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April 12, 2005

Barkeeper! Democracy All Around!: the problems of exporting democracy to societies with non-Western value systems

Posted by S. J. Masty

Is it possible to successfully superimpose Western democratic structures on societies with profoundly non-Western value systems? What happens when democratic structures are superimposed on a society where - for example - loyalty to the extended family is the primary value? S J Masty argues that it can lead to very unhappy results. As with everything the Social Affairs Unit publishes, the views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

The American priest asked for beer and he seemed to need it. "They can't think like us. Their brains are different," he grumbled. It was a peculiar admission after 20 years in South Asia.

"Codswallop," I said amiably. "We humans have shared the same hard-wiring since the Upper Paleolithic. South Asians, Zambians, Chinese, Canadians - everyone."

He disagreed. Something had been stolen from his office, he interviewed each employee separately and identified the culprit. "I was delighted. Usually this never happens," he said. "So I sat them down and went step by step, like Hercule Poirot. I was so proud of myself. And do you know what happened?" I said no. "They stared at me and stuck to their stories, contradictory as they were, no matter how hard I reasoned." He scowled: "They don't get it. Their brains work differently, that's all."

He was having a bad week. Almost any Western child is given games and puzzles and asked to spot the hidden inconsistency. When we contradict ourselves, our parents and siblings, teachers and friends fall over themselves in glee, rushing to point it out. Besides, establishing inconsistency in others is one way in which we assert intellectual dominance. What if all that time and effort went into instilling a different value, perhaps one needed for survival in the worst South Asian slums, a low-caste Christian bustee? What if the message had been: "whatever happens, never contradict your cousin?" His employees recognised their inconsistencies but remained true to their upbringing no matter how humiliated it made them.

Smug and uninquisitive, we Westerners do not understand how anyone can think differently than we do. Yet people do.

A Karachi actor friend - nearly penniless but deeply civilised, well-educated, highly ethical - described building himself a house on valuable land given him by Benezir Bhutto's People's Party in return for years of his support. It did not even enter his mind that there was the slightest thing amiss in an individual being given national assets in return for supporting one political party over another - and had I suggested so, he would have been deeply upset. After all, it has always been the right of any maharajah to reward his supporters as he sees fit and being the lucky recipient is only kismat, or Divine Providence.

Conversely, in Michael Wood's book In Search of England, medieval legal documents cite villagers who supported a failed claimant to the throne and had their lands confiscated, yet the property was subsequently returned to them on appeal. A similar decision today, in many countries beside Pakistan, would have surprised my actor friend and many more. Two people from different civilisations - equally well-educated and deeply ethical, wearing well-tailored suits and dining together in the same London club - might have two venerable and very different concepts of fair play.

And that is only where it starts. It can take one a long time in a foreign culture to even begin to recognise different values, and a longer time to fathom how those values may rank against one another. In Eastern Afghanistan I saw someone repeatedly commit treason, steal from refugees, smuggle dope and guns, take money from the CIA and the KGB simultaneously, beat innocent peasants, and betray fellow resistance commanders. This was ignored for years until he mistreated some guests, an unforgivable crime for which the province united and shot him to rags. Hospitality matters.

Now, when the West has few ethics apart from situational ones and few values beyond materialism, we note that everyone on the planet appears to lust after our goods, then we 'project' our values and presume that they are eager to live as we do in order to obtain those goods. That is a mistake.

We see people from poor countries risk their lives to live among us, taking jobs that we disdain, and we assume that their kinfolk 'back home' are just as keen but merely less adventuresome than the illegal immigrants. That is another mistake.

But the prime Western stupidity, and the main intellectual contribution of the so-called NeoConservatives, is that every culture on earth is somehow 'ready for democracy' - and, as US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice implies, daring to suggest otherwise is some sort of bigotry, like hinting that foreigners are incapable of being potty-trained.

In truth, lots of old and perfectly sane values can, and do, stop countries from becoming functional democracies. In many cases, people do not even realise that some of their deepest values are antithetical to democracy - extended families, for instance.

Of the middle-class extended families that I know in South Asia, about one fourth of the men in each are incompetents and layabouts, while the rest of the men work themselves half to death in order to support the others. But if one brother dares to suggest that Anwar get off his backside and wash windows, if need be, the entire assembly of women attacks like killer bees.

In lands without so-called social safety nets (dole), this ensures that those unable to work are housed and fed along with those who are unwilling to work. In return for this informal insurance-policy, the family takes a group decision on who you marry, where and what you study, and where you work. And if you rise through luck, brains or effort, they tell you who to hire usually a spotty second cousin. Opting out means life without family in places where such a life is not worth living.

