Democracy and Nonviolence

Facebook Twitter Email

The 21st century is at the crossroads. The ending of the confrontation between East and West ushered in the possibility of a “new international order” based on the extension of democracy across the globe, and a new spirit of peace. However, the enthusiasm which accompanied the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War seems now far away. The crises and cruelties in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Afghanistan and Iraq have brought many to the conclusion that the new world order is a new world disorder. Of course, there is nothing new about the emergence of global problems. They have existed for decades, if not even for much longer. Some were ignored or put aside simply because democratic theories were unable to examine or debate them at length. Others have been addressed outside the framework of democracies and accountable governance. One reason why democratic theorists, no less than international relations theorists, have not been able to overcome the paradoxes of the new century is that they have not gone beyond the theorem of “peace among democracies”. In short, having awareness that democracies do not fight one another does not necessarily suggest the use of violence to force non-democratic regimes to submit to the rules of democracy. As such, the achievement of democracy in the international community cannot be realized through undemocratic foreign policies. A democratic international system should be able to prevailing democracy without promoting war and violence. In other words, if global democracy is an end and an ideal, then it is embodied in peace in the world order. Even if states are, by contract, unequal, controversies and conflicts among them should be resolved peacefully. The empirical evidence in favor of the proposition that democratic states have not initiated and are not likely to initiate interstate wars against each other is substantial. This is no great revelation. Known for more than two centuries, the subject has been discussed by the tenets of classical liberal theory. The most often cited classical source of the idea that democracy is an important force for peace is Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, “Toward Perpetual Peace”. Kant, however, uses the term “republican” (rather than “democratic”) as the antithesis to “despotic.” According to him, perpetual peace would occur only when states have civil constitutions establishing republics. Kant argues that republican regimes, because of their greater accountability to the citizenry, “would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game [of war].” By contrast, the despotic regimes could embark on war “for the most trivial of reasons.” The Kantian view holds that only by inducing greater accountability in regimes and plurality in polities can governments be made adequately concerned with the fate of the citizenry—and hence stopped from embarking on destructive wars. Therefore, according to the Kantian model, peaceable relations result from the accountability, pluralism, and competitive nature of democratic polities. That is to say, mutual harmony between democratic states is maintained because of their characteristics of openness. Not only are differences settled in a non-coercive fashion, but the use of force is virtually inconceivable and we have a free movement of people, goods, ideas, and capital across national borders. In this case, conditions of non-war are likely to hold because of a mutual preference of all parties for the preservation of a non-coercive status quo. But there are also cases, where there is no harmonious interaction between various states and movements across frontiers tend to be highly restricted, heavily regulated, and often totally forbidden. In this case, peace among undemocratic states is accepted more as a constraint than as a desired goal and value. Even if that is the case, we can no longer accept a restrictive definition of peace that excludes democracy. Democracy has often been limited or destroyed in the name of peace. We can have in mind words put by Tacitus in the mouth of a Gaelic chieftain on the eve of battle against a Roman legion in the Scottish highlands, when he says: “They make a desert and call it peace.” Tacitus reminds us that a kind of peace that is delivered by the masters of war is the peace of cemeteries. In other words, peace is something which is produced in common and not fought for. There is no way we can prepare for peace and democracy only by preparing for war. All politics can do is to keep us out of war, but what is needed for the consolidation of democratic institutions is a lasting peace. As Martin Luther King Jr. used to say: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” It would be presumptuous and even dangerous to affirm that the end of an autocracy by war would lead to a democracy. Democracy in a given period is best defined by its political culture rather than only by its peaceful character. An aborted transition to democracy with a weak democratic culture constitutes also a threat to global peace and international stability. We should, thus, perhaps avoid errors committed in the past in the name of a democratization process that believes in the strategy of “exporting democracy” especially by force. It is not because some nations consider themselves as “democratic” and “peace loving” that they have the right to act in a non-democratic way and impose peace and democracy through war. That is to say, promoting democracy cannot be effective in the absence of a democratic culture and organizing elections is only the starting point of the democratic life of a nation.  In fact, the real test of democracy is not in merely empowering a victorious majority, meaning giving the greatest liberty to the greatest number, but it really consists in a new attitude and approach towards the problem of power and violence. As Claude Lefort has shown in his book L’Invention Democratique (translated in English under the title of Democracy and Political Theory), democracy is at the origin of a new kind of institution of the social, in which power becomes an “empty space”. It is in this way that democracy is characterized by the dissolution of any ultimate foundation or final legitimation principle which lay in God in theocracies. According to Lefort, democracy consists of a particular symbolic regime that, by considering power as a void that cannot be appropriated, forbids a democratic society to see itself as an organic unity. The electoral rule of the majority is, therefore, secondary with regard to the major institutive affirmation of the void of power. As such, democracy is also a political order that is not submitted to the theological though it has deeply religious roots. In fact, democracy is always essentially non-theological though it might be represented by individuals who consider themselves as religious. The fact that the democratic thinking had to fight religious institutions along its historical formation does not exclude the fact that it owes a great deal to the spiritual experience of humanity. It goes without saying that throughout history many religious thinkers fought against the arbitrary nature of political power and defended the principles of democracy. Among them, Mahatma Gandhi has gained a special place in the hearts and minds of the people around the world as a supporter of democracy.

