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Fri

25

Dec

2009

Democracy - Part I - “people’s power” usurped by elites
Friday, 25 December 2009 10:46
by Jim Miles

The business values - globalization, free trade, corporations and capitalism - that define the workings of our democracy today.

One of the many words in the mantra of the imperial apologists is that of democracy. From its Greek roots meaning “people” and “power” the word has travelled a long and convoluted journey but needs to be questioned as to whether it has achieved the real ideal. For the people, the “demos” to truly have power requires a system that acts considerably differently from actions by the global elites currently in power.

I differentiate between democracy and freedoms. Having power for the people indicates that the people have an actual say in what the government is doing, and that the government, being of the people, by the people, for the people, responds to the wishes - and hopefully educated wishes - of the populace. Freedom, as present in our current society, represents the wide range from any kind of licentious but licit behaviour through the practical freedoms of the press and media up to the philosophical freedoms of religion and thought. It seldom represents responsibility towards society and its various parameters of poverty and the environment, or towards other less fortunate members of society. It does represent choice, choice to one form of behaviour or another, for the environment or against the environment, for the people, or for the corporation. Democracy and freedom are highly compatible but not necessarily the same thing.

The vote

Democracy as envisioned by most is encapsulated into the act of voting. Our grandfathers died for it in the First World War, “sacrificing” themselves for the empire in order to achieve it (either that or be shot as a traitor or deserter or for treason). The same mantra is brought forth every Remembrance Day, of our soldiers dying so that we have the freedom to vote. Consider that Soviet Russia had votes, Mugabe had votes, occupied Iraq and Afghanistan had votes, occupied Palestine had a vote, Cairo, Islamabad, Honduras, and Russia all had votes, yet the effect of those votes ranged from no democracy to only nominal democracy, or a nominal democracy invigorated with great helpings of violence.

In modern democracies, the psychological spin doctoring is so intense that a vote becomes a popularity contest, decked out in mudslinging, fear of the other, and so many outlandish promises (some call them lies) that votes are essentially bought on the rhetoric of uneducated platitudes to try and soothe the seething angst of the voter. The billions of dollars promised during an election, the great calls for more openness, clarity, and better communication, for more citizen participation are all forgotten once the election has been confirmed one way or another. The ‘representatives’ then head off to the seat of power to learn what they need to do in order to stay in power and to stay within the confines of the party they are nominally elected under and to not get kicked out of caucus. Foolishly the majority of citizens believe that what was talked about will be delivered (Did we want NAFTA? No, got it anyway.)


The real power, without the people, begins its work in the hallways and private rooms of the institutions that represent our democracy. The interplay between corporations, big business, government lobbyists, bureaucrats, and the military, is what truly runs our democracy. It is in these elite corridors of power that businessmen and women collude in private for a new world order, where decisions made will later be justified to the people under some manner of fear mongering or some well inculcated belief system ever present from the very first time a child watches television or runs a computer game.

Globalization and a not so flat world

The cry of globalization is frequently incorporated within the context of democracy, an almost supra-democracy wherein global communications, the internet, cell-phones and the laptop computer are making the world a level playing field. It encompasses the business world of Thomas Friedman’s work of the same verbiage, to the exhortations of politicians and soft imperialists towards the coloured revolutions around the world. Certainly it has had its impact, but it is only technology, and one might as well describe the ubiquitous kalashnikov as a more effective leveller in the world of globalization.

The world remains bumpy and lumpy as the various contenders to power, or those trying to tame them, rise and fall within the technological capabilities of their most recent state of the art purchase. Whether it is big business, or big government, ranging through to subversive elements or insurrections against occupation, the technology has enabled the various players to continue making the world as uneven as possible, trying to tilt it entirely within their own favour. The ultimate bump that denies the level playing field are the computer nerds somewhere in the middle of U.S. playing their war games in real time as they control missile firing drones over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan blasting mostly civilians to shreds. No kalashnikov will ever be near them - and they call the insurgents cowards….

