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 production1".
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
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
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.’
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?