excerpts from the book
No-Nonsense guide to
by Richard Swift
New Internationalist / Verso,
The new preoccupation is with security and sacrificing our liberties
to safeguard our persons and property. The partisans of the national
security state are gearing up to ever higher levels of surveillance
of the citizenry, barricading the borders, an draining the coffers
for ever more police and soldiers.
US Marine officer during the Vietnam War
'We had to destroy the village in order
to save it."
Democratic politics is becoming more a means for the relatively
privileged to defend what they have, rather than a vehicle for
a more equal vision of society.
Many still have the lingering sense that democracy means 'rule
by the people' - in other words, people participate in the decisions
that affect them most closely. If this is the central criterion
of a democracy, we are a long way from it now. This sense of a
failed promise to actually achieve a democratic life is perhaps
the underlying ,reason for the groundswell of discontent.
Our current systems of democracy - highly
centralized governments in which we are 'represented' by a class
of professional politicians - seem to have betrayed the promise
of self-rule. And while the lack of real choice in competitive
candidates and ideas amongst these professional politicians is
a part of the malaise, it is hardly the whole picture. The system
of centralized state power seems increasingly remote from most
people's lives and it becomes difficult to believe that politicians
(no matter what their views) concerned with the macro-management
of society and economy have any real interest in what is important
This view is reinforced every time a politician
tells voters one thing to get elected (they will remove a particular
tax, not sign a trade agreement, bring in a new social program)
and when they are in power does the exact opposite. While this
is often put down to the typical hypocrisy of politicians, it
is more than that. It is a go-with-the-flow, do-what-powerful-business-interests
want and don't-rock-the-boat kind of ethos that glues political
A consequence of this is an extraordinary
popular hostility to not only the political class but government
per se and all its works. Conservative politicians have proved
the most adept at harnessing this hostility (often glorifying
the 'honest' market at the expense of the 'corrupt' state) and
using anti-government rhetoric to achieve, paradoxically, the
very positions of power they are attacking. They are even prone
to attack 'big government' at the same time they are cynically
using the powers of the state to reward their friends and vanquish
their enemies. Juxtaposing the 'choice' offered by the market
(with the important caveat that you have the money to exercise
this choice) with the lack of any real political choice contributes
to the democratic malaise. It is a deceptive sleight-of-hand that
portrays the market as a mechanism of or for democracy. But in
a situation of democratic disappointment and alienation from an
unaccountable political class the wizardry often goes unnoticed.
The kind of people who have already accumulated a high level of
economic and social power are usually over-represented in the
political class. Lawyers and those from the corporate boardroom
tend to predominate. Other professionals are not far behind.
[A] political class forms a more or less permanent - if sometimes
rotating - government elite. The same faces pop up over and over
again. The frequency with which we hear about the phenomenon of
the 'political comeback' is a good indicator of how difficult
it is to get rid of them. Former military politicians like Hugo
Banzer in Bolivia or Rios Montt in Guatemala rebound into public
prominence. Their careers in 'public service' span decades. Sometimes
a figure will serve many political masters and blow with the ideological
breezes, shifting gracefully from Left to Right (and sometimes
even back again). Perhaps in no other human endeavor is the octogenarian
male so prominent. Men in their late 70s and early 80s play a
disproportionate role in the governing of many nations. The US
at the time of writing has a senator
The arrogance of power resides in the unstated but persistent
conviction that the 'divine right of kings' has been modified
into a kind of 'divine right of elected leaders'.
Even at democracy's birth, its critics were present and vocal.
Plato and Socrates greeted its appearance in ancient Athens with
grave warnings about entrusting the well-being of the city to
an unpredictable mob. Both opposed the direct involvement of the
whole body of citizens in its own self-government. Instead they
preferred a politics firmly in the grip of the better sort, experts
in the specific knowledge of politics (ie today's political class).
