John's key questions are: 'How can the project of democracy become a truly popular project, rather than continue to be used as a tool of the elite, and how can it be related to the project of socialism?' Put in this general way the questions apply as much to countries like Canada as to countries in Africa, although the former have experienced liberal representative government, or bourgeois democracy, while the latter have not. Following Shivji, John starts by counterposing 'procedural', 'bourgeois', 'thin', 'pseudo' (etc) democracy to popular democracy. I suspect that this dichotomy is useful only in the historical context of a popular mass movement that has a democratic culture of some kind - i.e. where some kind of popular democracy already exists as a material reality, or at least a potential reality. This was true of western Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, and in a different way of Africa in the heyday of nationalism, although the democratic element in African nationalism, as in most nationalisms, was very problematic. Today, however, popular movements with a democratic culture are rare in Africa. At the same time much of what people in Africa mean when they call for democracy is actually civil rights and freedoms, and the rule of law, aspects of the liberal representative government they have mostly never had.
Preconditions for and mechanisms of democracy
All this suggests the need for some basic distinctions. For a start we can
distinguish between the preconditions for democracy and the mechanisms of
Among the preconditions are:
a) socio-economic preconditions (e.g. degree of equality, classes, limited
b) legal preconditions (civil rights, rule of law).
c) a media regime that serves democracy.
d) a supportive external environment (international law-governed limits to
corporate and imperial state influence and intervention).
In respect to democratic mechanisms, we need to shift from the predominant, indeed almost exclusive focus on representation, which mainstream commentators typically further reduce to a matter of elections, to a much wider and richer range of processes, local as well as national, for ensuring, besides democratic representation, democratic deliberation, democratic accountability, and democratic checks. Even as regards representation, while elections are practically and sybolically important, they are not the only democratic mechanism available and may not always be the best for all purposes: there can be rotation in office, alternation in office, selection by lot or seniority; and offices can be held for shorter or longer terms, for only one or two terms, and so on. A wide variety of alternative deliberative procedures exists for different purposes ('deliberative democracy', 'citizens' juries', 'people's budgets', referenda, consultative documents, etc). Accountability can be achieved through an even wider range of mechanisms: ex-post reporting, both orally and in writing, with various forms and degrees of popular participation in the approval or rejection of the reports, with or without penalties, including the removal of officers and the recall of representatives. And checks include separation of powers, audits, judicial reviews, ombudsmen, and much more.
All these devices are represented somewhere in practice, and many others deserve exploration.(In Africa, for example, according to Basil Davidson, the traditional Asante constitution constituted a form of culturally embedded democracy which was matched in many parts of Africa and could and should have been adapted to modern conditions: 'Power was exercised by powerful persons, but with constitutional checks and balances tending to prevent the abuse of power. Despots certainly arose; they were dethroned as soon as could be.')1
In the abstract one might construct a matrix in which a given mix of preconditions is postulated to be compatible with a given range of formal democratic mechanisms. Theoretically, the fewer preconditions for democracy that are met, the more limited the possibilities for democracy are likely to be. But rather than thinking about ideal possibilities, I would prefer to think in terms of demands or programmes for achieving the necessary preconditions for democratic advance, and mechanisms that can realistically be tried out.
For example some possibilities may exist even in relatively unfavourable conditions. A degree of democratic represention, deliberation and accountability may be possible in popular organisations themselves. In early 19 th century Britain, when workers had no vote in local or national elections, they voted to fill official positions in trade unions and mechanics institutes, and they also instituted mechanisms of deliberation and accountability that were hardly less important - quorums and other procedures at meetings to make the agenda and decision-making democratic, having the accounts countersigned, regular reporting by the officers, etc. The enabling preconditions in this situation included the fact that between union members, especially, there was a high degree of social and economic equality; the law broadly guaranteed members' civil rights; and the state was gradually forced to withdraw from intervention in unions' internal politics. These democratic practices, which - as Marx noted - were copied from those developed by the bourgeoisie, and were developed and refined in the course of the workers' class struggles, became embedded in working class culture and, significantly, formed the basis for the eventual extension of democracy to local and national politics.
