Monday, January 22, 2007

Democracy: An End or a Means to An End?

First, I'd like to thank the Shiraz crew for having me on board and I will try to contribute when time allows. I suspect we'll have lots of debates and interesting discussions as well as raucous arguments - but then that's the point of a blog (I think).

Here's my first stab at a contribution:

Democracy: An End or a Means to An End?

One of the courses I am taking this year is political philosophy and I've actually quite enjoyed the philosophy bit of my "politics, philosophy and history" degree. It should be particularly interesting later in the year when my lecturer, who hates Lenin and makes constant references to how great the czar was, covers the topic of "socialism as ideology".

In any case, last week's lecture was on "Democracy" and concerned different types and whether or not people thought it was a truly relevant concept any longer. Of course taking this from the realm of the metaphysical and putting it into concrete day-to-day reality is not what lecturers normally do, so I was left to accomplish this task alone.

Being immersed in the British far-left from varying viewpoints, it became clear to me that whether folks on the left realise it or not, a huge portion of the discussions to be had in politics today pivot on this central issue.

As far as I can discern, there are three types of democracy that people on the far left discuss regularly. These are:

1. Structural or organisational democracy
2. State or governmental democracy
3. Participatory local democracy (as in a socialist society)

The central question concerning these forms of democracy that we discuss is whether each type is an end in itself or a means to an end for a greater "good" - and since I hate terms like "good" and "bad" when speaking of politics, I will substitute the word "progress".

In other words do we support these forms simply because democracy in individual cases leads to human progress in and of itself in that one situation, or do we support it as a means to furthering human progress in the future and as a whole?

Let's look at the types of democracy listed above and examples on the left that are relevant to
them. The first type is characterised in the ongoing debate inside the organisation that I support, Socialist Resistance, about character of Respect. While there are numerous problems with it as an organisation, the primary reason that I oppose Respect (besides Galloway acting like a cat) was that the organisation has a severe lack of internal democracy and no room for debate. I have argued on numerous occassions that there is a tradition on the left of democratic debate, but this would not seem to be the strongest argument in favour of this position. I could alternately argue that democratic functioning in left groups is in and of itself progressive, but this does not seem to have as strong of a weight behind it for enforcing democracy as it could.

So what is the real reason that democratic structures and "organisational democracy" is important? It is because without it, the third type of democracy, "participatory local democracy" or socialism is not realised. Whether or not one believes that this would be in the form of "soviets" and workers' councils or local neighbourhood organisations, our concept for a better world requires a respect of and an adherence to "structural and organisational democracy".

Now let us turn to the second type of democracy, that is "state or governmental democracy". The obvious example here is simply Iraq and the current Iraq war. More specifically, I want to look at reasons why the ruling classes of the US and Britain support the war and contrast that with Nick Cohen's support of the war.

In a sense, the US neo-cons (a number of whom came out of the US Trotskyist movement as odd as that may seem) use the pretence of supporting the same means to an end that those on the far left do - ie that democracy as such is the means to a more progressive future, a better world and so forth. Of course some of them may believe it, but if you visit the Project For a New American Century website, you will find this belief buried under a pile of documents supporting a much more important "end" - that is US dominance, economically and otherwise.

In this sense it would seem that while leftists argue for "structural and organisational democracy" as a means to an end for "participatory local democracy", the neo-cons and US ruling class are using "state or governmental democracy" enforced from above as a means to an end for US dominance, and not "participatory local democracy".

So what does any of this have to do with Nick Cohen's book excerpt in the latest issue of the Observer?

It would seem that Nick Cohen is arguing for "state or governmental democracy", not as a means to any end, but as an end in and of itself. In this sense he differs from the neo-cons and those on the far left. But is he correct? Is the situation in Iraq one in which democracy should be established as an end with no plan for how one could get to "participatory local democracy" even if we believe Cohen when he claims to be opposed US dominance?

Looking at it from the point of view of ends, we can clearly see that if Cohen's concept of democracy for Iraq were implemented, the end desired by the neo-cons - US dominance - could also be achieved. However, it becomes equally clear that the end desired by those on the left - "participatory local democracy" - is an impossibility if US dominance occurs, which is a direct contradiction this type of democracy.

In the end Cohen's views are very simply, liberal. He claims to want a better life for the Iraqi people but he blocks the possiblity of a socialist future for Iraq by supporting the end desired by the neo-cons and having no vision beyond democracy as an end in itself.

Regardless of what one thinks of the views posted here, the subject of democracy remains a vital topic of discussion for socialists.


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