Vanishing Democracy in the West

Hard won asset

Western democracy is one of the best institutions that human beings have created so far. However, by long familiarity and association it has now become an undervalued feature of life. Democracy was described by Richard Crossman, British socialist thinker, as “thick masses of foliage”. The average person is not aware of its intricate structure and its delicate nature. Westerners attitudes could be summarised simply: we have a democratic system here, it has always been like this, and it will continue thus for ever and ever. Wrong!

Nations in Europe and North America did not wake up one morning to find a neat package labelled ‘democracy’ at their doorstep. They had to struggle hard to wring out democratic concessions bit by bit from their elites. The tussle took different forms at different locations, but in all cases it was not quick, easy or peaceful. Civil wars and revolutions marked the the long march to democracy. Think of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the second English Civil War of 1648, and the execution of Charles I in 1649 and you will get a brief glimpse of what people in Britain had to go through to arrive finally at their present form of liberal democracy.

An evolving institution

Fundamentally, democracy is a social contract negotiated by peaceful and violent means over a long period. The population are granted certain concessions, and in return the elite are allowed to enjoy monopoly over wealth and power. Elections might bring new faces, but they are almost invariably drawn from the privileged elite. On the other hand, the population at large have significant freedoms, security, and rights.

Democracy is also an evolving contract. Evolution does not necessarily promise progress. It simply denotes transformation occasioned by changing circumstances; mainly the shifting balance of power between the parties.

Viewing democracy as a continuously negotiated contract clarifies one essential point: people in Europe and the USA do not have democracy because they are European, American, or even Christian. Moreover, they have not been granted democracy because their elites are ‘nice’, generous, or ‘civilised’. Basically, they enjoy democratic norms because the elites concluded that is the most efficient way to retain control and privilege at minimum cost and effort. Other elites, such as the regimes one finds in the Middle East, follow a different model based on the exercise of naked force. The intention is the same, but the price is considerably higher and the chances of sustainable success and much slimmer.

Turning tide of democracy

Democracy in Europe and the USA is receding fast. The contract is being revised radically and one party; people at large, are not aware anything of critical importance is taking place. The tide began to turn at the end of the Golden Age that followed World War II. The 1950s and 1960s were decades of unusual economic growth and profits. The elites were sufficiently satisfied to pass some of the rewards to the rest of the population. However, from the late-1960s onwards conditions changed. Basically, growth and profits went back to their historic trends, and that was unacceptable. The elites had come to expect more.

The end result was an assault on several fronts. First and foremost, there was a barely concealed move by the corporate giants to subvert governments within the industrialised countries. Noreena Hertz, University of Cambridge, devoted The Silent Takeover to a detailed description of this successful endeavour. The subtitle to her book, Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, gives a clear indication of the motive force behind this trend. The assault on governments’ apparatus was accompanied by the takeover of most of the mass media.

The second front of attack was geographical. Previously, the leading economies mainly traded within and between themselves. An expansion beyond these boundaries was deemed necessary and we then witnessed a determined move to globalisation. Many books have been written about the subject, The Case Against the Global Economy, edited by Edward Goldsmith and Jerry Mander, sets the scene admirably. Interestingly, Mander raises the “failure of the media” in the introduction and gives an example that involves Newsweek and the environment to illustrate the point. At base, takeover of governments and global expansion have to be mediated through compliant media.

The evidence is unmistakable

Evidence of the corporate led assault is unmistakable, but the public gaze is diverted onto other matters; terrorism being a favourite topic. There are of course other distractions; including sport, TV trivia, and the comings and goings of the ‘stars’ and ‘celebs’.

The diversions are powerful. The flawed process that brought George W Bush to the White House went on without much fuss. It did not take long for a surplus to be turned into a deficit of several billion dollars. So far, this has elucidated little more than a murmur. The actions of Bush and his cabal overseas have been little short of disastrous to the USA and its authority and reputation abroad. This, especially the adventure in Iraq, has occasioned a more robust response but with little practical effect. Will this harm Bush’s chances of a second term? Not likely. He has the backing of corporate interests, with up to a billion dollars to play with.

The dreadful events of 11 September 2001 were seized upon by the Bush administration to alter radically the democratic norms enjoyed by the average American. Within a matter of weeks, on 26 October 2001 to be precise, Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law. In the rush to adopt the new measures, most of the normal procedures that accompany the promotion of new legislation were abandoned. This was particularly astonishing as the new act gave sweeping powers that shifted the checks and balances, that had existed for centuries, in favour of the executive branch and its law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Historic democratic gains were thrown to the four winds and the justification was the threat from international terrorism. This is a largely bogus claim (see Exploding the Myths of Terrorism on this website), but the irony that the feared terrorists might have actually won a major victory in changing the lives of all Americans to the worse was lost on the Bush administration and its corporate backers. However, the USA Patriot Act went further than its claimed role in tackling the threat of terrorism from abroad. University campuses, emails, libraries, medical records, etc. are now fair game.

Civil rights have been radically curtailed by the Patriot Act and other measures in a manner that makes it highly dangerous for anyone to question actions by the state. And the state is in effect the giant corporations. The circle is now closed. First, the revolving door makes it virtually impossible to draw a line between political and corporate power. Second, the media are owned by the major corporations. And third, the power of the law is on the side of the ruling elites.