Of course even small-scale, local-level democracy within popular
organisations is not always possible. The Tsarist police state drove the
Bolsheviks to adopt 'democratic centralism'. In the liberation movements of
southern Africa something similar occurred under the conditions of armed
struggle, and democracy can hardly be practised at any level in countries
such as Zimbabwe or the Sudan today. But this is not true throughout Africa,
and since without democratic popular movements the project of democratising the state, whether national or local, cannot hope to succeed, this is surely the place to begin if the call for democracy is to be a popular project. So the first step must be to democratise popular movements themselves, taking the deeper concept of democracy implied in the mechanisms sketched above as a range of options to consider, try out and improve on, for the particular circumstances of each movement.
(In countries such as Canada or the UK the problem is different. A once
relatively strong culture of procedural democracy in popular movements has
atrophied under the influence of consumerism, globalisation, anti-democatic
media, anti-democratic union laws, etc.)
At the same time, in Africa, since thepreconditions will often be unfavourable, the effort to democratise popular movements will also involve demands for changes in the political environment - largely 'liberal' reforms, especially to secure the rule of law - which also affect the possibilities for democratising the local and national state. My suggestion is that focusing on these demands as preconditions for the democratisation of popular movements could be the best way in which to make the demand for democracy a popular one, that can't be readily appropriated by elites. As preconditions for the democratic character of popular movements, the changes demanded will concern first and foremost people's ability to act collectively in their own interests, not - as has mostly been the case so far - the elite's ability to comport themselves freely during election campaigns to secure a share of unaccountable state power.
In passing I would like to add that a problematic aspect of democracy within popular movements is leadership. On the whole, the left has been uncomfortable with the concept of leadership. Lenin said any cook could be a manager, but anyone who has worked under a bad manager knows this is nonsense. Recognising that effective change cannot be accomplished without leadership needs to be balanced by recognising that leadership can easily subvert democracy. If the democratic culture is weak, leadership can make it weaker (cf. in their different ways Mugabe, Nujoma, Winnie Mandela, Blair, etc). There seems to be a theoretical and practical task to be performed in this respect: for any given organisation in a given setting, what are the terms on which leaders should lead? After Roosevelt the USA set limits to the number of terms a President may serve. Parliamentary constitutions make prime ministers subject to parliamentary approval. Other organisations, such as trade unions, have other arrangements for limiting the power of leaders. But a theory of democratic leadership must be more than a matter of limits. It must include principles and mechanisms to ensure that the exercise of leadership enhances the democratic character of decision-making, at the same time as leading it. Perhaps a good analysis of democratic leadership already exists that I am not aware of. If not, it would be a major theoretical and empirical contribution for someone to undertake to make.
Since real democracy depends on the existence of a democratic culture, embedded in popular practice, it cannot be expected to survive unless all spheres of life are democratised - people cannot exist half-slaves, half free. A key reason why democracy has been diluted to the point of disappearance in the West is that it was never extended to the state, or to production.2 Projects for democratising the local state, such as those promoted by the Greater London Council in the 1970s, provoked a profound and thoroughgoing reaction. In Britain, democratic local government has been eviscerated and such democratic accountability as existed in central government has also been largely removed through privatisation of the public sector and the reconstruction of what is left of the state apparatus into a system of independent agencies modelled on business lines. A similar democratising spirit in the British trade union movement, leading to projects for workers' control, directly threatened the central capitalist relation of production and was even more bitterly opposed, and decisively defeated, in the 1970s and 80s. Parallels exist throughout the West, especially in north America.
The contemporary wringing of hands in the west over today's disaffected and unruly youth is a reflection of the same phenomenon. No political mechanisms are capable of reversing the de facto democratisation of family life that took place from the 1960s onwards, so that the problem of socialising children into a comprehensively undemocratic society, beginning with schooling, is increasingly hard to solve.
All this is just to make the obvious point that the project of true
democratisation is a very radical one, touching every sphere of life. On the
one hand this makes it daunting; on the other, the democratic spirit at work
in so many spheres in Africa, not least in women's organisations, is a
factor with great long-term significance for political change.
