Published in 1979, Piloo Mody’s book ‘Democracy means Bread and Freedom’ was an important piece of work written in a lucid style and discussing key ideas relevant to liberal thought in its economic, social and political understanding. Produced below is a chapter from the book.
You can access the book here.
Let us consider the nature of the 20th-century confrontation between democrats and authoritarianism. Obviously, the latter, except for proclaimed Fascists, cannot directly advocate a suspension of liberties and advocate the virtues of totalitarian rule. After all, freedom is ingrained too deeply within the modern ethos to permit such an onslaught. What is more, a direct assault on the concept of freedom would severely restrict their sphere of operation and expose their clandestine motive, which is to create a totalitarian order using in the meanwhile all the rights and protection offered by the democratic State. It is therefore but natural that would-be dictators should advance arguments that, while showing concern for the people, assiduously persuade them to barter away their liberty and freedom for a loaf of bread.
The authoritarian who asks “What is freedom to a hungry man?” and then goes on to assert that fundamental rights are meaningless and cannot be exercised without economic well-being is sure of a sympathetic response where bread is scarce. What he never explains is how the surrender of freedom will put bread in a hungry man’s belly. In answer to this simple question, the authoritarian will talk about entrenched vested interests which are resisting change, profound theories about class reflexes, describe the evils of capitalism and colonialism (whichever is applicable, if not both), speak about the conspiracy between capital and the ruling classes, attack monopolies bent on exploitation and profiteers who inflate prices and keep wages down, harp on the eternal conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and proclaim that only a constant class struggle, terminating in the destruction of the bourgeoisie, will liberate the common man from his yoke and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. And should this not be enough- there is always the ultimate- the State shall wither away!
These fancy arguments have duped many an honest broker whose concern for human well-being is not to be decried. There is an element of truth or reality easily visible in all these arguments which, incidentally, are given with such breath-taking rapidity that the most rational of men may have difficulty in catching either their simplistic logic or avoiding the many pitfalls inherent in their subtle deceptions.
We are not concerned here with demolishing these arguments dialectic-wise or even questioning some of the assumptions made. It is merely sufficient to state that the barter of freedom for bread is a bad bargain- particularly if we can and must have bread and freedom. Dwight D. Eisenhower put it admirably when he chastised his countrymen by saying: “If all that Americans want is security, they can go to prison. They’ll have enough to eat, a bed and a roof over their heads. But if an American wants to preserve his dignity and his equality as a human being, he must not bow his neck to any dictatorial government.”
However, there is no controverting the fact that in many a society, even an affluent society, men have gone without bread in the midst of plenty. A hungry man surrounded by general opulence and waste is an ugly sight that no argument or explanation can justify. Far worse, of course, are the unprivileged millions in a developing country where food, clothing and shelter are the luxuries of the rich and the ruling classes, who have enough surplus left over to indulge in cheap foreign goods, which are expensive because they are prohibited! It is such simple logic merely to state that if the rich were eliminated, there would be more for the poor, that the rights of a few cannot hold the masses to ransom. Agreed, agreed, agreed. But will someone please calculate and bluntly state how, by distributing this insufficient wealth and restricting the rights of a few, the authoritarians are going to employ the masses, feed and clothe them and deliver unto them their basic and fundamental rights?
If it is the principle of equality that necessitates this violence, what about affluent nations? Were the men born in advanced countries created more equal than the ones born in backward lands? And if the distribution of wealth is the moral criterion of this argument, then the Soviet Socialist Republic–the second most powerful nation in the world, is the worst example of the distribution of wealth–not only amongst its own citizens but internationally.
Before any competitive argument, let us pause and return to fundamentals. It is an old saying: “Man does not live by bread alone, but bread he must have.” What is the rationale for providing it? We cannot deviate from our original premise: “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, amongst which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If one accepts this proposition, one can not shirk the responsibility of defining its full scope, defending its logic, and discharging its obligations without being open to the charge of dishonesty.
When we speak of rights being inalienable, it is society and its institutions that are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the exercise of these rights and of seeing that these rights can be enjoyed by all. And if among these rights are the right to life, then the equality and content of that life have to be defined. Surely, it was never the intention of the author of the Declaration that the right to life is merely the right to have it protected from assault or death! Nor can it be argued that the Creator who gave life intended that that life should or could exist without nourishment, material and spiritual, in the pursuit of its happiness!
Then surely a duty is cast upon the State and the individuals who constitute that society that they shall organise themselves in such a manner as would ensure that all their members can enjoy the right to life. What economic measures we may recommend making that life meaningful await a later discussion, but the responsibility itself must be accepted here and now.