Athenian democracy (a direct democracy of rich and poor alike
but excluding women and slaves) had its champions as well. Protagoras,
a friend and advisor to the influential Pericles, held that any
adult citizen was capable of acquiring the art of politics (the
ability to make reasoned judgements on the city's affairs) and
should therefore be part of the body deciding these issues. Even
Aristotle, another critic of full democracy, thought that a person
became fully human only by taking part in politics. The Greek
notion of the 'idiot' meant someone ignorant of public affairs.
Thousands of Athenian citizens would gather to debate and decide
on the issues of the day.
As democratic activist/theorist Douglas
Lummis points out, 'while the Athenians did not invent slavery
and patriarchy (or empire for that matter), neither did they abolish
them; what they did do was to discover public freedom". Looking
back from the 19th century the political philosopher John Stuart
Mill held that the Athenian achievement of a substantial degree
of citizen self-government 'raised the intellectual standards
of an average Athenian citizen far beyond anything of which there
is yet an example in any other mass of men, ancient or modern.
Thinking about democracy as a system of government that is a contract
between ruler and ruled starts to emerge only in the 16th and
17th centuries. But these theorists of a government based on the
consent (of at least some) of the governed - the Hobbes, Mills,
Lockes, even the more radical Rousseaus and Jeffersons - were
also deeply ambivalent about the foundational meaning of democracy,
ie 'rule by the people'. In the original Greek, democracy is the
kratos of the demos- the power of the people. But by the 17th
century this had to be reconciled with a large number of anti-democratic
structures: monarchies, aristocracies, slavery, patriarchy and
the emergence of a class of wealthy property owners. The dreamers
of the new democratic freedom were almost all haunted by night-
5' mares of 'mob rule' and the overthrow of property. As Ireton,
the Roundhead leader Cromwell's right-hand man, cautioned the
uppity Levellers, who had been inspired by the ideals of the English
Revolution to want a more profound democracy, 'liberty cannot
be provided for in a general sense if property is (to be) preserved'.
So the original thinkers and theorists
of a liberal democracy drew back from the precipice and judged
that only men with a certain amount of property could be trusted
with the exercise of consent (the vote). This limited notion of
a liberal democracy, particularly associated with John Locke and
James Mills, has been dubbed by the political philosopher CB Macpherson
as a 'theory of possessive individualism'. Those without property
are seen by definition as irresponsible (lacking a stake in society)
and thus had to be excluded from citizenship. Even for those who
had the vote, elections were to be for 'representatives' who would
govern in their stead. Such 'representation' was assumed quite
indirect with the Member of Parliament retaining as much independence
as was necessary for political stability and good order. This
was a negative kind of consent - a freedom from arbitrary rule
rather than a freedom to rule themselves
In his work Macpherson traces this notion
of freedom as it evolved out of older forms of obligation and
hierarchy. He outlines 'possessive individualism' as follows:
1) The human essence is to use our capacities
in search of our satisfactions.
2) Society is no longer a set of relations
of feudal domination but a lot of free equal individuals related
to each other through their possessions.
3) Political life is about the protection
of these possessions - all capacities including life and liberty
are considered 'possessions' rather than social rights and obligations.
The rights to the use of property are thus fundamental.
This notion of liberal democracy has less
to do with methods of collective decision-making than with the
protection of the individual from arbitrary interference. Those
with more property obviously had more to lose and needed more
protection from arbitrary interference. On the question of the
arbitrary interference by those with more property against those
with less, possessive individualism was silent. Thus liberalism
was not inherently democratic, in fact it was hostile to the notion
of full democracy.
Origins of weak democracy
This is the basis for the 'weak' notion
of democracy that is still with us - a minimalist state should
interfere as little as possible with the economic and political
rights of individuals. The then-emerging market is seen as a more-or-less
natural way of ordering human affairs.
