The Quest for Mundane Democracy in Georgia

by | Mar 24, 2013
Ilia Roubanis

Ilia Roubanis holds a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and has worked for the International Center for Black Sea Studies in Athens.

Democratura is a term that would resonate perfectly with a post-Soviet republic, such as Georgia, mainly because it is a word designed to resemble the word “Nomenklatura,” that is, people who rule in the name and by virtue of their patron. There is something lucid and honest about this word, in that it assigns personal responsibility for a specific phenomenon. In Brussels, this would be called “a democratic deficit” and would gravitate around structures rather than individuals, in a perpetual evocation of “systemic weakness” that must be addressed, albeit, blurring the question of personal responsibility: i.e. “who should address this question?” It is interesting that people prefer “grand narratives” and elaborate terms when they want to avoid talking on real issues or real responsibility.

In a democracy, authority is a battle, not a fact. The problem with democratic legitimacy often stems from the fact that popular vote often conveys authority “indirectly” rather than directly. Already in 1960, Bell wrote a book entitled “the end of ideology,” describing how democracy was turning into a technocracy were “authentic” political choices were being blurred by mundane governance challenges, leading perhaps to uncontested technocracy, seated on an ideological consensus. This is somehow unsatisfying. In an “ideal democracy” there should be profound choice, leaving unscathed nothing but the certainty of popular vote. In the West, everyone agreed to basic rules, perhaps too much. In Georgia, we have quite the opposite problem. The mundane is never discussed. Everyone is geopolitical, delivering grand narratives on the people rather than to the people.

In this context an article by Chia Nodia, who used to be a Minister of Education in Georgia, is inspiring. He raises the issue of “ochlocracy.” Now, despite being Greek, or perhaps because of it, I am well aware of the fact that Greek terms are often evoked to convey authority. People who use Greek words are immediately thought of as “educated,” providing Greek scholars with an edge. But, to be fair, the substance of Mr. Nodia’s argument corroborates the claim to “authority.” He indeed makes a profound argument. Unfortunately, he also drives “a Greek” argument, more up in the sky than down to earth. But, it is an attractive question he poses.

By “ochlocracy,” presumably, Mr. Nodia refers to the rise in government of a new administration on October 1st2012 by unusual means, that is, elections. This “popular” vote is swiftly demoted into an “ochlos,” that is, a faceless crowd, as opposed to a “demos,” that is, an informed body of deliberating citizens. In this scheme, the argument is clear: ochlocracy won, as opposed to democracy, although this sounds as a trivial statement stemming from someone whose claim to office comes from “a revolution,” which is clearly the context where historical precedents of ochlocracy occur, including in its extreme form “Jacobinian terror.”

Now, another parallel is of interest. Within the realm of ochlocracy he makes an, admittedly, profound parallel between communist and democratic discourse, revealing so to speak, proverbial “kitchen table” discussions, to the effect that people publically praise a system in public, but cynically dismiss it in private: “we profess to observe the rules of democracy to satisfy Europe, but will continue our charade until we get caught red-handed.”

And so he makes good on his democratic right to bring this criticism out of the kitchen and into the light. And there he laments on the ills of democracy, where it is not “the people” but the polls who rule. Interestingly, in doing so, he is in good company. From Hannah Arendt to Winston Churchill, people have been lamenting on how “the demos” will often punish the cream of the crop for standing out of the crowd. Going down the line of “Greek conventional wisdom” let me offer my support to this argument: Thucydides, that is, the victorious General against the Persians was ostracized and, indeed, Plato would not have written the Republic had his teacher, Socrates, not been obliged to drink the conium.

And the conium he drank, because unlike Plato, he thought that one should have respect for democracy and live by its rules, even when they do not suit him. Much like Churchill gracefully went home, after losing the first post-WWII lections, even though he had stirred successfully Britain through the greatest challenge to democracy ever presented. Nonetheless, Mr. Nodia presents a solid argument, appropriately quoting from Tocqueville’s “democracy in America,” declaring that when minority rights are not protected, “ochlocracy will turn into tyranny” of the majority. Tocqueville, of course, had in mind Jacobinian terror. And Mr Nodia’s argument is undermined by the fact that the administration he served kicked off the electoral campaign in 2011 by stripping the citizenship of its main opposition candidate, which qualifies as a “normative conium.” And the same government was in the habit of changing the Constitution to fit “the circumstances,” facilitating for example a convenient switch a la Putinof the President to the post of the Prime Minister. “Hey, this is not what we had in mind when we changed the rules of the game!”he laments.

