The Cultural Incongruence of Democracy

Cultural Incongruence of Democracy

Cultural Incongruence of Democracy

Countries throughout the world are struggling to throw off their traditional forms of government and acquire the democratic way of life. For some, the idea of having the freedom to choose one’s destiny is something they never experienced. Free thought, free expression and free inquiry is something they never had the opportunity to enjoy. Having one’s life and activities dictated by a government that focuses on exploiting and plundering its people for the purpose of personal economic gain someday inevitably reaches a point of critical meltdown. People can take only so much before they strike back. The Foucauldian idea of the “contradictory complexity” of mankind makes it an outcome that all too often results in conflict and destruction. Then on the other hand, there are those that seek democracy solely for the purpose of enjoying the imagined benefits of capitalism that comes along with it. Most people throughout the world understand that one comes with the other – they are an inseparable pair. But many of the countries that seek democracy and capitalism do not understand them, or how they work, or even have the cultural background that can enable them to assimilate these concepts.


So what is democracy? What is it really? Well, most people will agree that one of its attributes is having freedom of expression –  that is, freedom so that different people and groups can express their views freely and openly. Without it, choice becomes very limited and in some cases even non-existent. Also, it possesses the rule of law or having an independent judiciary so that those in power that violate the law can be prosecuted but more important so that victims of injustice can receive impartial independent justice. This is the fundamental reason why the separation of powers is important. Next is the importance of equal rights for minorities. This is one of the tenets of democracy because the way a government treats its religious, ethnic, racial or ideological minorities determines its strength as a democratic institution. Hand in hand with equal rights is human rights. Now, this is a paramount feature based on the overwhelmingly accepted worldwide Human Rights Charter established after the Second World War; governments are bound by it, member countries have ratified it, and without it democracy means nothing. Just as important is the equal participation of women in politics and all aspects of social life. How can one speak of democracy if it excludes half of the society? Thus, democracy gives a sort of sovereignty to the individual and is a matter of relations between the interactions of people and communities.


Let’s face it though, many countries that are throwing off their traditional forms of government and vying for democracy aren’t really interested in democracy at all but more in developing a capitalist economy. The reason is most of them believe that capitalism brings a better way of life and improves the material conditions of their lives. But since you can’t have a capitalist economy without democracy, many countries claim that their primary interest is in democracy and the freedoms that democracy brings along with it. Nevertheless, since the 1980s, several countries have tried to acquire democracy but failed dismally at it. Political scientists and economists are claiming that it’s not the theory that’s at fault but the manner in which they are trying to apply it. In other words, the theory is correct, they are doing it wrong. Also, many economists claim that there are other “exogenous” factors at work that cause these countries to fail at the acquisition of democracy.


Let’s take a brief look into the dynamics of the situation. First, countries have to understand that it was a very radical idea to divide the world up based on economic and non-economic factors. Perhaps, more important is the idea that culture is increasingly becoming realized through material things. Also, notions of the allocation of value have become influenced by neo-liberal economics and these theories are essential to an understanding of political, historical, and cultural analysis. It seems that the infrastructure is itself a superstructure and functions on the whole politically, socially, and ideationally based on conditions as they are represented by the constitution and value of objects. Marshall Sahlins states, “the economy is not embedded – it is itself an objectification.” In this sense, it could be said that a cultural order is being represented in capitalist economies.


Essentially, the idea of democracy is a grand ideal of government by the people for the people with values such as freedom of expression and speech, unalienable human rights, limited government power, and a free-market economy. But did it occur to anyone that perhaps one of those exogenous factors could be the incompatibility of cultural, religious, or social practices with democracy? When we consider those factors, very rarely can one find cultural incongruence listed as one of them. On January 23, 2013, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton testifying before the US Senate concerning the September 11, 2012 attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, Libya and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three Americans stated:

“Many of the new democratic nations have absolutely no experience in democracy
and many of the leaders of these countries have no experience in how to lead a democratic nation.”


Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that reckless human action more than structural constraints have caused the failure of democracy in certain countries such as Algeria, Thailand, Palestine, and Egypt. And it seems that “ambiguity” is particularly detrimental to sorting out the fundamental issues. It could be argued that culture was the main cause of Egypt’s failed transition because its society does not possess a “democratic nature.” For example, women are discriminated against, they are barred from holding high offices, they are prohibited from showing themselves in public, traveling, working without the consent of their male relatives, or in some cases even driving a car. Although these might be considered long-term cultural practices, its very difficult to defend them in terms of democratic principles.


As a result, the exuberance of the early democratic era is beginning to wan and the belief that democracy would empower the poor at the ballot box and improve life through better economic conditions is starting to fade. Today, emerging countries have grown disillusioned with democracy believing that it has only delivered elected plutocracy. It seems that the way societies are changing is structurally consistent with the way they were before given the conditions under which they are operating. Unfortunately, this reminds me of the old adage, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.”


Sources: US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing (2011); Photo: Courtesy of Corbis

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