But it must as much as possible be left
to its own devices. It is not hard to see in this early 'possessive
individualism' the kernel of contemporary arguments now fashionable
with the New Right. Get government off the backs! Don't shackle
wealth! Roll back government through a process of privatization,
tax cuts, deregulation and so forth. Allow for the 'natural' operation
of the market. Individual rights outweigh the collective democratic
decisions of society. The former British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher even went so far as to deny the very existence of society.
The emphasis of early liberalism (the
democratic part came later) is on 'choice'. As Macpherson summarizes
it: 'Instead of a society based on custom, and on status, and
on authoritarian allocation of work and rewards, you have a society
based on individual mobility, on contract and on impersonal market
allocation of work and rewards in response to individual choices.
Everyone was swept into the free market.'
In this market society the ideology of
choice was extended to the political system and a limited number
of voters: 'The electorate need not be a democratic one, and as
a general rule was not; all that was needed was an electorate
consisting of men of substance, so that the government would be
responsive to their choices.
Another cultural strain of conservatism
associated with the British conservative Edmund Burke and the
French de Tocqueville projected a fear of the poor mob who threatened
to topple the better sort of people. The denied right to vote
then became a major focus of democratic struggles. Working class
and feminist campaigners made the logical case that women and
people without property were citizens too. These were long hard
struggles of many dashed hopes and not a few dashed bodies. Many
democratic activists devoted their lives to this fight.
It was not until the late 19th and early
20th century (several hundred years after the painful birth of
liberal society in the English Revolution) that the battle to
extend the democratic franchise to all adults was gradually achieved.
But such struggles continued right up through the early 1960s'
civil rights movement to enfranchise black people in the southern
US and indeed to this day as different groups (immigrants, poor
people, former prisoners, various minority groups) are excluded
from voting. But despite the extension of the right to vote, the
system of weak democracy still privileged those with enough wealth
to shape and influence 'democratic outcomes'.
A strong democracy
From the earliest days of democratic thinking
and development there emerges a struggle between a weak notion
of democracy and a stronger version. It has continued to this
day. Early proponents of the strong popular democracy were firebrands
such as Thomas Paine, and radical theorists such as Jean-Jacques
Rousseau. The French republican movement and advocates of early
working-class politics such as the English Chartists and radical
artisan movements across Europe continued to push the limits of
market/property democracy. When the suffragist movement and various
civil rights movements picked up the torch, they were advocating
not merely the vote in national elections but also the extension
of democratic equality into the family and the economy.
The propertied and conservative establishment
in turn pushed back and tried to reduce democratic space. In shifting
historical and geographic contexts this struggle continues. The
notion of a strong democracy was propelled forward by the popular
democratic impulse and the constant threat of democratic outbreaks
from below. It found its intellectual reflection in a diversity
of radical democratic ideas. On the other side there is a constant
struggle to rein in democratic expectations and possibilities.
Those with power and privilege see this as essential to maintain
their rights in the market and their ability to manage the state.
Macpherson believes that the original
theory of property-based democracy reflected the real economic
conditions of a then-emerging capitalism. The notion of equality
based on a 'republic of smallholders' (farmers, artisans, small
business people) had some reality several centuries ago. But the
theory has not kept up with the reality. The modern economy dominated
by a couple of thousand transnational corporations and banks is
a virtual economic dictatorship of global proportions. The response
of the dominant stream of theory has been to abandon the idea
that inequality of property had any political relevance. The right
to vote and to protection of the laws was extended to all whatever
their economic power. Thus the theory of liberal democracy was
adjusted to defend the legitimacy of the extraordinary inequality
of wealth and privilege that we see today.
