APROPOS the reportage ‘Plea seeking referendum on presidential form of government reaches SC’ (Sept 1) and the related letter (Sept 22). Democracy in Pakistan failed to deliver as it ignored the sine qua non of Aristotelian demokratia.

The sine qua non was honesty, merit, nationalism, a spirit of sacrifice, corruption-free public services, and the welfare of the masses. History shows that demokratia (the power of the people) has always been an ideal system. No system, including ochlocracy (mobocracy), could ever diminish the power of the governing elites.

Although the goal of democracy was to equalise citizens, the ‘equal citizen’, as enshrined in the golden words of our constitution, remains a myth. The demokratia envisioned opportunities of political participation for larger proportions of the population and across-the-board accountability.

But German sociologist Robert Michels’ law of oligarchies precluded popular participation in democracy. A handful of legislators exercised brute power forcing Noam Chomsky to call even American public a ‘bewildered herd’.

Aristotle would rejoice in the grave to see both, Pakistan’s National Assembly and the Senate, being populated by the rich. One member ostentatiously wore Louis Moinet ‘Meteoris’ wrist watch, worth about Rs460 million. Another, with a capacity to shut down the whole country, lives in a 30-kanal house. No government ever took any legislative steps to equalise citizens in access to education, healthcare, housing and jobs.

No government ever looked into the origin of landed aristocracy, chiefs and chieftains during the Mughal and British periods and the origin of wealth of the nouveau riches (industrial robber baron).

Michels stated that the raison d’etre of representative democracy is eliminating elite rule. It is an impossible goal. In his 1911 book Political Parties, he postulated the inevitable iron law of oligarchy. To him, representative democracy is a façade, legitimising the rule of a particular elite.

According to this ‘iron law’, democracy and large-scale organisation are incompatible. The rule by an elite, or oligarchy, is an inevitable upshot of ‘tactical and technical necessities’ of democratic organisations.

All organisations eventually come to be run by a ‘leadership class’, which often functions as a paid administrator, executive, spokesperson or political strategist.

Far from being ‘servants of the masses’, the ‘leadership class’, rather than the organisation’s membership will inevitably dominate the organisation’s power structures. They control access to information, with little accountability. They manage to centralise their power, as masses (rank-and-file members) are apathetic, and indifferent to their organisation’s decision-making processes.

No large and complex organisation can function purely as a direct democracy. Power within an organisation will always get delegated to individuals within that group, elected or otherwise. Democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are bound to fail. The oligarchy has power to reward loyalty, gag dissent and influence members (masses).

The iron law of oligarchy smacks of ideas in The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a fictional book in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the high, the middle, and the low.

The examples of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping in China, Park Chung-hee in Korea illustrate how ‘high’ visionary leaders backed by a strong central government can rapidly transform nations.

What matters is leadership backed up with a technocratic coterie, in the presidential or parliamentary system, both being otherwise flawed. However, perhaps the people in a referendum are the best to judge which system to choose.

Amjed Jaaved


Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2020