Mahatma Gandhi considered “democracy disciplined and enlightened as the finest thing in the world”. What he meant was that democratic governance is not a power-over the society, but a power- within it. In other words, if democracy equals self-rule and self-control of the society, empowerment of the civil society and collective ability to rule democratically are the essential constituents of democratic governance. Democracy and nonviolence, therefore, are inseparable. Where democracy is practiced the rules of the political game are defined by the absence of violence and a set of institutional guarantees against the domineering logic of the state. Yet the more we think about it, the more this definition seems unsatisfactory and incomplete. If democracy were no more than a set of institutional guarantees, how could citizens be capable of thinking politics today and struggle for the emergence of new perspectives of democratic action? And how are we to reconcile the twin convictions that there can be no democracy unless state-centred power is limited and that there can be no democracy without the pursuit of nonviolence? The answer to these two questions resides in the definition of nonviolence as a “common responsibility” in all spheres of life, including economics and politics.

It goes without saying that politics is the driving force of history, because it is through the employment of politics that history is made. Man cannot escape politics without abdicating his humanity as a political animal. But politics is not only the conquest and the preservation of power, it is mainly, as the ancient Greek philosophers thought, the embodiment of the ethical in a historical community. So not all politics is corrupt per se, and not all political powers are evil. But once established, the political which is conceived in violence necessitates violent action to sustain its own existence. That is to say, there is a paradox between the constitution of the political as an art of governing and  the reality of violence. In a statement written in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, Paul Ricoeur observed: “ The surprise is that there is no real political surprise. Techniques change, human relationships evolve depending upon things, and yet power unveils the same paradox, that of a twofold progress in rationality and in possibilities for perversion.” There is , therefore, a p[roblem of political evil, because there is a specific problem of the legitimacy of violence at the heart of politics. The recognition of violence as problematic for politics underscores man’s nature as a political animal and the possibility of the degeneration of politics into violence. Violence must consequently be seen as a kind of corrupted politics. Therefore, any attempt to go beyond violence, necessitates the recognition of the paradoxical status oof politics. That is why Ricoeur notes that “if we are to change things we must influence the power of the state. That is politics.” So we cannot make the mistake of talking about nonviolence as a non-political action or just as the condemnation of one kind of violence , such as the punitive violence. We need to accept fully the consequence of nonviolent action as a new approach to the concepts such as power, politics and democracy. That this wager can be won is testified by the experience of political leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and more recently Mandela and Havel, for who confirm through their thoughts and actions that politics as the practice of morality is possible. In other words, nonviolence is not only a political experience, but also a moral experience, which makes our responsibility towards democratic life more fulfilling. As such, nonviolence is one of the ways in which our human nature, as a social animal, zoon politikon, can be exercised in its entirety. In an age when mass communication dominates all the aspects of human life, nonviolence affords people the opportunity to be recognized by others for their humanness, reviving the very face-to- face contact that marked the birth of democracy in ancient Athens. The spiritualization of politics which comes about with the politics of nonviolence requires that humans deal with each other and to resolve their tensions and conflicts in peace and order. In this way, it protects common life against popular tides of passion and demagogic appeals by various ideologies. The more a democratic community develops instruments of nonviolence, the more resistant it is to different political windstorms. Maybe, this is why, politics of nonviolence is a more valuable safeguard of democracy than the free market. No matter how much we accumulate to provide the necessities of life and to live comfortably, we all know that we need more than material possessions to give meaning to our common life. If we ask the question: why do we all live as if democracy matters and is worth our efforts? the response could be that: life is no more than simply the satisfaction of desires. There is an ethical horizon of responsibility without which life in common has no meaning. This horizon of responsibility is grounded in our everyday social experience, but it does not follow the laws of nature just as the rest of the material world does. Responsibility is the key to our identity as moral beings. Responsibility is a response to the intolerable in the name of shared human dignity and vulnerability. It is what a Jewish philosopher like Emmanuel Levinas has championed as the “humanism of the other man”. The encounter with another is seen by Levinas as the prism through which to grasp the problem of responsibility. Responsiveness to the other reveals, therefore, that which exceeds the realm of the political. The claim of the other person is an opening to a realm of value more extensive than inter-human and intra-human purposes.

