Reclaiming the commons
by Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley
People constitute the center-piece of democracy. Conceptually the democratic system revolves round the common man. Active and continuous, free and unfettered participation of the citizens in government forms the rock-bed of a truly democratic order. No wonder then that the ancient Greeks who coined the term democracy found it to be a compound of ‘Demos’ the people and ‘Kratia’, power. Common people must be able to act as the Prince of Denmark in the ‘Hamlet’ of democracy.
Why is it felt so urgent and necessary to rediscover the commons in many of today’s governmental systems which go by the name of democracy? Is it because in these societies, products of post colonial times, the ruling elites fail to comprehend, recognize and act upon the centrality of common citizens? This inability condemns the system they preside over to the status of incomplete and almost dysfunctional democracy. Everything that the rulers choosen by the people through elections, in these systems do, tent to militate against the fundamental Principle of democracy which makes it mandatory to accord the commons their rightful place in the scheme of thinks. As a result, in these cases the system is distorted beyond recognition and the dream of the US President Abraham Lincoln is dashed to the ground “democracy the government of the people, by the people and for the people” which he hoped, “will not perish from the Earth”, is never realised in societies with disabled democracies. Here the people are reduced to the status of the “fifth wheel” of the carriage of states falsely claiming to be democracy.
Before trying to find out why, the where for and how of this process of distancing the people from government, let us take a look at the evolution of the concept of democracy through centuries.
Democracy, as a participatory form of government has been in existence in various forms, since centuries before the birth of Christ. Thus a form of direct democracy existed in small Greek city states like Athens, in which all citizens (but not the aliens and slaves) had a direct share in decision making and supervision of governance. The great Greek Philosopher Plato in the 4th century BC described democracy as "an agreeable anarchic form of society, with plenty of variety which treats all men as equal whether they are or not".
His disciple Aristotle defined democracy as "a rule of the numerous poor". He further observed, "it is inevitable that a constitution under which the poor rule should be a democracy". "Its issue is ideally freedom from interference of government and failing that, such freedom, as comes from the interchange of ruling and being ruled (which) contributes....... to a general system of liberty based on equality".
In modern centuries the emergence of large, populous states led to the concept of representative democracy as a realistic form of participatory government. As the 17th century English political philosopher John Locke remarked "The majority, having upon man's first uniting into society, the whole power of the community naturally in them, may employ all that power in making laws for the community from time to time and executing these laws by officers of their own appointing and then the form of government is a perfect democracy."
Political thinker John Stuart Mill (writing in 1859-60) appropriately underscored the necessity of representative government in democracy. He observed "The only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state is the one in which the whole people participate...... But since all cannot....... participate in any but very minor portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of perfect government must be representative".
In more recent times parliamentary democracy has emerged as a major form of representative democratic government. The lead was provided by the British Parliament at West Minster in which through a process of interesting historical evolution, the cabinet-parliamentary type of government took secure roots. In its original form as it emerged in Britain its cannons were parliamentary sovereignty, the collective responsibility of the cabinet to the Parliament, the concept of Prime Minister as "Primus Inter Pares"----first among equals----and most significant, that of the "loyal opposition". In this form while the majority party in the national legislature forms the government through its cabinet, the opposition constituted of the minority party or parties virtually becomes a part of the government which may be transformed in the future as the ruling party. In parliamentary democracy, the opposition is potentially the alternative government and at the same time shares in the government even as it discharges its responsibilities of constitutional opposition.
This sharing of leadership is also manifest in other forms of representative democracy such as the Presidential types of democracy in the USA, France and other countries.
Organized opposition is a hallmark of the democratic system. In its present shape it is so recent, “so wholly modern that there are people now living who were born before it had appeared in most of Western Europe". The opposition in modern democracies has the right to participate in government decision-making by casting a vote and the right to be represented. In addition, “The right of an organized opposition to appeal for votes against the government in elections and in parliament is a vital feature in the evolution and progress of democratic institutions."
Representative democracy with modern organized opposition parties is a highly developed and sophisticated form of government. In ways more than one, parliamentary-cabinet type of representative democracy is even more exacting in its demands. Political systems of representative-democratic nature work best when the socio-cultural matrix is congenial to these. The practitioners, both the leaders and the led have to appreciate the inevitable necessity of creating the right socio-political and cultural atmosphere. As a modern political analyst L.T. Hobhouse points out "Democracy is not merely the government of a majority. It is rather the government which best expresses the community as a whole, and towards this ideal, the power assigned legally to the majority is merely a mechanical means".
Mc Iver further clarifies "In a democracy people control...government becomes an agent and the people the principal who holds it to account... democracy is not a way of governing whether by majority or otherwise but primarily a way of determining who shall govern and to what ends". Sociologist Karl Manheim focuses on the broad cultural principles which form the bases of democracy. He tersely observes : "Political democracy is merely one manifestation of a pervasive cultural principle.....(it) postulates the sharing of governmental powers by all because it is convinced of the equality of all men and rejects all vertical division of society into higher or lower orders. This belief in essential equality of human beings is the first fundamental principle of democracy".
Democratic culture requires continuous practice of the values of human equality, rule of law, justice and fair play and tolerance of differing views and opinions. It is built on the foundations of general consensus on basic socio-political and economic matters. Its manifestations are both domestic and external. Within the nations it is reflected in consensual approach of major political forces towards principal issues of national life although it does not preclude difference of strategies and stress. In external affairs such a culture is expressed in what has been described as bipartisanship. This means a community of comprehension and approach among prominent political forces with regard to the dealings of the nation with other nations and the world at large.
