Written by Sonya Filipenko, 3rd year student of Moscow State Institute of International Relations
We hear the word “democracy” almost every day when we watch the news or talk about politics. For most of the people it appears to be a universal tool for indicating progress and achievement, but this leads to a depreciation of such a complex term which is still hard to formulate.
The greatest minds wondered what is democracy and whether it is essential and this resulted in various concepts of this idea. Ancient Greece is considered to be the birthplace of democracy, but prominent Greek thinkers strongly criticized it. Socrates stated that democracy is corrupt as people are shallow by nature, so it is predetermined that their rule will be ineffective. His successor Plato established a direct link between democracy and tyranny and firmly believed that the first would inevitably lead to the second. Then Aristotle expressed the idea that democracy is based on the infringement of the rights of wealthy citizens by a poor majority. Of course, there were many ideas on this issue, but I deliberately focused on negative perception of democracy which is diametrically opposite to our understanding. I am not a prominent thinker and this is not my version of Aristotle’s “Politics”, but I have a right to express my view on the gist of democracy and its value in modern society.
Democracy is like a human organism. It is a complex system that is based on “cooperation” between organs where every detail matters. Democracy works this way too. Believing that the existence of elections makes the whole system of power democratic is a superficial judgment that plays in favor of the permissiveness of the authorities. It is like believing that a person without kidneys that remove water and wastes from the body can be healthy. Even one corrupted element of the process can make the whole system rotten.
The word “democracy” can change its meaning or, to be more precise, expands and absorbs new spheres. For example, a few years ago citizens were not concerned about the need to protect personal data without which right now we cannot talk about a rule-of-law state in the Internet age. So, we can talk about democracy from different angles that allow us to highlight the importance of it and reveal the fullness of this term.
The first thing that comes to mind is politics. I truly believe that one of the greatest accomplishments of democracy is the responsibility of the authorities that presupposes a mechanism for monitoring the activities of people in power. In theory, citizens should act as the invisible hand in the teachings of Adam Smith being a stimulator of vigorous activity and, at the same time, a warning against the abuse of power. People should be the dominant force and the authorities should be a derivative. Unfortunately, this mechanism of democracy can break down. The branches of power can exceed their functions and become a leviathan, a sea monster which Thomas Hobbes used as a symbol in his work “Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil”. To eliminate this people should realize that one of the pillars of democracy has to be the limitation on the period of office for a single person on an equal basis with the principle of electoral alternatives and electoral competition. A perfect example is the US where the President can’t be in office more than two terms during his lifetime. I truly reckon that this restriction helps to avoid the system being adjusted to one person and destroy the seeds of authoritarianism.
However, I believe that the gist of democracy can be fully understood when it comes to personal life. Adhering to the concept of the natural law, every person has a right to choose who to love, what to wear, believe in God or not, choose career, family or both, be an engineer or an actress and this choice should be respected by the society and state. One of the most quoted sayings about democracy belongs to Zechariah Chafee, an American judicial philosopher, who wrote, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins”. Nearly every single person is familiar with this popular quote, but this doesn’t downplay its accuracy as the saying focuses on the awareness of boundaries of rights of individuals. This understanding should not come from the government which tends to set limits, but from people themselves and their civic awareness or, in other words, civic identity. This “knowledge” is a product of civil society that, in turn, is the result of democracy. The goal of a democratic society is to nurture a leader, but not a follower. On the contrary, an authoritarian society suppresses sexuality, religion and other characteristic features in people that create an individual. It is also one of the reason why democracy should be cherished as otherwise people lose themselves, become invisible and eventually merge with the crowd.
As I have already mentioned, the 21st century marks the emergence of a new religion that is the Internet. So it is essential to talk about democracy regarding this “field”. In Russia the Net has become the battleground where the authorities and society clash which makes the issue is of particular relevance. Firstly, it started with blocking of Telegram messenger and later continued with proceedings against citizens because of their social network entries that had no forbidden content. As a result, more and more people have begun to wonder where is the border between security and privacy during the spread of international terrorism involving the Net. This highlights the importance of the emergence of new sphere that is digital democracy which will be in line with our era.
To crown it all, if you ask me why democracy matters, I can tell you. I have seen the world that lacks it. I have seen places where people are shot dead during demonstrations, where old people get arrested for peacefully protesting against retirement-age increase, where women can get help only after their abusive husbands have already maimed them. That’s why the image of democratic society should live in minds of ordinary citizens that tomorrow will shape our future as democracy is the choice of every single person.