Democracy Demands Activism

Jenny Marsh—2000
Democracy is not a passive inheritance; it is the ongoing relationship between citizen and government that demands the citizen be politically active.

IF YOU WANT to see things the way they really are, you need to be able to temporarily suppress your presuppositions and beliefs about that reality, otherwise you taint your perception. In the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, this is easier to do because controlled experiments are done which help to minimise this distortion (which certainly doesn't preclude scientific bigotry). However, in more complex systems such as societies and living organisms, expectation is notoriously difficult to minimise.

In western society today, one of our most cherished beliefs is that we live in a democracy. In fact, western society is held as the very definition of a working democracy. However, to unthinkingly equate democracy with western society is a dangerous fallacy because it blinds us to the erosion of our liberties and the level of unaccountability that our governments actually have. At this time, especially since recent acts of terrorism, the "free world" is rapidly moving towards a covert totalitarian regime.

When governments act in the interests of big business and not the people; when they spend billions of our tax dollars on unaccountable "black" military projects under the misnomer of "national defence"; when they pay only lip service to popular opinion, whilst pursuing only their own political agendas; when our politicians (public servants) lie to the people who elected them, spinning webs of deceit and treachery; when even the right to take responsibility for our own health is met with the immanent outlaw of most vitamins (as is about to happen in Europe); then we know we do not live in a democracy.

Did you know, for example, that many of the current Labour spin-doctors here in the United Kingdom have attended courses in how NOT to answer a straight question? Apparently, one of the first exercises is to avoid, for a fifteen minute period, answering a simple request for the time! Does evasion really have any place in a democracy?

Across the entire free world, voting percentages are dropping alarmingly as more and more individuals realize that voting is a vacuous exercise: the faces of government may change but the core policies pursued are the same. The choices we have are increasingly cosmetic, as society fixates on image, mistaking the process of voting for government accountability. Is that democracy?

When power is withheld from people in this manner, the system cannot be called a democracy. Perhaps it is more accurate not to say that power is withheld from us, but that it is being sequestered by large businesses, using their economic clout to influence government policy in their favour. This is achieved by using armies of full-time lobbyists and the economic threat to relocate to more "friendly" countries if certain demands are not met. (Multinationals, despite their massive profits, now pay a tiny percentage of the corporation tax that they should.) Judging by recent government policies, it appears that most western governments pay lip-service to democratic ideals to cover up the brutal truth that they have become pawns to the multinationals.

This is why politicians are so deceitful: they are well aware that their political success lies in their ability to mislead the people into thinking that they are acting in the public's interest, when in fact they are acting primarily in favour of big business. After all, it is very common to find ex-government officials on the boards of multinationals once they have finished their stint in the public eye. And this is also why the best politicians have generally been lawyers, because lawyers are experts at the art of expediency.

However, it is not only the noxious atmosphere of these large corporations that has perished democracy: we the people ultimately carry the responsibility for maintaining our influence in all spheres of activity in which society operates. If we shirk that responsibility, focusing instead upon the trivialities of selfish ambition, consumerism and self-gratification, then someone, somewhere will assume that responsibility for us. It is easy to forget that citizenship of a democracy is not an honour bestowed by birth, but an ideal, beyond the boundaries of self, toward which we must actively and consistently work. As John Philpot Curran said, "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance." And eternal vigilance can be hard work!

In this light, one realizes that all the environmental and human rights protesters, all the people who have stood up for the good of society as a whole, are actually playing the game of democracy as it was originally designed to be played. It is the rest of us, complacent in the assumption that citizenship is more a state of being than doing, who are destroying the democratic fabric of society. Not to be an activist is actually very undemocratic!

That is why I respect activists. That is why, when I see individuals from organisations like Greenpeace or Amnesty International making a stand on some issue, bothering to brave the elements to make their feelings heard, bothering to choose ethically how they spend their money, I feel so grateful to them for exercising the democratic muscles that have all but atrophied to vacuous platitudes in the rest of us. It is time, I think, that we all start becoming activists and protesters before the door to liberty is closed too tightly.