Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Democracy and the Modern Sisyphus

"Huzzah!" said Diane Sowell of State College, PA. "At long last, we are rid of that corrupt, antiquated system of government known as democracy, a system that has done nothing but maintain the status quo of political inequality, economic stagnation, and social injustice. Our good king will change all that."
- "Exiled American King Triumphantly Returns To Washington." The Onion, August 28, 2002.

With the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the end of Sri Lanka's twenty-seven-year civil war, that country's Sinhalese majority is caught up in the emotional rush of peace. Many of the plaudits for ending the war are being heaped like jewels at the feet of Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the extent that Sinhalese Sri Lankans have begun saluting him with the words, "Praise our king."

An article by Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail looks at what may well be an incipient personality cult forming around President Rajapaksa, posters and billboards of whom "are placed on every block... on every street corner, every public building, every shop front," and some of which now read "King Mahinda Rajapaksa: Our saviour."

Not bad mileage in terms of popularity for a man who eked out a relatively narrow victory in the 2005 Sri Lankan presidential election. The question that arises now is whether there will ever be another election in Sri Lanka so long as Rajapaksa is alive, or whether Sri Lanka's fifth President will become a modern-day monarch, the island's first since its conquest by the British Empire one hundred and ninety-six years ago.1

"Why do we need elections any more?" a Sri Lankan university student is quoted as saying in the Globe and Mail's story. "He is the king we need."

For all but the most recent fraction of history, people were ruled by the strong. In ancient days, that's exactly what they were; as time went on and the political power of one strongman was passed down to his descendants, elaborate social constructs came about to justify why this particular man (or, in very very rare cases, woman) was in charge. Democracy was a breakthrough made possible by the outward-looking, inquisitive, exploratory maritime city-states of classical Greece, and after weathering the Persian storm at Salamis their peculiar form of government was transmitted to the Roman Republic and its memory preserved by the Roman Empire.

The United Kingdom and United States became the standard bearers of democracy in the modern age, and with the global influence of first one and then the other since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the concept spread to every continent and flowered in almost every nation. In 2008, of all the states in the world, only four - Brunei, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and the Vatican City - did not at least pretend to be democracies.2 You could argue that as the 21st century dawns, the age of strongmen is nearing its end. Back in the '80s, Francis Fukuyama thought that much.

The idea that liberal democracy represents the end point of human sociocultural evolution is an appealing one, for those who like what liberal democracy represents. Who wouldn't want to believe that there'll be no more wars against the fascists or silent struggles with the communists to darken the future? Liberal democracy, they say, is a pretty good thing; let's stick with it.

What I can't help but wonder is whether democracy is fundamentally in opposition to basic human nature. While humans aren't pack creatures like canines, the evidence of history demonstrates that something in the human spirit lends itself to small groups dominating large ones. To my mind, monarchies, dictatorships, and other forms of government wherein succession is determined by something other than the consent of the governed represent the "natural state" of humanity.

Before the twentieth century, democracy was something that had to be fought for. Whether it was realized in the efforts of American colonists to separate themselves from an unrepresentative Parliament in 1776 or British reformers to abolish the rotten boroughs and extend voting rights in 1832, for most of history democracy was not something that just happened.

Democracy has become the way of the world in the 21st century, but at the same time, familiarity breeds contempt. It's not a perfect system by any means of the imagination, but the lack of any real, vibrant alternative system of government that eschews the concept entirely may create a sort of funhouse mirror effect - not only making democracy seem far worse because of its ubiquity, but making non-democratic government more attractive because of its unfamiliarity, its exoticism.

Entropy dictates that, over time, systems decay from order to disorder. Democracy is like pushing a boulder uphill. It takes a great deal of deliberate effort to just stay in the same place, let alone move forward, and if we lose interest the boulder rolls back down to the bottom. Left alone, without anyone to defend it, democracies inevitably decay into dictatorships and one-man rule.

There's something to be said, in human culture, for a king. The pomp and circumstance and iron certainty of a strong, bold, decisive leader in a palace fills a great many psychological needs; just as gods controlled the parts of the world that the ordinary person didn't understand, kings controlled the parts of the world that they knew themselves. Democracy transfers the responsibility of leadership from such elevated men to the most common people on the street.

For some people, it's easy to see that this would be deeply unsettling. It's no wonder that so many people crave kings.

People crave a lot of things that, in the end, aren't much good for them at all.

1 Not counting the British monarchs, since I don't think any of them were even from Sri Lanka.

2 Even North Korea calls itself "democratic." Which I suppose shows how far just
calling yourself democratic gets you.

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