Democracy? Count Me Out
Along With Ralph Nader, Richard Swift,
Fidel Castro And The US Government

by Stephen Gowans

May 20, 2002


I've only ever heard Ralph Nader speak once, about 20 years ago. I remember little of the talk, but somehow, over two decades, one exchange has stuck with me. Nader had finished his speech, and had invited questions. He must have been making the case for direct democracy, or at least more citizen participation in decision-making, because someone asked, "What if the majority decided to outlaw abortions, cut welfare, gut social programs, and eliminate taxes. Would you still be for direct democracy?"

It sometimes seems that calls for more democracy, whether as a reform of Western society proposed by people like Nader, or as a reform of one-party states proposed by the US State Department, are really little different than calls for fair officiating and good sportsmanship in athletic contests. Everyone says that's what they want, but what they really want is a certain outcome.

Take athletic contests. It's customary to declare before a contest begins that if fair, and cleanly fought, victory will surely follow. After all, we have the better team, the better skills, the better argument. But once the contest begins both sides do everything in their power to ensure the contest is tilted in their favour, even if it means bending -- and sometimes breaking -- the rules. Those who scrupulously follow the rules, in the long term, end up losers, unable to grasp the fundamental truth of contests: it's the outcome that matters. Saps mouth pieties about "it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game." Winners get the job done.

So too with the advocates of more democracy. Take the US State Department, self-declared promoter of democracy around the world. Washington favours a brand of democracy that allows those who privately own and control the economy to dominate the democratic arena by virtue of their access to resources. As writer Doug Henwood puts it, "with...wealth comes extraordinary social power -- the power to buy politicians, pundits, and professors, and to dictate both public and corporate policy." Or as WC Fields once said of American democracy: "We get the best president money can buy."

Indeed, at the core of democratic reforms is the idea that a country's land, resources, markets and people should be open to control by Western capital. You'll never see a call for multiparty elections coming from Washington that isn't accompanied by a demand for open markets. Washington believes the two go hand in hand. "The name for our profits," songwriter Phil Ochs once remarked, "is democracy."

The advantage of democracy American-style is that it allows the US to get the best foreign leaders money can buy -- those most willing and most able to facilitate the mission of US firms operating abroad: extracting a profit from someone else's resources, someone else's labor and someone else's markets. Western-friendly leaders -- code for pro-US, pro-capitalist leaders -- are showered with assistance from Washington -- materially, financially, and in other forms. Other leaders are demonized in the media, and subjected to destablization, sanctions, coups, even military intervention. Support our candidate and nobody gets hurt. In the end, demonized leaders are always guilty of the same crime: not genuflecting deeply enough to the canon that American firms have the right to make profits anywhere in the world.

Of course, just as a team is willing to praise the referees, or play by the rules, as long it's winning, Washington is just as likely to abandon, ignore, or change the rules, when it's losing. The only thing Washington hates more than a communist, observed writer William Blum, is an elected communist; that is, an opponent who wins on the United States own favored titled playing field of multi-party elections in an "open" society in which the US can freely or covertly intervene. And so it is that when leaders are elected who aren't sufficiently committed to turning over their economies to American business interests, whether communist, socialist, nationalist, or otherwise, they have to go. Exit Salvador Allende, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez (briefly) and Slobodan Milosevic. Others are on the brink of making the same exit: Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Washington is also willing to play by an entirely different set of rules when foreign regimes have adopted policies congenial to US interests. You'll hear not a peep from Washington about the oil monarchies, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for whom the notions of democracy and human rights are anathema. They offer the US oil industry what it wants -- immense profits -- so suffer not the slings and arrows of the US foreign policy establishment's mock outrage. Indonesia, hardly a country to get a democrat's heart thumping, is known as an "investor's paradise" and so its failings are overlooked. Pakistan, a military dictatorship, is spared from criticism for one person rule, its support for Washington's military conquest of Central Asia too vital to be subordinated to concerns over democracy. Remember: the rules are for saps; winners get the job done.

