If democracy requires social equality, than nations that participate in the clearly unequal social structures of colonialism may only make false claims to democracy. This problem plagues not only earlier forces of global empire, but also nations in the present who retain colonial territories. Nations in the present who successfully invade other nations only to leave them in ruins after an extended occupation, like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, effectively also practice new forms of colonialism.
Colonial practices enforce their inequalities through brutal means, including killings, torture, displacement, and destruction of the social and cultural institutions of the colonized. Equality is impossible, since the colonized are not allowed to govern themselves, denied both sovereignty and autonomy by the colonizer.
Yet colonialism also degrades the colonizer’s society. As Aimé Césaire wrote in 1950, “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to …violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that …each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact…a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, …at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged…a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds towards savagery.” (p35-6) Degraded, violent, racist, infected, violating agreements, and poisoned does not make for a healthy society of equals.
How can France, England, and the United States be seen as model democracies when they still practice colonialism? France retains colonial territories in thirteen territories, including French Polynesia and French Guiana, while England fought a recent war to retain the Falkland Islands and continues to rule Northern Ireland.
The United States practice of settler colonialism means not only that Guam, American Samoa, and the Hawaiian Islands are colonies in the classical sense, but so is its mainland territory. As Audra Simpson has argued, the “gift of democracy” to Indigenous peoples criminalized Indigenous life as it lays claim to Indigenous peoples as citizens of the United States. Robert Nichols has documented how forcing citizenship onto Indigenous communities in Canada resulted in unequal relations violating Rousseau’s social contract.
Even the classical Greek forms of democracy to which many European theorists looked for democratic models also practiced slavery and contributed to the spread of Greek empire in the Mediterranean. Pericles, the king who supported the Athenian assembly’s power and weakened the aristocratic wealthy, also embarked on imperial conquests that denied freedom to all. And if later Greek philosophers supported democracy, Aristotle was also advisor to Alexander the Great, conqueror of Athens and the Achaemenid Empire, who Aristotle advised to “be a despot to the barbarians.” How can a democratic body also support slavery and despotism?
Colonialism and imperialism also erode the effectiveness of democracy in the colonies of European democracies even after liberation, as in India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico. Assumptions that democracy is a European invention that successfully installed equality hide the multiple modes of unequal social relations under electoral governments North and South. These social inequalities are seen not only in continuing wealth inequalities, a sign that capitalism is not an engine of equality but a system of wealth hierarchies closely tied to modern national governance systems.
As Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued, non-European societies who adopt European electoral democracy as their governance model must address the unequal historical conditions that colonialism left them before they can expect to enact democracy. This suggests that the failure of as India, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil to transform the unequal relations of power and authority in their territories left by their colonizers makes democracy impossible for them (p20). The colonial bourgeoisie that replace the colonizers after liberation protected their own advantages and access to power rather than practice egalitarianism.
The failure of electoral democracies to live up to their promises of equality is not only true of European governments and their settler colonies, but also true of nations of the global south. The long-standing inequalities of the electoral government of India, often lauded as the “world’s largest democracy,” means the government has never succeeded in becoming a democracy. The assumption that democracy requires equality is only true in abstract principal. Unequal power relations cannot be ignored.
These abstractions and erasures come from assumptions that European political systems, such as the modern nation-state, are good for all. That is why many nations in the global south retained parliamentary systems, court systems and legal codes, and other aspects of their colonizer’s political regimes. That retention can only be a form of Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that repeats the racism and ethnocentrism of colonialism and imperialism.
Ultimately, the alternative social systems that electoral democracies have attacked are an important resource for finding ways to practice equality. In order to carry out democratic transformations of social relations of power, communities and regions can put democratic practices beyond those of the state to work.