26 February 2011
Democracy and the Arabs
by Gwynne Dyer
One of the incidental pleasures of the past few weeks has been watching the Western media struggling to come to terms with the notion of Arab democracy.
The Arabs themselves seem clear enough on the concept of a democratic revolution, but elsewhere there is much hand-wringing about whether Arabs can really build democratic states. After all, they have no previous experience of democracy, and it’s basically a Western invention, isn’t it? The Arabs don’t even have Athens and the Roman republic up their family tree.
Sure the revolutions are brave, and they’re exhilarating to watch from afar, but in the end the military will take over, or the Islamists will take over, or they’ll mess it up some other way. This is the assumption – sometimes implied, sometimes flatly stated – that still underpins much of the outside comment and analysis on the Arab revolutions.
The current rationale for this arrogant and ignorant assumption is the “clash of civilisations” tripe that Sam Huntington and his pals have been peddling around the official circuit in Washington for almost two decades now. The Arabs just belong to the wrong civilisation, and so they can’t get it right.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s really the centuries-old justification for European imperial rule over the rest of the planet, re-cycled for modern use. Europe once ruled the lesser breeds with a firm hand, but it can no longer do that directly. Instead it backs tough local rulers who promise to provide “stability” – and coincidentally protect the West’s interests in the area.
So when the Arabs start overthrowing their rulers in non-violent revolutions that are just about democracy, not about Islam or Israel, there is astonishment and disbelief in the Western media. Time for a little deconstruction.
What makes the Arabs suitable candidates for democracy is their heritage as human beings, not their specific cultural or historical antecedents. Democracy didn’t need to be invented; just resurrected.
The default mode for human beings is equality. Every pre-civilised society we know about operated on the assumption that its members were equals. Nobody had the right to give orders to anybody else.
What drove this was not idealism but pragmatism. In hunting-and-gathering groups, nobody can own more than they can carry, so there is no way to accumulate wealth. If you want meat, then you’ll have to cooperate in the hunt. These were societies where nobody could control anybody else, and so they HAD to make their decisions democratically.
They were all very little societies: rarely more than fifty adults (who had all known one another all their lives). On the rare occasions when they had to make a major decision, they would actually sit around and debate it until they reached a consensus. Direct democracy, if you like.
People have been running their affairs that way ever since we developed language, which was almost certainly before we were even anatomically modern human beings. So 99.9 percent of our history, say. That is who we are, and how we prefer to behave unless some enormous obstacle gets in our way.
The enormous obstacle was civilisation. All hunting-and-gathering societies were essentially egalitarian. The mass societies that we call civilisations arose less than ten thousand years ago, thanks to the invention of agriculture. Until very recently all of them, without exception, were tyrannies, pyramids of power and privilege in which the few decided and the many obeyed. What happened?
A mass society, thousands, then millions strong, confers immense advantages on its members. Within a few thousand the little hunting-and-gathering groups were pushed out of the good lands everywhere. By the time the first anthropologists appeared to study them, they were on their last legs, and none now survive in their original form. But we know why the societies that replaced them were all tyrannies.
The mass societies had many more decisions to make, and no way of making them in the old, egalitarian way. Their huge numbers made any attempt at discussing the question as equals impossible, so the only ones that survived and flourished were the ones that became brutal hierarchies. Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communications problem.
Fast forward ten thousand years, and give these societies mass communications. You don’t have to wait for Facebook; just invent the printing press. Wait a couple of hundred years while literacy spreads, and presto! We can all talk to one another again, after a fashion, and the democratic revolutions begin. We didn’t invent the principle of equality among human beings; we just reclaimed it.
Modern democracy first appeared in the West only because the West was the first part of the world to develop mass communications. It was a technological advantage, not a cultural one – and as literacy and the technology of mass communications have spread around the world, all the other mass societies have begun to reclaim their heritage too.
The Arabs need no instruction in democracy from anybody else. They own it too.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“If…area”; and “A mass…tyrannies”)
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.