But globalization is much more the Friedman’s technological wonders of communication. It is much more about the World Trade Organization (WTO) which is

“the place where governments collude in private against their domestic pressure groups," those pressure groups being environmental, labour, health, and other social organizations. Renato Ruggerio, former director of the WTO said, “We are writing the constitution of a single global economy.”[1] Ironically, the credit goes to the internet for the destruction in 1998 of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) to which this quote refers. Globalization as envisioned by the WTO and the other members of the Washington consensus - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund who have carried forward the effective work of the WTO and its MAI intentions - is completely non-democratic. Its non-democracy comes from several factors. First and most obvious is that representatives to any of these institutions are not by election, not by representation, but through invitation. The representatives are appointed from international corporations, from banks, from lobbyists and other government institutions. Secondarily, the institutions from where these people are chosen - the business corporations and unelected members of government bureaucracies - are decidedly non-democratic as well. Thirdly, the “free trade” demanded under the WTO banner is anything but free.

The free trade espoused by these people and institutions is only free for the manipulation of wealth. Workers are not free to travel to wherever the pay and working conditions are better, but are constrained to their own geographical regions. The environment is not free although its resources are taken for free without too much concern about the long term negative results from pollution caused by extraction, transportation, consumption, and elimination through burning or waste dumping. And rather than being free trade, trade and commerce is bound up in multiple layers of rules and regulations that tend to over-ride national rules and regulations, especially pertaining to health, safety, education, and workers rights, entrapping the weaker governments into a cycle of democratic social welfare destruction. The overall result is wealth and resources rising to the dominant financial countries (ignoring momentarily the elites and their cronies within the weaker countries) while the weaker countries remain perpetually indebted to the member states of the Washington consensus.

Corporations and capitalism.

Corporations are probably the least democratic institution in the world, designed and purpose built to gather wealth, to avoid paying taxes, and more particularly to avoid the managers and shareholders from having any responsibility for institutional damages, either on the personal level or the global level. The corporation becomes a person under law, an invisible person, as the real people hide behind the legal barriers set up by corporate lawyers and accountants and MBAs and governments to protect their harnessing of wealth.

They have been around for a while, set up as a mechanism to harvest the wealth of the East Indies, of North America, and to transport that wealth back home. They have continued to receive government largesse in the form of favourable rules and regulations to the extent that they now are part and parcel of government and all too frequently are powerful enough to over-ride government constraints - until when things become really shaky because of their own manipulations, government steps in and bails them out - their own form of social welfare without the democracy aspect.

Corporations are decidedly non-democratic and their paramount place within the so called “capitalist” system (by whichever definition or permutation or purity of idealism it is defined to actually be) renders the capitalist system non-democratic as well. Economists rank about the lowest in my judgement of the range of careers available to anyone, working within a world of abstract perfection with mathematical models that are invented and created out of thin air without a connection to reality (all math should represent physical reality in some way as it does with chemistry and physics). Those economists who define themselves as supporters of capitalism are arguing for a world with its base mired in poverty and its peak in the giddy heights where the few control by far the most wealth of the world.

The underlying basis of capitalism necessitates unemployment in order to keep labour cheap and mobile (at least within a region or country). It necessitates poverty, if not for a motivator then for the same cheap labour. It requires consumption at all levels which because of the need for poverty and unemployment, also requires a complacent middle class to be the consumers of the world. Without a truly decent wage, with both parents working, with unending propaganda/advertising beating it into the consumers brain that they simply are not cool, sexy, articulate, or beautiful if a certain product is not purchased, the theoretical middle class drives itself - sometimes literally as our culture is based on the automobile - into ever increasing levels of debt. That debt is wealth to the corporations, as the consumer is trapped into an ever larger cycle of purchasing and debt creation.

The peaks of capitalism thrive on market control, elitism, cronyism and the ever revolving door between big business, government, and the military. It returns us to the world of globalization and the WTO and Washington consensus discussed above. Its reality is a world in which ten per cent of the population control over half of the global wealth, while half the global population controls only one per cent of the wealth - and really probably do not ‘control’ even that. From these vertiginous heights of wealth the world perspective is perhaps flat, the bottom layers being so dim and distant in view that we are all of equal powerlessness to the elites.

