Democratic learning and unlearning


Democratic learning is a long and difficult process with many reverses – unlearning is even harder. Every new generation must pass the political manhood test, whether it wants to or not. In the last instance the citizens are responsible and in charge. But if the people fails to learn, the rebuff will be repeated. The political game can sustain a plus-sum character only if a majority of votes fall to upright candidates. A democracy has the politicians it deserves.

Ardous learning

Effective learning is principally born out of distressing failures: most democracies have at some point gone through a traumatic revolutionary experience. The successful Puritan revolution evidently inoculated the British mind against further adventures of this kind. The democratic heritage later found an expression in the American Declaration of Independence. Its balanced humanism contrasts sharply with the inflammatory verbiage at the peak of the French revolution.

A free society suffers convulsions every time a new epidemic of oversimplifications and half-truths breaks out. When weary voters are promised easy solutions to complicated problems, previous exposure to infection usually generates a certain skepticism and mitigates the course of the disease. But only the immunity provided by a severe childhood bout ensures effective protection against subsequent contagion.

In spite of an innate conservatism, democracies generally adapt fairly well to both internal and external change. But unlearning is more trying than the learning of new habits, and the best democracies can sometimes be stuck in self-satisfied stagnation. To surrender time-honored but outmoded precepts can be a blow to the occasionally exaggerated self-assurance and calls for a long grieving process.

Democratic learning is indeed a slow process, where emotions and inherited attitudes usually prevail. The democracies, on the other hand, have a wonderful capacity to integrate even the most radical dissidents. Puerile thought experiments, containing a few grains of truth, are eventually refined into sensible contributions to the political process, and young rebels may over time become pillars of the community.

The citizens in charge

We must stop blaming difficulties on external factors and acknowledge that the fault is ours. The ‘sovereign people’ is often mistaken and may be completely in the wrong. Appreciation of our fallibility is a precondition for any democratic learning: pride goes before fall. The blunt language of reality with all its negative feedback should be accepted and correctly interpreted. The bitter medicine must be swallowed and self-complacent doctrines dismissed.

Willy-nilly, the voter has to discern the important issues and learn have to become a responsible citizen; otherwise, those in charge will never improve their play. Political democracy is the only societal framework worthy of man, but whether man measures up to this dignity remains an open question.

Democracy is, least of all, an endorsement of carefree happiness; it is, rather, a tough exercise in hazardous freedom. In the end, you can only blame yourself – a most unhappy condition. Responsibility and discipline are not imposed from the outside; we rely solely on a broad framework of internally generated rules for political process. This machinery cannot create values, it can only channel them. The presumption that democratic rule in itself commands creativity or guarantees social and cultural progress is a dangerous illusion. The real content and meaning of the political game springs from deeper sources.

Dizzy with good fortune we are beginning to confuse the role of worker and consumer. Work is no longer a duty but consumption is an inalienable right. The financial crisis bears witness to our very human tendency to enjoy today the living standard of tomorrow. Unless we unlearn these bad habits and reverse present trends, prosperity will slip through our fingers and we will relapse into material and spiritual poverty.

The power of contrition

By and large, truth is not much in demand; the lie is deep within us, crying out for confirmation. The ‘sovereign people’ is often mistaken and may be completely in the wrong. If man fails in finding any fault in himself, genuine learning will cease and mismanagement will play havoc with all his possessions, including the precious environment.

The contrition of the Christian soul, man’s recognition of his own helplessness, has paradoxically provided fertile soil for an impassioned assumption of personal responsibility and for the most successful learning process in world history.

Our spiritual woes and temptations are the price of freedom but in exchange we have got a cornucopia of knowledge and unprecedented prosperity. Today we can, by the mediation of the market, trust the inputs of a multitude of perfectly strange people. The challenge is to entice the majority of the human race into the complex network of material and intellectual plus-sum play – to make the poor productive. The provisional end point for such a development could be called metacapitalism. As most people achieve capitalist status, the surplus of resources transforms the capital from master to laborer. If we provide sufficient room for human enterprise, global prosperity will leave the realm of utopia.

Democracy cannot be handed down as a gift. It has a price which must be paid in the shape of the respect for superordinate rules of the game, and at the expense of personal advantage and immediate satisfaction. Rarely does it demand heroic sacrifices, but instead an everyday tribute of ordinary morality. Africa has abundant social capital but this is not sufficient. The new overarching plus-sum game must be built from the ground up in the family, in the school, in the congregation.

Lastly I want to refer to the forced democratization of Germany and Japan after the Second World War. Rarely has a victorious power managed to introduce its ideology as effectively as the United States. The deep discredit of the former regimes and their war adventures simplified the task. The defeat was total and unambiguous. The unlearning was similarly complete and an earlier, albeit underdeveloped, democratic tradition could be evoked. Most importantly, the victor was generous and not bent on suppression or plunder. The United States consistently displayed its good will and the outcome was a resounding success. In Iraq or Afghanistan, this is a hard act to follow.