Is Democracy Good?
DebateThe Democracy Essays
Is Democracy Good?
A debate on grain riots, vengeance, and whether humans naturally incline toward democratic impulses.
Published on: Jan 26, 2022  

Editor's Note: Welcome to a Wisdom of Crowds "Debate." The goal is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

I re-read your fascinating essay, Damir, on whether human beings are inherently democratic. I also disagree with some of your logical jumps and philosophical moves. Let me tell you why, because I think some of our disagreements here get at a few key foundational questions.

You say:

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.

And then you go on to say that:

Many peasant revolts throughout history have ended up with aristocrats strung up on trees with their estates ransacked, with no thought as to what would follow.

I think with a statement like this, you run the risk of doing precisely what you criticize others for doing—you’re broadening democracy to include qualities that are not intrinsic to democracy itself. Democracy isn’t, or shouldn’t be seen as, the ultimate antidote to misgovernment. If there was any doubt before, we now know that autocracies can govern well, while democracies are often anarchic and antagonistic in a way that precludes the possibility of consensus-based decision-making or even a minimal standard of effectiveness. After all, this is the American story of the past 6 years or so. Democracy is clearly not a means to the other, separate ends of good governance, redistributive justice, and so on.

Vengeance isn’t necessarily undemocratic. In fact, democracy allows vengeance to be expressed through politics. That’s good. Of course, to get to this point, there may be an initial or interim period of violence where “aristocrats are strung up on trees.” This is just a fact, as unfortunate as it may be. It’s hard to think of many democratic transitions that didn’t arouse such passions—passions that couldn’t be contained peacefully.

Revolutions are violent, by definition. And most small-d democrats in revolutionary contexts have, in fact, supported the use of violence or armed insurrection. Nelson Mandela is an obvious example of this, having led the armed wing of the African National Congress for decades. Does this mean he wasn’t channeling some innate, democratic impulse? Or does the use of violence, on its own, negate the subsequent democratic progress of South Africa in the 1990s after the fall of Apartheid?

So, are the “peasants” in a peasant revolt small-d democrats? Probably not, or at least not necessarily. But that’s not quite the right question. Is there an innate desire, among human beings across time and place, to have some say over their own lives—to have agency and recourse? Yes. This is a foundational democratic impulse, even when it doesn’t lead the individuals in question to support all the constituent elements of modern representative democracy.

In this sense, a revolt, like the one we saw recently in Kazakhstan, is good, or at least it’s better than the alternative of living perpetually under dictatorship. Protests and revolts at least open up the possibility of a better, more democratic future insofar as such revolts weaken the hold of autocrats. If you prefer, we can avoid the d-word and just say that there is an anti-authoritarian impulse that drives, at least in part, most mass revolts. They are, after all, revolting against something.

— Shadi

I just went back and read what I wrote, Shadi, and indeed, I find some of my jumps a bit jarring in retrospect. That said, I stand by the thrust of the essay overall. And your comments have reminded me why I ended the essay as I did—as a kind of challenge to you. I hope in this back-and-forth I can justify some of my jumps to you, and to readers who perhaps feel as you do.

You assert: “Is there an innate desire, among human beings across time and place, to have some say over their own lives—to have agency and recourse? Yes.” I guess my question to you is whether you really believe that’s what a revolt triggered by material privation—a grain revolt—is really about agency and recourse. Isn’t it more obviously triggered by anger at misgovernment? Well-governed monarchies—where, say, taxation is reasonably light, the realm is secure, and harvests are good—can be quite stable and durable. One might call an arrangement like this a well-ordered society, and do so without once bringing in concepts such as representation and individual dignity. Indeed, concepts such as “justice” and “dignity” often mean something different in a different social context from our own.

I can’t really prove that your assertion is false, as we don’t have access to the recollections of the illiterate uprisings that have shaken premodern societies from time to time. I would counter, however, that your assertion rests wholly on a belief about human nature. And I would allege further that, as a democratic activist, you can’t help but believe this about people. You, an intellectual, a small-d democrat in a revolutionary context, will support the use of violence or armed insurrection—that is to say, you will justify it and ennoble it by assigning all sorts of supposedly noble impulses. That’s fine, you have a goal in mind, and intellectual contortions in the service of what you deem to be a noble goal is, of course, what we humans tend to do.

But I would suggest to you—and my essay was meant to suggest to readers—that this revolutionary pose is purely a faith-based stance. And I want to suggest that a different set of assumptions about motivations tell an equally compelling, and perhaps more credible story: that peasant revolts are primarily a reaction to privation and misgovernment, and that what they seek is not the human dignity, agency, and recourse in which we ground the legitimacy of democracy, but just better governance with better material outcomes.

I’d also suggest to you that these explanations about peasant revolts also help us understand something like the failure of democracy in Tunisia: people don’t really care about representation if they are starving. And your democracy promotion agenda, if only rooted in transcendent concepts such as dignity, agency, and individual worth, will fail, unless it is paired with some kind of promise of a materially better life.