Another subtlety emerges here. Does a man get his bread irrespective of his contribution, or does he have to exchange value for it, either by purchasing it with money or exchanging it against work? In an extreme case, can a man demand bread and at the same time refuse to work? The situation is paradoxical. If his right to life is inalienable and society has been charged with the responsibility of ensuring it, how can society bargain and demand value in return? This forces us to reflect on what rights at and how they can be exercised.
It is inherent in the nature of rights that they require action originating in the man asserting them. Freedom of speech requires the will to express- freedom of movement the desire to move- freedom of profession the exercise of choice- freedom of worship the need for faith- and so on. Similarly, the right to life imposes an obligation to work. For those incapable of it, society’s responsibility is absolute and it must carry the social overheads. It is obvious that the social overheads in a poor country cannot compare with those in an affluent society; nevertheless, the quality of concern must be maintained not only within society but that outside of it. This leads us to a more practical problem of providing work.
In despotic societies, this is simply achieved. The State orders a man to dig ditches and fill them up in exchange for bread. But democratic societies cannot do that. A man’s right to choose his profession is also inalienable and is consistent with human dignity and necessary for creating self-esteem. This is the only path to self-realisation and the founding of a robust citizenry, which is the ultimate safeguard of a self-perpetuating democracy. The only restriction on a man’s freedom to choose his profession is his own capacity and efficiency. To avoid the charge that society has deprived man of acquiring such talents as are necessary, it is imperative that the State give equality of opportunity to each one of its members to qualify in whatever field of human endeavour is most suitable to his genius, in pursuit of his inclination and in satisfaction of his aspirations. If even with such facilities provided a man does not measure up to his chosen profession, then it must be what “God made him.”
By now we have come a long way in accepting the guidelines that history imposes on us, experience dictates to us, expediency forces on us and the future implies us to implement. In the process of acceptance and rejection, a picture of a truly democratic society emerges. In restating the yardsticks, we will delve into the very nature of man, his origin and evolution, to find the narrow path between his instinctual behaviour, his physical needs, the capacity of his mind to grasp and to grow, the fulfilment of his aspirations, and the enjoyment of his rights in the pursuit of his happiness.
In so doing we will have to note past actions that are inconsistent with his accepted notions and fashion tools, methods, and institutions capable of ensuring a just and democratic society. Too many people feel that all answers must be available here and now. This is absurd, as a society and social relationships are dynamic, and human experience is constantly expanding, to say nothing of knowledge, technology and resources. So man can ignore change only at the peril of his own existence. Edmond Burke felt that change was the most powerful law of nature. However, its realisation may take some time.
Henry Thomas Buckle in his History of Civilisation, in describing the process of realisation and change, says: “Every new truth which has ever been pronounced has, for a time, caused mischief, it has produced discomfort, and often unhappiness; sometimes by disturbing social and religious arrangement, and sometimes merely by disruption of old and cherished association of thoughts. It is only after a certain interval, and when the framework of affairs has adjusted itself to the new truth, that its good effects preponderance; and the preponderance continues to increase, until at length, the truth causes nothing but good. But, at the outset, there is always harm. And if the truth is very great as well as very new, the harm is serious. Men are made uneasy; they flinch; they cannot bear the sudden light; a general restlessness supervenes; the face of society is disturbed, or perhaps convulsed; old interests and old beliefs have been destroyed before new ones have been created. These symptoms are the precursors of revolution; they have preceded all the great changes through which the world has passed.”
It is therefore imperative that a democratic society fashions its institutions to accommodate the ever-changing social relationships inherent in the progress of development and welfare without too much strain, resentment or obstruction on the part of those whose interests are affected. Whether the electoral system or adult franchise by itself is capable of bringing this about is a matter of opinion which can be discussed. But if wanting, it is obvious that other institutional arrangements can have to be made to reach the desired goal.
Harold Laski on the other hand, under the lure of Marx and the Soviet revolution, is of the opinion that change is inherently contrary to the nature of liberal democracy because the levers of power remain in the hands of the owners of capital and the instruments of production, who by their very nature pursue nothing but profit. He holds that unless the class relations of production are altered by the destruction of the manipulators of capital, no peaceful transformation is possible. He has anchored his entire thesis on the argument that a stage is when the State, charged with maintaining law and order and facilitating peaceful change in satisfying the ever-expanding demands of the people, will use its coercive power to suppress the demands. Laski maintains that it is this resistance to change within liberal democracy, because of the producers’ need for world markets, that is the main cause of the emergence of Fascist dictatorships. So far the argument is plausible, but then he goes on to maintain that in the Soviet Union, because of the common ownership of the means of production, “the substance of the law” will be different and therefore the techniques of change, distribution of goods, will ipso facto respond to the rising expectations. The Soviet Union requires no markets for its goods, and therefore, according to him, will be peace-living and anti-war and will readily surrender its sovereignty to international law. Also not anticipated by Laski was the arms race during the Cold War, when the obsolescence of armaments was so rapid that it left the competing countries with such monumental stocks of outdated arms that the Soviet Union started using them as tools of diplomacy, selling and giving them away as “prizes” to those who supported Soviet policies. It is of course assumed, though not stated, that until the final goal has been reached, until class relations in the entire world change, it is perfectly all right for the Soviet Union to play the imperialist game!