Ratifying weak democracy
Most conventional political science has
adopted the property-blind theory of liberal democracy as the
one and only theory of democracy. Theorists devise prescriptions
for weak democracy and the empirical attend to the mechanics of
how systems in richer countries generally work and how poorer
countries can bring their systems into line. They by-and-large
eschew judgements about how democratic it actually is. So critical
political philosophy and theory are displaced by detailed descriptions
of how interest group competition works or comparing various constitutional
Modern political and social science has
clearly inherited the distrust of ordinary people and their capacities
to participate in their own self-government. Most political scientists
stress questions of political management and the comparative effectiveness
of various elite systems of government. Participation (except
passively during elections) is not to be encouraged. Stability
and the equilibrium of the system are held as higher values than
participation and popular empowerment. The tilt is clearly towards
a weak democracy.
Pessimism about democratic possibilities became the norm. As the
political economist Joseph Schrumpter famously concluded: '
Voters must understand that once they have elected an individual,
political action is his [sic] business and not theirs. This means
that they must refrain from instructing him about what he is to
The Left abandons democracy
The main current of opposition to elitist
theories of | democracy came from the socialist Left. But the
socialists, particularly those of the orthodox Marxist persuasion,
have fumbled the democratic ball.
... There was no need to work out the
details of how this self-rule would operate and socialists took
little interest in any theory of popular sovereignty that would
act as a guarantee for a broader democracy. Indeed any such attempts
were denounced as utopian. In hindsight these flaws proved fatal.
With the first Soviet leader Lenin's autocratic adaptation of
Marxism into a one-party rule 'dictatorship of the proletariat'
ideas of workers' self-government receded into the far distant
... Under Lenin's successor Stalin and
later leaders the Soviet Union ossified into an autocratic state
structure with an unresponsive and increasingly inefficient commandist
economy. This police state approach to socialism and economic
development gave away the Left's best argument. The natural advocates
of a strong democracy had abandoned the field. Now the champions
of the weak version of market-based democracy could point their
fingers in horror at Soviet dictatorship and claim the exclusive
democratic franchise. They became the only democratic game in
The governability crisis
Some years ago orthodox political science
started worry about 'the governability of democracy' - the concept
comes from the influential Harvard intellectual Samuel Huntington
(also an advisor to Richard Nixon on the Vietnam War). Huntington's
research (funded by the elite Trilateral Commission) advanced
the notion that the system of government was being 'overloaded'
with unrealistic popular demands for economic security and political
input. In other words, too much democracy. Ways needed to be devised
to protect the political class, to insulate them from popular
pressure. Otherwise how could they make those tough unpopular
decisions that were necessary to maintain stability and prosperity?
This was accomplished in a number of key
areas. Some decisions, particularly those to do with economic
policy, were either left to market forces to negotiate or put
in the hands of powerful multilateral agencies like the World
Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund. In both
cases they were safely beyond the reach of democratic pressure.
A regime of privatization and cutbacks is being deployed to convince
a 'spoilt' population of the notion that they are entitled to
any but the most shoddy of public goods. Anything better will
have to be purchased from the lucrative private sector by those
who can afford it.
An elaborate national security state has
gradually taken shape, to 'police' democracy and protect politicians
both personally and politically. So now when social movements
seek to expand democratic space, they can be closely monitored
and curtailed if they seek to use the 'illegitimate' means of
street politics to advance their cause. A kind of constant low-intensity
war, that pays little attention to democratic niceties, is waged
against dissidents in many places. Disinformation (sometimes dressed
up as public relations) is used to discredit them and invalidate
their concerns. The security services deploy a wide range of snooping
technologies that contribute to an elaborate national-security
state with an inbuilt bias against those advocating change. The
'policing' approach is also extended to parts of the population
considered either troublesome or not socially productive. Welfare
provision is tied to policing the poor and forcing them into the
lowest paid sectors of the labor market through benefit cuts and
workfare schemes. Prison populations are on the rise as the behavior
of various ethnic minorities, immigrant groups and youth are criminalized
through the use of repressive drug laws. This combination of economic
discipline and repressive policing is the current formula for
sustaining weak democracy.