— Damir

The well-governed monarchies you speak of are ideal types: they exist more in theory than they do in practice. I suppose one could cite Bhutan before their democratic transition, but Bhutan is a landlocked, isolated nation with like 5 people. Singapore isn’t a monarchy, but I suppose it’s a well-ordered society that is proudly semi-authoritarian. But Singapore—a theme recurs—is a city-state, suggesting that it’s very difficult to replicate this largely mythical well-ordered autocracy that a growing number of moderns seem to fantasize about.

But let me concede your more fundamental contention: that grain riots are more obviously triggered by anger at misgovernment. But to be angry at misgovernment and to do something about it at great personal risk is inseparable from questions of agency and recourse. To protest is, by definition, an act of individual agency magnified at the collective level (if enough people express their individual desire for recourse simultaneously and are able to overcome collective action dilemmas).

I’d maybe even go one step further: it’s not just about “agency” but what the scholar of insurgencies Elisabeth Jean Wood calls “the pleasure of agency” (emphasis mine). Writing on the motivations that drew El Salvadorian insurgents to join together during the 1970s and 1980s, she captures this sensibility when she says that “they took pride, indeed pleasure, in the successful assertion of their interests and identity.” Maybe moderns—who are relatively better educated and more aware of injustice and the idea that injustice isn’t merely something to accept passively—are more inclined to feel this. I take your point that it’s difficult to assess what premoderns were really thinking during whatever peasant revolt was happening in, say, the third century A.D.

Do some of my assertions above rest (at least in part) on a belief about human nature? Yes! But how could it be otherwise? You also have beliefs about human nature, even if that belief is a negative one—that human beings, in their very nature, have not primarily been concerned with justice, dignity, or the pleasure of agency. Are you willing to acknowledge that that, too, is a belief?

All beliefs are, in effect, faith-based. We look around and we come to certain conclusions about what animates human beings. Presumably, there is something in our nature that holds across time and place. One of those “natural” aspects is the desire, or even the need for, an ultimate loyalty—what the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper called a “pivot.”

Tunisia is a fascinating case, and I suspect my reply won’t be particularly satisfying to you. There is another part of our nature which does, in fact, want better material outcomes. But your statement in that regard is itself drawing on a claim about an innate disposition. People contain multitudes, and they may be simultaneously animated by two impulses which can sometimes clash, as they did in Tunisia: the pleasure of agency, but also the demand for “better” government. Of course, they’ll likely find the supposedly better autocratic government they currently have hasn’t actually improved their material circumstances in any obvious, measurable way.

Of course, it’s democracy which would allow them to vote for a party that promises, and may even be somewhat better able to deliver, improved living standards. Why must they, or anyone, fall back on authoritarianism for that? That, too, is a belief, one based in an illusion. But I would also take issue with your premise: the Tunisian people were not, in fact, “starving.” There may be contests where starvation is actually a proximate risk, as in say Yemen or Afghanistan today, but those are exceptional cases. And exceptional cases distort human preferences, just as I would argue that authoritarianism, particularly if it entrenches itself over decades, also distorts human preferences.

— Shadi

As a jumping off point for my reply, I should stress that I don’t count myself among a growing number of moderns who fantasizes about the superiority of an authoritarian regime. I am not arguing for the superiority of alternatives to democracy, I am merely arguing against a kind of complacent belief in the superiority of democracy.

It’s good that you bring up something like El Salvador. I’m almost certainly more ignorant than you about the modalities of the civil war there. But it is true that whatever kind of non-ideological indigenous uprising may have been at the root of the conflict, and whatever emotions may have been motivating that uprising, it was soon overtaken, and sustained, by a much more overtly ideological revolutionary movement.

Ultimately, that’s a key contention in my essay: that the “democratic revolutionary” shares much with the “Leninist revolutionary.” We mock the Leninist today as someone fighting in the service of a failed ideology, but then we turn around and talk about democratic revolution with the same self-satisfied certainty of a Leninist. Indeed, as I gesture in my essay, our democracy promotion toolkit is suffused with Leninist conceits about social change, with “civil society” playing the role of vanguard parties. Again, though, let me reiterate: my point is not that democracy is destined to be as much of a failure as Leninism, but rather that it is every bit as much an ideology as Leninism.

Which gets me to what I think is a critical point. Yes, I absolutely agree that all beliefs about human nature are ultimately faith-based. I think doing this podcast and website with you for several years now has crystallized this for me more than anything else. But it’s important to prod this insight a bit more, because it should disquiet people a lot more than it seems to. For if you take it seriously, you really ought to question most claims for the “good” that are grounded in obvious-seeming claims from “reason”.

The lesson for someone like you, Shadi—a committed democratic revolutionary—should be to embrace this in your argumentation for democracy. Every ideology obviously claims to be true, so I am not expecting you to be swayed by my relativism. But I would suggest that for democracy promotion to succeed, it must be more “religious” and less “philosophical”—more a conviction than a proof. Your goal is to whip up the people into a committed frenzy, to share your beliefs, to be willing to sacrifice and risk their lives for an idea. For example, the Tunisians clearly haven’t been ideologized enough yet. You can say that living under authoritarianism has distorted their preferences, but I know what you really mean.

— Damir