This is too much. The theories of Hobbes and Austin, brought up to date by Kelson, are dismissed by Laski as an exercise in logic rather than life. Laski in fact demands that unless functioning capitalist societies like Great Britain, the United States and the western democracies can demonstrate their capacity for peaceful change, the arguments of the theory of Law are untenable, although he does admit that they are unanswerable. The real weakness of Laski’s argument is that he does not demand a similar performance from the Soviet Union except to say that much would depend on the Soviet Union’s capacity for raising the standard of living of its citizens so as to compare favourably with that of the capitalist world.
The inference is clear and has even been stated elsewhere that capitalist societies have raised standards of living to a point for socialist societies to emulate, but now that capitalism is in “contraction”, they will not be able to do so any longer. Then why don’t we wait and see, let the socialist societies catch up and give a better example? Isn’t it evident what Laski is seeking?
Nevertheless, Laski, amongst others, has rendered some service by articulating the pitfalls of a complacent democracy by pointing out the conflict that may arise and has arisen between an economic oligarchy and a political democracy, where the laws and coercive power through an adult franchise is held by the masses. What does not seem to have been studied in depth is why this conflict must lead either to revolution or Fascism. After all, the vote is still with the people, and if their institutions, like labour unions, cooperative societies and political parties, function adequately, there is no reason, except if there are malpractice and violence, why the majority cannot form a government that has full popular approval. Laski’s rejection of this proposition is on shaker ground. He lacks faith in the people knowing what is best for them and complains that the mass of men and women, even at election time, “are scarcely articulate about their wants, and even when they are articulate are not trained to judge whether the solutions suggested are in fact an adequate response to their desires.”
This peculiar statement challenges the very basis of politics degrades the entire struggle of man for equality, rights and liberties, and assumes that there is a higher class of man- the social changes or the social short-changers- who can ordain what the masses should demand and get! Paradoxically, Harold Laski’s brilliant but insufficient analysis, if correct, could have led to only one conclusion- an alliance between the Western Democracies and Fascist Germany, Italy and Japan against Soviet Russia in World War II. Hitler wanted it, and so did many others on the side of the Allies. Nevertheless, it did not happen. Is there any more evidence than this required to prove that there must be some better, higher or more moral force in democracy determining in the course than the trite anchor of Laski’s theory built on class relationships? It would not be out of place at this point to recall the Hilter- Stalin treaty.
Laski’s final doubt, after a positive assertion about democracy having the latent power of recovery to advance human well-being, is the crux of the matter. Even he cannot explain how the process of coercion can be transformed into the process of consent, and even he cannot answer how consent gets woven into the Soviet system he so admires! I have dwelt at some length with Laski’s theory because he has rendered service to the cause of democracy through his timely reminder that the democratic process can be frustrated by group interests. It has happened in the past; it may happen in the future. Therefore it is incumbent on those involved in the creation of democratic societies to consider this problem and create the necessary institutional safeguards.
Many eminent men in the past have been aware of this danger and cautioned against it. Whether it was John C. Calhoun in the U.S. Senate in 1838, or President Grover Cleveland half a century later in his annual message to Congress, whether it was Abraham Lincoln the legislator or Abraham Lincoln the President, whether it was Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt- all felt compelled to warn and expose the danger monopoly capital presented to a democratic society. In the words of Roosevelt: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.”
However, it was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who put it most explicitly back in 1896 when he said: “One of the eternal conflicts of which life is made up is that between the effort of every man to get the most he can for his services, and that of society, disguised under the name of capital, to get his services for the least possible return.” And the correct response to this, in my opinion, came from Pope Pious XII in 1946, again a half-century later, when he said: “An erroneous doctrine affirms that you- representatives of labour-and you- representatives of Calitak- are forced to battle each other in butter and implacable struggle, and that industrial pacification can it be reached except at this price… To obtain the desired harmony between labour and capital, professional organisations and unions have been devised, both of which are intended not as a weapon directed exclusively towards defensive and offensive war, which causes reactions and reprisals, not as an overflowing river, which is divided, but as a bridge which unites.”
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