At the other end of the spectrum is the so-called non-authoritarian Left. It too is ardently committed to democracy, but like Washington, has a conditional attachment: rule by the people must produce the right outcome. The difference, of course, is that both sides disagree on what the right outcome is. Sometimes. (1)

Take Richard Swift, editor of New Internationalist. (2) Swift doesn't like the idea that a number of matters have been taken out of the hands of democratic decision-makers and made the sole preserve of the market -- the usual beef against such investors-rights agreements as the FTAA, NAFTA, the MAI. Swift proposes economic decisions be brought back under democratic control, and goes further still. We should have "strong" or direct democracy, he says.

It sounds nice, like that trip you wanted to take to Spain this year, but when you work through the details, like where you're going to get enough money, you realize there could be problems. "Many enlightened people are concerned that expanding (democracy's) scope will lead to an offensive of populist reaction," Swift writes. Like what? Well, "reinstituting capital punishment, outlawing abortion, an attack on gay rights, and end to foreign aid, or defunding social programs through radical tax cuts." An offensive of populist reaction? Funny how the undesired outcomes of democracy are demonized. What happened to the much more pleasant sounding "democratic decision-making?" Or are decisions only "democratic" when they please -- or are made exclusively by -- "enlightened" people?

But maybe these are only risks, that can be managed. Swift thinks so.

One idea the New Internationalist's editor explores holds that, "[c]ertain rights -- say basic civil rights, a woman's right to choose, freedom from discrimination, a sanctity of the person which would preclude capital punishment -- would be placed beyond the reach of popular decision-making."

Sounds like a good idea, but isn't that exactly what NAFTA, MAI and the FTAA do -- place a certain set of rights, property rights, beyond the reach of popular decision-making?

Hmm. The deeper you go, the more problems you trip over. Swift concedes this solution would "provide a clear opening for those who would want to place their property rights in the same category." And that won't do.

Democracy's many pitfalls. And questions. Who would decide which rights are beyond the reach of popular decision-making? The "enlightened;" that is, those who hold the same commitment Swift does to an egalitarian society? Does Swift envision a society ruled by people as "enlightened" as himself, who distinguish themselves from authoritarian leaders, like Cuba's Fidel Castro, by embracing "strong" democracy, while ensuring "strong" democracy is not so strong as to produce outcomes the "enlightened" people would otherwise prohibit by decree? Is this "strong" democracy, or dictatorship of the enlightened lurking behind a "managed" popular decision-making?

As to the list of rights to be raised above popular control: Would it be put to a vote in a referendum, or would "enlightened" people decide what it is? If the latter, would this be any different than Castro's communist party placing a communist organization of the economy and society beyond the reach of popular decision-making, but allowing popular decision-making within those parameters? If the former, what if the majority insisted the right to property be placed beyond the reach of popular decision-making? Would Swift, and his enlightened friends, accept the decision of the majority? I doubt it.

Swift's commitment, it seems, is less to direct democracy, and more to a set of beliefs about how a society should be organized and what liberties should be allowed, or prohibited. He believes direct democracy is the way to achieve the society he wants, until he starts examining the implications of his proposal in detail. Then he starts qualifying. For example, he writes that "there are some issues of such profound moral weight -- say the use of torture by the police or a popularly-sanctioned campaign of ethnic cleansing against a vilified minority -- where even a democratically taken decision would have to be resisted."

So who decides when the majority is wrong and must be resisted, and when it's right, and must be submitted to? I think in Swift's case the majority is right when it agrees with him and his "enlightened" colleagues, and wrong when it disagrees -- exactly the same kind of reasoning used by Washington and the economic elite. The majority is right when it elects pro-capitalist leaders, wrong, and to be undermined and resisted, when it doesn't.