Then his argument goes all of a sudden to take a purist Montesquieu turn, to speak of “check and balances” in institutional terms. He states, for instance, that the incoming administration has failed to ensure totalitarian streamlining of all local government, the judiciary and the media. But, again in a “kitchen table opening” he brings to light the intention, or even frustration of the government with this fact, which is determined to overcome this pluralism: the pluralism of unchecked online media, which revealed rather unchecked and unbalanced systemic torture that took place under UNM rule presumably? Then he offers proof: the government “insincerely” condemned the violence of “their ochlos,” presumably during the events that took place in Georgia’s National Library.

In this scheme, it is interesting that “their ochlos” is not an accusation offered for debate. It is a given fact. Angry crowds of course – ochlos – are not infrequently encountered in any democracy, from Athens to Budapest and from Strasbourg to Brussels. Which is why “the monopoly of violence” – to call upon Weber – is still necessary. However, it has been argued, not least by the police, that the organizers of this event did not “play by the rules” and did not cooperate with the police to avoid the wrath of the crowds. The sincerity or lack thereof of the government cannot be based on an estimate of how “sincere”was the feeling of sympathy expressed. The real question is whether the police was allowed to do their job. Sticking to rules and observing them is what distinguishes a real democracy from an institutional tyranny. But, Montesquieu would probably turn on his grave if he knewhow frequently the Constitution in Georgia is amended, because political parties cannot reduce themselves to having an honest fight over “mundane” legislation. Or simply work out security arrangements with the police.

But, the sequence of the argument is not driven towards the improvement of democracy, but its “deficiencies.” The real question is posed further down the line and is in tune with Plato’s Republic: “So, why should Saakashvili not have installed a dictatorship to save the country?” he asks.The answer is not in Churchill’s terms “because democracy is the least bad of all regimes we have tried out.” More realistically, the answer is that one cannot guarantee Western integration by anti-liberal means. And very much like Plato, he laments, there is no possibility to give away democracy in favor of a “Philosopher King” and a generation of “golden boys” (gold being actually the nature of the elite in Plato’s Republic). He is essentially leading towards an elitist argument.

And, in doing so, he is in good company. When privilege is instilled by something less than an uncertain popular vote, people develop a sense of silver or gold entitlement, depending of whether you see yourself as a “guardian” or “guide” of the Republic’s perfect harmony. Plato’s republic inspired imperial regimes, which claimed rule on the bases of “divine grace.” Talking of people not being “mature” for democracy, Nodia echoes former colonial arguments in the 19th century, calling upon the “white man’s burden” to legitimize their civilizing mission. Nonetheless, his argument would also be relished by Plato.

The arguments presented are profound and should not be dismissed outright. They are deep rooted and have some merited claim to traditional scholarly authority. They should be read and debated upon, just as it happens in a democracy. Ultimately, the serious question is whether indeed money and power will combine in Georgia to replace a self-pronounced “aristocratic rule” with another. And if this is the question, the profound topic to be debated upon is whatMr. Nodia can offer towards this end. One thought would be “his humility?”

For the sake of the argument, let us assume that Mr. Nodia is not a “philosopher king.” Let us simply assume that the gift of education, combined with political and administrative experience suffice to make him stand out from the ochlos: no need for Greek terms or roses to this effect. How can he make the ochlosa demos?

What Georgia lacks is substantial opposition founded on mundane subjects, where merit is claimed on how solidly an argument is presented rather than “grace.” Assuming that changing the Constitution is left aside for a while, along with grand geopolitical discourses. Let us assume that a former Minister of Education comes up with a solid and well-founded disagreement, say on education. Now, this would probably educate the ochlos to deliberate. This would be one time when instead of infantilizing “ignorant people,” Georgians would be addressed as citizens and asked to form an opinion. And on the bases of solid and unquestionable rules, Georgia might begin to have a democratic debate, one that is lacking and which, ultimately, will make or break “democratic consolidation.”

And in this context, Greek words would be quite unnecessary. In sum, the opposition in this unprecedented period of “cohabitation” has the historical opportunity – some would even argue responsibility – to oppose. Instead of sustaining the debate on the rules of the game called democracy, Mr. Nodia would offer invaluable services if he actually started playing. Would it be unthinkable that someone, who rejects the term democratura, had a go at being a representative? Then, the ochlos may even listen. Who knows how mature the ochlos can be? Did anyone give have a go at speaking to the people as citizens?


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