Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Democracy: formal vs. actual

There's an insightful opinion piece by Mikhail Delyagin (rus) (eng) called "Democracy and the economic development (rus)" (here's a surprisingly readable google translation). Here he suggests the differentiation between the concepts of formal (i.e. having the formal democratic institutions) and actual, or (a better term in my opinion) partial de-facto democracy. This last one can be seen in action when a formally authoritative government takes measures in response to a  certain will or desire of the people that is discovered by a certain method of survey (M. gives an example of the use of the gendarmerie for survey purposes in tsar Alexander's Russia around 1860 that apparently convinced the russian elites that the peasants were ready to accept the abolition of serfdom without being granted any land). M. also argues that the 20th century experiments with the mechanical grafting of formal democratic institutions onto countries lacking any previous civil/democratic culture have failed precisely because the formal institutions are merely the manifestations of political and civil ethos of the time and that we absolutely must recognize that -- something that I very much agree with (see my recent post on China). Another interesting statement that M. makes which I also agree with is that democracies are very ineffective in or even incapable of conducting any reasonable long-term policy which would pursue the long-term interests of the country -- mainly because a good half of what any political party does at any time is geared towards reacting to the minute "issues of the day" in a true PR action of a corporation attempting to sustain its brand value. That is to say, governance in democracies resembles a bit an executive committee comprised of teenagers with ADHD: a campaign may be run and won on a number of issues so petty you don't remember them the day after the election -- the attention span of all parties involved is well under 40 seconds. (Disclaimer: I am quite aware that authoritarian government has a few drawbacks, too, and I'm not advocating for uncle Jo's return -- all I'm saying is maybe we could think twice before trashing China's "human rights record" next time).

Anyway, give it a read -- it's always nice to come up on an out-of-the-box view like this.

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