Thucydides, Democracy and Africa

Bertrand Russell once said that one reads a book either to enjoy it or to boast about having read it. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponessian War (HOTPW) provides both reasons. For one the name Thucydides is very much in vogue currently as a result of the geo-political problem known as Thucydides Trap. This describes a situation in which a rising power and an established power are driven towards conflict by factors within and without their control.

But this book at the same time provides significant reading enjoyment. It gives numerous insights into human nature as well as military and political strategy. On numerous occasions he outlines both the immediately ostensible goals of a course of action as well as its ulterior and knock-on effects. His dissections of negotiations and parleys also provide a good measure of wisdom in how to analyse whether a proposition is beneficial for both parties involved in it or for only one party.

That being said, he acquits himself of his task of chronicling history admirably and in a balanced manner. He does this despite executing various duties as an Athenian officer in the course of the war. What is most troubling is how towards the end of the book Athens becomes riven by factions part of which contribute considerably to its eventual downfall from its lofty heights.

From these events, as well as from the general political climate globally, the question of whether democracy really is the best system of government for man comes into question. This question has been raised earlier on the blog.

Before proceeding I wish to point out that my ancestors followed a democratic system of government. I hail from Kenyan Meru stock. (There is Tanzanian Meru which is also Bantu.) So my ancestors happened to have some form of democratic system in which there were two sides of government per age-group namely the Kiruka and the Ntiba. Each ruled for a period of 7 years. During Kiruka rule the Ntiba would form some kind of opposition and vice-versa. During a change of guard market places would be uprooted, policy errors dissected and the litany of wrongs by the immediately preceding regime was generally denounced. This provided some sort of societal catharsis and cleansing. It was a unique system of government which even colonialists found remarkable, this deep within ‘the dark continent.’

This is not said in order to talk up the Meru people, but rather to make the point that this is not a reactionary view against the prevailing system of government globally. As a Meru, I respect my ancestors; as a Kenyan I respect the law; and as a child of the universe I hope to have the good sense to acknowledge a system that works well elsewhere. That being said, for all we know the OECD could well be the modern version of the Athenian league. As can be seen from history, for the most part democracy works. So let us launch into its analysis.

Chief among the concerns that democracy addresses is the human desire for justice; both in terms of equitable governance and before courts of law. The concentration of power within a monarchical system makes it very easy for persons with access to the king’s ear (or hand or generally those close to him) to defeat the law, and in effect be above the law. Within a democracy, the judicial system sits outside the reach of the executive and (in theory) provides some form of check and balance to the executive and the legislature. The phrase “in theory” is bracketed because the nomination of Gorusch to the SCOTUS shows that in many situations the judicial system is very much a part of political rough and tumble. It is also for this very reason that presidential election petitions are overwhelmingly in favour of the incumbent, not just in Africa but globally.

In terms of equitable government, democracy makes an entity’s governors accountable to those governed. In theory this makes the governors pursue choices that are politically expedient, such as ensuring that proceeds from national resources such as say the Suez Canal, are distributed equally among all citizens. In practice and human nature being what it is, governors frequently seek to subvert this accountability by dividing and conquering the governed along whatever fault-lines are available. Once divided the citizens will vote for ‘their man,’ regardless of how equitably he has governed or how accountable he has been.

Another concern which democracy addresses is that it provides some pressure valve or ventilation so to speak on the geo-political system. When citizens are pre- occupied with their own leaders and elections, they are unlikely to start expanding their territory at the expense of their neighbours. Conversely, should one neighbour such as India see that a border is contested with say Pakistan, then it is in their interests to fund the Pakistani opposition or faction which would support their claim to the disputed territory. This was a move that classical Grecian city states used frequently as is accounted within HOTPW. 

On the flip side, democracy presents certain knotty questions which do not have straightforward answers. Most of these occur in fringe cases but eventually, in accordance with the law of entropy they will likely affect the socio-economic well-being of a political entity.

First and foremost is that democracy provides the means for factional interests to override national interests to the detriment of all. This happens moreso during times of crisis. For example towards the end of the Peloponessian war, Athens was politically and militarily paralysed by factions to such an extent that at some points had the Spartans walked in they would have easily conquered Athens.

A more insidious demerit is the assumption that citizens have the capacity to discern the best course of action. One underlying premise of democracy is that the (vast majority of) citizens are mature, informed and educated voters. Or to use psychological terms, the expectation is that voters are at the stage of post-conventional development. Out here in Africa, with poverty levels and unemployment rather high, this is a rather faulty premise. For example, when the USA was thinking through the issue of slavery, crowds would gather to hear Stephen Douglas and Lincoln debate on the issue. They would in this manner gain an informed opinion on the issues at hand and could be trusted to thereafter select the best course of action. In today’s multiplicity of media sources, sound-bite segments and photogenic politicians the voters are getting more and more opinions and less and less information and often alternative facts. In the even that a democracy is guided rather than direct, then the system must be engineered to make it so. Thereafter the system itself must be defended. This most illuminating piece by Jonathan Rauch points out where and how the American system was engineered as a guided democracy and dismantled into a direct democracy.

Last (that will be tackled here) but not least is a tangential result of the above problem. In many cases progress requires one to adhere to a temporarily disadvantageous line of action in exchange for a long term benefit. One of the best examples of this is the difference between India and China in economic progress. By virtue of the fact that Chinese political action is guided and controlled, they have the liberty to pursue a steady course of action for a long duration without fear of needing to appease disaffected or disgruntled voters. If they wanted to delay joining the WTO, they did. If they wanted to move populations into a city and farm maize on that land, they could. If they need to set up tariffs and incentives for domestic commerce they can. India on the other hand has had several changes in the direction of its commercial and economic policy. Sometimes the economically correct party was voted out of power. As a result India’s economic growth has to some extent been hindered by its political system of government.

A more extreme expression of this problem is that in today’s media-bombarded, instant-coffee, Ctrl+C-Ctrl+V generation delayed gratification is increasingly a hard sell. It wants what was advertised, and it wants it now. By this means democracy’s chief weakness is emphasised which is its tendency to result in massive debts, whose repayment results in widespread disaffection resulting in the rise of demagogues, fascists and tyrants. The irony of this particular problem is that Greece, which itself bequeathed the world democracy as a system of government, is currently reeling under the effects of imposed but necessary austerity measures after freeloading on the Euro for a while. On the flip side of this, Iceland which was also hard-hit by the effects of the 2008 recession, is set to vote in pirates and comedians.  But Iceland after following rather unconventional economic paths are currently on a solid footing going forward.

In summary, it should be clear that for all its merits, democracy presents loopholes through which the fabric of a political entity can be worn thin. As such these must be guarded against. But generally speaking one should not criticise without offering alternative solutions. The question would then arise, what really is the best system of government for man? I would propose a monarchy, specifically one under-girded by Mosaic law. At which point there would be a general hue an cry about how outdated this is. But that discussion on the perfection of Mosaic law can be left for another day.


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