Democracy and Ochlocracy

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What was the best development in 2012? – Democracy won

What was the worst development in 2012? – Democracy won

The Vano’s Show. A weekly satirical TV program on Rustavi 2

 

On 1 October 2012, democracy won in Georgia. This sentence has become something of a mantra – it is itself obvious, but with constant repetition becomes annoying. I will now pose a provocative question, which I hope will not be considered a banality: Is it good that democracy won?

It should first be admitted that the results of the October parliamentary election have already prompted such a question to be formulated, at least by those who dislike the victor – the Georgian Dream coalition. But so far, discussion of this has taken the form of sporadic vociferations and not serious reasoning.

Sacred Cow

Why? Because posing this question in such a way is breaking a taboo. In contemporary society democracy is a sacred cow. It cannot be touched and its sacredness cannot be questioned.

Let’s pose the question in a different way: Is it good for democracy to lose the status of a sacred cow, so that even the idea of democracy gets turned into a problem? My answer to this question is clear-cut: yes, it is necessary. Unconditional acknowledgment of the idea of democracy itself reflects a democratically underdeveloped society.

Such an acknowledgment does not at all mean that everyone really shares democratic values and, even more so, acts accordingly. This situation reminds me of how, in my youth, people treated the communist ideology: they derided and ridiculed it within their close circle of friends, but in public they repeated that it was the only truth like a mantra. That bred the culture of cynicism – the most lasting mental legacy of communism. Today, democracy is treated the same way: we profess to observe the rules of democracy to satisfy Europe, but will continue our charade until we get caught red-handed.

Being critical about any opinion, including about the idea of democracy itself, is part of democratic political culture. Democracy rests on the ability of citizens to make informed and considered choices. This implies that there should also be the choice between democratic and undemocratic systems.

In all fairness, it must be said that Tabula is a pioneer in this respect: at the end of 2011, it published two articles questioning the idea of democracy. Gia Jandieri (in Georgian issue #83) called democracy “the god which falls short of hopes,” while Davit Aprasidze (in Georgian issue #80) asked “do we really want democratization?” The latter article ultimately concluded that even though democracy has its threats, authoritarianism is more dangerous. Very good: that is what I want to talk about.

Mob Rule

What is the main threat of democracy? Since ancient times wise people have said that the threat of democracy is ochlocracy, or mob rule. In modern times, ochlocracy has acquired another name - “the tyranny of the majority.”

The problem lies in the essence of democracy itself. “Government by the people” is an abstraction that basically means that the government is created by the will of the majority of people coming to the polls. For example, in the United States, when 45 percent of eligible voters come to the polls (which is a normal percentage for that country) and 50.5 percent of them cast their vote for one candidate, politicians and journalists are quick to conclude that the “American people have delivered their verdict.”

But Americans are well aware that this is only a metaphor. In reality, the will of the people does not exist – only individuals have will. Individuals, however, differ from one another and sometimes change their attitudes.

Democracy starts to degrade into ochlocracy when that metaphor is taken literally – the majority of the people having come to the polls becomes tantamount to “the people” in general. Thus, those who do not agree with the majority become enemies of the nation (state or country). However, when the rights of the minority are not protected, ochlocracy will turn into tyranny and we thus risk going around in a vicious circle.

The notion of the victory of the people has been exploited and manipulated in abundance by various Georgian governments, especially by the one which came to power on the wave of the Rose Revolution. It is a temptation which very few democratic politicians can resist. When they are at the peak of their popularity, leaders forget that political ratings are like courting a flibbertigibbet (or, for the sake of gender balance, a womanizer): one can never tell when she will dump you, leaving you to the mercy of “victorious people.”

Our new government has already broken the record of its successor in spurring the mob instinct. Normally, events would have unfolded the other way around as this is the first government that has come to power through democratic elections. Revolutions ensure either protracted unrest or a concentration of power in the hands of a relatively small group (we witnessed the former in the early 1990s and the latter after the Rose Revolution). Constitutional change in power, however, tends to create a pluralistic environment: no one is elected by 96 percent of the vote, the former government continues political activity as the opposition force, the change affects only one branch of power (for instance, the legislature) and not the others (for example, local government and the judiciary) and so on and so forth.

