WHY DEMOCRACY III: AUTONOMY

With democratic rights comes liberty. People have the right to live their lives as they wish (with due consideration to the rights of others) and the right to have their liberty protected.

The liberty that comes from a regime of rights goes broader than to freedom from coercion. That is basic, but rights also ensure the opportunity to deliberate rationally on the purpose of liberty.

Autocratic regimes may allow people a good deal of choice in their daily lives. From my study of the Chinese political system, The Perfect Dictatorship: “Many Chinese, notably in the urban population and its middle and upper strata, can live distinctly modern lives. They have property and are home owners and consumers. They have household appliances and flat-screen TVs. They have smartphones, computers and internet access with a great deal of content. They travel the country and the world. They go to other cities on fast trains. Those lower on the ladder can aspire to move up.”

But they cannot allow them autonomy. The people I describe in that paragraph may have joined the world of modern consumerism but not that of modern autonomy.

What is lacking under autocracy is, firstly, political liberty and basic human rights. But then, secondly, free access to information. This is because of censorship, control of the press and internet, and propaganda. Under autocratic rule, people are denied the opportunity to search freely for relevant information and make themselves reliably informed about their society, the world they live in and their own place in it.

And lacking, thirdly, is the freedom of assembly and hence of political deliberation. Autocracy denies people that freedom because they may use it to form networks or organisations that may enable them to stand up to their dictators.

What democracy allows, then, and autocracy refuses, is finally the opportunity for citizens to work on understanding themselves and their social condition by seeking freely for information and to improve their understanding of politics and society through free and critical deliberation with their fellows. They may have some freedom of choice in their daily lives but they are denied the social existence of the autonomous citizen.

Those of us who live under democratic regimes enjoy the freedom of information and assembly and perhaps take it for granted as obvious. The Chinese example perfectly confirms the logic of autocracy in this respect.

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