Is that still democracy?

Most westerners have a general idea what a democracy entails: such as rule of law, free, regular elections, adult franchise, free press, government succession orderly and non-violent. That is, a government elected by and responsible to the people. Or, in other words, a relationship between state and people that is regulated, predictable and recognised as legitimate.

And the purpose, rarely articulated in any document, is to sustain the people’s wellbeing. The arrangement can take many forms. But people intuitively know when ‘democracy’ has been breached. The State is seen as acting too arbitrarily or too consistently against the people’s interests. It is considered undemocratic and illegitimate when it abuses its power.

It is a mistake however we were to assume that all world governments fit into one of those two types. Observers have in fact conceived of at least one other form of political rule, and they point to several African states they call ‘broken-backed’ states – those that are so wracked by opposition groups violently undermining them, by one means or another including violence, that they are incapable of pursuing normal state activities. They are made inoperative. In this situation people’s interests are harmed despite state efforts to the contrary.

But is there an unwitting ethnocentrism in finding broken-backed states only in ‘darkest’ Africa. None in the West?

Why, for example, does no American Federal government ever try to place some control on gun ownership despite the pleas to do so following every gun massacre around that country? I don’t know what percentage of members of Congress own one or more guns – it would be a significant number however. But we do know, anecdotally, the power of the NRA. One simple comparison is telling: during the American election of 2010 the anti-gun lobby collected $5 million to promote its cause. NRA raised $253 million for the same purpose. It has power.

Why has BP been given permission to drill for oil in the waters off the north-west coast despite what was said after the oil disaster BP was intimately involved in off the south-west coast last year? Check the size of political donations from the oil industry to all Presidential and Congress elections now and over the years. And we could go on. Banking? Finance? Who controls whom in actual practice?

The American government of Congress and Presidency is powerless to act against the interests of big corporations. No government runs the country; the Economy (for shorthand) does because it runs the Government. The situation has the hallmarks of certain African states: the state is not free to do what it would like to do, and the people suffer. It is a broken-backed state.

And if so should we continue to call America a democracy? Even to ask that question is disturbing. We may need to coin a new expression. America is no longer essentially a ‘political system’; it is now an ‘economic system’. Money rules – and it rules in its own interests only; not in the interest of the people. As for politicians and their offices? – mere foot-soldiers of the economy. Politics as we knew it no longer exists.

How about commenting on this blog – whether you like it or not.

Don Miller
Melbourne Centre or Ideas


An Elephant in the Room

It’s a nice expression; and or but it’s far from trivial in its relation to reality. It boldly points to that human behaviour we all know and apply of turning our backs, literally and metaphorically, on something almost impossible to ignore, but which to our mortification, we may let slip and ‘give it away’. Like poor Basil Fawlty’s advice to his hotel staff “Don’t mention the war” as a group of German tourists arrive as guests.

Politicians are more adept at such manoeuvres. I was reminded of this again when listening to our national leaders debating the ‘best’ way to cope with the ‘boat people’. So many questions are raised: is it this country or that country, this factor or that factor we should consider most. The two major parties are at each other’s throat – yet that is odd because each party is complicit in keeping the same secret. Cleverly they distract the public from looking at the real issues by mesmerising us with their mutual hysteria: should we, the ‘responsible’ parties of Labor and Liberal as distinct from the ‘irresponsible and extremist’ parties like the Greens, should we condemn more the evil owners of the rotting boats who scandalously fleece the families seeking safe refuge, or should we condemn more the boat-people themselves who use all manner of deceit to get into our blessed country full of its well-earned prosperity and peace?

Like Basil who must not ‘mention the war’, our leading politicians keep a wary eye on a bigger elephant – ‘don’t mention the war we started’.

The one thing that our national leaders cannot mention is that we caused the misery the boat people are now trying to escape. If it were not for America and its yes-men like Australia who started the war in Afghanistan, and for twelve years have continued that war, destroying its very social and physical fabric, Afghans in their tens of thousands would not be daily risking their lives to get away from that maetstrom we set in motion. And is it our quiet guilt that makes us now punish the Afghan people for a second time? We have a lot to hide and deny.

Don Miller
Melbourne Centre for Ideas

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