Sometimes when glancing at the news, seeing that some country has fallen into civil war or how the élite in another country are increasingly oppressing those less well off, you could easily start to wonder pessimistically – is democracy dead? But perhaps the better question is – was it ever truly ‘alive’? Like everything man creates, it is flawed, but for the most part works. The best (system) of a bad lot you might even say.
Being a westerner, my opinions and convictions will inevitably be in a western, Anglo-Irish context, but ask any educated person anywhere and they will almost always define democracy as: “a political system in which all the members of the society have an equal share of centralized political power”. This concise definition belies its excruciatingly slow evolution from the original Greek concept devised by the Athenians thousands of years ago.
In this article, I hope to show that a system is only as good as those that practice it and therein lies the paradox of everything mankind puts its hands to – all it takes is one bad apple and everything is diluted and rendered less than what it should be.
In the earliest days of western democracy (I speak mainly in the Greek and Roman contexts) it was a matter of significant pride for a citizen to become a politician – literally a ‘servant of the state’. Many politicians of those times believed it to be the highest calling in life for them, often shirking payment and celebrity, merely hoping to serve their country and people with pride and hard work. Illustrious men like Solon, Pericles, Coriolanus and Cincinnatus are seen as the paragons of political virtue but are now all but forgotten, but were shining examples of proud politicians who really made a difference.
Sadly these true patriots are much lesser known than those that were out for their own self-interest. In this day and age, it really does seem that power really does attract those least worthy of holding it. A bold generalization perhaps, but not terribly far off the mark I warrant.
At this point, to understand the core concepts of democracy, it’s worth giving a little background about the early origins of this political model in the eastern Mediterranean basin, namely Greece.
Before its forced unification by King Phillip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) in 338 BC, Greece was a loose conglomeration of city states with essentially the same culture and language but each politically separate from each other and fiercely proud of their dissimilarities. Of the two or three pre-eminent states, posterity has awarded the birthplace of democracy to Athens.
Athens and its hinterland was divided up into districts called demes, for the purposes of voting and general administration. The system called δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) came into existence and flourished for some centuries before Phillip’s famous son, Alexander forced Athens into his short-lived (and mostly unplanned) empire. The people of Athens eligible to vote in each deme could vote on what the government did in its name. Of course by modern standards it was not at all representative of the population, as slaves, foreigners and women (no matter how high-born) were all exempt from voting – equality of the human genders was to come many centuries later.
Think of this early Greek democracy as version 1.0 – lots of work to do, but for now it works.
Well it worked for quite a while until the Romans put a firm end to Greek autonomy in 146 BC when they annexed almost all of peninsular Greece as a bulwark against the burgeoning powers of Asia Minor. Later still of course, the Roman Empire itself eventually fell apart and Europe descended into the aptly named Dark Ages for more than half a millennium.
After the lights of civilisation went out in Europe, organised government did start to claw its way back out of the quagmire, initially in Iceland of all places. The Althing was founded in 930 AD and remains the oldest functioning parliament in the world.
Skipping ahead almost another thousand years, democracy finally came into its mature version 2.0 phase with the enfranchisement era in Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, whereby women and practically all of a country’s populace were entitled to vote – as long as they were citizens and over 18 years of age (sometimes 21).
As of 2014, practically all western countries have some version of bicameral democracy whereby the people vote every 4-5 years and elect representatives to a ‘lower house’ where most decisions are made before moving to the ‘upper house’. This works well usually, but to me at least democracy appears to be weakening. Influences from outside the political arena are siphoning power away from the ordered, centralized systems of society.
Now anyone who has any experience of life will know instinctively that nothing lasts forever. Literally nothing – mountains wear down to hills and stars expand and die – entropy always sets in. Similarly, vicious dictatorships always fall eventually and balance is restored, either by armed insurrection against the tyrant and his clan or the natural death of the despot and no one wants to fight, just to forget and move forward.
So it is with democracy. The signs of it are everywhere in the modern world – in both developed and developing countries. In my home country of Ireland, there have been repeated attempts to abolish the upper house (Seanad), when a true functioning democracy would see that it exists not to impede progress, but to balance the decisions of the lower house (the Dàil). While indeed it appears to have become functionally obsolete, I firmly believe it still has an important part to play in Irish democracy. Detractors say that it is a waste of taxpayers money and that the election of senators is not remotely democratic. Other complaints are that senators rack up large expense bills on top of their already significant salaries, stipends and pensions and remain almost entirely invisible to the public – again quite true. The Seanad I believe needs to remain in place with its power of veto over bills passed to it from the Dàil, but it does without doubt require a massive overhaul. To do this would mean modifying the constitution, which last saw a proper overhaul in 1937. It needs to be done, but no one seems to have the political will to initiate it.
Everyone knows that the last century and a half has seen unparalleled change in the world, but if nothing else, the passing of over 75 years is a good enough reason to turn a very critical eye at political institutions the world over, to see them as encrusted and encumbered with the weight of time and obsolete meanderings and update them with an eye as much to the future as the present. Perhaps they need to be subjected to an organic, rolling evolution to mirror the changes occurring in parallel in human society?
