I tweeted a couple of ideas on democracy not long ago. Here they are:
And this one too:
Which is to say, democracy’s very own structures make it possible to undermine – even fundamentally damage – its essence.
I’m saying nothing new here; people much better than me have said it much better before.
I experienced it at first hand many years ago now: I participated in an open-source software community where the different agendas, poorly perceived by myself, actually contributed to my going temporarily mad. (I say this in the clinical sense. There were obviously other contributory factors.)
The essence of open-source software communities is their openness. But openness is a strategic weakness when hijacked by those who wish to move something in one direction or another for their own personal and private interests.
And so we find the same with democracy.
If you truly believe in openness and collaboration, both initial process and the development of ideas must be held in public. Not only the wet-behind-the-ears get fascinated by the novelty of such dynamics: the crudely efficient and elite-creating too.
I think democracy, in certain respects, suffers from dynamics such as these.
So what are the alternatives? Well. Not what we might call “militant democracy”.
An article written by Kent Roach & Craig Forcese, which came my way this afternoon via Alan Rusbridger’s Twitter feed, explains what it is and why we shouldn’t be tempted:
Militant democracy is less well known in the United States but it is widely discussed and debated in Europe. The idea has its origins in Karl Lowenstein’s 1937 warnings that we must not allow the enemies of democracies to use democratic freedoms to overthrow democracy. A militant democracy is prepared to abridge the freedoms of those who are prepared to use democratic freedoms to destroy a democracy.
I suppose a number of differences between the US and Europe are better understood in this context: many countries, for example, in Europe do not allow for apologias of Nazism and expressions of anti-Semitism. I suspect the same – for good or ill (from the perspective of freedom of expression I mean) – is not the case in the US.
Even so, it’s still the case that anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi behaviours exist on the Continent and here in Britain. Whither the militant democracy in such cases?
As Roach & Forcese argue (the bold is mine):
The available social science suggests that the correlation between the expression of radical and extremist ideas in support of terrorism and actual acts of terrorism is very weak. One recent study estimated from UK data that only 1 in 100 of those who hold radical ideas supportive of terrorism will actually move to violence.
Added to that modest correlation is the possibility that offenses against speech may deter the remarkable level of social media activity by extremists and deprive intelligence agencies of possible tracking opportunities. Such a step may also feed a “clash of civilizations” narrative that pits Islam against the West.
That, of course, may be the goal of those who act in bad faith on all sides.
It’s also true, however, that focussing on the narrative of Islam versus the West in this analysis of democracy’s inherent weaknesses probably doesn’t help us very much. Especially when we are looking to construct a clearer understanding of how we should react to external threats which manage to feed off/take advantage of the very openness we prefer to see as our one undeniable virtue.
I’m not saying “militant” democracy is good or inevitable here.
I am suggesting that a democracy which mitigates – which is structurally capable of defending itself against the kind of logical and logistical attacks to what we might term its “softer underbelly” (attacks that tend to make us liberals shudder in confused embarrassment) – may need to be actively constructed. And in its construction, perhaps we should keep in mind the following (though not in any particular order of importance):
- Democracy is inevitably inefficient as far as decision-making is concerned.
- Inefficiency of this nature is a guarantee of inclusion.
- Inclusion, in part, where the voice it gives is engaged in consistently real dialogues and not just a politeness of listening, can help defend democracy from its hijacking by anti-democratic tendencies.
- Inclusion, by itself, doesn’t ensure democracy’s continuity.
- Democracy’s continuity needs a culture of democratic attitudes as well as a baseline of laws.
- The latter without the former leads to a progressive corrupting of the justice system.
- The former without the latter leads to shoddy and incompetent thinking.
What do you think? Would it be possible to make our democracy both figuratively and literally bomb-proof?
And if not absolutely, at least relatively speaking …
Without necessarily continuing down the road of ever bigger fish!