Why governance standards set in the West and imposed on poor countries are dangerous
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Last week, a friend posted on a social media platform an article by a US scholar about life in a democracy and an autocracy as imagined by Americans! The author argues that the enjoyment of a fulfilling life is a much more complex matter to be reduced to whether one either lives under a democracy or an autocracy. He also argued that Americans imagine every country that is not a democracy is the worst version of an autocracy or totalitarian state of the Nazi type.
However the author, like many Americans and other people from the West, assumes that America is a democracy where life for everyone is fine. My knowledge of the experience of many ethnic and racial minorities in American shows that many live under conditions of a fascist autocracy. This is in spite of, and also because of, the way America’s liberal democracy evolved. The belief that liberal democracy constrains bad government behaviour is based more on religious faith (a secular religious faith) than on evidence.
The genocide of native Americans and their disenfranchisement today, the enslavement of African Americans, later replaced by Jim Crow (the name of what was American’s apartheid system) and now by mass incarceration, the exploitation of labour and the discrimination against women etc. in America have all been done through and by America’s liberal democratic institutions. Liberal democracy, therefore, does not automatically end a nation’s ghosts.
Indeed, the struggle for civil rights by the different social groups of American society – poor white men, African Americans, women, workers etc. – was slow and hard. Thus in spite of (and precisely because of) regular elections, a free press, a large and diverse civil society and a representative parliament, it has always taken decades for any of the disenfranchised social groups to move the liberal democratic institutions of America towards reform. And even when reform has come, it has never been linear – it grows by feats and starts of five steps forward, three steps backward.
Yet this is not a condemnation or even a moral judgement of the American state and its ruling elites. Rather it is to underline the conservative worldview I hold and which in fact I learnt from some of the leading Western scholars like Edmond Burke and Frederick Von Hayek i.e. that the present does not exist by mistake. Any attempt to radically alter the institutional architecture of a society is likely to produce more harm than good.
Thus as a philosophy, conservatism abhors revolutionary change in favour of evolutionary change. This is for the simple reason that the world is much more complex in reality than in theory. Any attempt to impose a utopian vision on a messy and ever-evolving human landscape will fail or cause ruin. Americans ignore this their own historical experience and lesson, when they expect and actually demand that other nations should democratise within a week. This way, American officials seem to deny these countries of politics so that democracy is a result of a single decision by a single man or woman than being a result of long and slogging struggles whose progress is not even linear.