Chapter 3

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Democracy at the Crossroads


The First World War was fought to make the world safe for democracy and to end war for all time. Instead of establishing peace, it laid the foundation of a deadlier second war. The Second World War was fought ‘to respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live’, Laski remarked. ‘It gives democracy another chance,’ adds Laski, ‘it is not in itself an assurance that the chance will be taken1. ‘There are no democracies in the West,’ remarks Bernard Shaw, ‘They are only rank plutocracies, all of them now fascist to the tips’. The United States, being younger and wiser, does not care for visible empire but its invisible empire is sure to spread and that too, in the name of the four freedoms. The USSR is shrewdest making it ‘safe for socialism’. Thus, the prospects of democracy even after the Second World War are very dark and bleak.

3.1 Capitalist Democracy
The causes of crisis in western democracy are not far to seek. To use Prof Tawney’s phrase, it is the present ‘acquisitive society’ which is the root cause of our economic and political malaise. Capitalism can afford to be liberal and suave and sweet so long as its pockets are not touched. It offers social reforms and political freedom to the masses but upon the tacit understanding that the political power shall not be utilised to cut at the very root of the capitalist system. As soon as its very existence is jeopardised, capitalism at once throws off the velvet glove that conceals the iron fist. The privileged classes continue to pay the pipers so long as they agree to call their tunes. But they do not hesitate to employ the forces of leonine violence to preserve their past glory and present luxuries. For, what is fascism after all? Prof. Laski defines fascism as ‘the epitaph upon those forces of privilege which seek to imprison the future by defending an obsolete past with violence’2. In other words, fascism is capitalist democracy turned at bay. There is indeed an inherent contradiction between capitalism and democracy. In a capitalist society the motive to production is profit for the owner of the instruments of production. In a democracy the citizen seeks, by the use of his political power, to use the authority of the state to increase the material wellbeing at his disposal.
 
The union of economic oligarchy and political democracy worked well enough so long as capitalism was in its phase of expansion. But the period of contraction set in after the last War. It resulted in widespread unemployment and gave rise to a curious phenomenon of ‘poverty in the midst of plenty.’ The masses tried to exercise their political power for the amelioration of their material wellbeing. This was a direct challenge to the economic privileges of the owning class. Hence the birth of fascist dictatorships and totalitarianism. Even the so-called democracies of Britain and Union States are intrinsically fascist. The difference between Britain and Germany was only of degree and not of kind. Where the socialist danger was greater, as in Italy and Germany, fascism was more aggressive and dictatorial.
 
In the ‘democracies,’ capitalism was not faced with any serious menace; hence it could afford to remain comparatively calm and tolerant. But real democracy is impossible in a society that remains divided, to use Plato’s terminology, into the ‘cities of the rich’ and ‘the cities of the poor’. "So long as the state expresses a society divided into economic classes, it is always the servant of that class which owns or dominates the ownership of the instruments of production
1". There can, thus, be no essential change in the character of the present society without a change in its economic postulates. Otherwise, democracy becomes the handmaid of capitalism. The moneyed class, directly or indirectly, controls the legislatures, the press and publishing houses, educational institutions, and other instruments of propaganda. It exploits democracy to its own ends and ultimately reduces it to plutocracy. As Lord Bryce observes, ‘Democracy has no more persistent or insidious foe than money power." The enemy is formidable because "he works secretly by persuasion or by deceit, rather than by force and so takes men unawares2." From the old days of ‘pocket boroughs’ to the modern times of ‘lobbying’ and ‘nursing the constituencies,’ the mischievous tale of ‘capitalist democracy’ remains very much the same.
 
3.2 Democracy v/s ‘Mobocracy’
Apart from the unhealthy power of money in modern democracies, the system of electioneering is very defective and undesirable. The existence of big constituencies makes direct and intimate contact between the voters and the candidates well nigh impossible. This inevitably leads to ‘electioneering campaigns,’ the evils of which are only too well known to all of us. Bernard Shaw in his inimitable style describes such election meetings as ‘scandalous and disgusting spectacles at which sane and sober men yell senselessly until any dispassionate stranger looking at them would believe that he was in a lunatic asylum for exceptionally dreadful cases of mental derangement.’ ‘The older I grow,’ continues Shaw, ‘the more I feel such exhibitions to be, as part of the serious business of the government of a nation, entirely intolerable and disgraceful to human nature and civic decency’3. The unwieldy constituencies, thus, do not ensure the right choice of the representatives. In place of democracy, remarks Gandhiji, we see ‘mobocracy.’ Decent, capable and silent men, therefore, shun the din and dust of such elections and the unscrupulous and ‘thick-skinned’ candidates carry the day with their handy weapons of bribery and corruption. Prohibitive expenses entailed in the elections naturally drive democracy into the arms of the capitalists who ultimately rule the roost.
 
Moreover, the present system of elections in vast constituencies tends to grow too mechanical and hence dull. The voters do not have any direct knowledge of the candidates who are set up by rigid party organisations or ‘caucuses.’ The elections have hardly any local interest because there is too much centralisation of legislation and administration. The apathy of the voters in all the democratic countries has, therefore, become proverbial. When an election takes place voters have to be virtually dragged to the ‘booths.’ Even in a progressive country like the USA, on an average, less than half the population qualified to vote exercises the privilege. In a system where only ‘hands’ are counted not ‘heads’, where votes are only reckoned not weighed, the intelligentsia cannot be expected to display much enthusiasm.
 
3.3 Political Caucuses
The prevalence of well-organised political parties leaves scarcely any scope for independent thought and action. An individual may be the best-qualified candidate, but if he is not a favourite of the ‘party bosses’ he stands no chance at the elections. Even the party candidates require constant ‘whipping’ in the legislatures. I do not mean to suggest that the modern party system does not have merits at all. It is quite useful in educating the electorate on specific issues of national importance. But it must be admitted that modern parties have grown too rigid and crystallised. In the words of AR Lord, "the party system seems to be too mechanical a method of dividing opinion to represent the popular will with any approach to exactness1. "Our present electoral methods" writes HG Wells, "is a mere caricature of representative government". "It has produced upon both sides of the Atlantic, big, stupid, and corrupt party machines2. The process of discussions in the legislatures has become wholly unreal, the result of every important debate being almost a foregone conclusion dictated by the ruling party. The so-called representative parliaments are, therefore, fast falling into public contempt as mere ‘talking shops.’
 
3.4 Centralisation
The dangers of foreign aggression in a war-obsessed world have resulted in concentration of political power. This excessive centralisation of parliamentary work has reduced democracy to a mirage and a costly show. There is over-congestion of business in legislatures. This congestion leads to inefficiency, undue delays and waste of time and energy. It also nullifies the very basic principle of democracy: "What touches all must be decided by all."
 
These, in short, are the drawbacks from which modern democracy suffers. Many other shortcomings could be easily enumerated. But it will not be germane to our main purpose. Let it suffice to say that democracy is really at the crossroad. It must survive. But which way shall it go?

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