Reclaiming democracy – again

A worrying challenge is arising to the very idea of democracy from various quarters. This new trend has two main drivers, among others: First, a number of Western ‘democracies’, particularly the US with the UK and France in typically obliging tow, have given the concept a bad name. Their litany of human rights abuses and barbarity in the world today make a mockery of the concept of democracy. With ‘democrats’ like these, who would want to become democratic?!

The second driver comes from China’s alternative model that is gaining much traction among emerging nations. China’s highly successful economic development over four decades since the 1980s has caught the attention of academics and politicians alike. Rather logically, many are asking whether a benevolent dictatorship may be the preferred option for the greatest benefit for the largest number in situations where a country is trying to rise fast from a low base of economic development. This is also further supported by the fate of the so-called “Arab Spring” especially in Libya and Syria where the chaotic outcomes have been disastrous.

The second driver is the easier one to deal with in a defence of democracy. China has never had democracy, and there is little reason to believe that its growing wealth will not push it toward democracy. Tiananmen protests in 1989 indicated this, as does Hong Kong’s relative autonomy (far more than it ever had under British rule), and the various labour disputes that have challenged the Chinese state’s power. For as long as economic prosperity continues to rise so fast for the general population in China, there may not be too much of a challenge to a one-party state, similar to the situation in Saudi Arabia, for example. But as soon as this slows down, China will probably have to reform. In any case, rising wealth will necessarily create competing nodes of power, and these will either have to learn to compete in a democratic fashion, or they will fight each other. For now, the focus of China is on greater economic parity for the inland and western parts of the country, as the coastal populations have so far taken the lion’s share of profits. This also represents a form of greater democracy, albeit on an economic level for now.

However, the manner is which today’s warmongering ‘democracies’ like USA trample on the inalienable rights of people and nations all over the world while ‘communist’ countries like China and Vietnam concentrate on respect for sovereignty and economic relations with other nations instead, encourages a more positive outlook on ‘benevolent dictatorship‘ throughout the world. Conversely, China’s economic success has many in the West scared for their own future in so far as this is seen as ‘dependent’ on the West’s hegemony over the world economy. Some are beginning to question the merits of democracy in the face of a Chinese challenge.

This is compounded by deep corruption in the West’s financial sector, and control over the policy space, mass media and main political parties by major corporations. A lack of accountability by political leaders in these countries has led to a situation where a growing portion of their citizenry has lost faith in their countries’ ‘democratic’ systems, as seen for example by diminishing rates of popular participation in these countries’ elections.

Within this section of the West’s population, some are even losing faith in the ability or competence of their fellow citizens in making the ‘right’ choices in elections. While traditionally it was the extreme right that showed a propensity to support authoritarianism in the West, today some progressive minded people are also ‘hoping’ for a benevolent dictator to save countries like USA from themselves. And some ‘academics’ are writing ‘scientific’ articles in support of this.

But the irony of the situation is that the policy mistakes made in a country like USA over the past few decades have been in the service of interest groups, and in direct opposition to the will of the people. Public opinion in USA, UK and France has consistently been against foreign wars, austerity measures, or the deterioration of social services. The general public has wanted decent incomes for all, corporate power reduced, corrupt bankers and politicians held accountable, and better and more equitable relations with other nations and cultures. Most people support clean energy and less pollution as well as healthcare and education sector reforms that benefit the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

So it is too little democracy rather than too much of it that has led to disastrous Western policies. It is precisely in the fact that politicians are corrupt and non-responsive to the wishes of the electorate that we can find the reasons for the current debacle. Should there be more democracy in the West, many of the ills of today would be cured. A more people-centred system of governance in these countries would automatically reduce the power of corporations over the media, banks, academia and public policy.

And herein lies the reasons behind such unexpected ‘campaigning’ against ‘big government’. Portraying ‘government’ as the ‘enemy’ of the ‘people’ certainly ensures that the potential power that average citizens could exercise over their own fates can never be realized. Instilling an irrational fear of a foreign ‘enemy’ or ‘terrorist’ also helps the cause of corporate fascism.

