excerpts from the book

No-Nonsense guide to


by Richard Swift

New Internationalist / Verso, 2002, paper


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 to us.

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 life together.

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 arrangements.

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 do.'

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 future.

... 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 town.

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.

Reasserting 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 democracy.

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.

Contested terrain

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.

Debt squeeze
[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.

Overturning democracy

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.

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