Is Democracy a Universal Value? Literature review

Reviewed literature

Amartya Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” in Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No. 3, (July 1999), pp. 3-17.

Bhikhu Parekh, “The Cultural Particularity of Liberal Democracy,” in Political Studies, Vol. 40, Issue Supplement 1, (August 1992), pp. 160-175

Filali-Ansary, Abdou, “Muslims and Democracy,” in Journal of Democracy, Vol. 10, No. 3 (July 1999), pp. 18-32


Is democracy a universal value? Is it applicable cross-culturally? Or is it culturally specific? Since the triumph of the West in the Cold War, late modern political discourse has increasingly pondered over such questions. These philosophical queries have particularly been facilitated by the international status democracy has gained and its normative conceptualization the utmost model of good governance. This potency which notions of democratic government has gained is itself a significant defining feature of the twentieth century (Sen 1999, 2). While democracy is neither universally practiced nor accepted, it has gained a normative force as being “generally right” (Sen 1999, 5). It is in this context that the universality of democracy has come under question – is democracy a universal value? Within the three articles reviewed, two different answers are given to this question; one which argues for democracy’s universality – represented by the works of Amartya Sen (1999) and Abdou Filali-Ansary (1999) – and one which sees it as cultural particular – represented by Bhikhu Parekh’s article (1992).

Through reviewing this literature, I highlight both the divergences and convergences in these strains of thought in evaluating their overall contributions and teasing out their unchallenged assumptions. The literature review begins by outlining the arguments for democracy as a universal and those against to lay out the debates in question. After having done so I draw on both what is highlighted yet also what is erased by these debates to reflect on their ability in apprehending modern formations of power and contributing strategies for their democratization. In particular I ask, when do ostensibly emancipatory political projects work to reinforce or mask existing social conditions and when do they contest or transform them? I argue that through a focus on philosophical values, scholars have lost sight of structural domination in liberal democracies and as a result have attempted to resolve a problem in history through tackling a history of ideas.

Democracy as a Universal/Democracy as culturally particular

The central ideas which the three articles can be regarded as writing in response to may be encapsulated by Samuel Huntington argument that the political traditions of the West are specific to civilized societies fit for democracy and cannot be remodelled outside of the West (Sen 1999, 16). Side-stepping the civilizational binary of Huntington, Sen rejects democracy’s universality being negated by assumed cultural taboo’s but exemplified by three universal values encompassed by democracy; its intrinsic, instrumental and constructive values (1999, 10). Firstly, democratically practicing political freedom has intrinsic value, being a value in-and-of itself and a crucial aspect of basic human freedom. Secondly it has instrumental value, providing avenues for social, political and economic grievances to resolved and one’s needs to be meet through raising one’s political concerns. Finally, it has constructive importance, creating discussion and the exchange of ideas within societies, allowing individuals to learn from one another as societies grows and shape their values.

However, if democracy is a universal value we may ask why is it generally agreed that it has not yet had much success outside of the West, even if it has gained popularity? To answer this question, and using the example of “Muslim countries,” Filali-Ansary argues that the answer not is rooted in a past of Islamic culture which some have assumed to make such societies incompatible with modernization and democracy (1999). For Filali-Ansary it is instead rooted in the past philosophical encounter of Muslims with the West. Filali-Ansary traces early debates between the secular West and Muslim critiques of secularism arguing that early Muslim critiques of emerging modernist notions of religious stagnation and scientific progress responded by equating secularism to atheism, a state of non-religiousness rather than the form of religious coexistence which has long been practiced across the region (Filali-Ansary 1999, 19). These ideological confrontations and misunderstandings created a view that practices in the East and West were particularly distinct and incompatible polar opposites.

In contrast to Filali-Ansary and Sen, Parekh rejects the compatibility of western style democracy to non-Western societies such as Muslim societies. To say democracy is a universal value which those outside the West should aspire for already implies that the form of democracy in question is the form which triumphs in the contemporary West – constitutional liberal democracy. Yet this form of democracy was largely a response to a historical moment; post-seventeenth century individualist society (Parekh 1992, 165-8). Liberal society needed some form of government to recognize and protect individual liberties while also having mechanisms to keep governments accountable and ensure they themselves do not violate these rights. A liberal democracy fit these criteria of government sought by liberal society. Thus, liberal democracy as it exists in the contemporary is a consequence of this history and to argue it universality would be to deny the Wests own historical experience and the differing historical experiences outside of the West.

