Democracy is not something we can be given. It is something we must win

Published on January 30, 2011   ·   1 Comment

Speech at Cambridge University, 27 January 2011

On 27 January, I took part in a debate at the Cambridge Union Debating Society. The motion was “This House believes in the spread of liberal democracy, by force if necessary”. I was on the team proposing the motion, alongside Professor Norman Geras and a Cambridge student, against Sir Christopher Meyer, Simon Tisdall and Kerry Brown, who were opposing the motion. A transcript of my speech is published below.

In this type of university debate, there will often be one annoying clever clogs who insists on disagreeing with his own team as much as he disagrees with the other team. Well tonight, ladies and gentlemen, that will be me. Because I agree with every word of this motion – yet I disagree with every word that has so far been spoken by my own team.

Because nowhere in this motion does it say that liberal democracy should be spread by Western military force. Nowhere does it say that freedom and democratic rights should be delivered by an invading army from America or Britain or by the forces of NATO. And it is testament to the small-mindedness of contemporary political discourse, to the lack of faith in the demos itself, that both my team and the other team saw the word “force” and immediately assumed that it must mean a Western institution’s use of force.

But why should it mean that? Why should it mean that when there is another kind of force, which also happens to be the only kind of force that can liberate a people from tyranny and allow them to create the kind of democratic society they would like to live in?

And that is a repressed people’s own use of force against their rulers. A repressed people’s use of revolutionary force to transform both their society and their lives. I can guarantee you that that kind of force, the only violence which can genuinely replace tyranny with democracy, gives the heebies-jeebies to all the members of these two teams here tonight.

What I want to do is explain to you why, unfortunately, my team doesn’t understand what democracy is; why, predictably, the other team doesn’t understand how important democracy is; and why you should support this motion, but only as defined by me.

Sadly, my team, in keeping with today’s broader movement for Western interventionism, doesn’t know what democracy is. If they did, they would know that it is a spectacular contradiction in terms, almost an hilarious contradiction in terms, to argue that democracy can be delivered to a country or a people from without; to claim that democracy can be given to people, as if it were an already perfectly-formed, perfectly-wrapped gift for people to open and marvel over and be grateful for.

Democracy can never be given to a people. Because democracy is something that people themselves create through the very process of fighting for it. It is in the very struggle for democracy that people win their democratic rights; it is in the very struggle for freedom that people become free.

You can no more give someone democracy or give someone liberty than you could give them a soul. These things can only be nurtured and won by people themselves. It is in the act of their being won that they become real, meaningful entities rather than mere platitudes.

It is in the act of getting together and possibly arming themselves that an oppressed people gain an awareness of their strength. It is through sharing their ambitions and ideals that they develop an idea of what they would like their future society to look and feel like. And it is through taking on their oppressors, with force if necessary, that they demonstrate their own political authority and their democratic legitimacy.

To see why democracy can never simply be handed to people you only need to compare and contrast different historical examples of democratisation. In the wake of uprisings in which people themselves fought for their liberty, there would often be a period of great optimism and openness, of political and social experimentation. So when Barcelona was under Republican control in the Spanish Civil War, there was the dawning of a new kind of civility, a powerful sense of self-determination. Following the 1956 Hungarian revolution, before it was crushed by the Soviets, there arose new political networks and a sense of trust and belonging. For the first time in decades, people left their front doors unlocked.

But what happened after Iraq was supposedly liberated by external force? It fell apart. There was chaos. There was looting. That is because Iraqis did not own their so-called liberation. They were not the subjects of a new democratic period – they were the mere objects of Western pity and favour. They were not actors in a new society – they were the mere spectators of the external removal of the Baathist regime.

No new society was created. Instead an old one was simply destroyed.

History shows us, again and again, that only people’s political action delivers any kind of democracy worth its name. Because democracy is not a favour, a privilege, given to us by others; it is the living, breathing product of a people’s own yearning for more control over their lives.

And now, turning to the other team, the opponents of the motion. The first thing to bear in mind about this team, ladies and gentlemen, is that they are not happy-clappy pacifists who have a principled objection to external interference in other states’ affairs. So if you were thinking of voting for them on that basis, think again.

