What does Kenya mean for democracy?

January 31, 2008

The terrible suffering unleashed by the recent elections in Kenya poses searching questions for democrats everywhere. How can this process of democracy that we laud so highly, that is supposed to insure us against the vagaries of power, have seemingly unleashed such terrible, visceral forces?

It’s a question that I haven’t yet fully understood, but I suggest a couple of opening thoughts. Firstly, that democracy is not a value. Democracy is a selection process; the liberal values of tolerance, fairness, and respect for rights that we associate with it are incidental. These are complex, organic creations, born of deeper social and intellectual forces, and whilst they complement democracies extremely well, they are neither necessary nor exclusive to them. Witness the emergence of democratic authoritarianism in Russia, and authoritarian liberalism in China, to see the disintegration of this connection. That the democratic process in Kenya could unleash intolerance, tribalism and extreme violations of rights, is no surprise if liberal values are not sustained within Kenyan political culture; instead, democracy merely exposes the societal fissures that authoritarian rule papers over.

Secondly, that democracy depends on nationalism. In a mature democracy, the losing side in an election, however viciously fought, accepts defeat in the belief that its fundamental interests are protected, whoever sits in power. Certainly, the loser knows that sinecures will be rewarded to the victor’s acolytes, but he is assured of his essential position in society, because he knows that both he and his victor believe in the same thing: the health of the nation. All sides trust that this core shared goal will be prioritised. It is this belief that ties the political community together, and mitigates the costs of defeat for losing parties. Thus elections pass without incident, and the defeated lick their wounds until their next legal opportunity to vie for power.

In a country like Kenya where nationalism is weak, and the idea of the nation ill-developed, the losers of the democratic process do not have this security. As events have shown, the primary loyalty of many Kenyans is to tribe. The whole tone of the election campaign was “now we eat”: the rewards of power will be directed to our tribe, not theirs. In this climate, why should the losers accept the result passively? What functions does this government fulfil for them that they could not fulfil themselves? A lack of underpinning nationalism increases the risks and rewards of democracy exponentially – and therefore increases the lengths to which people will go not to be the losers of the process.  



Sovereignty in a globalising world

January 31, 2008

A thought:

We live in a historically unprecedented age. In the past, sovereignty and wealth were synonymous. Sovereign control over territory meant control over productive resources, control over resources meant wealth, and wealth, in symbiosis with power, secured sovereignty.

This is no longer so; we live in an age where, for the first time, economic gain can be pursued independently of sovereignty. The key dynamics of this change are the increasing integration of states into global economic structures, and their reliance on the gains from these structures for their legitimacy.

Take the case of the South East Asian Tigers. They depend heavily on external investment, over which they have no control, and the North American market, over which they have no influence, for their economic growth, and depend on this growth for their domestic legitimacy. They are therefore takers, not makers, of the rules that most fundamentally define their political standing. This is not, by any definition, sovereignty.

And yet, they thrive. Wealth accrues whilst sovereignty wanes. This gives lie to the oft spouted claim that globalisation is undermining the position of states in the international economy. In fact, many are richer, happier and more confident than ever before; but in a Faustian twist, they may be selling their political souls to be so. 

China, Europe and the US dollar

December 20, 2007

Following a recent post here on the use of the dollar weapon against the euro, it was pointed out to me that if the US was in the process of using the dollar weapon, the real target was not Europe but China. That the US is trying to force a revaluation of the yuan is almost certainly true; but I believe that both currencies are, in fact, in America’s sights.

In defence of my earlier post, it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the US trade deficit with China. In 2006, the total US deficit stood at $759 billion. Of that, $177 billion was with China. Whilst clearly a huge sum, it is not large enough to support claims that changing the terms of trade with China would solve America’s deficit problems. Moreover, it is not clear that a revaluation of the yuan would make a huge difference to America’s overall deficit. A stronger yuan would not make the US import less, merely source its imports from somewhere else.

Nor would it make America export more. US exports are largely capital-intensive (and so expensive) and consumed primarily by rich countries. Given China is not yet part of this group, a revalued yuan would make little difference to demand for US-made products in that country. A stronger euro, on the other hand, would increase demand for US exports amongst wealthy Europeans. For this reason, reversing the $116 billion deficit with the EU is the priority for the US in its attempts to improve its balance of payments position. 

Read the rest of this entry »

The Top Five…Coup D’Etat-ers

December 3, 2007

By far and away the funniest story of last week was the failed coup d’etat in the Phillippines.

So, you’re in court, standing trial for plotting to overthrow the government. Things aren’t going well. What do you do?

The only sane response is to storm out of the courtroom, barricade yourself in the plush hotel down the road, and demand that the government stand down.

(First time round, the group, led by Senator Antonio Trillanes, occupied a luxury apartment complex. Like those other great slapstick artists, the US government, they clearly like to conduct their farces in style).


I was going to compile a list of the top five worst ever coup attempts to honour these jokers – any opportunity to relive (Sir!) Mark Thatcher’s moment of madness in Equatorial Guinea.

But I felt that wasn’t really appropriate. They needed something better than that.

Read the rest of this entry »