When Democracy Fails

Jenny Marsh—05/2002
It is very easy to assume, because every few years we vote for our choice of government, that we live in a democracy. After all, the definition of democracy is a form of society in which the supreme power is vested collectively in the people, and this is primarily exercised by free choice of government. But although the form of our society still seems democratic, and although we still go through all the same democratic rituals, there is a very worrying trend of power migrating from the people to big business. Democracy is eroding as our leaders, more concerned about controlling society and pleasing their paymasters — the corporations — turn their backs on the interests of ordinary people.

THOMAS JEFFERSON said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." That is because those who hunger after political power (most politicians) are precisely those who are least capable of respecting the principles of democracy. Every turn, every decision of government either reinforces our democratic heritage or erodes it, and it takes a man or woman of high principle and incorruptibility to respect the will of the people over personal and political ambition and gain. Unfortunately, principle is in short supply as our politicians (many of them ex-lawyers) abuse every ounce of responsibility entrusted to them as they milk the system for their own purposes, selling out the people to the highest bidder.

Most of us are aware, either consciously or unconsciously, how little our opinion and vote matter to our lives, with the result that election turnouts across the Western Nations have never been lower. Why vote when it makes no difference which party gets in? In the United Kingdom, the policies of the right wing Conservative Party that gave big business the freedom to pillage society have been continued without interruption by the left wing Labour Party (much to the chagrin of the majority of the electorate who thought they were voting for a change in government). It is the same in the United States where the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is purely cosmetic.

Of course, those cosmetic differences "seem" to be all important because that is what is right in front of our eyes. Different parties have different policies in areas such as race relations, immigration, government spending, taxation and the penal system, differences that are exacerbated by a media intent on presenting the spectacle of a clash of opposites to boost ratings. But these areas really are red herrings to social reform, as basic economic policy and the redistribution of wealth are far more instrumental to society's long-term happiness and cohesion (the richest 3 individuals in the world are wealthier than the poorest 47 nations combined!). This might seem an insult to a black woman living in a predominantly white neighbourhood who may have to deal with racism every day, but the fact is that closing the gap between rich and poor and preventing the corporate destruction of society will do infinitely more for her quality of life than any amount of equal opportunity policies. The same applies to crime: building more prisons and increasing sentences does not reduce crime whereas fairer economics does.

So why are basic economic policy and our monetary system off the voting agenda? Why are we being fobbed off with relative irrelevancies? The answer to the first question is that one tiny but very powerful sector of the population, consisting of the owners of the banks and the leaders of industry, with massive control on government decisions, is gaining so much from the current economic system that it does not want the current economic system changed, despite continual urgings to do so by even orthodox economic experts. The answer to the second question is that we are being fobbed off with irrelevancies because it maintains the illusion of democracy in a system that has become increasingly undemocratic. We vote on the colour of our party flags, we vote on the look and feel of our president or prime minister, we vote for tiny reductions in tax or empty promises of reform of the health services. Everywhere we are being asked our opinion: internet polls, fax polls, TV polls. We vote for the best goal, we vote for which corrupt politicians to have in local government. But nowhere do we vote for what really does make a difference in our lives. Nowhere do we vote for what really matters. That is the lie of current Western democracy. Here in Europe we know the meaning of dictatorships because we have a European Parliament of unelected (yes you did read that right) officials passing policies that will undemocratically define the most important aspects of our lives. Democracy is dead.

Meanwhile, corporations, with the nod from our governments, extend their exploitation into our schools, our children's minds, the food we eat, own genetic code (which we no longer own), ripping out the heart of society in their frenzied pursuit of profit, replacing it with the vending machine and the corporate logo. Everything that was once sacred, God-given, has been exploited, used, "capitalized" on, so that the few who have get richer and richer and richer, in the name of their freedom to exploit. And we would hate to take away that freedom, for that would be un-democratic and un-American!

