Ideology as absurdity

The kind of democracy advanced for Africa is democracy with the demos deliberately taken out.

Dr Julie Hearn

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Topics Politics

Finally – a book that neatly and intelligently dissects the democracy discourse that has come to dominate African political economy, and shows it for what it is: an absurdity with tragic consequences.

In Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa (1) Rita Abrahamsen, a lecturer at the University of Wales, systematically demonstrates the absurdity of attempting to construct a very limited form of procedural democracy in material conditions of widespread abject poverty. Abrahamsen builds her argument by positing and skilfully exploring three key aspects of Africa’s political economy that mitigate against the development of democracy. She then examines the kind of minimal democracy that is being promoted in African countries, and concludes by showing the end-product of their union.

The continent’s political economy can be summed up in the following way: a situation of no growth, no control and no political will. Instead of addressing poverty, the structural adjustment era has brought a degree of macro-economic stability combined with permanent recession. African GDP has shrunk, living standards have worsened yet further, and growth remains as elusive as ever.

The demos in Africa are dirt poor, unemployed, underemployed and desperate for an improvement in material living conditions. African governments do not have the sovereignty to choose any economic policy other than permanent ‘belt-tightening’.

Abrahamsen shows how, in the case of Zambia, trade-union-based opposition leaders were forced to court donor policy. She writes about states being caught between two constituencies – donors and their own domestic constituency – with the donors always winning. This is the case where political parties do have their constituency in the poor. More often than not, opposition parties are just a form of recycled elites with no mass constituency, as in the case of Kenya. In this situation, Abrahamsen argues, they have as little interest in addressing the needs of the poor majority as do the donors.

The kind of democracy being advanced by international and national elites is a form of democratic elitism – democracy with the demos deliberately taken out. The poor majority are not only incidental as political actors, but their needs are irrelevant to this redefinition of democracy.

Abrahamsen traces the current conceptualisation of democracy to the writings of Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter and more recent theorists of democratic elitism. For these ideologues, the goal is not active participation, but ‘stability’ and the political containment of social deprivation. Mass political passivity, commonly and patronisingly referred to as ‘apathy’, is seen as positively helpful and even as an essential feature of stable democratic systems. Not only are the poor sidelined as active citizens, but their needs are delinked from democracy.

Theorists of minimal democracy go so far as to argue that years of authoritarianism have ‘increased people’s willingness to accept economic hardship in return for democratic freedoms’. Abrahamsen cites Karen Remmer, who writes of the ‘democracy of lowered expectations’ in contrast to the ‘revolution of rising expectations’ (2). In other words, minimal democracy has nothing to do with a better life for the poor majority.

So what happens when you bring this vision of democracy to a continent entrenched in poverty? You undermine minimal democracy itself, and are left with a mockery of political rights. Governments that were unable to satisfy their domestic constituencies for lack of resources, control and political will, began to chip away at democratic principles and procedures in order to secure their own political survival.

‘It soon became apparent that many newly elected governments lacked the capacity or the willingness to tackle criticism, dissent and economically motivated protest without resorting to the authoritarian measures of the past’, writes Abrahamsen. ‘Africa’s hard-won civil rights and political liberties were gradually eroded and abandoned’ (3). This vindicates her observation that ‘the stability of democratic capitalist polities everywhere is to a large extent contingent on social compensation to the poor, and in sub-Saharan Africa such compensation is prevented by sluggish growth’ (4).

Africa has borne the full brunt of capitalism’s propensity to produce underdevelopment. The international elites cannot openly admit that capitalism has failed Africa historically – nor can they admit that each of their political projects to disguise the fact has exacerbated the problem further. So they are forced to construct an ideology of the absurd.

This ideology’s most recent form is the minimal democracy discourse that accompanies the policies of structural adjustment – that is, permanent recession. With the use of florid terms such as ‘empowering the poor’, spending on social services in Zambia was cut from 7.4 percent of GDP in 1991 to 0.4 percent in 1993 (5). (No wonder, then, that a few years later ‘basic needs’ were rediscovered by the architects of the current poverty reduction discourse.)

That such a blatantly unconvincing ideology ultimately fails to convince is not surprising. However, what does continue to surprise is the extent to which democrats around the world have believed the absurdity and legitimated it, thus allowing the ideas of the international elite to dominate.

Dr Julie Hearn teaches development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

(1) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa, Rita Abrahamsen, London: Zed Books, 2000. Buy this book from
Amazon (UK) or
Amazon (USA)

(2) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa, Rita Abrahamsen, p79

(3) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa, Rita Abrahamsen, p125

(4) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa, Rita Abrahamsen, p77

(5) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance in Africa, Rita Abrahamsen, p123

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