Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Defining Democracy


Defining Democracy

The basic question about a democratic system is that whether it protects the liberty and rights of the people as whole or it protects the liberty of every individual. Does it let the individuals be sacrificed for the mass or mass for the individuals? Or, otherwise, it protects both the liberty of the individual and the mass at the same time? It is generally believed about the democracy that it is ‘government of the people, for the people and by the people’- as suggested by Abraham Lincoln. This has become one of the most dominant definitions of democracy and commonly referred to by many while defining democracy. This particular definition as soon as read or quoted gives the impression that democracy is a system that keeps in consideration the people as a whole. At the same time it does not have any term or word related to individual liberty that has been talked about so much in modern political discussions. Does it imply that democracy tends to sacrifice individual for the mass?
When it is said that ‘democracy is the government of the people, for the people and by the people’, it does entail that democracy tends to keep in consideration the ‘general will’ to a dominant extent. General will here tends to refer to the desire or interest of the people as whole. The term ‘general will’ has to be understood, so as to understand the definition in consideration. This term – general will – was introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a well-known political thinker and philosopher, whose ideas had great impacts on French Revolution. Rousseau was basically one of the dominant philosophers who believed in the ‘Contract Theory’, which suggested that states came into being as a result of contract among the people. Rousseau believed that the contract among the people took place so as to safeguard the rights and liberty of the people as whole (though this particular reference to the ‘Contract Theory’ is so short and insufficient but strives to give the basic idea of the concept). Rousseau believed, “As long as several men assembled together consider themselves as a single body, they have only one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being. Then, all the animating forces of the state are vigorous and simple, and its principles are clear and luminous; it has no incompatible or conflicting interests; the common good makes itself so manifestly evident that only common sense is needed to discern it. Peace, unity and equality are the enemies of political sophistication. Upright and simple men are difficult to deceive precisely because of their simplicity; stratagems and clever arguments do not prevail upon them, they are not indeed subtle enough to be dupes. When we see among the happiest people in the world bands of peasants regulating the affairs of state under an oak tree, and always acting wisely, can we help feeling a certain contempt for the refinements of other nations, which employ so much skill and effort to make themselves at once illustrious and wretched?”
The term ‘general will’ as used by Rousseau has been very much controversial and at times very obscure. Some of the political thinkers have even considered it nothing more than ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘the tyranny of the urban poor’ as Rousseau believed that the concept of personal property was responsible for bringing disorder in human society, which is much like communistic criticism of personal property. But, in real sense Rousseau did not consider it to be so. Moreover, after too much criticism of this concept to be against the individual liberty, Rousseau in his later interpretations of the concept tried to add further characteristics to it. He even suggested that the individual liberty and rights were guaranteed only when they were seen in perspective of collective life. No liberty for an individual could prove beneficial if it violated the rights of the people as whole.   
An important drawback or deficiency that really exists in the concept of ‘general will’ is its obscure and ambiguous nature. It is difficult to find where the general will exists and it is also too difficult to gauge it. Further, it tends to make people think more of mass than individual, thus making an attempt to sacrifice individual for the state – making the system more totalitarian. Therefore, suggesting that democracy tends to safeguard the ‘general will’ will definitely underestimate the characteristic of democracy, which strives to guarantee individual liberty to a great extent. In this regard, only the definition ‘government of the by people, for the people and by the people’ do not sufficiently depict democracy. Moreover if democracy protects the ‘general will’ alone, what about the individuals, groups and communities that do not agree with it? It is common to observe the minority groups and communities in a state, that do not agree with the will of the people as whole and even most of the times tend to oppose them. Should not democracy protect their rights as well? I think democracy, as being practiced by different states in modern world does strive to a large extent to protect the rights of all the individuals and minority groups, even if the stands against the ‘general will’.

If democracy is to protect only the rights and the will of the majority, it is bound to be exploitative. Further, it, in that sense, also tends to neglect the diversity in different states of the world. It is appreciative to note that some of the developed nations of the world have been able to shield the rights of the minority groups and tackle the diversity in their states through proportional representation, local governments and appropriate federal forms of government. The other states of the world that are in the basic stages of their democratic setup and also have to carry diverse societies, like that of our country Afghanistan, have to keep such examples in their considerations so as to avoid any sort of discrimination and guarantee true representation to all the people of the world; as democracy is not just about making all the people form a ‘general will’ (as is strived by totalitarian regimes) and protect it. It is about managing the diversities in the people and making them believe that they have their rights are protected and they have their say in the formation and regulation of state affairs.   

Dilawar Sherzai is the permanent writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at the outlookafghanistan@gmail.com

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