genocide and democracy

Describing “Why ‘never again’ happens again and again: Stopping state repression,” at the Center for Political Studies (CPS) Blog:

After analyzing the 220 cases, the authors find essentially no support for the international efforts to stop repression, though Preferential Trade Agreements do exhibit an influence. The more powerful and appropriate approach, however, concerns democratization from within. The authors conclude, “If one is trying to stop state repression, then they should consider how best to move the government toward full democracy.” But, the authors caution that they best way to stop state repression is to prevent it in the first place.

The shift in subject from “one” to “they” in the above summary of authors’ conclusions – the authors being Christian Davenport, Faculty Associate in the Center for Political Studies (CPS) and Professor of Political Science, along with Benjamin J. Appel of Michigan State University; their paper or presentation being ““The Domestic and/or International Determinants of State Repression: Examining Spells– oddly mirrors the presumptions embedded in an accompanying chart depicting a familiarly one-sided principal-agent theory:

Screen-Shot-2014-08-25-at-1.58.52-PM-1024x515Presumably, the “220 cases” are assembled agnostically as to manners of attainment of political power, but I suspect that in most if not all cases whatever “leader” or “leaders” see themselves as products of the same pyramid, but in reverse or as inverted, with citizen1, citizen2, citizen3 and so on pointing to smaller numbers of servants up to the ultimate servant-principals tasked with working the or a popular will, if not necessarily a formally and electorally legitimated popular will. In the authors’ depiction, it is as though the “Political Leader(s),” their tools and subsidiary agents of repression, and the gross violation of “democracy” all emerged from the void, or that the leaders simply decided arbitrarily to undertake repression, and the lesser principals and agents to obey, for the fun of it, or the Hell of it, or for the lack of anything more interesting to do with their time. As for the prescriptions, they constitute two weirdly tentative tautologies: The best way to achieve the opposite of “repression” is for “democratization” to emerge “from within”: In other words, the best measure against anti-democracy is for democracy or democratism to emerge on its own (rather than from “without”) to replace it; even better would be if anti-democracy is prevented from arising, or is already displaced. Such notions are already presumed under the designation of anti-democracy as an evil: It would be better if the evil were replaced with or displaced by the good… somehow. We knew that.

There are other problems with the summary: For instance, following the same theory of best prevention, how exactly would we determine that “international efforts” have not in fact been responsible or indirectly responsible for fostering democratism or adequately “full democracy” “from within” in all or some or any of the situations that have not, for that very reason, emerged as “cases” of its failure? Is all “repression” equivalent to “genocide,” and are all genocides alike, and, if not or possibly not, is blurring the difference supportable, and can we or should we really say that “never again” has been violated “again and again”? Is democracy really the opposite of “repression,” or does the historical record in fact suggest that democratic or (democratist) repression or even democratic (or democratist) genocide is quite possible – that there is, rather than an inherent contradiction between democratism and repression or between democratism and mass killing, an inherent potential of repression and mass killing in democracy or democratism, to the point that repression up to and including genocide can be seen as a likely or even necessary consequence of “full democracy”?

Since I haven’t read the work, I’ll concede that it is at least conceivable that the authors have anticipated such questions, and have handled them in some interesting way. I can certainly accept that there may be much more to what they have done, and that they have done it with more care, than likely or possibly can be conveyed by whatever inane or at least incidentally clumsy summaries, but confidence in their argument, given the contradictory aspirations of political scientists – to practice a potentially objectively rigorous science, but also to stand politically for something (“democracy”) and against something else (“repression”) – seems unwarranted. Author Davenport’s Twitter handle – “@engagedscholar” – refers us to the problem directly, but the abstract of an abstract suggests confusion rather than clarity about its implications.


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  1. Seems like there’s an unspoken, assumed characteristic to the democracy that they describe as strong against repression. Which means it’d be a particular type of democracy, a democratism modified. To not bother to explain the modification they have in mind is quite the oversight on their part. Embarrassing even.

    • I’d say ought to be embarrassing, but not taken to be embarrassing, because exceedingly common, especially among “engaged” observers of all type, even ones who have recently become more aware of the problem of “illiberal democracy.”

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