Muslim societies have different moral and political traditions which are rooted in different histories which, for Parekh, are not as compatible with liberal democracy as Sen and Filali-Ansary believe. As, liberal democracy is particularly designed to cope with post-seventeenth century individualist society and as a result it is not favourable for societies with strong sense of community of multi-communal societies (Parekh 1992, 169). However, Parekh importantly shows that liberalism is not the only method of expressing a deeply moral world-view. It is instead possible to locate deeply moral traditions within the Muslim societies themselves. Traditions which Muslim societies have long drawn from and have no need to be replaced by liberal traditions. As Parekh points out, in Muslim societies people are not regarded as having the right to food or shelter. Yet others do have a duty to feed and shelter those who are in need as part of ones belongings are seen as belonging also to others in society (Parekh 1992, 164). Parekh is not arguing that practices within societies are beyond moral evaluation but only that liberal democracy is not the only form of good governance possible. Rejecting democracies universality, Parekh instead calls for a need to evaluate the minimum conditions for universal good governance which governments are free to shape themselves within.

The Problem of Values

Debates of democracy’s universality, whether it is agreed or disagreed with, has not question the role of democracy in the West. The notion that democracy is working in the West is regarded as a given while whether it can be practiced outside of the West has come under dispute. Contesting the notions of a particularly civilized West capable of modernization against the barbarism of the non-West, Sen and Filali-Ansary have responded through arguing for the ability of non-Western societies to modernize. Consequently, these political thinkers have receded from any analysis of the liberal state and capitalism as sites of domination themselves, instead focusing on values purportedly enshrined by the liberal state. They have assigned an instrumental value of the state and capitalism in addressing social grievances through state-administered economic justice combined with an array of individual liberties. Yet the capacity, or even propensity, for the political, the governmental or societal to protect against the domination for some through the economic liberty of others in bourgeois liberal society has little come under question.

Leaving unchallenged the notion of liberal freedom, Parekh tackles this huntingtonian conceptualization from a different angle. He argues that indeed political traditions outside of the West may not be compatible with liberal democracy yet liberal democracy does not exemplify the only form of moral political tradition. For Parekh, the answer for the desire of a universal model of good governance in its absence lies in the inclusion of a post-individualist conception of democracy as it is over questions of individuality that the philosophical debates are being waged. Yet what Parekh, like Sen and Filali-Ansary, fails to appreciate is the problematic consequences of positing conceptions of freedom independently to modern forms of domination.

Whether we can truly find universal principles of good governance is questionable as these themselves will be responses to historico-political circumstances, in the very same way Parekh argues liberal democracy was a response to a historical moment. Indeed, freedom has always been defined relationally to whatever is held to be unfreedom, even if the conception of freedom is then naturalized and described as a universal. Thus, in patriarchal, slaveholding fifth-century Athenian democracy, freedom was the conceived as the escape from an order inhabited by slaves and women – with domination being ingrained in its metaphysics of freedom. Liberal freedom, fitted to a capitalist economic order means the freedom to accumulate wealth and property even if such entails poverty for others. Positioning moral issues and political systems as universals separates them from the historical conditions they derive from and the modes of domination which are enacted through different practices of political freedom.

Parekh’s attempt to develop a post-individualist notion of universally good governance responds not to the anti-democratic forces of the contemporary, but to a philosophical standoff regarding individualism. It attempts to formulate a philosophy of freedom based on a history of philosophy rather than the existing structures of society – economic, social, psychological, political – and resolve a history of ideas rather than a problem in history. Whether we structure societal values on meeting individual rights or societal needs, as it stands none of these values have so far provided or protected what they purport to. In both the contemporary East and West enormous wealth rubs shoulders with poverty. No amount of philosophizing over values and assessing the conditions for good governance will change this situation when the very situations contrasts with the values society are said to uphold. The desire for a universal has glossed over existing modes of domination. It may instead appear more fruitful to formulate a practice of freedom as a process and response to modes of domination. This opens the question which we may end on; what may radically democratic political projects look like in the contemporary?

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