Naturally, here in Western countries we can be thankful that we do not live in an overt dictatorship. People who criticize Western freedom are seen as nitpickers, moaning minnies, individuals who should just be thankful that we are not Palestinians or Tibetans. But this misses an important point: erosion of democracy in "Western" countries involves the transferral of the people's power not so much to individuals or even governments, but to the multinationals that are far more powerful and globally destructive than Third World dictatorships. (Of the top 100 economic organisations in the world, only 49 are states, the remaining 51 being corporations.) In fact, multinationals and indeed all commercial bodies are dictatorships whose sole aim is to maximise profit by whatever means at their disposal.

These corporate dictatorships are almost immune to government control because, being multinationals or transnationals, they are immune to national law, and there are no international controls on their cancer-like economic growth. Governments are powerless to call them to task as they operate beyond their boundaries, and the attraction of their economic power means that it is easy for them to operate a revolving door recruitment policy with influential politicians. This gives them the ability, along with their position to blackmail governments into giving them ridiculous subsidies and favourable terms with the threat of moving their operations to other countries should they be rejected. They are allowed to operate outside national law and policy, allowing multi-billion dollar multinationals to literally pay nothing in tax (so they give nothing back to society) and extend a wealth and power base that is now able to warp even the most staunch democracy.

So the biggest concern about the erosion of democracy in the West is that it is allowing the most powerful and amoral (when money is your bottom line there is no place for morals) organizations on the planet to accumulate untold wealth and influence. And these organizations, in turn, are using their financial clout and power to influence government decisions further in their favour. Before long you literally have corporate states defining themselves as democracies, in the true Orwellian tradition of doublethink. Free capitalism becomes, in many people's eyes, a prerequisite for democracy, and pretty soon anyone who questions capitalism is regarded as against democracy. (This is clearly not the case as free capitalism is only one choice of a democracy.)

And so we live in a free world where our lives are entirely controlled by the corporate state. We think we are free, and yet we are bound in chains every bit as restricting as those in overt dictatorships, except that ours are invisible because we have defined our prison as the entire world. So we do not see the walls, we do not feel the bars, or smell the stench of restriction, for ours is a world of freedoms: the freedom to exploit; the freedom to control; the freedom to own; the freedom to gag; the freedom to sue; the freedom imprison; the freedom to put profit ahead of human life; the freedom to pervert and destroy nature; the freedom to pollute; the freedom to depose any government that opposes us; the freedom to take away freedom itself. And with all these freedoms, is it any wonder that we define ourselves as the Free World and THE standard for democracy?

Western governments put enormous economic pressure on Third World Countries to adopt "democratic" policies which allow economic and therefore societal control of these countries — a most efficient and effective form of colonialism. And what is more, it is done in the name of "political freedom". That is the joke, the doublethink of Western international policy — economic slavery is freedom. And this slavery is legally locked in place by internal trade agreements (GATS) that effectively block any future government from cutting the chains. Western societies are locked in just as much as Third World countries, but here we are given a larger helping of the world economic pie to buy our silence. (The crippling nature of debt takes care of protest in Third World countries.)

It is very easy to pride ourselves on our democratic choice of government when we look back and see the failures of the dictatorships and communist societies. Both of these systems imprison the human spirit, and societies based around them are like pressure cookers — sooner or later they explode. What is concerning is that we are unable to see that our "democracy" is turning into a pressure cooker as well, as people find their lives more and more controlled, restricted and intruded on by the business sector. Economic and market freedom does not necessarily augment our personal freedom.

Wal-Mart in the US is as powerful as it is because of the laissez-faire attitude towards business in this country, but the march of this massive company into every city and town has devastated local communities, closing down smaller local traders. The people get a better price because of this behemoth's purchasing power, but they also risk loosing much of their community in the process. Society only generates so much wealth, and when large discount stores move in, society has to pick up the bill for the loss of jobs, the increased crime rate and the general social malaise that they bring. We might pay less for our goods, but we are we are often unable to see the true rising cost to society because those consequences are longer-term and hidden from our view. Of course we see the general deterioration of society, but we blame the parents, the children, drugs, foreigners, recessions, governments, rednecks, communists etc., before we would ever consider blaming the large corporations that give us so much purchasing opportunity. (Shopping is now the favourite pastime of most young people, and shopping malls have become the centre of social activity.)