But unease with this type of weak democracy
is growing and not just at the grassroots. Major financiers such
as George Soros, media czars like Ted Turner and other global
luminaries, who meet every year at the famous (now besieged with
demonstrators) Swiss resort town of Davos for the World Economic
Forum are starting to express concern that the present weak democracy
approach - with its attendant inequalities of wealth and power
- is causing a crisis of legitimacy for the system as a whole.
Political thinkers such as the classic pluralist Robert Dahl,
the dean of studies of democracy, now holds that the very pluralism
that he once championed is being endangered by the power of corporate
money swamping the political system.
Dahl thinks that while market capitalism
may initially help in the democratization of some poor countries
it eventually rebounds to undermine that democracy: 'When authoritarian
governments in less modernized countries undertake to develop
a dynamic market economy, they are likely to sow the seeds of
their own ultimate destruction. But once society and politics
are transformed by market-capitalism and democratic institutions
are in place, the outlook fundamentally changes. Now the inequalities
in resources that market capitalism churns out produce serious
political inequalities amongst citizens.
Dahl now believes that it is essential
to re-organize the economy on democratic principles. Others such
as the British political thinker David Held are proposing policies
to extend democracy beyond the nation-state into the international
domain to bring democratic pressure to bear on the forces and
agencies of globalization previously beyond the reach of popular
assemblies and elected officials. From the grassroots, the anti-globalization
movement is developing a challenge based on the idea of globalization
from below to reassert democratic values. Other thinkers and democratic
activists have put forward a range of proposals to strengthen
democracy in the face of its obvious hijacking by the political
class. So the tussle between a weak and a strong democracy is
not about to disappear. It is being recast in contemporary terms,
around issues of globalization and economic equality, and more
democratic outbursts are just over the horizon. There are many
positive signs that the stagnation in democratic political thought
is coming to an end. The concern with 'liberation' that accompanied
the 1960s' outbreaks is now shifting to one that explores the
ways in which the exercise of popular power can actually shape
social decisions. The trick will be to be able to ride this ferment
of movements and ideas and use it to effect a long-term transformation
that institutionalizes a popular power that can underpin a strong
This most basic experience of life, earning your livelihood, involves
the surrender of both your time and your will to the direction
of others. This is a major deficit in the building of democratic
life. The experience of a managerial autocracy at work robs people
of a sense of their own democratic agency. It contributes to a
passive 'follow orders' mentality that sucks away the lifeblood
of active citizenship.
It is just not realistic to expect active
citizenship from people who have so little power to influence
the rest of their lives. A lack of democratic engagement leads
almost inevitably to a passive consumerist approach to democracy.
This is reinforced by a political class that has grown adept at
manipulating consumer preferences in the 'political marketplace'.
This is done through a virtual industry that runs expensive campaigns
and projects elaborately-crafted images of honesty, sincerity
and strength on the part of politicians. It is much easier to
manipulate unreflective and insecure consumers of politics than
it is to negotiate with a self-consciously activist citizenry.
Consumerism in politics fits naturally into the consumer-oriented
culture of 21st-century capitalism. When your main decisions revolve
around choice of different cola and cigarette brands it is not
a big jump to reduce democratic engagement to a choice between
Brand X politician and Brand Y politician. If however you are
used to having an active say in your workplace and community this
is unlikely to satisfy you.
The history of the industrial workplace
is also a history of struggle for who is in control. In the earliest
days of industrialism factory owners worked hard to wrest control
of production from artisans who had power through their skills
and knowledge of the production process. With the rise of scientific
management inspired by the industrial engineer Frederick Taylor,
work was divided into a series of easily-timed repetitive tasks
on an assembly line, the speed of which could be controlled by
the factory manager. Ever since, workers and their organizations
have been engaged in an ongoing struggle to bring some democracy
to the workplace.
