Thursday, February 10, 2011

Democracy in Egypt

Financial Times:

As the Obama administration has scrambled to respond to the unfolding drama in Egypt, political leaders and activists across the spectrum in Washington have split over how the US should handle the crisis.

On the right, Egypt has provoked sharp clashes, largely over whether by default the US should support democracy movements. Those who say it should are ranged against pragmatic advocates of US power more willing to back autocratic allies.

The political debate over "whether the US should support democracy" is best understood in relation to the class character of American democracy. Democracy in the US is not a completely fraudulent idea, as it would be under monarchy or totalitarian dictatorship. Democracy, equality, the rule of law -- all of these things apply, but their scope is restricted to the propertied classes. If two corporations go to court, they are better served by "equality before the law" and a crack team of lawyers than they are by trying to out-bribe some random official whom they can't prepare for. The legal system is helpful for rich people insofar as it establishes a kind of fairness between themselves, without extending it to anyone else.

Whenever US politicians sing praises about democracy, they have this "ruling class democracy" in mind. It's one of the reasons why "freedom" and "free-markets" are so often paired together, when the former just implies the ability to choose, while the latter is in fact a choice. Given the ability to choose, people may very well not choose "free-markets" (i.e., they may place restrictions on how wealth is accumulated and deployed) -- this brings us to source of our ruler's trepidation!

It is good to encourage "democracy" in other lands if it amounts to expanded rights for the rich. But if you can't guarantee that outcome, better to have a dictator who can at least keep a lid on expanded rights for the population, also known as "labor costs." "Democracy for everyone" is the absolute worst outcome, because "everyone" tends to have different priorities than 0.1% of the population.

So the debate here is essentially between one part of the ruling class which believes the events in Egypt will evolve naturally into an expansion of rights for local elites and western investors in Egypt, while the other is afraid that the democracy could undermine this -- they say because the Muslim Brotherhood will take over and impose Sharia law; but equally bad, if invariably unmentioned, is the not impossible prospect that a legitimate democracy would take root that simply puts its own priorities above those of the super-rich. And that is something our so-called "liberal democracy" thus far cannot abide!


Anonymous said...

The political debate over "whether the US should support democracy" is best understood in relation to the class character of American democracy.

Excellent opening sentence! And the follow-up continued the trend.

Ethan said...

Whole post, first paragraph in particular, helped me to cement my understanding of things that before had been kind of loose and unsure in my head. Thanks.

JRB said...

Thanks, guys.

The fact that these ideals are in a restricted sense true lends much to the national mythology that they are true for everyone.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

The rich men of America, to make the story simple, wanted to be the center... not, as they were, part of Britain's periphery.

For the average dude and gal, the periphery is not such a bad place to be — the oppressive hand has to reach too far to bother — actually, it's a great place to be.

Your words teem with tact, JRB.

Jack Crow said...

Agreed, Tee Vee. In fact, I think the only possibility for liberty (collective) and liberation (personal) exists in the hybrid zones of the periphery.

Perhaps counter-intuitive, but it serves me well to conceive of resistance as mold. It grows best at the edges, and spreads along the cracks which form in the structures it literally consumes...

Jen Daisybee said...

Democracy, as we have it here, results in a systematic marginalization of many groups in our society, so I do agree with you here. It will be interesting to see how things turn out in Egypt. I would love to see a female president, but of course that would be asking for too much. We can't even accomplish that here, in our great bastion of democracy, since women are only 50% of the population, and obviously that should mean 0% of presidents are female.