Democracy and theocracy - from communalism to occupation subjugation

How theological considerations, meritocracy, and the fear of social democracy influence perceptions on democratic values and influence actions justified as democratic, from Palestine and Israel through to U.S. actions around the globe.

This is perhaps the strangest relationship within this argument but it is within this context, from an article written by Ramzy Baroud about the ability of democracy to fit within the Muslim system of beliefs, that my original thoughts started. In the article Baroud argued that an “entire school of Muslim thought was in fact established around the concept that democracy and Islam are very much compatible.” Continuing through his arguments on the values of democracy and their fit with Islam - with the awareness of the damage done by the U.S. occupations and invasions and their bringing of democracy through the barrel of a gun to the peoples of the Islamic world - he notes, “However, these idealized assumptions missed the fact that Western democracy was conditional. And unconditional democracy can only be a farce.” [2] I can only concur.

Most religions have within them the philosophical/moral basis for the establishment of a democracy.

Most would fit a social democracy or even true communal communism if beliefs accorded to family and community were respected and implemented. The discussions about the umma within Islam, the communalism within Christianity, and some of the Talmudic traditions within Judaism, all carry strong elements of democracy. Most importantly as will be discussed later, is the attention to the weak and the poor within society, as well as care for society in general and the environment - and at the opposite end, the kings and rulers were not above the law. Unfortunately many religions - and certain sects within all religions - become dogmatically structured around a patriarchal system, or become entangled in some political philosophy that denies the communal-democratic basis of the religion. Volumes could be written arguing from this perspective on the ins and outs and validity of democracy versus church regulations versus theological interpretations but

there are two points I wish to make here. First is the concept of a Jewish and democratic state. Secondly, the semi-religious beliefs of Confucianism raise the idea of a meritocracy as a possible permutation of democracy.

A democratic and Jewish state?

Many problems occur around the idea of a state that determines its democracy on the basis of one particular religion. While Israel is not alone in this, it serves as an indicator of how far religious zealotry and dogma and political will based on that zealotry - through belief or simple utility - can deny democracy to its citizens and to citizens of areas that it controls.

It is obvious that there is nothing democratic about an occupation. Democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, both occupied countries, is essentially a farce. A government supported by foreign money, a country that has various war lords serving within its institutions, a government that would change dramatically if the occupiers withdrew cannot by any definition other than the lie of propaganda be considered a democracy. For Israel, its denial of Palestinian rights with the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself is a denial of democracy. It is a denial of democracy prejudiced upon a religious “holier than thou” belief system - in which the “thou” becomes homo sacer, the other, outside the law and thus subject to whatever treatment is accorded it without retort - and it is omnipresent in all areas of Israeli/Palestinian society.

The pure lie of democracy as a gift from the rulers, the elite, was fully demonstrated during the Palestinian elections in which Hamas emerged a surprise winner. This democratic victory was quickly denied by the U.S., Canada, and Israel, with the ongoing results being the continued subjugation of the Palestinian Authority to the Israeli political will and the demonization of Hamas and its enclave of Gaza, an enclave determined mainly by outside forces trying to entrap Hamas. Which is in effect what happened, again with results that demonstrate the full lack of democratic ideals of the Israeli government as it subjects the territory to ongoing containment - essentially a huge outdoor prison camp - and savage military attacks that are demonstrably against international law. Democracy has only been achieved by the people, the demos, standing up for their rights, fighting against the abuses of the elites and rulers - and that fight is at its most physical and savage in occupied territories such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and even more so in Palestine.

A democratic meritocracy?

With the rise of Chinese power through economic wealth, technological advancements, and increases in its military budget, most recent works on China as the rising power of the East contain arguments about the nature of Chinese society as influenced by its Confucian background.[3] While not truly a religion, its philosophical underpinnings and the manner in which it is used parallel in certain respects the philosophical structures of the other main religions. Part of the Confucian belief system is that of an ordered society, with a hierarchal structure, but it is not a completely rigid structure and is supported by the belief and application of the concept of merit as a means of advancement.