The best of democratic theory assumes that some basic equality
is necessary if citizens are going to exercise a more-or-less
equal weight in shaping the direction of political life. Capitalism
on the other hand with its ethos of 'possessive individualism'
values above all the right to acquire as much property and wealth
as possible. This is considered a just reward for an individual
who exercises skill, ingenuity and initiative. The wealth and
property thus acquired can be passed onto the next generation
who may or may not be skillful and ingenious. Under capitalism
inheritance has gradually created a class of wealthy people who
control the productive resources of society (factories, real estate,
capital, access to raw materials and credit).
This inherited advantage is today largely
what dictates the life chances of most of us. While there is the
occasional well-publicized 'rags to riches' story, most people
realize that they have a better chance of winning the lottery
than rising into the economic elite by dint of their own effort.
The willingness of people to accept such inequalities is mute
evidence of a shoulder-shrugging acceptance of the power of wealth
to shape supposedly democratic outcomes.
[One] indirect way capital limits democratic possibilities is
through the public debt held by nearly all nation-states and local
governments as well. The political class is very nervous about
offending those who hold the strings of debt (major private banks,
the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Bank and so on).
A bad report from the IMF or a revision of a credit rating by
a big New York bond-rating agency like Salomon Brothers or Goldman
Sachs can bring on a credit squeeze and endanger economic equilibrium.
Debt in the South has reached crippling proportions. By 1997 its
combined foreign debt had reached two trillion dollars. That is
$400 per every man, woman and child which is more than many earn
in a year.
Large creditors generally do not like
policies which mean payments to them are taking second place to
public spending on healthcare or education, no matter how necessary
these are or how popular with the electorate. This is one of the
major reasons behind the policies of 'structural adjustment' that
have so devastated the South. It is highly contradictory for the
North to pontificate about the lack of democracy in the South
while insisting on policies that are by their nature undemocratic
and must often be enforced by the use of police-state tactics.
Witness the riots and protest movements born of the frustration
with IMF-inspired cutbacks, price increases and currency devaluations.
There is perhaps no clearer contemporary example of how democracy
and the 'free' market are fundamentally incompatible. There may
be other roadblocks to democracy (a predatory military, a corrupt
state elite, entrenched religious authorities) but ending the
arbitrary external imposition of economic policy is a vital, if
not necessarily sufficient, step toward democratization.
With the march to power of New Right in the 1980s ... [a] Keynesian
program and the idea of government implementing a national economic
strategy were replaced. An agenda of deregulation, cuts in social
entitlements, and reduction of the public sector swept across
almost all borders. Democratic attempts to counterbalance the
inequities of the market went into free fall. With the intensification
of globalization in the 1990s and accompanying draconian policies
of market-oriented structural adjustment in the global South,
inequities of wealth reached levels not seen since the days of
robber baron capitalism in the late 1890s. It is perhaps not surprising
that the period from the 1890s up until World War One can be identified
as the first great wave of corporate-led globalization. The accompanying
inequities of power (then and now) have succeeded in stunting
the democratic promise.
Through myriad ways, both direct and indirect,
the rampant inequality in both economy and society is poisoning
whatever democracy we have left. The underpinnings of a formal
political democracy are constantly undermined by inequality. Its
increase over the last couple of decades in the context of a global
economic life dominated by a couple of hundred major transnational
corporations and banks bodes poorly for our democratic future.
... The perceptive social critic Christopher
Lasch points out the near impossibility of limiting the distorting
impact of wealth on democratic outcomes. He believes that 'the
difficulty of limiting the influence of wealth suggests that wealth
itself needs to be limited. When money talks everyone else is
condemned to listen. For that reason a democratic society cannot
allow unlimited accumulation.' It is quickly becoming a question
of either democratizing the economy or having a despotic economy
sweep away the last vestiges of meaningful political democracy.
While no one is about to take away your right to vote, whether
or not you exercise that right will matter less and less.
The ideological sleight of hand used to
reconcile market domination with political democracy is the notion
that connects unimpeded market activity with an economic freedom.
