Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Democracy of Cannibals

The chaos in Egypt has brought forth pious praises of democracy. "So what if the Muslim Brotherhood seizes power," the pundits ask, "as long as there are democratic elections." But what is the virtue of democracy anyway?

The one fundamental virtue of democracy is that it is the widest possible means of distributing power within a system. And that leads to a system that is only as good and bad as the sum of its voters. It is possible to have a democracy of cannibals, so long as the majority agrees that's the way to go. Or a democracy in which a quarter of the population has no legal or civil rights whatsoever. So long as that is the expressed will of the majority.

Democracy is a tool. It is a means, not the end. During the Bush Administration, democracy was treated as an end. The embedded assumption was that the average Arab-Muslim wanted the same things we did. A condensed version of the American Dream with jobs and freedom for everyone. And when given a chance at a voting booth, tyranny and terrorism would blow away like smoke, as a liberated electorate would choose leaders who would give them these things.

That universalization of the American Dream is part of the immigration narrative. It's a powerfully appealing idea complicated by an uncomfortable reality. The reality that much of the rest of the world may not see things the way we do. They may want the same things, but they don't want the same way or on the same terms. Our narrative tangles material success with political freedom. Theirs associates material success with honor and public order. The American Dream is not the same thing as the Muslim Dream. The conflict is apparent in the Clash of Civilizations. If we use our democracy to protect the American Dream, they will use theirs to protect the Muslim Dream.

As a means, democracy is only a tool for distributing power. And even our own country is torn apart by deep divisions over how that power should be distributed. The entire ObamaCare debate, the gap between rights and entitlements, is a continuation of an ongoing 20th century debate over what the 'end' of government should be. Such debates are fairly rare outside of a handful of Western countries. The assumption throughout most of the world is that the role of government is to regulate everything for the benefit of the public. Even the current unrest in the Middle East is driven less by human rights, and more by frustration over the failure of regional governments to maintain low food and fuel prices. (It seems like quite a contrast when compared with the Tea Party, which protests to demand less regulation.)

Those for whom the distribution of power is a means not an end, will exploit democratic elections as a means, while still imposing authoritarian rule. Islamist movements have exploited populism to get to power, but their philosophy of power is not populist, it is still top-down rule. That is the problem with democracy, you do not need to believe it in order to make use of it. It is not a covenant or a philosophy, only a means to an end.  

Like most tools, democracy is only as good as those who use it. The bloc vote undermines the distribution of power, and as common as it has become in the United States, it is far more common in tribal societies where families vote as they are told to by their leader. You can give people the vote, but you can't make them think for themselves. And the celebrations of democracy in the region have had less to do with the individual exercise of the franchise, than the power of the collective group the voter is there to support, the tribe and the religious faction. Not all Americans vote as individuals, but the individual vote is far rarer in the Muslim world, where the group identity has a way of smothering any inkling of individualism.

In such a system, parliaments boil down to glorified tribal councils. Their function has more to do with grandstanding, than legislating. The actual decisions are made behind the scenes by power brokers who solicit the support of the leading factions, and then give their marching orders to the legislators. Parliamentarians in the Muslim world deliver impassioned speeches, denounce each other and fight for their party. Rather than elected representatives, their role is to serve as the cheerleaders for the powerful families who make the actual decisions. You can witness that same sound and fury in Pakistan. Turkey or Russia, men who have no decision-making power working themselves into a lather to retain their place in the 'mafia' that actually runs the country.

What does democracy mean in such a system? A power shift. The general public can never rule and doesn't want to. What it wants is cheap food and fuel, jobs and security, and for things to be the way they were in their grandfather's time. When the government stops giving them those things, it will rise up long enough to replace it with another. It will still be a tyranny, but like almost every tyranny, it still needs public support to stay in power. The uprisings are a reminder that if people don't have food or money, they can always replace one government with another. Or at least die trying. Democratic elections allow them to accomplish this with a minimum of violence. That is one other virtue of democracy. But the end result is still tyranny.