Historically the rulers and elites of Chinese society were supported by a bureaucracy that was determined theoretically by the merits of those doing the work. The merit was established by a series of examinations to determine the best candidates for the bureaucracy. The rulers themselves were perceived to be there on merit, and if they no longer deserved or earned the merit of the populace, they would be overthrown. These greatly simplified explanations give support to the concept of the intellectual rigor that the Chinese apply to their education. It can also in part help explain the demographic statistic indicating that the distribution of wealth within a meritocracy, in this case China, is not nearly as widespread as in the “democracies” - of which the U.S. has one of the largest spreads in the world. China’s current economic growth is increasing the spread, but the idea of a meritocracy remains strongly within its societal structures.

It is hard to imagine a meritocracy in place in North America. Very few of our politicians would merit any of their positions or wealth if they had to pass tests in order to be in power. Many of our politicians are surprisingly ignorant of much of the world, its cultures and beliefs, its geography and life. Democracy in North America comes from the power of wealth and not from the power of common sense and merit. While a meritocracy is not necessarily democratic, it certainly has a level of appeal and would be a highly valid instrument to incorporate within a democracy. Perhaps China will become democratic after all, in a manner that most pundits observing China are not even capable of considering, a social democratic meritocracy.

Today’s democracy

Another look at today’s democracies and their achievement of wealth demonstrates that free enterprise had very little to do with that wealth creation. Rather, all countries that have harvested the world’s wealth have done so by protecting their own industries and products at the expense of those from other countries. This applies to the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish empires, as well as to the American empire. It also applies to the current rise in the wealth of the Chinese. Protection can be afforded in many ways, from tariffs, to quotas, to tax laws, to rules and regulations imposed on imported goods. However it is achieved, most countries that have become wealthy have done so through some form of protectionism.

The authors of the books on China mentioned above relate how this is true of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, all but the latter being considered democratic and held up as exemplars of free trade capitalism. Neither concept holds. They all operate as quasi democracies, having succeeded economically with strong government support and interventions, while the democratic aspect is arguably much more in line with the Confucian meritocracy of China. Certainly the people vote, but it is the underlying bureaucracy and rules and regulations of business and the economy that truly determine the power of the government, not the people, the ‘demos’.

Examined in that light, many other countries become nominal democracies as well, with that paragon of self -defined enlightenment and freedom, the United States, presenting many aspects of its political culture that deny democracy to its people. The U.S. along with many other western countries are more correctly a plutocracy or an oligarchy, where the wealthy control the power structures of the country.

An aspect of democracy that is singularly lacking in the western powers is that of the openness and transparency that they all call upon others to demonstrate. Corporations, as seen above are decidedly non-transparent, as are their military liaisons and their governmental cohorts. Corporate secrets, government secrets, are subject to tests under the Freedom of Information Laws extent in most democracies, yet it is increasingly more and more difficult to access full information without denial through classification or redaction.

It can be argued that the reasons for this secrecy have very little to do with intellectual property rights, or that the information is “too sensitive” to be dealt with by the public, or that the security of the country will be compromised. Governments and businesses keep secrets not for the protection of the business, the government and the state in face of dangers from abroad - except that, ironically that is exactly what it is for, because in a true democracy, if the people had all the information that they wanted through truly free requests, the revelations of government incompetence, culpability in various crimes (national and international), obeisance to various lobbying groups (think AIPAC), and disregard for people, their cultures, and the environments they live in would be glaringly obvious. Secrecy is not to protect the country, but to protect the people in power from the wrath of the citizens that they are manipulating.

So what becomes democracy?