This is then taken to be the basis of political freedom. This
was indeed a powerful argument when it juxtaposed itself to the
economic inefficiencies and shortages of the despotic state socialism
of the Soviet sphere. It even had some resonance for critics of
corrupt state bureaucracies in the global South and those who
decry the arbitrary nature of welfare state bureaucracies in the
North. But today most of this is history: even the authoritarian
socialism of China and Vietnam is adapting itself to the market
as the main tool for organizing economic life. They have been
very successful in doing this, particularly China which has experienced
phenomenal economic growth, while maintaining the despotic rule
of the Party. This is proof (if any were still needed after the
sordid history of corporate partnerships with the various military
dictatorships of the South) that the economic freedom of the market
is perfectly compatible with a lack of any basic democratic rights
in the political sphere.
The speedup of the pace of globalization and the rise of rules-based
trade agreements enforced through the World Trade Organization
and regional agreements like the proposed Free Trade Area of the
Americas limit the sovereignty of nation-states, particularly
on economic matters. In the last few decades there has been a
'downsizing' of the capacity of most nation-states to shape their
own internal affairs, particularly in the realm of economics.
The central thrust of globalization strips governments of their
capacities to protect their own populations from the ravages of
international competition. The economist Marjorie Cohen concludes
that 'international trade agreements provide the impetus for the
proliferation of minimalist states whose major function for the
international regime will be to control their own people to ensure
that they conform to the international trade rules." The
globalization agenda has implicit in it a kind of 'downsized democracy'
where democratic majorities can only protect the quality of their
lives within the bounds set by a collection of corporate-inspired
trade and investment rules. This has obvious implications for
the kinds of democracy that are possible.
The kinds of policies that exist today
in the industrial world (and significant parts of the South) came
about through some kind of democratic process no matter how imperfect.
Change in such policies would usually require a public debate
and often some kind of legislative act by an elected assembly
of some sort. Cohen, echoing the views of an increasing number
of critics of economic globalization, points out that 'Now, economic
and political policy can be challenged through international trade
law. These are laws that are interpreted and enforced by people
on a plethora of international panels who are not elected and
who do not have to respond to people, since individuals within
a country have no access to them. In other words many of the rules
for ordering economic (and by implication political) life are
set outside the democratic reach of most citizens.
This may not matter too much for those
who are happy that the uncontrolled market is the best way to
organize economic life. But for groups seeking more equality in
everything from income distribution to regional development it
is a very effective way of tying their hands. It also places significant
obstacles in the path of those who value environmental integrity
or worker health and safety over the profit-maximizing behavior
on which the liberalization agenda is built.
The diminished power of the nation-state
has become a major source of concern for political thinkers of
all persuasions. For some it provides a welcome stability and
a useful economic discipline on wayward politicians. For others
it is a major violation of the democratic prerogatives of the
citizenry from Bangkok to Berlin. But this is not just a matter
of polite debate at learned conferences and in weighty academic
journals. It has a real impact on people's lives and has provoked
what may be the most profound democratic outbreak since the 1960s.
The anti-globalization movement
It started in the South and has spread
rapidly to the point where the architects of liberalization are
now being challenged at every turn. Perhaps the first clear shot
came back in October 1983 when half a million Indian farmers staged
a day-long rally in Bangalore to protest at proposals for liberalizing
agricultural production. Next it was the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas
on 1st January 1994 which shook Mexico and brought
into question the newly-signed North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Zapatistas called this treaty
'the death certificate of the indigenous people of Mexico'. The
democratic outbreak against trade liberalization spread like wildfire.
Hundreds of street demonstrations and protests, petitions and
conferences, food riots and campaigns followed in rapid succession.
