Author Stein Ringen offers a new definition for democracy and hits out at sceptics

(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

NORWEGIAN SOCIOLOGIST and political scientist Stein Ringen is renowned for his obsession with democracy. He has said in recent interviews that it is so because he is from Scandinavia, which has had great luck with democracy, with its high doses of what he calls potentials and low risks. In his latest book, How Democracies Live: Power, Statecraft and Freedom in Modern Societies (University of Chicago Press; 216 pages; ₹ 3,011), written in defence of the democratic system, he explains why he has authored it at this point of time in history: times have not been kind to democracy, he writes in the preface. He is absolutely spot on. In most parts of the world, democracy has come under attack politically from sceptics as well as fanatics besides academics, some of whom have written volumes about the exigency for reinventing the system and also predicting its demise. Ringen disagrees with them all and avers that, instead, democracy just needs to be salvaged.

He engages with his peers and digs deep into the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Tocqueville, Max Weber, Aristotle and others for multiple reasons: contesting them, lapping up their insights and then coming up with his own recommendations and observations about preserving democracy. What seems to be the recurring theme all through the book is the premise that democracy protects but it requires protection, too. He disagrees with many of his contemporaries who insist on reinventing democracy or affirm that it is dead or dying—and even with Weber’s analyses. He vehemently describes the reinvention-of-democracy literature as a case of collective confusion. He notes, “It is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the trouble the established democracies have come up against and to underestimate how deep it sticks.” Ringen falls back on Machiavelli to buttress his argument: if you want to govern, you better be effective. His quibble with most experts on democracy is this: “Many of democracy’s friendly critics think the problem is that democracies are not democratic enough. But if we apply Machiavelli’s teaching, we are likely to see it differently: the problem is that they aren’t governed well enough.”

Ringen declares that he knows why such distorted notions have crowded academia: political theories have overstated the power of power without dwelling on the use of power for effective governance. Too deep to fathom? Ringen invokes Machiavelli here too to simplify the task of explaining a complex pronouncement: “Power, too, of course, is necessary, but in the end, governing remains what Machiavelli explained it to be: a craft.”

The author, an emeritus professor at University of Oxford and visiting professor at King’s College London, makes stellar arguments—and in his own inimitable style—on why he thinks between good power structures and leadership, the latter makes the greater impact in a society. “Everyone knows that effective governance springs from a combination of good structures and competent leaders, but how much of each? I land on the side that very much depends on persons, leadership and skills,” he writes.

Some of the great minds whose works the Norwegian political scientist analyses threadbare in the book to make it a provocative read include—besides those names mentioned earlier— Robert Dahl, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Boudon, Alfred Marshall, Leszek Koakowski, Amartya Sen and others.

Interestingly, Ringen also offers a new definition for democracy by stressing on three Cs: culture, conversation and contract. He explains, “Democracy is a constitution but a constitution that is embedded in culture. No constitution can deliver without the underpinning of a democratic culture.” He adds, “Democracy is a conversation between citizens and between citizens and leaders about the rights and duties of governments and of citizens, respectively. Why? Because the habit of deliberation is the lifeblood of a democratic culture.” As regards the third C, he adds, “Democracy is a contract between the state and citizens in which the state makes two commitments—it promises citizens order, and it promises to protect their liberty—and in which citizens wield the power over the state that obliges it to deliver for them and they, in return, to offer their loyalty.” He also sums up that democracy’s purpose is to provide for safe and effective rule. He concedes that there is no single right form of democracy although they have a common purpose.

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How Democracies Live: Power, Statecraft and Freedom in Modern SocietiesStein Ringen

University of Chicago Press

216 pages | ₹ 3,011

For the purpose of ease of reading, Ringen has divided his book into five parts, delving into subjects as complex as power, statecraft, freedom, poverty and democracy, in that order, before ending with a postscript titled, ‘We need to talk about Democracy’, a play on the title of Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin that went on to become a blockbuster film starring Tilda Swinton.

What seems to be the recurring theme all through the book is the premise that democracy protects but it requires protection, too

Some of the author’s recommendations are as inspiring as they are novel. He suggests that votaries of democracy revive the Aristotelian idea of freedom as access to human dignity; accept that governments are and must be wielders of vast powers; determine not only to control or modify poverty, but to eradicate it; remobilise the welfare state; introduce a fit and proper person test for candidacy to elected office; design election systems on the principle of proportional representation; extend voting rights to children using proxy voting; revamp election funding; impose editorial responsibility on those managing social media sites and so on.

In a brief interview to Open, he explains why the mother is a better choice than the father to cast a child’s vote, “Mothers are less often absent than fathers. Also, sadly, mothers are generally more altruistic on behalf of children than fathers. That’s one reason why child allowance is usually paid to the mother.”

Ringen, meanwhile, makes more suggestions, some of which may not be as palatable to all countries, and that includes creation of supernational authorities beyond national governments. He suggests a regime of indirect elections to supernational governing assemblies that are mandated to check democratic deficits of nations. He places a lot of emphasis on local governance as well. “I recommend that units of local government be small in size and big in authority,” he writes.

Although it is a timely book and an outcome of a rigorous study of political theories and the global situation, it perhaps suffers from being either utopian or Euro-US-centric in its focus. The author admits the second limitation. In fact, Ringen gives only one mention for India in the book—on page 12. It reads: “In Asia, independent India established itself as the world’s biggest democracy and has, miraculously, survived as such.” That’s all.

He tells Open that he regrets the lone mention of India in a book, of all subjects, on democracy. He then adds, “I have, I suppose, only two explanations. The book is not really a study of any particular democracy, but of democracy itself, and I’ve taken examples from those I know. The other reason is that I just don’t know the complex Indian case well enough to go into it. Outside of the West, I’ve done studies of Korea and China, and used those examples, but the Indian case has defeated me.”

Yet, the London-based Ringen, whose previous book on China created waves thanks to an astute summary of the communist party rule that the author terms as “controlocracy”, deserves praise for being optimistic about the future of democracy. At the very start of the book, which narrates the shock of the pandemic to the world, he gives perpetual naysayers—he refers to them as false prophets—the thumbs-down, stating that his work, unlike those of several others, is not a forecast of doom and gloom. He calls it a sober reminder of the imperfect majesty of the democratic enterprise.

More than any, this book from the 76-year-old author, an accomplished scholar of governance, is a much-needed critique of what he calls the “detached cynicism” of the death-of-democracy literature. His delightful prose is a feather in the cap of this unsentimental exploration of a hot topic.

First published in Open

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