Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Is Democracy Possible?

     It seems to me that the rich and powerful have managed to convince a large majority of the people around the world that there is nothing they can do to change or even influence their governments. We face the prospects of a dire future with climate change, and everywhere majorities want their governments to take action. But they refuse. People want cuts to military spending and a halt to endless wars. But it goes on. In Europe, majorities want policies that promote employment, but everywhere governments demand more austerity programs. The growth of inequality of income and wealth continues unabated; people want much more egalitarian societies, but governments refuse to change the status quo.
    The other day the new Syriza government in Greece proposed a few very moderate social policies designed to help the poor and the unemployed, but the European Union vetoed the legislation. In office, it is hard to see any difference between the parties which formally represent big business and the social democratic parties which used to represent the common people. Do countries and their governments have any sovereignty today?
    The political elite everywhere seems to be firmly on the side of the big international banks and the other financial institutions. In the USA, the Federal Reserve created $4.5 trillion through quantitative easing (printing money) and it all went to the big banks, not to the people losing their homes. The newly created capital also served to push up the stock markets.

The official view of democracy
    Our political scientists declare that democracy is giving citizens the right to vote in elections every four years. Governments increasingly declare that democracy exists when there is a free market economy. The Anglo-American version of this liberal version of “representative democracy” normally produces governments which have a majority of seats in the legislature even when they receive less than 40% of the votes. Elections are deemed to be legitimate where voter turnout is less that 50% of the citizens.
    What do kids learn in school? How many know that the British parliamentary system, like we have in Canada, was designed for a time in history when the government was run by a very small group of rich white men? How many understand that the US system of government was founded on the liberal model  where the goal was to prevent the development of democracy?
Election day in Greece January 2015

Democracy requires mass, direct participation
    Modern democracy first developed in Athens and other Greek city states. If you go back and read some history, you will quickly discover that Greece at this time (500 - 300 B.C.) was characterized by continuous class war between the oligarchs, the large land owners who used slave labour to produce the products and profits, and the democrats, almost all of the rest of the people, the small farmers, serfs, artisans, and the few free labourers. This was a pre-industrial era, with a very small proletariat.
    Of course, in a fundamental way these societies were not really democratic. Slaves did not have the status of citizens, but they could buy their freedom, and some were able to do so. The people who were not born in Greece, the metics, were denied citizenship status.  Then at the very bottom were women who had no citizenship rights; they were the property of men, and those married to the oligarchs were confined to the house. It appears to be the case that the only prominent women were courtesans.
    Nevertheless, Athenian democracy grew as the growing popular classes challenged the oligarchs. Final legal authority rested in the Assembly; its decisions could not be overturned by some non-elected court or high official. It consisted of all the citizens, met 40 times a year, and had a quorum set at 6,000. Decisions were made by a majority vote of all citizens present. When the oligarchs were in power, they tried to change the balance of power by setting property qualifications for citizenship.
    There were also the law courts. The judges in the courts were chosen by lot from all the citizens, and they were changed each year. The top ten generals in Athens were elected. The armed forces were a citizens’ militia. The oligarchs were able to fill most of the state’s administrative positions because most of the popular classes could not take these positions because they had to work for a living. The democrats forming government responded by introducing pay for government work.
    As we know, Greek democracy was repressed by the local oligarchs, often with the support of armed forces from other cities or foreign states. Then democracy was suppressed by the Macedonian empire followed by the occupying Roman empire. The first attempt to create a democratic society and state was replaced by various versions of rule by the propertied classes.

What can we do?

    This is the big political question. In the January 2015 election Greece became the first major state where the population stood up and said “we have had enough.” The turning point, I believe, was when the unionized working class, which had historically supported the social democrats (PASOK), decided to break with tradition and shifted their support to the progressive, democratic left.
    Across Europe all of the governments and mainstream political parties, including the social democratic formations, have stood firmly with the capital class. They insist that there is no alternative to the neoliberal model. If this first attempt to move towards a democratic state and society is to survive, it needs strong support from its political and ideological allies, beginning in Europe.