Autumn, '97

Its Tradition and Prospects

by Professor Ra Jong-il

There is nothing peculiar about the fact that culture is one of the issues around which the debates over democracy in Asia revolve. It has happened in other places too where people were engaged in a 'rattrapage', an arduous work of catching up with those who had gone far ahead of them in modernization, while coping with all the shocks inevitably accompanying its progress. In Germany, the familiar tune in the course of the last century and also in the early period of this century was that Germany had a unique culture, quite unlike those in the 'West' which was a compelling reason for it to have a political system different from the one practiced in democratic countries. Therefore there is nothing surprising that the newly modernizing countries in Asia are resorting to the same kind of argument in a desperate effort to earn time. Recently a Korean scholar made a bold assertion in a paper that Jong Yorip, a Korean Confucian scholar who was executed on a charge of high treason in the late Yi dynasty, was a Korean Oliver Cromwell - a republican in ideas only 60 years ahead of the latter. Likewise, Dr. Kim Dae-jung compared Mencius with John Locke in that both of them were advocating a type of democracy in which the will of the population takes precedence over that of the monarch - only that the former predates the latter by several thousand years. These could serve as effective counter arguments against those who argue against adopting a western type of democracy in Asia on account of differing cultures. Although the cases quoted are not democratic in the sense such as is generally understood in modern times, we could concede that there indeed are democratic elements in Asian culture and that democracy is not totally alien to an Asian way of thinking and living. The point is, however, whether this ! is all that important and whether or not we need to prove that we have democratic traditions in culture in order to argue for democracy in Asia. Those who argue against democracy do so on the false claim of a "unique" culture. However, culture is not necessarily the crucial question in our discussion of democracy in Asia. Asia can indeed be proud of democratic elements in its tradition, both in the intellectual and in the practical realm, which would compare favorably with that of any other regions of the world. Democratic elements in culture had not been any richer in Europe than in Asia. Even as late as the last century, let alone during the classic and medieval times, democracy was taken largely as a threat to civilization particularly among the educated classes - the "blind, unbridled, ferocious sprit", as Francois Guizot remarked. Macaulay, writing in the beginning of the last century, asserted that universal suffrage would lead to the collapse of civilization: "in two or three hundred years, a few lean and half-naked fishermen may divide with owls and foxes the ruins of the greatest European cities - may wash their nets amidst the relics of her gigantic docks, and build their huts out of the capitals of her stately cathedrals."
I believe that both the democratic and non-democratic elements are inherent in any culture regardless of time and space. They may be intertwined with other, often apolitical, elements usually in an indistinguishable way. But anybody intent on finding proofs of either elements in the traditions to prop up his case will surely be able to do so. This does not necessarily mean that it is totally irrelevant to a discussion of democratization for us to look into cultural aspects of a country or a region in question. As people embark on a journey of modernization they would inevitably attempt to chart their way relying on their own experiences at least as much as on the others. Even in interpreting and learning from the model derived from others' experiences, people would still be guided by their own past. Besides, even a successful management of a democratic polity would largely hinge upon giving the best expression to those elements in their traditions in away congenial and conducive to democracy. Even when we are confronted with completely novel problems, we may often resort to our traditions for sources of new ideas for their solution. However, there is no room for culture-determinism particularly in modern times. As Dr. Kim Dae-jung has once remarked, "Culture is not our destiny". We live undoubtedly in and within our culture. But culture is not something separate from us, lording it over us. It is bequeathed to us but also created by us in the midst of our concrete lives, constantly made and unmade in the process. There were some even within Europe who used to argue that democracy would never be possible in countries like Germany, Spain or Greece because of cultural impediments. They all proved to be utterly wrong. The problem of democracy in Asia should be located somewhere other than in the realm of culture. The most crucial question for democracy in Asia at this juncture is the contact with the existing achievements - how we evaluate, digest, and adopt what has been achieved by human species so far in democracy and how we may go on expanding its frontier further and to which direction. What have been the achievements? Taking stock requires a minimum of definition however distasteful or unproductive the work may be. There still is confusion surrounding variegated versions of democracy which the demise of socialism does not seem to have helped much to clarify despite allegations of the "end of history". However, we could perhaps agree on two principles as the minimum basic acquirements of democracy whichever of its versions we may adhere to. One is that all the members of any human commonwealth should participate in a meaningful way in the making of its important decisions, including the selection of their rulers. Two, all in the commonwealth