Going back to nonviolence, we can say that it is a form of humanism that preserves human dignity within the wider realm of life on our planet. More than an attitude or a vision, nonviolence is the last moral stance in life. As a stance in life, nonviolence faces realistically pettiness, mediocrity and violence of human beings, but does not believe that those facts are the truth of life. If there is to be any chance at all for moral choice to be a middle ground between certainty and doubt, there is only one way to strive for responsibility and civility, and that is nonviolent action. To feel at home in the world is the result of our caring about things outside ourselves. It is a moral effort which reveals to us the complexity, spontaneity and heterogeneity of life. Therefore, nonviolence as a commitment, more than as a conviction, shows us in our everyday experience that morality is a human possibility and as Heidegger says: “The possible ranks higher than the actual.”

On my understanding, the question of nonviolence is taking a specific shape in our present situation. Its ethical purpose is to help human beings as social agents in thinking about and responsibly conducting their lives. How one is rightly to value and properly esteem human beings is presently being debated against the backdrop of the horror and intolerable acts of cruelty which have continued with the new millennium. Maybe this is the reason why we can never be fully satisfied with democracy as a philosophical value and as a political reality. For, to do so, is to forget the essence of democracy as a daily effort of civic responsibility, but also as a continuous struggle against the intolerable. That is why: any democracy which turns into a consumer value system and creates no sense of responsibility higher than simple political ideals will end up becoming a community of mediocrity.

