When representative democracy represents only an imaginary majority.
Writing in The Economist, Indian historian Mukul Kesavan describes the trend in South Asia toward “majoritarian nationalism as a sad if natural outcome of the awkward struggle to build new nation-states.” He has noticed that “Every post-colonial state in South Asia paid lip service to secular principle in the first decade of its existence before reconstituting itself as a kind of sole proprietorship run by its dominant community.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Two words that combine into a single concept signifying the illogical conclusion groups of people reach when they accept as absolute values and combine two current poorly defined historical notions: the nation-state and democracy
If Kesavan focuses on India, it’s because India was the one nation where diversity, from the start, should have been perceived as a given and as the basis of viable democracy. As he has written elsewhere, “One of the founding premises of political pluralism in India has been that diversity — linguistic, social, economic — prevents the consolidation of religious communities into political blocs.” But Kesavan notices a kind of postcolonial curse linked to the imposition on the entire globe of the Western dogma that the nation-state represents the unique historical norm for political organization and the definition of sovereignty. No acceptable alternative is permitted to exist.
Other models do or could exist but cannot compete according to the current geopolitical rulebook. For example, autonomous regions within a nation or a wider region grouping together identifiable nations, which is the as yet unrealized ambition of the European Union. The enshrinement of the nation-state prepares the way for what we might call an atmosphere of state-nationalism, which — as we’re seeing today and not just in South Asia — morphs into populism.
Then there is the “problem” of democracy, which has always veered between two poles: representative democracy, which specifically honors diversity and is designed to protect it, and mob rule, which turns the lowest common denominator of the majority into the basis of governance. In India, it’s religion. In the United Kingdom, it’s a certain notion of “tradition,” the equivalent of Britishness (which tends to be racial). In the US, it’s the belief in “free enterprise,” whose consequence is that powerful enterprises are freer than less powerful ones, and much freer than the citizens themselves.
Kesavan describes how the distortions have played out in South Asia, but to some extent similar trends are occurring across the globe. It could be a sign of a certain crisis of civilization, or rather of the idea of civilization we have been living with for the past 300 years.
When the belief in the sacred status and unique legitimacy of nation-states combines with the belief that governments are elected rather than selected, the risk that Alexis de Tocqueville identified back in 1832 in Democracy in America becomes very real.
In Chapter 7,Of the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects, the aristocratic Frenchman observed: “So in the United States the majority has an immense power in fact and a power of opinion almost as great; and once the majority has formed on a question, there is, so to speak, no obstacle that can, I will not say stop, but even slow its course and leave time for the majority to hear the cries of those whom it crushes as it goes.”
Majoritarian nationalism may thus be an inevitable result of evolution in a phase of history that began in Europe with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Paradoxically, Westphalia marked the end of a violent Protestant/Catholic religious war (the Thirty Years’ War) and set the scene for the emergence of the nation-state as a stable political norm and secularism as the principle required for internal peace. This in turn led to reflection on the role of the people in political systems and to the first experiments in democracy at the end of the 18th century.
India and most of the other nation-states across the globe were, at different points of history, carved out of the landscape by their former colonial masters. At the same time, politically orthodox thought taught us that, with free elections — and therefore democracy — justice and respect would be the norm. The case of India is worth meditating on, but as we do so, we should realize that a similar logic is playing out even in the heartland of the Western nations who created the dual framework of nation-states and democracy.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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