Is it different elsewhere?

Not if Britain is taken as an example. The ‘socialist’ Labour government is busy privatising public services, such as the National Health Service, in the name of modernisation and consumer choice. The ‘capitalist’ Conservatives are at a loss in handling a situation where the Labour government is more radically right wing than they are!

Despite substantial claims that the justification for Britain’s involvement in the Iraq adventure was built on flimsy foundations, the Blair government has emerged unscathed. When the British Broadcasting Corporation accused the government of ‘sexing’ the evidence the opportunity was taken to rein in a respected voice that could cause the government and its corporate allies serious discomfort. The government appointed a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland to hold an ‘independent’ inquiry into the matter. The report was published on 29 January 2004 and was promptly dismissed as a whitewash by many commentators (see The Independent of that date). Blair and his team were declared to be completely blameless, but the BBC was found guilty of assorted shortcomings and misdemeanours. The Chairman, chief executive, and the reporter concerned resigned shortly thereafter. A new leadership is being recruited and prospects for the independence of the BBC are decidedly dim.

What about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; the legal justification for Britain’s involvement in the war? That also is not expected to cause much of a problem. When Bush decided to set up a committee to look into ‘intelligence failures’ and to report after the presidential election, Blair also agreed to mount his own inquiry chaired by a trusted former civil servant. The evidence will be heard in secret and examination of the political judgments made on the intelligence reports is not on the agenda. The result is thought by many to be a forgone conclusion. The view of the government is that all discussion of this thorny subject should be suspended while the inquiry is in session. Control-freakery rules supreme.

What is next on the government’s agenda? The Constitutional Reform Bill seeks to do two things. First the position of Lord Chancellor is to be abolished. And second, a Supreme Court is to be set up. The ancient office of Lord Chancellor epitomises the independence of the judiciary. That role would be undertaken by a politician if the Bill becomes an Act. The proposed Supreme Court has caused equal concern. Britain, unlike the USA, does not have a written constitution to be safeguarded and interpreted by a Supreme Court. As in the case of the USA Patriot Act, the Reform Bill is being pushed through at an abnormally fast pace.

In addition, the British government is following the US administration in introducing legislation to chip away at democratic norms that have been with us for centuries. The proposed legislation would alter the way people suspected of terror related activities would be dealt with. Critically, a person does not have to commit an act of terror to be tried. The suspicion that he or she intends to do so would be sufficient. Equally significant, evidence is to be altered from strict proof to ‘balance of probabilities’.

Loss of even some democratic norms is dangerous

The above remarks, it should be noted, are not concerned with the way ‘democratic’ governments in Europe and the USA deal with foreign nationals. We are not discussing here with the plight of many hundreds of prisoners held by the American authorities without trial at Guantánamo Bay. And we are not addressing here the Bush doctrine of preemptive strike which turns out to be just a means to benefit a few favoured American corporations involved in the weapons and construction sectors (see The New Yorker, Contract Sport by Jane Mayer, issue of 2004-02-16 and 23).

The subject matter here is the assault by the elites, especially in the USA and Britain, on hard won democratic checks and balances that safeguarded the rights of ordinary citizens from misuse of power by their government. Evidence is accumulating of a consistent move to roll back democratic gains. And the move is not subtle. Those objecting to actions by major corporations are being harassed just as effectively as those complaining about wars against other nations. The impact is not insignificant. It affects people’s entitlements to welfare, salaries, and pensions as well as their environmental conditions. Roy Madron and John Jopling, in Gaian Democracy, considered among other key issues the role played by the “Global Monetocracy” and the influence it exercises over the lives of ordinary citizens. Loss of rights and some aspects of democracy are considered crucial for the elites to maintain their grip on power and wealth at any cost; including the environment that all human being have to share.

But Bush remains unrepentant. His lack of concern about global environmental issues is now legendary. On the contrary, in a ‘meet the press’ event in February 2004, he proclaimed he was a “war president … with war on my mind,” The war on terror, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction continue to be the fig leaf that is used to camouflage the systematic dismantling of significant parts of the democratic framework that European and American people have erected meticulously over the years.

Apart from the loss of some of their rights and liberties, citizens are being asked in addition to make sacrifices to that end! Over 500 families in the USA have lost sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers, and many more have to look after returning soldiers who have suffered permanent disability in the war in Iraq. Taxpayers are also being asked to dig deep into their pockets to fund a failed project. The toll and cost continue to mount, but no one is now sure what the war was about in the first place. In the meantime, Bush and Blair maintain their search for plausible explanations not just for the war but the dislocations being visited on their own citizens. Flight cancellations due to fear of terrorist acts are just one case in point. Are there real threats? Is it simply theatre? People are not sure anymore. One fact is obvious: the terrorist do not have to lift a finger any more to wreak havoc. They simply sit in their caves and send phone and email messages. Governments in the USA and Britain do the rest.

Which brings us to the last, and key, point. Governments have lost credibility. Certainly, few believe what Bush and Blair say any more. Is that important? Yes, that is critical. Democracy is based on a a degree of belief in the elected leaders. The number of people who bother to vote at elections is dwindling. At what level does the system of government loses legitimacy? And what happens next. Would these democratic countries regress to the form of governments seen in the Middle East for instance? It is time for people in the Western democracies to wake up and smell the coffee, or else!