The democratic ideal is difficult to achieve. Anything that is remotely related to a social democracy comes under the gun - literally - of the U.S. military. Most of South and Central America have experienced the interventions of the U.S. military in one form or another, either direct invasion, or covert operations, or not so covert support of the right wing business elites of the countries. From the “banana republics” of Central America - so called because of the dominance of United Fruit and its offspring, Chiquita, and Standard Fruit and its offspring Dole in co-opting much of the agricultural landscape - through to the southern state of Chile and the overthrow of the Allende government to be replaced by the militaristic Pinochet dictatorship, the Americas have suffered under the non-democratic and internationally criminal actions of the United States.

Further away, in Iran - with the overthrow of the Mossadegh social democracy, through to the invasion and massacre of millions of south-east Asians in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, to similar massacres of so-called communists in the Philippines and Indonesia - the U.S. record is consistently the denial of democracy when it comes in the form of a social democracy, wherein the people actually have or want to have some say in the government and its application of rules and regulations.

A associated directly with all this are the multinational corporations that harvest the wealth of the countries on the receiving end of these military adjustments. Combined, the two are, in spite of all their wonderful rhetoric of democracy and freedom, only interested in wealth accumulation with no interest in the people or the environment.

A social democracy attempts to protect its resources and use them for the well being of its own people, through carefully managing sales and extraction, by protecting the environment, protecting the health and well being of the people, by supporting health, welfare, and educational systems for the betterment of all, and finally to protect the environment and culture of the cultural and geographical systems of the country.

Would not most people of the world, given the chance to vote on it, tell their governments to provide health, education and welfare for all, to protect the environment, to provide for the aged, sick, and disabled? Would they not vote for clean water - the right to water which has been denied them in national and international rights? Would they not vote for local agriculture supplemented by fair trade for other agricultural products, at the same time maintaining the integrity and sustainability of the agricultural landscape by avoiding monocrop genetically modified agriculture supported by a few big businesses? Would they not vote to tell occupying forces, or any military foreign forces to go home and leave them in peace? Would they not vote to constrain the rights of corporations, to keep them responsible for environmental as well as personal damages and apply responsibilities and liabilities to the owners and managers?

Unless heavily inculcated with the dogma and rhetoric of military glory and economic survival through debt riddled consumerism, an educated public (remember the meritocracy argument?) would more than likely make choices that protect the cultural community as well as the agricultural and geographical resources. An informed public, informed through a critical media, informed by truly free access to government and corporate information, would certainly rule the nations differently than our current crop of secretive elites.

Sum

All these arguments are of course short versions of what could become chapters, books, on the various topics quickly over viewed. A true democracy would be ideal, but that ideal will not be realized until the armies of the world are constrained, until the corporations of the world are put back under control of the nations, until the nations are allowed to choose their own destinies through unhindered noninterfered-with truly free elections. True democracy, true people power, is a long way off in much of the world. It is to realize that and to understand all its permutations that will help bring it about as a reality, through the long slow process of education, protestation, agitation, and resistance.

[1] These quotes are widely cited in a variety of sources active against the deservedly deceased MAI. Also quoted in Chomsky, Noam. “Hordes of Vigilantes”, Profit Over People – Neoliberalism and Global Order. Seven Stories Press, N.Y. 1999. p. 163.

[2] Ramzy Baroud.

“The Hypocrisy of Al-Demoqratia,” December 12, 2009. Palestine Chronicle. http://www.palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=15605 [3] three useful recent works:

Eamon Fingleton. In the Jaws of the Dragon. Thomas Dunne Books, New York. 2008.

- a readily accessible read, a more ‘dramatic’ read than the others, but allies with Jacques’ book.



Martin Jacques. When China Rules the World. Allen Lane (Penguin), London. 2009.

- a more academic read, a bit more difficult to follow, but supports the ideas presented in Fingleton. Very good at interpreting the Chinese representations of themselves.

Bill Emmott. Rivals. Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) , Boston. 2009.

- Emmott is an economist and thus argues grandly using many monetary statistics and is much more a western interpretation, based on some typical western stereotypes and interpretations of Chinese character.





 Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of  opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles' work is  also presented globally through other alternative websites and news  publications.

 

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