In cultures where virtually all socialising takes place inside the extended family -- where you are under the collective spotlight every waking moment - what lowly department head is brave enough to refuse to give every contract to family and hire every cousin-by-marriage? You would become the main course of every family meal "Your second cousin (How can you dare forget her! Her mother raised you like her own son!) is married to that nice, poor young man (You went to the wedding! Have you forgotten?). He is trying to make a living with a chain-saw while you loll behind a desk all day. Do you mean that there isn't a single tree in the park that the nation cannot live without? You, supposedly the big man in charge of one miserable park! And what good do you do? He could sell the lumber and fix the roof before she has the baby. Do you want the baby to die?" Cut to the sound of someone felling every tree in the park.

When people from such cultures emigrate, far enough away from their siblings and cousins, they ordinarily adapt well into Western patterns. But nobody is foolish enough to rebel in the Old Country. Putting the country first or the law first, much less the job first, naturally collides with extended family values and family wins almost every time. When such cultures become democracies, they often become Predator Democracies, changing governments by the season and rotating opportunities to strip the country bare, with parties formed as teams of rapacious families and, by extension, tribes or castes. Most of South Asia fits the description. Sicily too.

There are plenty of other values that render democracy equally inoperative. Yugoslavs had the highest standard of living in the Eastern Bloc, and sufficiently close ties with the West that they would have been the first port-of-call for investors. But they preferred to slaughter one another - enmity meant more than materialism. Elsewhere religion or honour means more.

Another American friend, a devout Zionist, asked what I thought would happen were the Middle East swiftly remade into democracies. I said that if popular Egyptian movies were any indicator, and government reflected public sentiment, the entire region might march against Israel armed with kitchen knives if need be. It is not impossible many cultures have taken bloodthirsty, even suicidal paths because of anger or religion or honour. About 27,000 brave Sudanese died under British machine-guns at Omdurman yet they kept advancing.

Any conservative, with even half an education, knows that roots run deep, that attitudinal change can take generations, and that around the world many cultures could more comfortably share clothes than they could share government. The democracies transplanted two generations ago into educated and industrialised Berlin or Tokyo may not thrive in, say, Port Moresby with its own unique history, ethnic complexity and traditions. Or Afghanistan or Iraq or the Balkans where, hope as we might, the results are far from assured.

Procrustes was the demon hotelier in The Odyssey - when guests were too tall for his bed he chopped off their legs, and he stretched the short ones until their joints came apart. But everyone was made to fit. The procrustean NeoConservatives are not remotely conservative with their one-size-fits-all government and historicist rhetoric they could more accurately call themselves NeoSoviets. Their exercise in hubris is likely to end badly.
S J Masty 2005

S J Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communications.


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Beautifully written (as everything here seems to be) and cogent as far as it goes.

But it doesn't explain why "western" values seem to work far better in India than Pakistan, for example; let alone offer any alternative policy for dealing with the societies described. The author may reply that that's not the intention of the piece, but stopping where it does, isn't it just a little self-indulgent?

I don't mean to imply that coming up with an alternative to the neo-cons' gung-ho belief that everyone wants to be a neo-American is easy - indeed, they've only got away with it for as long as they have because it's fiendishly difficult.

The only missing piece of the puzzle that I can lay my hands on, and which the article tantalisingly alludes to do before veering elsewhere, is labour mobility. Mobile labour is a sine qua non of industrial, let alone post-industrial society, yet it has the same effect on family life as cancer does on the human body. Even in the West, we are still undecided whether to celebrate or deplore this - I suspect the former is the more grown-up attitude, since consumer goods are designed to be consumed by individuals and there is no political fix for this.

Arguably it is this conflict between individualism and "familism" - as much as anything the US and the rest of the "West" gets up to - that breeds Islamic extremism.

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at April 13, 2005 10:13 AM
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Innocent: I suspect that democracies fail in places lacking a widespread belief in the primacy of law, in the sanctity of private property, in a commitment to overriding concepts of fairness and equality under the law, and with limited government. There are many traditions, proven valuable over the eons, that are antiithetical democracy and even become lethal when combined with democracy. Democracy is a drink that strengthens those strong enough to take it, but it can kill others.

Posted by: s j masty at April 14, 2005 08:17 AM
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Well, that's become a fairly stock answer. But I wonder how far it fits the facts... for example Scandinavia is democratic, but its governments are (or have been) a good deal less limited than, say, the American model. And certainly Islam has no quarrel with private property...

Another explanation might be in the degree to which a people identify the struggle to achieve democracy with the development of national identity. We take this for granted in the West, we're taught it in school and the only debate is whether we're taught it enough. But it is no part of Arab history, for example. And in the sub-continent it is true for India, whose national myth has so many parallels with the earlier struggle for the franchise in the U.K., but not for Pakistan - while Bangladeshis may (a wild guess) be becoming attached to democracy as a way of looking down their noses at Pakistanis!

To match your vivid metaphor with one of my own, attempting to export democracy is like fixing a friend up with a blind date - no matter how attractive (s)he is, there's no guarantee it'll work!

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at April 14, 2005 07:25 PM
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