should be able to participate not only in the enjoyment of the values created through the community in an equitable way but also in the definition of what values are. I am aware that this definition is subject to arguments and objections like most of the others. But I hope that this would do for the limited purpose of this paper. Regardless of ideological or "cultural" positions, a democracy should aim at embodying the two principles outlined above and realizing them in practice. Human beings are not mere objects of governing, however benign, enlightened of efficient it may be. Besides, what is good for them is not to be left entirely to the decision of the governing elites. Despite certain defects, it is in the West that enormous progress has been made towards the realization of the principles above not only in terms of enhancing a standard of political ethics which is universally applicable but also in the accumulation of concrete experiences - individuals who can act on their own conscience, political morality transcending national boundaries, separation of power, independent judiciary, objective and neutral state institutions, etc. For one thing politics is no longer what it used to be like: a dangerous game in which there are not fixed rules for a fair play and the loser is to suffer serious setbacks in person, i.e. loss of prestige, status, property or even of life itself. There may be accusations that a so-called liberal democratic system is often ideologically biased to favor the sinister interests of the established classes. The representative government may be liable to distort rather than represent the will of the people. Constit! utionalism is to warp and suppress the popular view rather than tame and channel absolute power. Having originated and evolved mainly in the West it may be seriously predisposed towards reflecting only its experiences and culture - like in too much emphasis on rights and individuals as against obligations and community. All these critiques stand at least partially - and probably we could enter even more serious ones in addition to them too. However, despite all the defects and deficits, still even the existing achievements are very much valuable, a common inheritance of mankind, precious little as they may appear in view of the principles in absolute terms. There have been so many contending versions of democracy since the last century, even after the demise of popular democracy apart from the main trend of liberal democracy. None of those deviations promises possibilities of expansion outside of their own country. They cling mostly to the status quo clamoring to be left alone to pursue "their own way" of doing things rather than to urge on others to follow their examples. Judging by common sense, a political system like perhaps most of the things in this world is either to expand or atrophy. A system which cannot expand does not stand a good chance of democratization in Asia. Democracy should be pursued in a way that inherits the past accomplishments of our species and developed further in areas which have not been properly covered. One of those areas may be that of internalization. Liberal democracies despite its liberal principles, which are universalistic by nature, have been largely limited to the confines of nation-states. Outside of national boundaries democracy does not apply. Thus it does not scruple a democratic government to do things abroad which it is not supposed to do at home - or not to do things abroad which it is supposed to do at home. One of the innate limits of democracy since the time of its birth is that there is a group of relatively small number of people who enjoy the full benefits of political freedom and participation while a larger group of masses have to endure the fate of an underprivileged status. It was not limited to the times of ancient Greece when only a minority of the population was able to enjoy the full benefits of political participation while a larger group of masses have to endure a fate of underprivileged status. It was not limited to the times of ancient Greece when only a minority of the population were admitted into full citizenship while a larger group composed of women, slaves and foreigners had to suffer the ignominies of being a second class citizen or even of being a political non-person. Has this been corrected with the modern version of democracy? We have to look more closely into a possible link between the enormous political freedom as well as the high standard of consumption enjoyed by the middle classes of the first world with the political and economic hardships of the underprivileged classed in both the developed and developing countries. Experiences have shown us that in the long term perspective the separation of politics and economics is not tenable at all not only in foreign but also in domestic politics. Democratization is not something to be pursued in the abstract, in a void separate from tradition, concrete problems in the reality such as security, economic and social development and a general way of life. Nonetheless, Asians will have realized that in the pursuit of fulfillment in their daily lives the common main task incumbent on them is to overcome one of the innate curses of democracy existant since ancient times. Democratization in Asia should be pursued in a way inheriting the best elements from what has been already achieved and expanding it towards perfection. Tradition may play an important role here. If it can be important it is not because tradition is simply there like a mountain, but because we have a right frame of problematics, a set of concrete aporiae related to it, and a will to improve on what we have by its creative reinterpretation. .

[Professor Ra Jong-il is a professor at Sogang Univeristy, Korea
and also a member of the FDL-AP Board of Directors.]

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