Are Human Beings Inherently Democratic?
Monday NotesThe Democracy Essays
Are Human Beings Inherently Democratic?
We see the seeds of democracy everywhere—even if they are not really there.
Published on: Jan 10, 2022  |  
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Passively watching events unfold in Kazakhstan, and some of the commentary that emerged in its wake, a question occurred to me: “Would we today be able to know the difference between a grain riot and a democratic revolution?” I posted this question on Twitter, and got a bunch of interesting answers.

I should make clear from the get-go that my question has very little to do with the reality of what is going on in Kazakhstan. The situation on the ground is complex and dynamic: part an intra-elite power struggle, part soaring prices bringing citizens onto the streets, part civil society agitating for reforms they were promised, with agents provocateurs mixed in. It’s probably true that most civil unrest looks somewhat like this, with the above ingredients present in different ratios. My question is not about civil conflict as such, but is rather an attempt to get us to look at first principles when we think about civil conflict in faraway lands.

Many of the reactions on Twitter held that any protest against an authority not making good on a social contract is inherently democratic. I find this unsatisfying for various reasons.

The most basic objection is about intent: we can listen to what protesters say they are angry about. There is nothing about starving angry people in the streets that implies that society as a whole is demanding representative democracy. We tend to gloss over this because we think that democracy is the ultimate antidote to misgovernment. That, too, is not necessarily true. It’s especially not true in deeply riven societies where ethnic or tribal politics are allowed to take root. In such cases—see various African polities—democracy can make things much worse.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, one of the leaders of the Russian parliament’s resistance to President Boris Yeltsin, had a memorable line about an uprising in the Caucasus in the 1990s: “What we have seen in Chechnya under Dudayev is a peasants’ revolt; and you as a historian will know that a peasants’ revolt is the ugliest, most stupid, and the most dangerous political phenomenon.” It’s easy to dismiss this as classic Marxist contempt for a recalcitrant peasantry. But to do so is to miss an important reality. Most popular revolts throughout history have ended up as dead ends, with aristocrats strung up on trees, their estates ransacked, and a bunch of drunken peasants stumbling around until the central authority rallies troops and puts them down.

But even if we concede that peasant revolts are often “ugly” and “stupid,” if we can discern a desire for some kind of redistributive justice in a rampaging mob, maybe we can call that “democratic intent”? Maybe it’s okay to call every grain riot and peasant revolt proto-democratic, even if most end up as mere antagonistic anarchy?

For one, we’d have to deal with the problem of anachronism. Peasant revolts and grain riots far predate what we moderns would call “democratic governance”. To read democratic intent into things that happened well before anything approximating “democracy” existed is quite a leap. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: seeing history as directional, and bending towards justice, is a core tenet of American self-understanding. We can’t help ourselves, can we?

But even if we, as Americans, are compelled to make this leap, we are still faced with a problem of mechanics. One thing that we can say with certainty is that for any revolution to succeed, one needs revolutionary leaders steeped in ideology. Such people can and often do point to popular revolts as justification for their programs, connecting the inchoate sense of injustice coursing through the mob to their preferred model for reorganizing society.

If we try to describe democratization efforts in these terms, we get something that reads like this: Democratization is the result of political entrepreneurship by a democratically-minded vanguard that legitimates itself and its program by pointing to popular discontent among an otherwise mute “people”. Being precise like this is useful. It helps clarify the way social change works in the world. For one, it’s an accurate description of how both the American and French Revolutions worked. And indeed, the extent to which the French allowed the “ugly” and “stupid” elements of their uprising to dominate is the extent to which their revolution ended up in authoritarian failure.

It’s worth remembering that Leninist dogma was under no illusions about the revolutionary potential of “the people”. One might object that Leninism was a false ideology that destroyed societies, and that “the people” understood this innately. Maybe! But if anything, there is more evidence that throughout history, the peasantry has been a conservative force, resisting change in all its guises. In any case, my query has nothing to do with the inherent moral worth of one ideology over another. Rather, I’m just struck by how quickly we Westerners jump to assert the inherent truth of our own ideology, and see it everywhere.

All that said, it’s also worth pointing out that our democracy industry is not ignorant of the Leninist approach to social change. It’s not that much of a stretch to say that we are trying to build democratic vanguards in our drive to bolster “civil society” in repressive regimes. That fact betrays an acknowledgement of the lack of clarity as to what “the people” want at any one time.

We may say that we approach building civil society in a value-neutral way, and are only trying to give authentic voice to a “people” that for historical reasons has not been allowed to speak. But that, too, is a false conceit: our democracy promoters do not shy away from proselytizing for a broad menu of liberal values, and have recently become frustrated at how some “peoples” reject these teachings. The democracy community tends to frame this pushback as authoritarian governments stymying natural progress towards a democratic ideal. They insist that, unmolested, “the people” would eventually come around. This is not unlike the Marxist “false consciousness” argument: the machinations of capitalism prevent the people from understanding their true interests.

Finally, a point that ought to exercise Shadi a bit: Insofar as we think peasant revolts and grain riots are somehow inherently democratic, I think we are implying that “output legitimacy” for democracy is foundational. If that is the case, we ought to have sympathy for the Tunisians who have chosen to ditch their ineffective democracy because it was not delivering on social goods. Shadi usually dodges such questions by saying that democracy should not be judged on such metrics—that its good is inherent in some valuation of individual human dignity.

But to make such a move, you probably need to assert certain qualities inherent in all human beings. After going back-and-forth with me a few times on Twitter, my colleague Dylan Primakoff concluded the discussion like this:

I, alas, don’t share Dylan’s optimism. Do you?