Democracy & Cooperation

Democracy & Cooperation

Democracy at home won’t produce cooperation abroad. That’s the heart of the matter when we are seeking to get the whole world to fight Covid and its variants. Then again, nor will Autocracy. Both are dedicated to war and peace. You vote for your representative in parliament to take care of you, not of some foreigner who may or may not be grateful even if you do take care of them. You get your country people to compete with every other country through invention, acquisition and wealth. The one with the most, wins.

Which is not to say that generosity to others is in decline. On the contrary I think genuine giving – that is, giving when there is no expectation or hope of return – is on the increase. Wealthier individuals give more now because they see the terrible state in which others live and die. They also see that in an interconnected world excess wealth won’t be tolerated unless it demonstrates generosity itself. Additionally, more people are becoming aware of their responsibilities to their fellow creatures. Very few animals exhibit this kind of care but some, like the primates, are seemingly aware that simple parental example is the best way of teaching.

The WHO report on the fight against Covid touches some raw nerves among those who want to see more cooperation. Covid has revealed the truth of globalisation in a way nothing else could do. We are also globalising in the awareness of, and reaction to, climate threat. We should be globalising in medicine and health but they seem way off in spite of the obvious incentive. Water is soon to become a world issue and food already is, partly because of the destruction of the planet’s atmosphere. If we don’t cooperate soon in communications technology, that will be the area of the next war. Preferable to killing people, certainly, but you try being cut off in solitary confinement and see how you like that. No wonder it is the second worst punishment.

You can extend the areas where cooperation is desirable and, at some time, inevitable. What matters is how we are to do it. The United Nations was a second attempt – the first was just after WWI when we set up the League of Nations. That wasn’t very successful and there are those who will tell you that The United Nations isn’t a great success, either. In terms of world cooperation that is true but it was established in such a way that it couldn’t be. For all that, it has provided many and useful services to the world that we wouldn’t have had but for the UN.

So how can the fact of globalisation be communicated strongly enough to allow local governments to cooperate when China’s and Western ideologies clash, when human standards of trust deteriorate so badly and when ownership is considered largely selfishly? President Xi has already called for world cooperation, now that there is a receptive President in the White House. His efforts plus Joe Biden’s should provide the basis of a genuine attempt to cooperate on a very specific and threatening disease. Maybe Europe will focus on that, too.

We first have to find some way in which the present demands of democracy can work with the longer-term demands of autocracy. A democratic society reacts quickly to short-term pressures but is likely to be less effective in its longer-term planning. After all, the next election is what matters to its representatives. In theory at least, an autocratic society can take a longer view – there is no effective next election to pay heed to. How true that is in a world of instant communications where an uprising in any part of the country can be seen by the rest fully and quickly, is a moot point.

In fact we seem to know surprisingly little about the political longevity of autocrats. Except that they can last an amazingly long time – see Russia and North Korea. But notice that Putin is facing riots at present. No doubt he will crack down on them in a way a democratic society couldn’t but for how long this power will accrue to the leader of an autocratic state we don’t know. We also know relatively little about the efficiency of autocratic societies. What they publish is seldom a true reflection of their success.

So living side by side and cooperating with a practice of human rights so different from your own cannot be easy. However, the survival of the world now depends on being able to do so. The pandemic is an essential reason but so is climate revival. The good news is that deeply religious people have begun to learn to live peacefully alongside atheists. The demands for democrats to live alongside autocrats may now be strong enough to make it happen.

It is essential that it should.

I think we all agree on that.