Sunday, January 27, 2008
How much democracy do you have? And how much would you like?
If you're reading this, chances are you live in a 'democracy'.
That's because a founding pillar of democracy is freedom of speech. It's also because liberal democracies encourage optimal economic circumstances, leading to more widely spread affluence, and by extension, greater computer ownership and internet access.
Or so we're told.
I live in Ireland. It's a 'democracy'. Most of the people who read this blog are from Ireland and other Anglophone countries like Britain, America, Australia, Canada and so on. They're all 'democracies' too.
But are any of those places truly democratic, and what do we mean by the word 'democracy' anyway?
I'm a democratic fundamentalist myself. I believe in the primacy of the will of the people. From where else does executive power draw its legitimacy?
But is voting once every four or five years for local representatives, who then subordinate their wills to those of rigid party structures in order to secure advancement, really an assertion of your will?
Do those representatives truly represent the views of those who elect them? Is the ability to remove such representatives once every five years genuinely sufficient to ensure that they act upon the will of those who elect them?
Of course not. And this is the fundamental problem with Western Democracy as we know it.
Let's consider Ireland:
An unelected President.
A head of government that the people didn't elect (and never do), who is mired in dodgy financial dealings.
Inconvenient referendum results ignored by the executive, and re-run until their chosen result is obtained.
Licorice all-sorts coalitions in control, composed not by the people but by the political party structures.
Support for a war that the people marched in their hundreds of thousands on the streets to reject.
None of that truly represents the will of the people. It is undemocratic to the core.
Then there are the undemocratic elements we share with other Western democracies. Things like irregular elections, executives that are elected by parties not the people, lengthy periods where the public are unable to challenge any government decision except through protest or the media.
Not to mention the vested interests that subvert democracy here and elsewhere. Everything from the overtly corrupt - like big business lobbying and cosying up with the politicians - to the structural, such as the internal party structures that inflict governments on the public that they never chose, such as the FF/PD coalition, or the current incumbent government.
A true representation of the popular vote any time in my living memory ought to have elected a FF/FG coalition. But it never did.
Democracy as a word comes from Greek roots - demos, meaning the people, and kratia, meaning to rule. Democracy literally means the system through which the people rule themselves. By that definition, we don't have a democracy in Ireland. Almost nowhere actually has a democracy, in fact.
There's a reason for that, plenty of reasons in fact. Liberals tell us that true democracy is dangerous, as it amounts to the tyranny of the majority. Given true democracy, like neanderthals we would all vote to disenfranchise gays, ethnic minorities and so on. Everywhere would be like Stormont once was - rule of the majority for the majority only.
The right also hates true democracy. That's because the people get in the way of important economic decision-making. People want to keep national resources and not give them to private enterprise. They want costly, bloated public services like health and education that private enterprise can deliver more efficiently. Basically, they get in the way of profit-making.
Is it any wonder then, with such opposition, that democracy has never been permitted to flourish?
Except in one place, that is. One tiny country, with almost no natural resources, and difficult geography. A country that, without military power, has managed to remain one of the most peaceful and affluent on Earth for centuries, despite internal divisions of geography, language and culture.
That country is Switzerland. You'd have thought such a successful system would have given other places food for thought. But apparently not. The rest of us cannot be trusted with the direct democracy enjoyed by the Swiss.
The Swiss are the living example that the early American constitutionalists who first iterated the fear that true democracy leads to tyranny of the majority were wrong.
In Switzerland, if you don't like a law, you consult your fellow citizens about it. If 49,999 others don't like it either, you can challenge that law and a referendum is automatically called on the issue. Same deal if you want a law introduced.
Ancient Athenian democracy was so concerned about the potential of the rich and powerful hijacking elections and garnering power to their own ends that they eschewed voting. The government was decided by lot instead, on the assumptions that everyone (alright, everyone who was a native, and wasn't a woman or slave) was equally qualified for public office purely by virtue of being a citizen.
That's an intriguing concept to ponder in this age of Hilary Clinton spending $100m (and counting!) on her US presidential campaign. Where did all that money come from, and why? If she is elected, how beholden will she be to those funders? The same question can be asked of any of the candidates in either party, of course. They're all tainted.
I'm not suggesting a return to Athenian democracy, not even one based on universal suffrage. The fear of Roisin Ingle or Steve Staunton accidentally becoming Taoiseach is simply too much.
But we could definitely go down the road that Switzerland has, with many more decisions being turned over to the people to decide for themselves. A referendum on the war would have shut Shannon to US warplanes. A referendum on the health service would have rejected Harney's transparent privatisation plan and insisted on proper funding of beds and services. A referendum on the M3 would have ensured the road went nowhere near the Hill of Tara.
You can begin see why the powers-that-be don't want you to have too much democracy now, can't you? The pesky people would get in the way of making the decisions they want - decisions that enrich them and their funders and pals at the expense of the rest of us.
I'd like to see a lot more of the decisions in Ireland made by the people. We really aren't as stupid as the professional political class think we are. Usually, we're well ahead of their curve.
And I'd like to see regular referenda as a prelude to much more democracy, including a strong right to impeach any member of the Oireachtas or indeed the President, by way of popular vote. Don't like the Minister for Transport? Get the petition together, and we'll have a vote on removing him from office.
We don't live in a real democracy. We live in a land, like most other lands, run by a political class for their own benefit and that of their funders, occasionally influenced by the fourth estate, who themselves aren't shy at posing to represent the people while peddling their own agendas. Here's what Fred Reed has to say about democracy and the press in an American context.
So how much democracy do you really want? How much do you deserve? And when are we going to get up off our knees, remove our collective mouth from the peckers of those who rule us with contempt, and demand the right to rule ourselves?