The American system makes it very difficult for even democratic elections to undo Constitutional rights. But the Constitution of the Muslim world is the Koran. And it can only be temporarily repressed, not undone. It is always waiting around the corner, promising an answer to everything. The Koran is not that old by the standards of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism-- but it is still far older than Arab nationalism. It is younger than the tribes and the families, but older than their collective memory. The Koran with its narrative of tribalism in the service of Islam defines the Muslim, as much as the 4th of July with its narrative of armed independence against government authority defines the American. In times of turmoil, it is to Mohammed, and the Koran's narrative of him as a religious visionary fighting against a corrupt leadership, that the Muslim turns to. Is it the model that is embedded in his culture and will always be there in his politics.

The idea is simple enough. Hand over power to the right divinely chosen leader and sit back and watch society get put in proper order and the infidels cower. In societies with widespread illiteracy and deep rooted cynicism about politicians, the Islamists always seem like a good solution. Figuring out what political parties actually stand for is difficult, especially if you can barely read. But all the Islamists have to do is wave a copy of the Koran. Even if the average Egyptian has hardly read the Koran, he is for it. How could he not be for it, it is his religion. Given a choice between a tangle of Arab Socialist parties and the Koran, it's not much of a competition. The Socialists and the Islamists both promise family benefits, and the usual bread and circuses. But the Islamists also promise to restore morality and honor by putting everyone from independent women to Christians to Israel and America in their place. That's how the Koran spells a winning ticket.

Like all tools, democracy is defined by its users. Give a gun to a maniac and he will shoot up a store. Give it to a responsible man, and he will use it guard his home. The difference is not in the gun, but in the values of the wielder. Offering democracy to the Muslim world will not reform it. Its tyrannies are not the problem, but a symptom of the problem. If the Muslim world were truly ready to reform, it would have already reformed itself by now. And all the Soros front groups and US and EU funded grass roots organizations won't change that. Their 0.001 percent of angry college students will provide the impetus and legitimacy for what will turn into an Islamist takeover. That's democracy for you.

Governments are defined by the values of their people. No tyranny that is completely at odds with the values of the people it rules over can remain in power for long. Alexander the Great was one of the first world conquerors to understand that. His generals did not just conquer, they integrated. Foreign kings could rule over countries, but only so long as they integrated into the values of the country they governed. A dynasty that failed to do so was doomed. Whether it was the line of Herod, the Holstein Czars or the Muhammad Alis of Egypt. Democracy accelerates the process by which unwanted rulers are removed, but does not profoundly change it, unless it is accompanied by the conscious exercise of representative rights by the electorate.

The Bush Administration was far too enchanted with democracy as an end, to realize that it was only a means. In the hands of a people who believe that all men are created equal, it can be a tool of ownership. But in the hands of those who only use it to protest or as a shovel to direct the flow of money to their group, it has no moral standing. It is not inherently any better than tyranny, only slightly different.


Anonymous said...

Daniel, the text is too wide and inconvenient to read. Can you fix it?

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

can you show me a screenshot?

Thomas G Lee said...

It must be their browser, it looks fine to me. Perhaps they meant, "the text (details) are too deep and inconvenient (difficult) to read (understand). Can you fix (delete the truth you've written).

Just kidding.... Perhaps they just need to go to "view; zoom out"?

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Different people use different browsers, resolutions, etc. No one setup will accommodate everyone. If they have 640 resolution, the blog won't look that great, but it should still be readable.

In theory.

HermitLion said...


When I increase text size in Chrome or Firefox, (resolution 1280x1024), the horizontal scrollbar appears and everything moves to the right.
With the default size, the layout fits well.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

That could be it. Some people have complained that the text size is too small. I wish there was a way to allow people to adjust text size in the blog, without adjusting it in the browser, but I haven't found such a method yet.

nanette said...


