BY Dr. JEAN-PAUL GAGNON | June 2012
Bio: Mark moved to the University of Melbourne in 2011, having spent the three years prior to that living in Brisbane where he completed his PhD in political and international relations theory at the University of Queensland. Currently a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow, Mark spends his time researching and writing on the topic of democratic failure, mainly from a theoretical perspective. Besides this, his research interests and publications also extend to topics on cultural politics (particularly, Greek tragedy and contemporary political theatre) and international relations theory (especially, post-structural and Chinese conceptions of world politics). His monograph, Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Democracy, is contracted to be published with Continuum Books.
1. What is democide?
Perhaps it’s making poor use of an example to cite Joseph Goebbels at the outset, but he once commented that: ‘This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed’. Though no doubt gloating about what National Socialism had managed to achieve under Weimar’s democratic system, what we have here – if we are to take Goebbels seriously – are words to the effect that democracy is a precarious thing. Democracy is the very thing, in other words, that can bring democracy to its knees.
This, essentially, captures the idea of ‘democide’. Writing in The Life and Death of Democracy, the political theorist John Keane recalled us precisely to this point: that democracies can ‘commit “democide”.’ In contrast to its more common meaning – the murder of a person or people by their government – Keane defines democide in terms of a people who elect, by democratic means, to murder their democracy. This is how a democracy can commit an act of suicide. When incapable of redressing the political crises they have manufactured themselves, whether because of individual freedoms, bureaucratic morass or the sluggishness of democratic politics, the claim is that democracies can die by their own hand.
Specifically, we can say that democide occurs when a majority of citizens or their elected leaders legitimately use democratic means for the purposes of undermining the democracy in question. What makes these occasions all the more remarkable, and for that matter harder to discern, is that until such time where the democracy is actually toppled or infringed, these popular threats can and sometimes do actually contribute to the fervour of democratic engagement. Mass dissent during public debates and at the ballot box can enliven democracies and give the sense that there is something more at stake. Particularly when dissent takes place without the resort to widespread violence and coercion – after all, no democracy can claim to be without such elements from time to time – no one can dispute that these are the moments that democracy was made to incite and then endure.
Of course, this idea goes against the conventional wisdom in much of the contemporary literature on democratisation, where democratic consolidation, not capitulation, is what’s emphasised. And that, for me, is one very good reason – and here I’ll quote Keane again – to take seriously the ‘vexing thought that democracy as we now know it in all its geographic and historical variations might not survive indefinitely, that it could slit its own throat or quietly take its own life in an act of “democide”’.
2. Could you offer a number of examples where democide has occurred?
I could give a few, but it might actually be more helpful to just offer one in greater detail – and here it’s probably the best use of time to use an example that many are likely already to be familiar with, that is, the democide which took place in the Weimar Republic in Germany. Problematic or not, the Goebbels quote I just made reference to is more or less vindicated by the fact that the Nazis’ rise to power took place within and took advantage of the very Weimar democratic processes which it would go on to systematically dismantle and repudiate. Weimar democracy, in other words, played a not insignificant role in bringing about its own demise.