So a question arises on the cause of this weakness in Western ‘democracy’. And the answer to this seemingly complex question may be quite simple: The problem is in ‘representation’ itself. Representative democracy is not real democracy. It rather is a form of shirking responsibility, by pushing the difficult decisions onto the shoulders of elected representatives who cannot possibly be expected to take care of the needs of so many constituents.

By placing our trust in elected representatives and allowing them to take decisions on our behalves for the next 4 or 5 years, we are in effect saying that we do not care enough to take charge over matters that affect our lives on a daily basis. We even allow them to declare war on our behalves. By bowing to the power of ‘leaders’ we admit our will to be led by others, even to the limit of life and death decisions. This encourages corruption and throws the elected politicians to the wolves – the 1% who do have the resources and the power to practically own ‘our’ representatives. People who would not hesitate to steal our savings in banks, and to declare war on the world for the sake of greed alone.

Put differently: if all major national and local policies had to be voted on by the general population of a country, no interest group or lobby could have as much control over the wealth or policies of a nation. A president could never start a war on another nation willy-nilly. Extra-judicial killings would be impossible. Corrupt bankers could not get away with murder. Corporations could not rape and pillage the world. People would be earning decent incomes, and they would have free access to healthcare and education, especially in a country as rich as USA.

People would actually see good results from good government by the people and for the people in a system of Direct Democracy.

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How power corrupts intellectuals

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I just visited one of my favourite web sites committed to improving US-Iranian relations, and was pleasantly surprised to come across a crucially important topic that is sadly ignored at our collective peril: Intellectuals are largely corrupted by power. Here is a quote from the aforementioned web site:

As Hillary notes in her opening remarks, we are especially grateful to Prof. Chomsky, and not just for appearing with us—though we do thank him for that. More importantly, “We thank him for prodding us…In his famous essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals,’ published in the New York Review of Books forty six years ago, Prof. Chomsky pointed out that ‘when we consider the responsibility of intellectuals, our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology.’ For more than half a century, Prof. Chomsky has been both fearless and, it would seem, tireless in rigorously scrutinizing the claims of intellectuals who, in the service of power, ascribe universal validity to what are, in fact, very particular interests. Above all, he has been unrelenting in his critique of what he sees as the ‘fundamental political axiom’ of American foreign policy—‘namely that the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible.’”

So why is it that ‘intellectuals’ can be so stupid? I fear the answer is quite simple.

In the first instance, these intellectuals are driven by instinct and self-preservation, just as much as everyone else. For most of us, egos, prestige and financial gain constitute core drivers that can overwhelm or weaken the drive for scientific objectivity and learning.

Secondly, power shapes institutions and their governing rules and procedures. Without a direct challenge, the grasp of power over who gets recognised and rises in academic institutions will increase over time. As corporations get stronger in any economy over time, intellectual objectivity and independence of academic institutions from the interests of the powerful will lessen and weaken. This is particularly true of states where a greater share of the national wealth is diverted toward private corporations and interests as opposed to the public sector, which by definition is more accountable in a democratic or semi-democratic setting.

Thirdly, civilisations go through natural cycles of emergence, convergence and decline. Western civilisation is at the stage of decadence and decline today. Whatever it was that the west contributed to the intellectual history of the world over the past couple of centuries or so, is basically over.

In this context, not much can be expected of Western intellectuals, and US intellectuals in particular. A lot of what passes as intellectual or analytical work is mere propaganda of a particularly vacuous type led by showmen and entertainers within corporate-owned media.

Here and there one comes across US academics and analysts with a genuine moral and intellectual fibre, people like Chomsky, Finkelstein and the Leveretts. Invariably though, such substantive people are marginalised, ignored, or absued within governance systems controlled by private corporations – systems that are best described as ‘corporate fascist states’, like the one in USA.