Great post. Thank you. It's about time someone wrote this. Was it Nietzsche or another philospher who said the same about democracy?


Dan Kurt said...

Re:"Daniel, the text is too wide and inconvenient to read. Can you fix it?


Read it in Safari 5.x. on a Macintosh running OS X v10.5

If you are in Sultan Knish click on the Article Name to get just the article. After doing that notice that after the URL address in the menu there is a button called "Reader". Click on reader and a new window will emerge that has the article in a most readable form. This is how it works on the Macintosh. If you are not the actual URL of the article instead of the "Reader" button you will see "RSS".

From apples help resource in the menu bar at the top of the screen:

"Viewing articles with Reader
Safari’s Reader lets you view news stories and other articles in a window that’s optimized for easy reading. Reader stitches together articles that are continued over multiple webpages and broken up by ads, menu bars, and other items on webpages."

Dan Kurt

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

de tocqueville among others

Paul said...

Democracy is the institutional expression of a system of beliefs. It is a weakness of these institutions that people who do not share those beliefs may participate in the institutions. They are inevitably subversive. Because of their beliefs, they cannot be trusted. It is the hope of those whose beliefs give flower to democracy that by forcing nonbelievers to participate in the laws extending from these institutions, that they will be forced to change their beliefs. But history has not shown this to be the case. It is not possible to preserve democracy whithout legally documenting its nonbelievers as a matter of history and identifying them as threats.

HermitLion said...

Can't believe I forgot to give praise for the actual article, and the much needed reference to Democracy as a means to an end.

It is ridiculous that the term was lifted to a religious status - something to fight and die for.
It's like sending soldiers overseas in order to give a wrench to every home-owner in the world, who happens not to care about leaking faucets.

Roy Lofquist said...


Methinks you are a bit harsh on the Bush administration. As you said, democracy is a tool.

The purpose of attacking Afghanistan and Iraq was to remove some of the bad actors and give the rest a whiff of the grape. It also served as a vehicle for a significant military presence in a very bad neighborhood - sort like a UN force with real guns.

After Saddam fell Iraq fractured. On the one hand you had AQI amongst the Sunnis and Iranian agents amongst the Shia. To have withdrawn at that time would to leave the region in an immensely worse situation. There was no obvious solution (Biden's proposal for partition would have been disastrous) except to be the sheriff until things settled down.

"Democracy" was used as both a tool and a justification for staying. Notice that democracy wasn't mentioned until sometime in 1994.

The world is messy. You cope. Democracy wasn't our purpose but it was our only way out.


Keli Ata said...

It's a wonderful article. Granted I haven't been following the riots as much as I should. Maybe it's the coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBS but I don't feel as energized as I was about the riots in Iran a couple of years ago.

The coverage of that was so much more compelling. There was a genuine sense that those kids were fighting for real democracy. I don't know what the people in Egypt are fighting for.

OT regarding text size--I don't have a problem. Perhaps viewing it in PDF format would help. Adjust the size of the text that way (smart move putting the articles in PDF format BTW)

DP111 said...


Use Opera as a Browser. One can then clik a button "Fit to width". Chrome may have that feature.

Carey Rowland said...

This rings true. Thank you for such a cogent analysis of the present situation in light of the big picture.

DP111 said...

Rise in the prices of essential goods is one cause of ferment in the Islamic world. The other is our occupation of Islamic lands, which is deeply galling to all Muslims - it is not what allah ordained.

It is why the first order of business for MB dominated Egypt, will be to re-start the war with Israel.

lemon said...

Thomas Jefferson said:
A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.

Barry said...

With regard to text size it is fine but I find it tiring with too many words to the line. That goes for comments too.
10 words would make scanning easier and faster for my aged eyes to cope with.
My 2c for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

The Egyptians and the Muslim Brotherhood keep yelling for "Democracy" but what they (Egyptians) fail to understand is that without "liberty" their is NO actual democracy and they just might be playing into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.....Does Iran ring a bell?????

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