Gandhi’s analysis and practice of nonviolence comes along with his insistence on the idea of responsibility. Gandhian idea of democracy comes not as a gift bestowed by the state but comes from each individual taking responsibility for one’s self and one’s society. For Gandhi, tolerating injustice is an irresponsible action; therefore we should not surrender our autonomy if we want to continue to govern ourselves. Gandhi is deeply concerned by the effects of democracy on autonomous judgment. According to him, when moral commitment decays and people become morally unsure of themselves, they look to the majoritarian principles to fill the political void. Gandhi, therefore, departs from the Lockean view that we must wait for majorities to decide. For him, there is no suspension of person’s moral commitment at any moment in a democracy. Although Gandhi’s democracy promises to expose power and make it accountable, he knows that power is about violence; about how power can enable or disable violence. With this in mind, Gandhi denies the liberal distinction between civil society and the state. According to Gandhi, civil society is capable of promoting a stronger internal democracy. That is why, for Gandhi, “The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within.” Gandhi’s view of democracy carries overtones of civic morality prioritizing responsibility over absolute freedom. For him civil society does not represent one modality for democratic practice. Instead, civil society might be seen in Gandhian terms as a practice of nonviolent power sharing among citizens. Civil society is, therefore, an alternative domain of people-centred politics that helps to sustain the process of democracy building in its long-term societal context. Clearly, more than being mere subjection to a particular legal jurisdiction, civil society is considered by Gandhi as a transparent space of participation predicated on inclusion. Civil society is a network where nonviolent civility is produced and reproduced. In other words, what is most important to Gandhi and nonviolent tradition of democratic thinking is not the act of participating, but the context in which the participation takes place. It is one thing to create good democratic institutions, quite another to educate citizens to think and act democratically. A nonviolent view of democracy, thus, presupposes, self-discipline, self-restraint, self-realization and a sense of mutual responsibility. A democratic society could not be sustained in the absence of these and related virtues. Without them democracy is subject to constant misuse and produces consequences harmful to the citizens. According to Gandhi, nonviolent democracy should create not only a collective wisdom, but also encourage a dialogue and interplay among the citizens, and not allow the political leaders to acquire a hegemonic role and become the arbiter of all others. In Gandhi’s view a truly democratic and nonviolent society would need citizens as moral agents who govern their affairs themselves and refuse to be helpless playthings of alien and impersonal agencies. Therefore, in a nonviolent view of democracy, the political society would be be organized in terms of “expanding circles”. The polity so constructed would not be a collection of passive agents but a “community of communities”. Gandhi’s argument recalls Aristotle’s view that: living as part of a community should present both a challenge and an opportunity for human beings. Politics should require citizens to struggle for the moral progress of their community. Interestingly, this is the challenge that has been taken by most of the thinkers of nonviolence in 20th century. We can also take the example of Martin Luther King  Jr. who constantly pointed out to those in the freedom movement that their goal was not only the right to sit at the front of the bus or to vote, but to give birth to a new society based on more human values. In so doing, they would not only empower those on the front lines, but in the process develop a strategy for transforming a struggle for rights into a struggle that brings what King called the “Beloved Community” closer to realization. Behind King’s conception of the Beloved Community lays his assumption the “solidarity of the human family”. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he said in one of his addresses. This is a way of affirming that every society is made up of structures that form an interrelated whole; in other words, that human beings are dependent upon each other. It is because of this solidarity that human beings have the right to protest and for King this is “the great glory of American democracy”. “We are here”, says King at a speech at Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery on December 5th, 1955, “because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest, form of government on earth.” For King a, as for Gandhi, the promise of democracy is to develop and to strengthen a heightened sense of responsibility among the citizens of a society. That is to say, a democratic society has to resist not only an overpowered state, but also a violent community which turns into the rule of the masses and mobs. According to Gandhi, “A democratic organization has to dare to do the right at all cost. He who panders to the weaknesses of a people degrades both himself and the people, and leads them not to democratic but mob rule.”  Following Gandhi and many other thinkers of nonviolence, one can say that democracy without checks and measures, such as independent social and political forums and without an ethical foundation could turn into mob rule – which is as unruly and as dangerous as a dictatorship. So, democracy alone will never be enough. Democracy cannot be established through elections and a constitution. Something more is necessary. What is needed is an endless stress on democracy as a practice of moral thinking and moral judgment. In other words, we can never build or sustain democratic institutions if they do not have for goal to help us become more human. But more than that, it means having a Socratic experience of politics as self-examination and dialogical exchange. It is the admission of ignorance in ourselves, and the recognition of ignorance in others that gives democratic spirit the courage to be a true confrontation with an open century which contains an awareness both of the complexity of the issue and of the fundamental importance of pursuing a solution. If through a Socratic experience, every citizen can be drawn out of the simple mechanism of voting and engaged in a more responsive and more responsible process of self-government and self-structuring of the society, we might see the beginnings of a healthy return to democracy. So long as we believe that democracy is only a marketplace depending on fair and voluntary economic and political exchanges with a stable legal system, we cannot build a democracy even though we may defend public liberties. Mahatma Gandhi who had great faith in non-violence was of the opinion the right approach in this regard was gradually to improve the working of democracy and to make sure that chances of constant misuse of democracy and centralization of power are eliminated. Then only the concept of democracy will be fully materialized. As such, for Gandhi, democracy was the promotion of the principles and practice of nonviolence among the members of a society in view to empower them and to increase their civic participation. Vaclav Havel’s position is quite similar to that of Gandhi when he reminds us that, “democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of responsibility, which is ought to awaken and cultivate.” Perhaps both Havel and Gandhi are too hopeful about the fate of democracy. But miracles do happen. After all, democracy is made by humans and has its fate related to the human condition. Though, the human condition is such that we can never be certain about the positive result of our actions, we can never work our for a nonviolent democracy if we ignore our responsibilities and deny that there in these strange years after the end of history and on a planet overheating by violence and environmental damages, it is possible to strive for democracy, because it is possible to remain true to the ethical.

No Comments

(Required)
(Required, will not be published)

  • Popular
  • Latest
  • Featured
  • Subscribe

NIDemocracy

Make a Donation