That’s how it should have happened in Georgia after the 1 October parliamentary elections. Had this occurred, we would have definitely witnessed the victory of liberal democracy. It is still possible to attain that achievement, for example, if the parliamentary faction of the United National Movement does not enable the Georgian Dream to lure away its MPs to gain a constitutional majority; if not all municipalities come under the spell of “Dream” and switch their allegiance; or if the new government fails to impose control over the judiciary and national TV channels.

However, the new ruling majority has not concealed that its aim is to overcome that very pluralism. We vividly saw the ugly face of ochlocracy on 8 February, when a mob of “Dreamers” roughed up leaders of the political opposition having come to listen to the president’s speech at the public library. The leaders of the Georgian Dream somewhat insincerely condemned the violence of their ochlos, invalidating this condemnation outright by laying the blame and responsibility for it on those who were beaten up – the UNM representatives.

Through its rhetoric and actions, the Georgian Dream had logically been steering developments towards that incident. The new government follows the key principle of ochlocracy – it equates the current majority with the people. For example, when the opposition refused to agree to constitutional changes proposed by the ruling majority, the latter did not make any attempt to achieve agreement with the former (which would have been quite possible to achieve); instead, the majority tried to smash and split up the opposition using threats, blackmail and, presumably, bribes. All this was justified with the rhetoric: “Those who refuse constitutional changes, go against the state,” which is a classical formula of ochlocracy.

And Still, What Should We Do?

The evaluation of the new government is not the topic of this article. The key issue is the question raised at the beginning: was the democratic ceding of power acceptable if the result is ochlocracy?

When we say that democracy is better than autocracy, we are referring to liberal democracy, which defends pluralism and honors individual and minority rights. Ochlocracy, which does the opposite, is worse than forms of moderate autocracy, and will itself eventually become tyranny. That is why many great thinkers have criticized democracy: they did not have much faith in the prospect for liberal democracy and fear mob rule.

So, am I saying that Mikheil Saakashvili’s government should have employed all means, legal and illegal, to prevent the “Dreamers” from coming to power? No, I am not. I think the opposite. The key issue here is why I think this.

Unfortunately, in the current situation, Georgia does not have a good way out. It appears that the Georgian Dream government is an obvious (perhaps even tragic) step backwards compared to its predecessor (against which serious and fair complaints also existed). But the situation would have been worse had the Georgian Dream been prevented from coming to power.

In any case, Saakashvili’s regime, which may be described as a partially authoritarian or defective democracy, would have simply been unable to do that. To do so would have required a dictatorship.

So, why should Saakashvili not have installed a dictatorship to save the country? The most popular and correct argument is that doing so would have run counter to Georgian society’s and, in particular, the UNM’s main goals of integration into the West and, through that, the enhancement of Georgia’s sovereignty. Georgia is in a no-win situation, a so-called Catch-22. An incomplete adoption and understanding of western political values brought the new government to power, which, in turn, may break Georgia away from the western orbit (I am not asserting that it necessarily will, but the risk of that is real). This could have been avoided by an open denial of democracy, however, this course would have made Georgia less attractive for the West and would have increased the likelihood of us being left only with the option of joining the Eurasian Union.

But that factor – let’s call it the “geopolitics of democracy” – is not the only issue. Citizens of Arab countries do not strive towards integration into the West, but they have also failed to resist the charm of democracy. The forms and manifestations of authoritarianism, as well as ochlocracy, in those countries are way more radical, though the nature of the dilemma is the same.

To cut a long story short, the main problem with liberal democracy is that it is unrealistic. On the one hand, if you choose to become oriented towards authoritarianism, you cannot be guaranteed that you will find a relatively “good,” moderate and patriotic dictator. On the other hand, in the modern world it is virtually impossible to resist the charm of mass democracy (even if it poses the risk of ochlocracy).

Georgian society has failed to create such institutions that can produce the democratic impulse sufficient to block the path to mob rule. Such institutions cannot be created from above alone. The only solution is to accumulate (often bitter) experience. That only happens when people have the possibility to make decisions. No matter how much we lament the weakness of civil society in Georgia, we have learned a lot over the last 25 years. Today, Georgian society is way more diverse and rational than it was at the time of the inception of the national liberation movement.

So far, we have learned something from every stage of our history. I hope that lessons will be learnt from this period too. Such things as: one should not elect a generous billionaire appearing out of thin air only because he promises manna from heaven; or that the exit of the former government does not mean the disappearance of its members or that they can be beaten down. There is still a lot to learn. I don’t know how long this will take, but no better alternative is looming.

 

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