The fallacy in the export of democracy

Read this terrific article by historian Eric Hobsbawm that appeared originally in the December issue of Le Monde Diplomatique:

While threatening the integrity of universal values, the campaign to spread democracy will not succeed. The 20th century demonstrated that states could not simply remake the world or abbreviate historical transformations. Nor can they easily effect social change by transferring institutions across borders. The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). “Spreading democracy” aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989.

The effort to spread standardised western democracy also suffers a fundamental paradox. A growing part of human life now occurs beyond the influence of voters – in transnational public and private entities that have no electorates. And electoral democracy cannot function effectively outside political units such as nation-states. The powerful states are therefore trying to spread a system that even they find inadequate to meet today’s challenges.

Europe proves the point. A body such as the European Union could develop into a powerful and effective structure precisely because it has no electorate other than a small number of member governments. The EU would be nowhere without its “democratic deficit”, and there can be no legitimacy for its parliament, for there is no “European people”. Unsurprisingly, problems arose as soon as the EU moved beyond negotiations between governments and became the subject of democratic campaigning in the member states.

It would have been difficult for me to express this idea in this clear and concise way. Thank you for making it happen Dr. Hobsbawm.

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