02 January 2010

Book: Democracy Kills

A welcome contribution to the commencing debate on anti-democratic thought: In September 2009, Pan Macmillan published the new book by veteran BBC foreign correspondent, Humphrey Hawksley, bearing the suggestive title "Democracy Kills: What's So Good About Having the Vote?".

Pan Macmillan promotes the book as "[a] compelling and thought-provoking examination of the dangers of democracy":


Their description: "For many years western governments have insisted that the only way to achieve long-term prosperity and political stability is through a combination of free-market economics and democratic government. Yet, all evidence now indicates that this argument is both flawed and can also be the direct cause of war, disease, and poverty. From Pakistan to Zimbabwe, from the Palestinian territories to the former Yugoslavia, from Georgia to Haiti attempts to install democracy through elections have produced high levels of corruption and violence. Parliaments represent not broad constituencies but vested interests and, amid much fanfare, constitutions are written, but rarely upheld. Humphrey Hawksley has reported economic and political trends throughout the world for more than twenty years. In 'Democracy Kills', he offers a vivid – and frequently devastating – analysis of our devotion to democracy."

There is of course a simple reason why Hawksley, as he writes on his blog, experienced "overwhelming support" when launching the book at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August – and this from "a highly-intelligent, thoughtful, liberal audience". The cases he discusses in the book are far away. It is easy to agree that democratization had devastating consequences in places like Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Unlike myself, Hawksley appears still to favour democracy when it comes to the West. The argument he says "no-one disagreed with" remains thus theoretical to most people. They are not asked to take a stance.

In an early review of the book, Gerard DeGroot (Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews) conceded in this vein that
"[w]hile democracy seems in theory admirable, too often its hasty implementation brings bloodshed, poverty, disease and death". In the Ivory Coast, for example, "[a] succession of weak governments [left] the country open to free-market exploitation by rapacious chocolate producers. Adults now have the vote, but their children are often slaves", harvesting cocoa.

Only in developing countries, according to that line of thought, "the people often lack the experience to behave like full-fledged democrats. The result is either chronic political instability or, worse, elected autocracies. [...] The argument brings to mind the colonial era when self-determination was perpetually denied on grounds that the natives were not ready. Today, the politically correct attitude is to assume that all people are capable of being good democrats, or at least should be allowed to make their own mistakes. Yet democracy is much more than an ideology worthy of adoption simply because it is noble. It is, in truth, a culture – one that took centuries to take root in Europe. The idea that it can be quickly transplanted in places where the soil is rocky and the climate harsh is simply naïve".

Concluding his discussion, DeGroot relates "the experience of Usama Rehda, an Iraqi citizen for whom democratic change has meant poverty, corruption and the constant threat of car bombs. 'You know what they say [... .] Be nice to the Americans or they'll punish you with democracy.'"

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