And They Call this Democracy?

“It’s a truism, but one that needs to be constantly stressed, that capitalism and democracy are ultimately quite incompatible.”

(Noam Chomsky, Feb.1970 at a talk at the Poetry Centre, New York)

To present a random sample of examples to back up this statement: Received opinion in the so-called ‘developed’ countries would have one believe that democracy is grounded in the electoral system; that if one can cast a vote periodically then representation of the people is taking place and one can’t grumble. However, even at that level the electorate are fooled at best and cheated at worst. Fooled into believing they elected a government of the majority of the electorate, as with Blair and New Labour and cheated – twice – by Bush who effectively stole both of his presidential terms at the expense of thousands of disenfranchised voters. Once in power it’s quite simple to strengthen that power. Bush conveniently sacked unfriendly District Attorneys in favour of more right-leaning, cooperative allies during his term but was then surprised and disappointed when one of his international allies against terrorism in Pakistan recently followed his example and sacked his judiciary because they dared question his constitutional right to a further term as president/dictator. On the healthcare issue in the US, specifically the attempt to bring free healthcare to millions of poor children, Bush simply and brazenly said that whatever Congress voted he would veto it – democracy in action.

Deliberate lies and misinformation were promulgated about the use of depleted uranium during the first Gulf war and later in the Balkans conflict. A US army report released six months before the first Gulf war detailing the risks of depleted uranium use was suppressed and only unearthed later by a researcher, revealing that the army failed to follow regulations which obliged them to give medical tests to soldiers exposed to or wounded by DU munitions. When forced into admission that soldiers had been in contact with contaminated equipment they initially owned up to a few dozen individuals and it took activists and the media seven years before the Department of Defense acknowledged the thousands of unnecessary exposures. Similarly in the Balkans, the US and NATO initially denied the use of DU and then refused to reveal where it had been used, resulting in delays in clean-up operations and ongoing exposure for many more citizens. How many servicemen and civilians have been exposed in the most recent conflict in Iraq is undetermined. There is still a veil being drawn over the issue by the ‘authorities’ and many affected servicemen are still not receiving compensation or allowances whilst a callous indifference is being shown to the number of children being born with horrible deformities in Iraq.

It’s interesting how many democracies give great favours to their elected representatives. You’d think that a fat salary, an expense account, numerous junkets around the world and revolving doors into consultancies and directorships would be ample reward, but no, let’s throw in immunity from prosecution for crimes whilst in office. Why? There have been no good reasons proffered for this stance and generally citizens – the voting public, those on the receiving end of democracy – are outraged by such overt hypocrisy and elitism. It’s recently been announced that Jacques Chirac, former President of France, is to be investigated for alleged corruption while mayor of Paris. In Turkey, whilst MPs have full judicial immunity when in office, the citizenry mustn’t criticise the military, the flag nor the founder of the Republic or be seen or heard to be insulting Turkishness, whatever that is. Similar examples around the globe abound. There is an anecdote in Howard Zinn’s A Power Governments Cannot Suppress about a question asked of the judge by a juror in the case of a break-in to steal draft records as a protest against the Vietnam war. Zinn had testified for several hours about the Vietnam war not being fought for freedom and democracy but for “tin, rubber, oil as repeatedly specified in internal memoranda of the government” and Samuel Braithwaite, the juror, a veteran of 11 years in the US army, asked “If, when a citizen violates the law he is punished by the government, who does the punishing when the government violates the law?” Good question.

When governments or regimes aren’t quite to the liking of the richer democracies then a little help in getting it right doesn’t go amiss. Money can be channelled in through lobbyists, media groups and NGOs. Western-leaning candidates can be hailed and promoted and propped up until they run out of uses or worse, transgress the controller’s rules at which time, in an Orwellian switch, regime change becomes necessary yet again.

The long-running saga (open sore) of Palestine/Israel continues. The most recent history of these lands shows that democracy is acceptable for some but not for others. Even after the overwhelming victory of Hamas in the internationally acclaimed free and fair elections the big powers couldn’t accept this as a suitable democracy. Democracy must fit into strict parameters condoned by the powerful. Funds were withdrawn by the EU, the US backed Israel’s withholding of payments, even when Hamas agreed to include members from the losing party Fatah to attempt to make a unity government.

