    So I suppose my questions (longwinded i know) are, Can a country be called democratic when there is a subset of indigenous, disadvantaged people living within that population who do not experience the same manifestation of democracy as the majority?
    And further, if that country cannot truely be called a democracy – what is the correct term for the political structure?
    Is colonisation a macro external event that affects democracy, like war, or is colonisation incorporated within the internal workings of democracy, as articulated by the various scoring you have mentioned. In other words if a country is colonised do we just score them lower in certain catagories because the overall theme of democracy is intact?

    Finally it all boils down to this… If a country cannot be actually called a true democracy while certain indigenous citizens are structurally disadvantaged… then is NZ a democracy? is the US a democracy? Is australia a democracy? and is canada a democracy? These 4 countries are all colonised and the indigenous peoples of those countries are disadvantaged. Also interesting to note they are the 4 countries that did not ratify the UN declaration on indigenous rights.
    I am born and breed in this country, I have never lived in an autocratic society, perhaps i haven’t ever lived in a democratic society either.
    Appreciate your thoughts.
    All the best.

    How much does the observer distort the observation by the very act of observing? For example an indigenous person placed into a society that has undergone colonisation may look at the minority who have less democracy than the majority and score/say that this society is not very democratic. The same person may instead identify with the majority and say there is a high degree of democratisation. I’m interested in how those views are reconcilled.

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  5. Thanks Marty for the insightful comment. What you are referring to appears to me to be variants of exclusionary or limited democracy. These are countries in which selected minorities are offered formal political rights but are denied structural opportunities equal to those of the majority (limited); or those in which the political rights of selected minorities are restricted (exclusionary). Since “democracy” is a form of majority rule, it always is biased in favour of the many rather than the few regardless of the origins of both. The true measure of democracy is not in the treatment of the majority, but in the treatment of minorities. In that measure it can be argued that conditions of post-colonialism, the most recent of which were created by capitalist imperialism, exacerbate rather than ameliorate the disadvantages of the minority, which means that capitalist democracies are limited by definition.

    As for issues of observations. Subjective assessments of objective phenomena vary according to the vantage point of the observer. But, as I noted in the post about conceptual stretching, that does not obviate the original objective condition. What makes for subjective difference is the objective insertion of the observer in the social milieu. It is recognition of this fact that gives credence to the more informed of post-modern analyses.

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