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Past present: Designing democracy

April 14, 2013

A s a major turning point in history, the Industrial Revolution transformed all aspects of life in European society.

Beginning in England, it gradually impacted the society socially, politically and economically across Europe.

With rapid industrialisation, scores of men and women were driven towards factories and mills as workforce. Workers employed in a factory or working in the same craft or occupation soon began to acknowledge that their problems and issues were common. This led to the organisation of trade unions or a consolidated body to be able to collectively demand their rights from the employer.

As political consciousness increased, the groups which were excluded from the political mainstream demanded for the right to vote. In the 19th century, the working classes, women and other groups like the Chartists who wanted a share in the political process increased the pressure for their rights. The political activism of these groups threatened the aristocracy that wished to retain their status quo and  social order of the society.

John Stuart Mill, known as the most influential British philosopher of the 19th century, expressed his views on the question of representation. He opposed the granting of voting rights to the working classes, as he believed that they tended to be hostile towards property holders since they had no property of their own. In his opinion, if these classes were granted the right to vote, they would pressurise the parliament to increase their wages, to reduce working hours, to have the right to go on strike for their demands, to propose a high tariff in order to protect local production, to force the parliament to pass laws in favour of the working class and to develop a taxation system for property holders.

These measures would alter the social fabric, create chaos and anarchy. Despite their fears, the Parliament had to pass the Great Reform Bill of 1832, which extended the franchise to some extent. Reform bills in 1867 and in 1884 further granted the right to vote to more people but still excluded women.

Despite opposition, democratisation spread to other countries of Europe.

In the United States, the process of democratisation was different. Alexis De Tocqueville, the French political thinker visited America in 1830 and analysed democracy. Later, his famous book Democracy in America was published in two volumes. He observed that American society inherited no aristocracy hence the social status of an individual was not based on birth or inheritance, as was the case in Europe. Instead, it was based on wealth. There were open opportunities for anyone to acquire wealth by working hard. Poverty was not due to a badly governed system but only if someone was not utilising the opportunities available. The competition to become rich created an ambitious society. As there were no established institutions and traditions, individuals were free to achieve their objectives, unrestrained.

When Tocqueville visited America, Andrew Jackson was the president who for the first time opened up the White House to public. The mob stormed in for the inauguration, violating all protocol. With no aristocratic tradition to hold them back, the American public was free to express its sentiments and display its power. European aristocrats and the American elite influenced by European high society culture condemned the mob activity at the White House.

In Europe, intellectuals became increasingly concerned about the growing mass culture. To them the process of democratising social, political and cultural values was a threat to the established system. These views were fully expressed by Oswald Spengler, a German historian, in his book the Decline of the West which discusses the philosophy of the rise and fall of civilisations. He believed that the Western civilisation flourished in the 19th century when art and literature was created in the royal courts in all their sublimity, depth and beauty. Spengler believed that democratisation gave birth to a mass culture which disrupted literary and artistic creativity and led to the decline of the European civilisation.

An analysis of the failure of democracy in Pakistan shows anti-democratic vibes. People may have the right to vote, yet they are not allowed to share political power. Voters are controlled by feudal and tribal leaders for votes without giving them any benefits.

Once they reach the parliament, the leaders pass laws in their own favour and not that of the public. There is little or no space for the middle class in active politics as they are excluded from the political sphere.

In the West, democracy is successful because there is no monopoly of the rich and upper classes and the commoners are given ample space to play an active role in forming the government. There are no winning candidates and no concept of captive voters.

Pakistan can become a true democracy only when feudalism is abolished and people are allowed to cast their vote according to their own free will.