Institutionalization of nationalism is a major pre-condition of political development. National integration and unity help development of political system that can serve as suitable habitat for democracy. Post colonial states often find it difficult to institutionalize nationalism. Most of these entities perceive themselves as "nations-states". Nevertheless, horizontal cleavages of race, language and religion along with vertical schisms among socio-economic classes make the achievement of a national sense of unity difficult. As a result, these peoples, in the words of Rupart Emerson, "are not nations in being but only in hope”. In the analysis of K. W. Deutsch, “the various factors which constitute the bedrock of modern nationalism in Western polities are absent in the newly free post-colonial societies”. Many Western scholars hold “political development and national integration are simultaneously bound phenomena”. Rustow relates “political modernization to the successful growth of some form of nationalism and suggests that consolidation of authority should precede the building of national unity. For such societies, he identifies the sequence, authority-unity-equality...as the one most widely applicable and most likely to lead to an early and effective completion of modernization”. Huntington perceived political change as capable of leading to development as well as to degeneration and decay. He therefore, underscores the necessity for institution building particularly the creation and strengthening of political parties to bring about political development in the new states.
The elites who lead new states face the dilemmas of according priority to the equally urgent needs of “nation-building” and ‘state-building”. In a world that has become a virtual “global village”, thanks to fast communication and emerging “Information Super High Ways”, they are under pressure to modernize their countries and at the same time achieve national integration to create conditions for modernization. The new rulers and elites are faced with the challenges of reconciling and resolving the various cleavages which existed prior to independence from colonial rule. It has been observed that even a strong cultural community and a high degree of economic progress do not guarantee the production of a feeling of national unity overriding other loyalties when there is an “inherent pattern of irreconcilable disagreement about social or political values”.
A new wave of thought generated by recent analysis of western especially US, social scientist stresses that the way of ensuring the creation of sustainable democracy is to strengthen democratic practices and procedures. These analysts suggest that waiting for cultural development in politics or sound political social-engineering by farsighted and competent leadership would take too long to be of any use to the societies concerned.
Whatever that may be, the challenge before the post-colonial societies aspiring to be truly democratic emanates from the failure of their politico-social leaders to achieve consensus on basic issues of domestic and external policies. Among the countries of post-colonial South Asia, Bangladesh seemed to have suffered most from this failure.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh is not alone among post colonial countries to suffer from the inability and incapacity of political, social and economic leadership. Weak and inadequate political leadership, itself the product of an under developed and unstable socio-economic context, contributes heavily to further instability and restlessness of the entire society.
Such leadership loudly claims to be democratic but remains unable to practice the basics of democracy: belief in essential equality of human beings and the people’s right to participate in government. As sociologist Karl Manheim has rightly underscored, ‘Democratic culture requires-continuous practice of values of human equalities, rule of law, justice, fair play and tolerance of differing views and opinion”. The conduct and behavior of political leaders in many unstable countries show that they are oblivious to these indispensible requirements of democracy. Their action contradicts their claims to be democratic and pushes the common people far away from the process of meaningful political participation. The same failure haunts them when they try their hands at parliamentary democracy. This type of representative democracy requires adherence to some essential cannons. As already noted, these are parliamentary sovereignty, collective responsibility of the cabinet to parliament, treatment of the Prime Minister not as superior but first among equals and most important the belief in the concept of a “Loyal opposition”.
Constitutionally permitted organized opposition is part and parcel of representative democracy. It is one of the principal mechanisms through which people can fully exercise their inalienable right to participate in government. As L.T. Hobhouse aptly points out democracy best expresses the community as a whole, not just the majority.
Full expression of the community is obstructed when the majority in the legislature deny the right of the opposition to participate in decision making. Consequently, a large segment of the people remain virtually unable to participate in government.
In politically under developed societies, political leaders and their followers are unable to fulfill their obligation to the oppositions and, therefore, to the people. Thus, people generally remain undiscovered to the party or parties which at any given time happen to be in power. The tendency to ride roughshod over the opposition is dominant in uncertain ‘or illiberal’ democracies. In such context, national elections are viewed by concerned actors as a zero-sum game in which the “winner takes all”. This is the case in many Asian and African countries including Bangladesh. The crux of the problem lies in the inability of the politico-social leaders to comprehend and appreciate the sophistication of such a highly developed concept as modern representative democracy, especially parliamentary democracy. This exacting system demands a degree of Sophistication that is simply absent in near sighted and frequently over-dominant leaders whose concern with retaining or acquiring power is overwhelming. This stands on their way of ensuring meaningful people’s participation in government and the common citizens are distanced from the government.
Again, the failure of major political forces in achieving national consensus on core issues in the domestic spheres and bi-partitionship in foreign policy makes it almost impossible to achieve unity of the people. The socio-economic clevises in the society inherited from colonial times become deeper and wider. In consequence, the commons continue to remain divided and beyond the pale of consideration by governments masquerading as democracy. If governments in under developed polities want to be truly democratic they must work for the unity of the commons and discover them to foster an inclusive process. A system that includes all, is one that is true democracy.
The author, founder Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor quarterly “Asian Affairs” was a former teacher of political science in Dhaka University and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former non-partisan technocrat Cabinet Minister of Bangladesh.