Across the Bay

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Hizbullocracy (or, how Cobban got her groove back)

Caveman Rich clobbers Hizbullah groupie Helena Cobban and her ridiculous article on the party.

The post is very good all around, but I would like to highlight the parts on the Lebanese system, which the cobbler hates with a passion:

Hizbullah faults the Lebanese system not just for being "corrupt" (not just some people within it), but for the necessity within that system of the building of coalitions and pandering to the requirements of a multifarious political system. Within the confines of such a system, Hizbullah is not able to advance its single-prong agenda, to "influence [the government's] whole program." Z.H. claims that "elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program." Which democratic countries are these? we ask. Perhaps these kinds of democracies are the "People's Democratic" varieties that have always been so successful in the past. The very mention of this kind of challenge to the Lebanese polity is a direct challenge to democracy itself. It seems to me that Hizbullah is upset not at the "corruption" found within some sectors of the system, but with the party's inability so far to hijack the whole process altogether and turn the Lebanese government into its own sock puppet. Yet Cobban never misses a beat...

Some political scientists would refer to the Lebanese system as an "accomodationalist" system, and for good reason. The seventeen (not fifteen) different religious groups and numerous political parties, some of which are indeed based more on tribal affiliation than on political ideology, need to be made to feel that they are participating. A rationally-functioning Lebanese government can afford to exclude a major clan, tribe, religious group, or political bloc about as much as the U.S. government can afford to exclude any of its states. And here is the point - democracy is about participation, not agendas. The fact that Hizbullah appears so hesitant to join coalitions says something about the acceptability of its political program in the eyes of the Lebanese people, and Hizbullah itself appears fully cognizant of this reality. Hence, we see Hizbullah nearly unable to hide the fact that unless they control the entire political process in Lebanon, its agenda is going nowhere. The fact that some American academics have bought Hizbullah's democracy gimmick hook-line-and-sinker only exacerbates the concern of this critical observer.

Rich's post reminded me of a passage from Arend Lijphart, a guy I've been quoting a lot (to the dismay of some):

The majoritarian interpretation of the basic definition of democracy is that it means "government by the majority of the people." It argues that majorities should govern and that minorities should oppose. This view is challenged by the consensus model of democracy. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Arthur Lewis has forcefully pointed out, majority rule and the government-versus-opposition pattern of government that it implies may be interpreted as undemocratic because they are principles of exclusion. Lewis states that the primary meaning of democracy is that "all who are affected by a decision, should have the chance to participate in making that decision, either directly or through chosen representatives." Its secondary meaning is that "the will of the majority shall prevail." If this means that winning parties may make all the governmental decisions and that the losers may criticize but not govern, Lewis argues, the two meanings are incompatible: "to exclude the losing groups from participation in decision-making clearly violates the primary meaning of democracy."
[I]n plural societies -- societies that are sharply divided along religious, ideological, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, or racial lines into virtually separate subsocieties with their own political parties, interest groups, and media of communication -- the flexibility necessary for majoritarian democracy is absent. Under these conditions, majority rule is not only undemocratic but also dangerous, because minorities that are continually denied access to power will feel excluded and discriminated against and will lose their allegiance to the regime.
In plural societies, therefore, majority rule spells majority dictatorship and civil strife rather than democracy. What these societies need is a democratic regime that emphasizes consensus instead of opposition, that includes rather than excludes, and that tries to maximize the size of the ruling majority instead of being satisfied with a bare majority: consensus democracy.

I think that this is, grosso modo, the right approach.

In any case, Cobban's piece, as Rich shows, highlights how fundamentally illiberal some of the Third-Worldist/Leftist attitudes can be (cf. Rich's excellent reference to "people's democracies.") Elie Kedourie talked about it in reference to Arab nationalism as well.

But, I think there may also be something else at play here, which might relate to the attitudes towards ethnic identity that we've touched on with Cole and Massad. Underlying the argument, may be the old "modernist" premise that ethnic identities are but a transient phenomenon. Jonathan Hall says it well:

The expectation that ethnicity would disappear in the American 'melting-pot' was as unrealistic as it was undesirable.
Similarly, if there is anything to be learnt from the recent ethnic conflicts throughout the world, it is that the refusal to recognize ethnicity is more like to exacerbate than to eliminate its potency.

That's why it is much more suitable for people like Cobban to talk about the Lebanese system either in socio-economic terms, which ring a more familiar bell (the proletarian impulse that Rich identified). Or, they present it in evolutionary terms. That's when you hear it described negatively as "tribal" where tribalism is viewed as a pre-modern stage in the evolutionary development toward the bureaucratic state. Neither one of these approaches is suitable, and they both glance over many other factors quite uncritically (but that's what propagandists do).

So while the consociational system might have some elements at odds with some Enlightenment ideals (cf. Jonathan Edelstein), the alternative zealously cheered on by Cobban in that piece is far more illiberal. Thankfully, nothing Cobban has to say makes an iota of difference in Lebanon.