In his book about his life in British diplomacy, Mr Meyer says that the Falklands War of 1982 was “no time for nuance”. He says he had a one-word response to Margaret Thatcher’s sinking of the Belgrano, which killed 323 Argentinians, and that one word was: “Great.”

Mr Tisdall was foreign correspondent and foreign leader writer for the Guardian in exactly the period when it played a major role in inventing the idea of humanitarian imperialism. He was foreign writer at a time when the Guardian was demanding the bombing of Yugoslavia and cheering Tony Blair’s so-called “Chicago Doctrine” – the idea that a state’s sovereign rights can be overridden if the international community feels that people’s human rights are threatened.

If any spic or Serb steps out of line, these guys will be the first to demand their punishment. Hell hath no fury like a liberal annoyed.

The opponents of tonight’s motion have argued that Western military force to “deliver democracy” is wrong, but that it is sometimes legitimate to ask the international community to interfere in other state’s affairs in order to protect people from government abuse. They don’t like George Bush-style wars for democracy; they prefer “humanitarian interventionism”.

Well, this “humanitarianism” is, if anything, even worse than what my team has unfortunately proposed. It is, if anything, even more allergic to the ideals of democracy and more damaging to oppressed people’s prospects for liberty than anything George Bush wanted to do. Because “humanitarianism” is based on the fundamental idea that foreign peoples are weak, that they are victims, and that they need the patronage and assistance of the international community.

In this sense, “humanitarianism” is the polar opposite of humanism. Because “humanitarianism” emphasises people’s weakness and their need to be saved. It rehabilitates, in politically correct language, the old idea of the White Man’s Burden. Humanism emphasised people’s ability to understand and control their affairs – humanitarianism flags up our inability to do that and our need for continual external assistance.

The consequences of humanitarian imperialism, of this so-called better alternative to old-fashioned forms of Western invasion, have been disastrous. “Humanitarianism” has created a situation where some opposition groups in repressive countries now spend more time trying to win the pity of the international community than they do trying to foster and create a new democracy.

This is the logic of the “humanitarian” era. In the old world, which was organised, in principle at least, around the ideals of sovereign equality, Third World peoples sought to demonstrate their respectability by fighting for independence. In the new world, organised around the “Chicago doctrine” and UN-led humanitarianism, Third World peoples win international favour by advertising their victimhood, by displaying their wounds, by crying “we are suffering a genocide and the UN must save us”. The humanitarian era effectively demands people’s moral subjugation before the altar of weakness and victimhood, and in the process it destroys the possibility of them organising for and fighting for their democratic liberation. The condition of “humanitarian” intervention is that you sacrifice your subjectivity, the very thing that makes you a rational member of a potential demos, and instead confess to being pathetic.

What we have in these two teams here tonight is a perfect snapshot of where repressed peoples find themselves these days. They find themselves caught between “warriors for democracy” who want to bomb them and more liberal-sounding activists who want to pity them… and occasionally bomb them. Both sides reduce foreign peoples to objects of Western do-gooding.

And yet if we look at the recent events in Tunisia, we can see that oppressed people need neither the military intervention nor the charity of Western governments or bleeding-heart observers. The Tunisian masses achieved more in five days than could be achieved in a hundred years by an army of Amnesty International letter-writers. They swept aside their repressive government, they forced the release of 2,000 political prisoners, and they secured the unbanning of all political parties. They have shown that liberty and democracy can be spread by force – by people’s own use of force. Democrats should support that.

If you were thinking of supporting this motion on the basis that Western military force can be used to spread democracy, then please don’t. You are wrong, and I don’t want your votes. But if you believe that people are capable of liberating themselves and are capable of creating a democratic society, and that they should do so by any means that they deem necessary, then please support this motion, as defined by me.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. The above is a transcript of a speech he delivered at Cambridge University on 27 January.

Readers Comments (1)
  1. The writing is on the wall for the entire world. We in developing countries must take note thatcorruption in any form, media repression, the desire to prolong terms of office etc. all lead to one place. Uprising of the people. So it is up to those in power to share the spoils with the masses. Uplift education, health and nutrition standards andimprove the wellbeing of the people and not of those in power. If those in power fulfil the aspirations of the people then there can be no uprising. It is upto the Media to take the lead role and open the eyes of those who should see. Even at the point of the gun. Nalini Ellawala.

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