I could be flippant and say that the type of selfless politician is no more to be found, but people the world over still go into politics believing they can make a difference, and often do, but sadly they are few and far between and rarely make the difference that practically every nation urgently needs. Many go in and get straight back out after a few years, seeing the cesspool of intrigue and hubris on display behind the closed doors of power.
Turning the focus on the US, we increasingly see the downstream effects of 9/11 on democracy here. Within weeks of the atrocity in lower Manhattan, the Bush administration had tabled the so-called ‘Patriot Act’ which diluted the rights of the individual American citizen under the mantra of greater US security. This was a slippery slope that the wise were right to shout out against, but at the time, the vast majority of Americans were fully behind it. Regardless of who you think was behind the despicable events of September 11th 2001, the democratically elected government at the time took measures which have since proven to be detrimental to civil liberties.
George Bush was a Republican president, yet his successor Barack Obama (a Democrat) has not only upheld all of his predecessors edicts, but in fact extended them to the nth degree. Weren’t the Republicans and Democrats meant to be on opposing sides of the political spectrum? That’s cute. Keep in mind that in 2013, President Obama in effect ‘reminded’ the Senate that he in fact has the power to override their decisions in relation to the Syrian crisis.
Now, would anyone mind telling me how this man is now a higher power than the United States Senate? Does that not in fact make him (and his predecessor) an imperator in the Roman sense – someone who (in times of crisis) was granted complete (yet explicitly temporary) power over the armed forces and governing bodies, on the proviso that that power be handed back to the government institutions after danger has passed? So when will the Patriot Act (and all its updates) be repealed. You guessed it – most likely never.
Orwell’s ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’ seems to have arrived, at least in the United States at any rate.
According to online independent newspaper The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/article/177964/americas-secret-war-134-countries), the United States was militarily present in some shape or form in 134 countries around the world in 2013. But the United States is a country that always talks about the grand ideal of democracy, but appears that all the dictionaries have been thrown out on Capitol Hill, as they behave internationally (and increasingly internally) in ways that are entirely thug-like and much more akin to the behaviour of an oligarchic dictatorship intent on controlling everything everywhere. Everyone in the world today seems to know this except the average American himself due to the media being tightly controlled – one of the hallmarks of tyrannical states since time immemorial.
Another way in which democracy is being eroded is by its ties to big business. You only have to read a few lines about politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra and Silvio Berlusconi to see see examples of wealthy and influential men who went into politics for almost no other tangible reason but to mould a country and its laws into being favourable to their private interests. Glaring examples are Berlusconi’s Italy and Shinawatra’s Thailand – both are democratic states, though strictly Thailand is a constitutional monarchy (similar to the UK) and has a nasty habit of indulging in the national pastime – overthrowing its governments. Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to be all about Soviet-style control while his business friends reap the rewards and he rigs the elections every 4-5 years to remain in power. Of course I would need a whole other article (many volumes long) to describe the business connections of the Bush family, so won’t bother here – it’s already well documented.
So we see that governments the world over are being suborned by big business and infiltrated by ‘private interest groups’ – see how American construction giants Halliburton and Bechtel flock to war-torn countries in the wake of the American military juggernaut to make untold billions in construction contracts. See how the FDA in the US has become a laughable waste of taxpayers money and essentially the legislative arm of private companies such as Monsanto, Cargill, Dow and other major food companies. See how almost the world over, education funding gets cut almost every year while military spending just keeps increasing. The people themselves are being left behind in the dust. Literacy and education, healthcare, job security, insurance, pensions are all suffering and the masses are starting to see their leaders for whom they are.
So it appears that the era of democracy appears to be passing and we are now slowly entering a new phase – that of the ‘Corporate Government’ (‘corporatocracy’? Or perhaps ‘kleptocracy’?), when in effect the large multi-nationals dictate how the masses go about their lives – consuming, buying, throwing out, buying a new one and never recycling, fixing or re-purposing what you already have.
So where you might ask do we go from this point onwards? Is armed insurrection the only way? Are we doomed to consistently repeat the same mistakes of our predecessors ad nauseam? What of open and frank discourse either through debate (assuming that’s still allowed) or through writing articles such as this one? The pen is mightier than the sword they say, so that would be my preferred route. I am a devout pacifist, but if there was literally no other way, I would never shy away from the insurrection route.
We may be lucky and things in all our respective countries will re-balance themselves without recourse to open conflict, or we could gently steer our governments back on track to the point of accountability and equality for all citizens. Let’s make our votes mean something again.
And remember, if you are entitled to vote then by god you should use it even if it is the simple tokenism of a corrupt state – there are millions of people across this small planet of ours that would give an arm for the right to have their vote mean something. So don’t be an idiot – if you don’t vote (or spoil your vote in a childish outpouring of misguided apathy), you have no right to complain about the outcome.
One thing is for sure – wanting politicians to stay clean and do what they should means sticking our heads above the rest and getting involved.