Friday, September 26, 2008

Karlberg, III of III, Baha'is Demo Democracy

Competitive democracy III

By John Taylor; 2008 Sep 26, 18 Izzat, 165 BE

Today, let us get on with the last in our three part review of a highly topical article from the latest Baha'i World Volume.

Michael Karlberg, "Western Liberal Democracy as New World Order?" in The Baha'i World 2005-2006 (Haifa, World Centre Publications, 2007), 133-156. (

A reader wrote, "Hi John, I would imagine you are coming to this, but what kind of solutions does Karlberg offer the public? I really find his ideas very helpful." I'm glad you asked that, Ed, because that is just what I want to talk about today. I will quote at length the section where Karlberg offers the Baha'i solution with the eloquence of the top-notch lawyer that he no doubt is. He does this in a section called "An alternative to political competition." He does the job so well that I will not presume to add to what he says afterwards; instead, I want to glance at the philosophical causes and implications of his thesis that we do not have democracy but rather "competitive democracy."

from: The Baha'i World, 2005-2006, pp. 147-149

"Winston Churchill once stated that `democracy is the worst form of government -- except for all the other forms that have been tried.' More accurately, this statement describes competitive democracy because this is the only form of democracy that has been tried, to date, as a model of state governance. In keeping with Churchill's sentiment, apologists defend the prevailing system with the argument that it is the most rational alternative to political tyranny or anarchy. The problems inherent in the system of political competition are simply accepted as `necessary evils.' All systems of government are imperfect, the argument goes, and competitive democracy is the best we can do.

"This argument is premised, however, on the faulty assumption that processes of social innovation have come to an end. According to this `end of history' thesis, the social experiments that have characterized so much of human history have finally played themselves out and Western liberal models have emerged as the only viable models of social organization. Yet this is an entirely unsupportable thesis. Indeed, it would be more plausible to say that the history of humankind as a single, interdependent species, inhabiting a common homeland, is just beginning. Under conditions of increasing global interdependence, brought on by our reproductive and technological success as a species, we have barely begun to experiment with just and sustainable models of social organization.

"Processes of social innovation have clearly not come to an end. The example of the international Baha'i community suffices to illustrate this point. The Baha'i community is a vast social laboratory within which a new model of social organization is emerging. With a current membership of over five million people, drawn from over 2,000 ethnic backgrounds and residing in virtually every nation on the planet, the community is a microcosm of the entire human race. This diverse community has constructed a unique system of democratically elected assemblies that govern Baha'i affairs internationally, nationally, and locally in thousands of communities throughout the planet. Significantly, in many parts of the world, the first exercises in democratic activity have occurred within these Baha'i communities.

"The Baha'i electoral system is entirely nonpartisan and non-competitive. In brief, all adult community members are eligible for election and every member has the reciprocal duty to serve if elected. At the same time, nominations, campaigning, and all forms of solicitation are prohibited. Voters are guided only by their own conscience as they exercise real freedom of choice in voting for those they believe best embody the qualities of recognized ability, mature experience, and selfless service to others. Through a plurality count, the nine individuals who receive the most votes are called to serve as members of the governing assembly.

"Unlike competitive systems in which decision makers must continually negotiate the demands of constituents, campaign contributors, lobbyists, and activists, the Baha'i system is shielded from external lobbying and other pressures to influence decisions. This is accomplished in two ways. First, as discussed above, those who are elected to assemblies do not seek election and they have no interest in re-election. Elected members are not political entrepreneurs seeking to build or retain political capital, and campaign financing opportunities do not exist because there are no campaigns. Second, elected members decide matters through the application of principle, according to the promptings of their own conscience (one of the primary qualities for which they were elected), and not according to the dictates or pressures of competing interest groups. In this regard, elected members are expected to weigh all of their decisions in a principled manner, even if this means forgoing immediate local or short-term benefits out of consideration for the welfare of distant peoples or future generations."

I would only add that the ideal of a leader with no interest in politicking is not new. It was Plato's Philosopher King, a leader who not only led reluctantly, but who was first of all a philosopher, not a career politician. Such souls long to wander off outside the "cave" of worldly affairs into the sunlit uplands of spiritual knowledge. They enter the realm of human affairs as a sacrifice on behalf of enlightenment.