Networks of activists from both North and South shared tactics
and strategic perspectives. Soon the whole trade liberalization
program had become highly controversial. Revolt spread from the
South to the North culminating in massive demonstrations against
the World Trade Organization in Seattle which resulted in a collapse
of negotiations for a new global trade agreement. Now street demonstrations
and counter-conferences have become the norm accompanying every
major meeting that tries to advance the economic liberalization
agenda. The common theme of this resistance is the belief that
the liberalization agenda bypasses the democratic process. It
disenfranchises citizens, taking away their democratic choices
in order to conform to a regime of trade and investment rules
designed to protect the prerogatives of transnational corporations.
The environment, worker and minority rights, social and economic
equality, balanced regional development, the provision of new
public services and the position of the small farmer are all on
the block as a consequence of this process.
John Bolton, an undersecretary in the State Department responsible
for UN affairs at the time of the Gulf War
'The success of the United Nations during
the Gulf War was not because the United Nations had suddenly become
successful. It was because the United States through President
Bush demonstrated what international leadership, international
coalition-building, international diplomacy is really all about...
When the United States leads the United Nations will follow. When
it suits our interests to do so, we will do so. When it does not
suit our interests, we will not.'
Our weak-willed political class perched in isolated nation-states
and blinded by a globalist vision of a brave new world is simply
no match for the large corporations and the international bureaucracies
that are facilitating that vision. This political class has proved
all too willing to join a 'race to the bottom' (in environmental
standards, wages, social programs, the quality of life) in order
to compete for trade and investment capital. It seems to matter
little to them what their various elecorates actually want.
John Dewey, philosopher.
'The cure for the problems of democracy is more democracy.'
The current apathetic voter or non-voter can only be transformed
and educated by actually participating. Under existing circumstances
the malaise ... can only deepen. An interest in public affairs
and a thirst for knowledge to inform thoughtful decisions will
never come as long as decisions remain beyond the reach of the
ordinary citizen. In politics, as elsewhere in life, learning
comes with doing.
Noam Chomsky, political theorist.
'If you act like there is no possibility
of change, you guarantee that there will be no change.'
Institutionalizing strong democracy
One place where strong democracy has gained
a foothold is the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre Here,
under the inspiration of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Brazilian
Workers' Party) the municipal government is organized around a
high level of popular participation. As in many Brazilian cities
the municipal budget was subject to the corrupting influence of
a traditional patronage machine. A study of local finances in
parts of Brazil indicates that as much as 64 per cent of the total
budget was misappropriated in this way.
In 1988 the Partido dos Trabalhadores
initiated a process of popular review of Porto Alegre's budget
involving local community meetings at which priorities are set
and then further meetings when they are voted on. In the 1996
budget some 100,000 of Porto Alegre's citizens participated in
this budgetary process. There are now about 70 cities in Brazil
and the rest of Latin America that are trying to develop their
own versions of participatory budgeting and planning based on
the inspiration of Porto Alegre.
In the subcontinent's south-western state of Kerala: under the
leadership of the Communist Party of India, a series of 'development
seminars' with around 300,000 participants in 1997-98 taught villagers
basic self-governance skills. Ambitious plans called for some
40 per cent of the state budget to be taken from powerful line
departments in the bureaucracy and devolved to about 900 individual
Panchayat village planning councils. The result has been thoughtful
plans with high levels of popular participation in at least some
of the villages and an enriching of the democratic process throughout
the region with 'the creation of grassroots neighborhood-level
groups in hundreds of villages.'
Gunter Grass, German novelist
"The job of a citizen is to keep his/her mouth open."
An ethos of citizenship to replace or at least subordinate passive
political consumerism is the only real hope for reviving democracy.
The petty resentments and cynicism about all public life spawned
by the notion that all politicians (like all brands of Cola) are
ultimately the same is a dead end. We need a citizenry that goes
beyond blaming politicians and 'throwing the rascals out' to one
that takes responsibility for the direction of society. A strong
democracy depends on greater equality and on this notion of active
citizenship and engagement. This is the very thing that the political
class and the journalists, spin-doctors, and opinion managers
who serve it find messy and threatening.