Winner Takes All

We in the West think that we are the only ones who know what “democracy” means; indeed, we are indignant when someone like General Musharraf says that there are many kinds of democracy, not only because it is him saying it (a case of the fox defining the henhouse), but because we think it outrageous that the suggestion be made at all. But it is true that there are various different things that might all call themselves, or reasonably be called, “democracy”, other than the particular practices that Westerners, innocent of history and cultural geography alike, assume to be the only “right” ones.

Much is made of the difference between direct and representative democracy, but there is another division in which both Periclean Athens and modern Western states fall on the same side. Namely, between negotiated consensus and winner-takes-all. Our kind of democracy is a sublimation of battle or single combat, rather like a football match; the idea is to discover who is the stronger without anyone ending up dead. Most of the time we are quite happy with the notion that 51% of the population can decide whatever they want, and the other 49% have to put up with it. The Athenians would have been comfortable with this too, for a simple majority of their Assembly was omnicompetent. The Afghan, however, is appalled: his notions of the equality and self-determination of freemen involve exhaustive negotiation resulting in a group consensus, which is then transmitted upward to the next level. For him, a 51-49 split means either that the group has not yet discussed sufficiently, or else that the group has broken down.

The same division between negotiation and sublimated combat runs through our legal systems. Television has so accustomed us to the extreme gladiatorial games of Anglo-American law, in which there is an absolute winner and an absolute loser, that we forget how many legal systems are devoted to the principle of amicable settlement and reconciliation. Here the idea is not that the winner glories and gets everything while the loser is sent empty away, but that a solution be achieved that all parties can live with. Just as with democracy, however, our own practice is much more mixed than its theory; even in American courtroom dramas, the judge often tries to play mediator, and in some Continental systems is legally mandated to attempt conciliation in all civil cases. No one seems to notice that they are operating a system based on two quite different principles at once.

It is true that some Western elected governments consult before doing anything, in some cases so much so that they can be accused of corporativism. Logically speaking, though, this practice belongs to a different model; if we were really serious about our primary or declared model, we should say that any government that gets elected can do whatever it pleases, because the People have spoken, or some other such cant. We have, therefore, two theoretically quite contradictory models in our heads at once, apparently without noticing. The same applies to the concept of inalienable human rights; these represent a severe limitation on what we normally and unthinkingly call “democracy”, namely that a majority of people gets to decide. If what the majority actually wants to do is to persecute an ethnic or other minority, we tell them they can’t. We then say that “democracy” means not only voting but also making nice to people we might not like. In which case, “democracy” simply means that people are free to vote for what we tell them is progressive.

Posted on December 19, 2011 at 11:27 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, Resistance Is Futile, Miscellaneous

Leave a Reply