Plato's is not necessary a hopelessly unrealistic ideal that has never been lived up to. Philosopher kings have graced the throne on more than one occasion. Indeed, Plato's model may have been the Biblical hero-managers, David and his son, Solomon. David, the father, was what we call a "musician songwriter" whose lyrics move us even today, and his son, Solomon, was a literary genius of the first order in addition to being a resourceful problem solver and just king. Since then quite a few great ancient heroes, generals and other leaders started out as farmers who, after leading their country to victory in battle, gladly returned to ploughing their fields. It is not such a ridiculous thing to hope that present and future leaders of a united world should take on the burden of office in a similar detached spirit. The Baha'i electoral system is such a perfect model for such an improved democracy because it expects service, nobility, maturity and self-sacrifice as the norm not only from prominent leaders but from all believers. As a result the brilliant leadership of a Solomon will not be a rare gift of fortune but, we can hope, the norm for every level of society.

The question remains, why do we not at least try to get a Solomon onto our ballots in democratic elections? Indeed we seem to be doing everything possible to get the reverse of a Solomon up there, and then, should a wise leader somehow make it into a position of influence, the entire weight of the system works to obstruct him at every turn. I used to think of it as the old "one for forty" ratio, the system is designed so that the wealthy one percent of the population can hold on to their precious forty percent of world resources; but I think the value of Karlberg is that he points to a broader, more philosophical reason that we are being divided and conquered. We are perverted and destroyed by our own materialist, competitive obsession. It is not in our stars but in our minds and hearts. Here is how Karlberg answers such big questions:

"The uncivil nature of much partisan discourse, alluded to at the beginning of this essay, is an inevitable outgrowth of this inversion of material and spiritual priorities. When the pursuit of self-interest comes to be understood as a virtue, and selflessness is dismissed as naive idealism, it is not surprising that politics becomes an uncivil arena. In this regard, the reality of partisan politics is better captured by war metaphors than by the market metaphors discussed earlier.

"A campaign, after all, is a military term, not a market term. Like military campaigns, political campaigns are expensive. Candidates amass `campaign war chests' as they prepare to `fight' election "b`ttles." 'n an age of mass-media spectacle and sound-bite politics, this translates into an escalating cycle of negative advertising, insults, and mudslinging, as political campaigns and debates become a `war of words' conducted from `entrenched positions.'

"In the abstract, debate is about ideas rather than people. In practice, however, the competitive structure of the system erases the line between ideas and people, because if your ideas do not prevail, neither does your political career. Hence, political debate slides easily into the quagmire of egoism and incivility. On the sidelines, meanwhile, the public grows increasingly cynical and disaffected -- yet another spiritual cost of this system.

"The result is that diverse people, who do not naturally fall into simple oppositional camps, come over time to separate themselves into such camps -- a process that can be accelerated by astute politicians who make emotionally charged `wedge issues' the centerpieces of their campaigns in an effort to create and enforce partisan loyalties. The social divisions that result are further spiritual costs of competitive democracy." (145-146)

Wedge issues... what was that called again? Oh yes, divide and conquer. Except divide and conquer of the democratic kind. It is significant that Karlberg quoted Winston Churchill, because he was in many ways the epitome of what we are talking about with competitive democracy. Competition breeds the sort of person who can survive constant clashes and furious struggle. These tend to be men. Churchill was a scrapper, a natural fighter, and this did a lot of harm in his earlier career, both to labour relations and the Irish question. His finest hour came only with the rise of Hitler. At that point the flaccid democracies of the age needed a prod, a vigorous military response to the challenge of tyranny. In other words, a very rare, extraordinary moment in history. We need scrappy males, but not most of the time.

What we must do now is to reset the default. We need peacemakers. We need more women. We should raise the percentage of women to men in leadership to at least 60-40, or higher, for quite a while. Norway is the closest in the world, and it has barely fifty percent women legislators. Also, we need to raise principle above expediency, stage campaign-free elections and seek the One behind the many in order to eradicate the causes of tyranny before they catch hold. We must learn to see competitiveness in all institutions as something to be avoided like a highly infectious disease.

If all nations had taken such a course after WWI there would have been no perceived need for a Hitler. Churchill then might have moderated his scrappiness and lived out a quiet retirement.

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