The pharmaceutical industry is another case in point. Pharmaceutical companies are the second most powerful business sector outside the arms industry, spending more on advertising and promotion than any other industry, and enjoying huge government protection and subsidy. Doctors rely on their publications to update themselves on medical procedures (described by Dr. Marcia Angell as similar to relying on a beer company to teach us about alcoholism). As any business, their raison d'être is to make money and to maximise profit for their shareholders. The only way to do this is to persuade doctors and the general public that they need ever more expensive and greater quantities of drugs (drugs for which these companies have often paid research scientists to give favourable research results). And they spend millions in trying to rubbish competing natural therapies and supplements by financing biased "independent" studies. In Europe, they have managed to use their undemocratic influence to persuade Brussels that health supplements should be severely restricted.

So the general populous becomes increasingly drugged up and less healthy (which makes them feel they need more drugs), and the pharmaceutical industry becomes ever more wealthy and powerful. And don't let any doctor or research scientist try to tell you that this increase is paralleled by equal increases in public health, because it just isn't true. Life expectancy might be greater today than it was in 1900, but that is due to increased sanitation and better nutrition. Drugs have played a negligible role, and if anything, they are now causing many people a lot more harm than good. (In fact, the side effects of correctly prescribed drugs are now one of the biggest causes of death in hospitals.) So the freedom of the pharmaceutical companies has come at the price of the public's health and wellbeing. People feel that they need drugs in order to be healthy, which makes them dependent upon the pharmaceutical industry, just as the junkie is dependent upon his supplier. Once again, we have a situation where personal freedom is abused by an industry that has a hugely disproportionate influence on government. That is not democracy.

Take the biotechnology industry, which is trying to control every aspect of our food supply. There is nothing democratically wrong with this mandate if it is the will of the people. But it clearly is not, as the vast majority of people have rejected eating Frankenstein foods in poll after poll. And yet, not only is it being forced down our gullets, but it is even illegal to inform the people that the food they are buying contains GMO ingredients. Governments have huge links with wealthy industries such as biotechnology firms — politicians often end up on the boards of these multinationals after their careers with huge payouts for their earlier support, in what is clearly a conflict of interests. And now these same companies are rushing to stake their claims on our genetic material, they now own our gene sequences because they were the first to map them. This gives this industry the possibility of untold future wealth as any researcher involving these sequences will need to pay a royalty to the original biotechnology company that mapped them. (It's a bit like the scientists that first discovered white blood cells staking a claim on all future research involving white blood cells.) This puts power into the hands of the private sector that severely distorts the democratic ideal. Internationally, this will widen the income gap even further as just about all these "gene pirates" are Western based companies. People have become pawns in a huge commercial machine that doesn't give a damn for democratic rights.

All the while, whilst we are caught in this economic machine, we are brainwashed by a media owned precisely by those who benefit most from the status quo. And so we think we are happy; we think we are fulfilled. Like the emperor in his new clothes we strut down our shopping malls, congratulating ourselves on our good fortune to part of such opulence, lost in a world of entertainment, titillation and consumerism. Our outrage is skilfully directed to foreign countries, to racism, to political parties, to football results and to those who would wake us from our dream. Occasionally we might feel that something is amiss, we might become depressed, we might feel that life is futile, so we drink more alcohol, go on a course of Prosaic, or get counselling, so we might again feel the familiar weight of our emperor's clothes. Of course it comes as no surprise that those least able to cope with this insanity are often the most psychologically well-adjusted and sane individuals around! Theirs is the future, but for now we lock them up for good measure, or label them as ignorant reactionaries opposed to modernisation.

