Feisal Naqvi

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

In Uncategorized on December 18, 2014 at 3:40 am

The first known philosopher to have taken a whack at this problem was Aristotle. Since then, eggheads and children alike have been vexed by this query.

Modern geneticists now tend towards the ‘egg first approach’. Or to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, the egg came first because the chicken is only an egg’s way of producing another egg. Of course, others still continue to believe in the primacy of the chicken.

The problem before us today is not the chicken/egg dilemma. Instead, the dilemma before us is its political science equivalent: which comes first, democracy or human rights?

Let me clarify. There is a constant chorus in Pakistan of voices claiming that ‘true democracy’ can only arise once the people are educated, the judiciary is liberated and the leadership is enlightened. The minor theme in this symphony is the contention that anything short of true democracy deserves no consideration, that given a choice between an enlightened dictatorship and an unenlightened mobocracy, we should opt for the dictatorship because only that path will, in the fullness of time, produce true democracy.

I have no problem with the desire for an enlightened, literate and just democracy. What I do have a problem with is the ‘all or nothing’ approach which refuses to accept anything less than ‘true democracy’.

But…but…but, you might say, what is the value of a justice system in which innocents are convicted and the guilty go free? What value are elections if the only result is to perpetuate feudalism and dynasties? Should we not be looking at results rather than making a fetish out of procedures and processes? Does the end not justify the means?

The answer to that question is no. As in, no, the end does not justify the means. Certainly not as an organising principle.

Let me present two different takes on that question.

The first perspective comes from literature, and more specifically, Arthur’ Koestler’s great novel, Darkness at Noon.

The book deals with the arrest and trial of Rubashov, a Communist revolutionary who has in turn fallen foul of the state he had helped create. When Rubashov first meets his captors, he tries his best to establish his innocence. When he later ponders his life, he remembers all the people he helped destroy for the sake of the Revolution, even when he knew them to be innocent. Ultimately, Rubashov realises that the only logical way out for him is to serve the state with his last breath and to confess to crimes he has not committed.

Koestler wrote the book in 1940, when he and a generation of European intellectuals were beginning to emerge from a decade of thralldom to international communism. The point of the book was simple: the end does not and cannot justify the means because no matter how lofty the ideal, corrupt means can only produce corrupted ends.

A second perspective comes from the jurisprudence of Lon Fuller.

In simple terms, the most influential movement in legal philosophy over the past 100 years has been positivism, the argument that there is no necessary connection between law and morality.

Fuller didn’t quite agree with positivism. His point was that the very concept of law, i.e. the attempt to make people obey rules, meant that laws had to be made in a certain way. For example, he pointed out that laws had to be publicised because you couldn’t ask people to obey laws if they didn’t know what the laws were. Similarly, he pointed out that laws had to be achievable because there was no point in asking people to do things which were impossible.

Fuller’s philosophy is very modest: it doesn’t pretend to provide an answer to all the grand questions of jurisprudence. But its very modesty makes it invaluable. Because what it teaches us is that we cannot negate the fundamental forms of law if we want to succeed, no matter what our ultimate goals may be. Whether we want a communist utopia or a capitalist one, laws must be clear, comprehensible, achievable etc.

The same point applies to political science. You cannot ignore the basic elements of governance in pursuit of an imaginary future. If you destroy what exists today, you will only make a better tomorrow less likely.

True democracy, and fantasies of its ilk, are just that – fantasies. Or, to use an earthier metaphor popular amongst Punjabis, it is like setting someone to chase after the rear light of a truck.

In case you think that is too cynical, let’s go back and review our history. Our first coup in 1956 was brought to you by the proponents of ‘true democracy’. So was the second one in 1977. So was the third one in 1999. And had there been a coup one month ago when chaos beckoned, the traditional ‘meray aziz humwatnon’ would certainly have been followed by a lecture on the nature of true democracy.

I don’t want to be unfair on the armed forces. True democracy is a slogan which can be used anytime, anywhere. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto suspended fundamental rights immediately after the promulgation of the 1973 constitution, he did it in the name of ‘true democracy’. And when the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry rewrote the constitution, it too cited the need for true democracy.

Part of the problem with true democracy is that nobody really knows what it means. More specifically, while I know what true democracy means to me, I have no clue what it means to others, especially others who might happen to be decision-makers. And to the extent I can figure out what my fellow citizens think is justified in the name of true democracy, I am very very scared.

In the words of Learned Hand, “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” We have so many ideologues in this country, so many people on all points of the political spectrum convinced that they have found the key to our future. But what we need to remember is that the process of dialogue, this simple, seemingly insubstantial process of election and re-election is all that we have to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

I accept that these processes are not sufficient to bring about change. But what we need to remember is that these processes are still necessary conditions. The rules of natural justice dictate that every person must be given notice and a hearing before any action is taken against him. That doesn’t mean that the accused will receive justice. But it does provide a certain procedural minimum without which justice is certainly impossible.

By the same token, political justice cannot be reduced to form alone. Elections alone will not provide us with a better future. But without elections, without the structures of governance that we have built up, we will be left ultimately with nothing. Just like we have been so many times before.

This column appeared in The News on 20 November 2014


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