Democracy and liberation
The project for a real democracy also coincides with the project for liberation because it is incompatible with significant social and economic equality. Since Aristotle it has been recognised that giving power to the poor is incompatible with continued inequality, and Aristotle frankly opposed democracy because he feared the social revolution it would imply. Most contemporary liberals are afraid to reject democracy openly. Instead they claim to be democrats, while endorsing the kinds of pseudo-democracy we are all too familiar with.
Conversely, as Hal Draper and August Nimtz have shown, Marx and Engels became socialists because they were committed to real democracy, 'democratic control from below',3 not the other way round: they first sought democracy, and then came to see that genuine democracy would never be realised by the propertied classes, and that it could also not survive if economic power remained in private hands. As Nimtz sums it up:
The reality of Prussian authoritarianism. was decisive in the political
trajectory of the young Marx and Engels. The issues that drove them and
their cohorts are still some of the same ones that bring conscious human
beings into politics today. How would the German nation acquire political
democracy? Which social layer would play the decisive role in its
realisation? Could the unwashed masses really be entrusted with
self-rule?... Philosophy proved inadequate in answering the questions they
sought to answer. Only [through] a study of the real movement, that is, the
actual course of history and its motive forces. and through 'practical
activity', that is, politics, could answers be obtained. The real movement
of history. taught that as long as social inequality persisted, that is,
class society, 'true democracy' - the sovereignty of the people - was
The democratic project, to be real and also popular, must therefore also be a project to progressively reduce and finally eliminate inequality, and to constrain the undemocratic power of those who remain rich while this is happening. In contemporary Africa this means progressive fiscal and spending policies, and controls over corporate spending. Eventually such controls imply controls over investment, and ultimately collective control - which in turn implies ownership - of the means of production which generate the investible funds.
As John points out, the political power of the world's super-rich, who own
and control the global corporations, is now expressed through their de facto
ownership of the institutions of global finance and trade, to veto state
policies which involve almost any redistribution, let alone set any
permanent limits to their economic power (the stand-off over Chavez's
policies in Venezuela is an interesting limiting case in point). This global
power reinforces the domestic power of internal bourgeoisies and their
political friends in every country. It follows that the project for a
genuine democratisation involves overcoming this power. This means, in turn, that a world-wide alliance of movements and states is required to eliminate the dominance of global corporations and their control over global institutions.
The problem with this scenario is that at present it is unimaginable, or at least extremely hard to imagine. The anti-war, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist movements are numerous but not united around a coherent project for seeking and using political power, and are in practice largely powerless. Perhaps as the contradictions intensify the forces involved in these movements will crystallise into organisations aiming at effective power. But for the moment it does not seem to me that the mechanisms which unified the European working classes in the early stages of industrial capitalism are as strong today as they were then; and the emergence of the US as global capitalist hyper-power, effectively controlling unaccountable global institutions for enforcing the interests of capital is a further diffference weighing against a global socialist revolution. On the other hand capitalist growth is now pressing against the limits of the ecosphere, with foreseeable catastrophic social consequences. But in crisis circumstances people in the most vulnerable situations, as in much of Africa, are likely to turn to communal solidarities, and the use of force, in the search for survival, rather than pursue democratisation - following the shameful example already being set by the world's richest state. And speaking more generally any rational response to the global ecological crisis must involve a contraction of global production and a convergence of global living standards. The former is incompatible with capitalism, which depends on growth, and the latter implies drastic reductions in the living standards of the 'north', and rationing on a more or less permanent basis.It is hard to imagine either the end of capitalism or permanent rationing being achieved without authoritarian means.
Democratisation, that is, seems to be a project grounded in hope for a
better future, achievable by the collective efforts of all. A better future
for the world's most impoverished people must also involve higher
consumption, meaning that consumption elsewhere must be correspondingly
further reduced. Perhaps making hope for a better future worth holding on
to, by producing a vision of an ecologically sustainable world that is
rational and realisable, is the key contribution intellectuals need to try
to make to democratisation and liberation, and not just in Africa.
1 The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, London:
James Currey, 1992, pp. 61-62.
2 For an excellent overview see Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State:
Experiments in popular democracy, London: Verso, 2003.
3 Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, New York: Monthly Review
Press, 1977 and 1990, p. 59.
4 August Nimtz, Marx and Engels: Their contribution to the democratic
breakthrough, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000, pp. 285-86.