Democracy? When?

by Stephen Gowans

November 26, 2001


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It was one of those radio programs where a bunch of people, usually journalists and lawyers and university professors and politicians, sit around a microphone and discuss the issues of the day. This one got around to the issue of what governments ought to disclose publicly, and what they ought to keep secret, about the war on Afghanistan. You know. People who give good headline. A number of the guests, liberals mostly, were agreed that in a democracy citizens should be kept informed so that they can make reasoned choices. Governments should make full disclosures of what they know, they said.

All was about to continue in serene harmony when one of the guests guffawed, and with a sneer, ventured an opinion that made the others gasp.

"There's no need to know what's going on," she said. "Maybe afterward, but not now. Nothing can be gained by the public knowing all the government knows."

"But how will citizens make informed choices?" sputtered the liberals.

"Pfff," retorted their tormentor dismissively. "In case you haven't noticed, there are no choices citizens are making about which they need to be informed. The shots aren't being called by you or me; they're being called in Washington and London, Washington mostly, and no one's asking for our opinion. You can nurture your precious illusions about living in a democracy where the citizens make choices and decisions, and maybe we make choices about who gets to be leader, but that's where our choices end. Grow up!"

It's never nice to be told your opinion is pointless, and it's never nice to burst the illusions of those who have puffed up views of their own importance. But who can deny the truth of it?

All those people following every in and out of the September 11 story, who can tell you the name of the bar Mohhamed Atta visited on September 10, who can repeat verbatim what Dick Cheney said about the progress of the war, who can name towns and villages in Afghanistan, launch into disquisitions on the number of civilian casualties and propound on the doctrines of jus in bello and jus ad bellum, all of those who proudly pronounce they are well-informed, keeping abreast of the news, making an effort to be good citizens, and for what? All of them are as immaterial to what their government does as those who've decided to play video games, shoot pool, go to the movies, and remain blessedly ignorant.

Look at it this way: No matter what you think, no matter what you want, no matter what you feel, you make no choices. Not about whether to regard Sept. 11 as a declaration of war, or a criminal act. Not about whether to go to war, or to seek out, capture and punish the culprits. Not about how to prosecute the war. Not about the USA Patriot Act and abridgement of civil liberties and military tribunals and whether it's all right to starve and displace and murder Afghan civilians. As far as public and foreign policy goes, you've been sidelined, and that's where the government wants you to stay, permanently.

Some people have recognized that and have decided to stay home on voting day and not follow the news. They recognize the whole system is set up to ensure that there's not a hell of a lot anyone can do about anything except cheer on our team from the sidelines, or what's said to be "our" team, or just ignore the whole thing.

Write your senator, your congressman, the president, petition the vice-president, the defence secretary, and the secretary of state, go to antiwar meetings and vigils and marches, write letters to the editor and talk to your friends, and Afghan kids will still have their intestines ripped to shreds by cluster bombs, Afghan civilians will still be bombed for the crime of sympathizing with the Taliban, or simply being Afghans, unless so many of us do these things that the costs to the government carrying on preponderate the gains. But should it be that way?

And after Washington finishes with Afghanistan it will move on to Iraq, to do the same, and then Syria, and kill and slaughter and maim there too, and no matter how uncomfortable you get, no matter how many letters you write and petitions you sign, it will go on and on and on, just as Washington's foreign policy always does — on its own plane, removed and disconnected from public opinion and the choices Americans would like to make but can't, unless people inconvenience themselves in sufficiently large numbers to inconvenience the government so much that it has no choice but to stop.

But if we live in a democracy, no one should have to ask, What can we do about it? No one should have to write the president, petition the vice-president, go to antiwar demonstrations, and inconvenience themselves until the government is so inconvenienced that it has no choice but to stop. In a real democracy, there are formal mechanisms for shaping policy that are readily available to, and under the control of, citizens. There's no petitioning by the governed of those who govern because the distinction between governed and governors doesn't exist.

A great philosopher once said that those who study the world should have two goals: To understand it, and to make it better. But you can't make the world better, until you understand it, and we haven't got around to understanding it, or at least acknowledging what we all suspect — that we don't really live in a democracy.

Sure, we have something called a representative democracy, but it's as far away from a real democracy, the kind we hold up as a model of our society, as Little League baseball is from the big leagues.

No, what we have is a plutocracy, a system dominated by the wealthy, that bears some of the trappings of a democracy — elections, ballot boxes, campaigns, town halls. But trappings or not, it's no more a democracy for looking like one, than a donkey is a horse for bearing a resemblance to one. Elections, voting, and ballot boxes are no more democracy, than courts, judges and lawyers are justice, or waving the flag and singing God Bless America is patriotism.

Instead, ours is a society in which every so often we get to choose among a limited number of representatives, most of whom are either wealthy or have ingratiated themselves with the wealthy as a necessity — access to scads of money being a virtual sine qua non of being elected — one of whom, if elected, will pursue policies virtually identical to those that would be pursued by the other candidates, and will do so without reference to the aspirations or wishes of the people they nominally represent. Call it democracy if you like, but what it is, is serial despotism. We get to choose which autocrat rules over us for the next four years.

That's not what democracy is supposed to be. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people, not government by serial despots, not government by the wealthy, not government by a spoiled rich-man's son who wants to exploit a tragedy to seize dictatorial powers.

That's what we've got to get to, to shed our illusions about this being a democracy, to take it upon ourselves to ensure that you and me and everyone you know be given a say, and not a say that's proportional to how much money we have, where one dollar, rather than one person, is equal to one vote, where the rich have more free speech than the rest of us, not a say about who will become dictator for the next four years, but a say in the important decisions that affect us: whether to go to war, whether we give up our civil liberties, whether we squander billions more on defense boondoggles and obscenely bloated military budgets and weapons systems that don't work to be used against enemies that don't exist and whether it's necessary, really necessary, to have 200,000 troops permanently stationed in over 40 countries abroad. We have to get to the point where people will never discover it doesn't matter what they think or want or aspire to.

There's not a lot we can do until then, and the little we can do demands patience and effort and sacrifices and, yes, courage, not only to stand up to intimidation and ridicule and marginalization, but the courage to carry on in the face of daunting odds and obstacles.

But while we're doing what we can, we shouldn't forget that it's never going to be enough to win on single issues. The anti-Vietnam war movement enjoyed a number of successes, but did that stop the same people who plunged the US into war in Indochina from pursuing war after war since? The civil rights movement won many victories, but has that stopped racism or the assault on our civil liberties? And before that: Labor made immense gains on the picket line in countless industrial strikes, but has that stopped the assault on unions and jobs?

Assaults, on us, and on people half way around the globe, are never going to end until the decision-making authority that rightly belongs to all of us is taken by all of us from the minority who have appropriated it for themselves for their own ends.

The ballot box, civil disobedience, withdrawing consent, general strikes, direct action — all of these are needed to get where we need to go. But none of these things can work unless a whole lot of people see that everyone can and should have a say, that it's time for the centuries-old project called democracy to finally come to fruition.



       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2001. All rights reserved.

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Stephen Gowans on Swans

Essays published in 2001


Published November 26, 2001
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