The world’s largest democracy, India, has a few pertinent examples of how capitalism and democracy are incompatible. Arundhati Roy (novelist and activist) is a well known critic of the governments there, both local and national and is a defender of people’s rights on the issue of big dams. In her book The Cost of Living, on the topic of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River, she says that what began 10 years previously as a fight for one river valley eventually “began to raise doubts about an entire political system. What is at issue now is the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land?” The dam site and adjacent areas were already under the Indian Official Secrets Act when in September 1989 50,000 people from all over India gathered in the valley pledging to fight ‘destructive development’. What followed was more democracy in action. The site was “clamped under section 144 which prohibits the gathering of groups of more than 5 people.” Local people continued to protest and many pledged to drown rather than move from their homes. The Japanese Friends of the Earth’s campaign resulted in getting their government to withdraw 27 billion yen loan to finance the project and more international pressure mounted on the World Bank. The democratic knock-on was more repression in the valley with government policy being described by one minister as to “flood the valley with khaki.” At stake were huge contracts involving important and already wealthy people. Never mind that big dams have long been discredited for reasons including devastation of farmlands and forests, sedimentation creating shorter than estimated life spans, salination and waterlogging of land irrigated downstream, etc etc. It’s even questionable whether there will be enough water to reach Gujarat’s towns at the end of the chain – the original stated purpose from as long ago as the early 1960s. At stake also were the lives and livelihoods ultimately of millions of people, but these people had little or no money so couldn’t be part of the equation. They were simply disposable and although supposed to be compensated or given new land this simply isn’t happening. Democracy forges ahead, enriching minorities and further impoverishing millions.

In the free world, in the long-established democracies, in the newly fledged wannabe democracies, the virus of the anti-terrorism crusade is spreading fast bringing tighter laws and increased controls, reining in freedoms with world-wide use of police and/or troops against civil protest, laws akin to those foretold by Orwell and Huxley – too weird to be thought true by many. Take care of being suspected of even thinking about committing a subversive act. This really brings to life one of Joseph Heller’s characters of some 40 years ago who “was jeopardising his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” Complacent populations allow it to happen. Uninformed, ignorant populations allow it to happen. People have accepted the one-sided terms and conditions with little or no question, without signing a contract. There is no contract, just a one-way edict. It’s commonly said that everyone has an equal chance in life, something that, to anyone with a working brain bigger than a peanut, is patently not true. A system so stacked in favour of a few over many can’t be seen as just. How has this crumbling edifice called democracy managed to stand for so long? “Nothing’s perfect,” people say. No, but how long do you wait before you pull a rotten tooth? Are these governments and their democracies relevant to their populaces? Are they credible?

This has all been said before, in other ways, in other places, by other people but it seems not loudly enough yet, not often enough yet, not yet by enough people. “Is it monstrous to think about how to create the possibility of human relationships based on equality, on social justice and on solidarity and relationships from which the use of violence, terrorism and war is excluded by common accord?” wrote Gino Strada, an Italian war surgeon for ten or so years, in his book Green Parrots.

Enough people speaking out and acting in accord with their conscience, not cowed down, refusing to be brainwashed, not suffering from the comfort of amnesia or the ostrich syndrome can bring about social change. Howard Zinn stresses that “our most deadly enemies may not be hiding in caves and compounds abroad but in the corporate boardrooms and government offices where decisions are made that consign millions to death and misery – not deliberately but as collateral damage of the lust for power and profit.”

When and where, if ever, was a population last asked how they would define democracy? We, the people, in countries large and small, are told that we have democracy. We are told this by leaders who say we should trust them, who keep information from us because that’s in our best interest, who deliberately lie to us, who can have us stopped and searched in the interest of national security, who have us watched night and day in our town centres, who listen in to telephone conversations, who have access to more and more of our personal information, bank details etc., who can put blocks on our access to the internet, who have centralised computer records to use, (or lose) as they choose, who can rein us in and let us out with special measures, who decide whether we can show dissent. And they call this democracy. And people buy it.

Nearly 40 years on from Chomsky’s talk at the New York Poetry Centre what can be said about the incompatibility of capital and democracy? That capital continues to widen the rifts between people, between sections of community, between countries; that capitalism is enabling a tiny minority to own an ever-increasing share of the world’s wealth to the detriment of billions of people; that capitalism turns a blind eye to democracy, preferring simple acquisition.

Democracy needs no self-aggrandizing leaders with big egos to polish, no experts and specialists with projects linked to big business and personal gain as motivation. Democracy needs no rallying cries causing flag-waving nationalism. Democracy, in essence, is simple and easily understood. Democracy speaks the whole truth (without an oath), reveals all the evidence, enables informed discussion and decisions and requires inclusion for all in dialogue. Democracy means common ownership and control of the world’s assets for the benefit of and in the interests of all. Democracy’s responsibility is to every member of the world community.

Janet Surman

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