What is the people's recourse? Vote in another government? Unfortunately, that would make no difference as governments no longer have adequate control of the corporate sector to prevent this erosion of democracy. That is why it is hardly surprising that so many principled individuals are now taking to the streets in protest of this covert dictatorship. There are few avenues left to them to voice their dissent. And whilst it is very convenient for governments and the mainstream media to label these people as violent troublemakers, the fact remains that they come from all walks of life, ordinary people out to exercise their democratic right to protest. And the Western governments response to these protests? Predictably, they do not respect the democratic rights of the people to protest because they are not democracies. People are herded like animals by police in riot gear, whilst a major effort is made to discourage participation in the interests of "safety".

Whilst a very small percentage of those that have the courage to protest may try to spark violence, the vast majority's only crime is to want a fairer world, and their actions are consistent with their goal of peace and democracy. The mainstream media cannot portray these ordinary people as ignorant troublemakers against globalisation for long as they will find more and more prominent people taking part in protest. Globalisation is the process by which the world becomes aware of each part of itself, and is able to act in unison. This has raised standards of living because it has allowed the spread of know-how, technology and societal goals fundamental to better living. However, multinationals are only one possible offshoot of this process of globalisation. They have practiced capitalism on a global scale with disastrous consequences. Defining globalisation as large-scale capitalism is to fall into the trap of defining our prison as the world: globalisation is a lot more than trade, and is certainly an essential process to universal democracy and fairness for all beings on this planet. It is in the interests of those who oppose these sorts of reforms to confuse anti-capitalists with anti-globalists, trying to hijack globalisation as proof that rampant capitalism works! This is nonsense.

So what do we do when democracy fails? What do we do when our votes count for nothing, when our protests fall on deaf ears and when our purchasing options are restricted by massive monopoly superstores, and when the public has little exposure to unbiased information from the mainstream media? What peaceful means are left except to set up new social systems right now without asking permission or support from our recalcitrant governments? WE HAVE TO BYPASS OUR GOVERNMENTS. We need to come together in communities that barter services, that are self-sufficient as possible, that give minimal tax back to those who wish to control us, cutting off their blood supply. Economics is the key because that is where we are most chained by the present system. We need to work together to help each other raise our standards of living without sacrificing our lives to our current debt driven economy.

There are alternative money systems out there that (such as LETTS) that are independent of the government. It is absolutely essential that each one of us starts joining these kinds of community (whether real or virtual) that allows us to effectively meet a growing percentage of each of our needs, helping us to bypass the manipulation of our leaders. Sure, that percentage will be minimal at first, but it will become our focus to evolve these communities to rapidly increase this percentage. These communities can also help educate us into becoming freethinking individuals, teaching us about ecology, politics, health, diet, well-being, etc. without the continual bias that we see in the establishment. Naturally, there will be many situations where our needs can foreseeable only be met by society at large (for example if we need an operation we have no choice but to visit a hospital), but these should be minimised. Other people seeing the success and freedom of these communities will not hesitate to join them, for allegance does not mean sacrifice to the old world but free choice for the new. There is no coercion.

We will learn, through these communities, the ramifications of our purchasing power and business choices out in the world, and so even when we do interact with society at large, we can do so in a manner that is most beneficial to society's long-term happiness and fulfilment, and we will gradually learn how to withdraw our support and our labour from the corporate machine. Our communities (we may belong to several) become our democracy, our society, our government. They will rapidly evolve to meet our needs in a way and with a flexibility which no government can ever match. What is more, we will make them easy to replicate and customise, so that those in other societies and countries can reap the benefits as quickly as possible. Nothing will be written in stone, except for the principle that the will of the people is the will of the community. True democracy is the antidote to the corporate takeover, and we will learn for the first time what it is truly like to live free from the corporate prison.

Is this a pipedream? Hardly! There are communities being set up right now around the world by people who realize that nobody is going to hand them democracy on a plate, no one is going to give them permission to have a fair and just society. There is little point begging our governments to free us, when they themselves are chained by the "free market". We have to live that freedom right now because our voting system will never be able to bring it in soon enough before the current system has completely destroyed our planet. Time is of the essence. Only when we realize this awful truth — that democracy has failed — will we have the impetus to actually create a new society for ourselves.