This seems more a fight over economic and social justice and how it's defined than a fight between a commitment to weak democracy on the one hand, and strong democracy on the other. Democracy is brought in only to make either side's case seem legitimate. "We're the good guys," they say. "We're for democracy. Not like Castro."

Does that make Swift and the "non-authoritarian" Left as hypocritical as Washington? Neither is fully committed to a robust democracy (too risky), and both are happy to exploit the rhetoric of democracy, as a useful way to distinguish themselves favourably from authoritarian regimes or the "authoritarian" Left. Eager to don democratic trappings -- multiparty elections, even referenda -- they are also ready to manage and limit democracy if it heads in the wrong direction.

And yet a commitment to democracy is supposed to be what distinguishes non-authoritarian lefties like Nader and Swift from bad authoritarian lefties like Castro. All seek a more egalitarian world, a materially secure existence for all, universal access to robust health care and education (Castro having gone a whole lot further in his little part of the world to make this a reality.) But Nader and Swift see themselves as being on a higher moral plane. They're democrats. But are you on a higher moral plane if you propose a strong democracy that allows a majority to tyrannize the minority, or that could produce clearly immoral outcomes (like support for torture?) And if you insist on subordinating democracy to morality, are you a democrat?

The way around the contradiction is to pretend it doesn't exist. That's what Nader did when asked about the risks of direct democracy gutting social programs, prohibiting abortion and insisting on capital punishment. "I don't believe the majority would vote in favour of these things," he said. And that's what stuck with me these last two decades: Nader says he's for strong democracy, but I doubt he is. Were he, he might have said, "Well, then so be it. I wouldn't agree with those decisions, and I would fight to change the majority's mind, but if that's what the majority wants, that's what strong democracy is all about." Instead, he ducked the question. Could it be that for Nader, and a lot of strong democracy boosters, a humane, egalitarian world, free from hate, is more important that direct democracy? In their view, is the former more important than the latter?

I'd say so, and I'd say there are good reasons for the view, even if it is secretly held, or never admitted to: Democracy isn't all it's cracked up to be. The assertion is scandalous, I know, kind of like admitting you pick your nose, or that sometimes (maybe often) you cheat to win, or that you're not completely honest with your partner, or that you lie a lot. But really -- who is honestly and truly for democracy?

Washington isn't. Ralph Nader isn't. Richard Swift isn't. What they're for -- what almost everyone is for -- is decisions by the majority they like.

And who could be for democracy? Can any reasonable person accept the idea that all women wear burqas, if the majority decides it should be so? Should we all worship a Christian God, and god, if the majority decides it would make the country a better place? Should we all roll over and do what the majority demands?

And how about representative democracy? Washington has elevated multiparty elections to the pantheon of human achievements. But what Washington really means when it says a country must hold multiparty elections, is that a pro-capitalist, pro-US party must be on the ballot, one Washington can funnel money to, and which will, if elected, sell off state-owned assets to US firms, and open the doors to US investors. Is that democracy, or domination by US capital?

And while a multiparty democracy is insisted on by the US State Department for Cuba and North Korea, one understood to feature at least one party willing to operate as a front for US business interests, it's not insisted on for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Kuwait (and it sure wasn't insisted on for Cuba when the dictator Batista was keeping Cuba safe for US capitalism). As for the United States, its own multiparty democracy consists in any practical way of only two parties, one openly committed to aggrandizing US business interests, the other a front for US capital, one progressives can't tear themselves away from, like a battered and bruised woman who keeps going back to her abusive husband because she believes him to be kind underneath. (3) In the United States you have the choice, effectively, of capitalism on the one hand, and capitalism on the other. In Cuba, you can choose communism or communism. So what's the difference between the two societies except that one is communist (and more humane) and one is capitalist (and isn't)? It's not having a choice between two competing systems that distinguishes them.

Democracy isn't the fair-haired child we've been led to believe it is. But then, we've never had the fair-haired child. Only the illusion of one. And it's doubtful that that's what we want. What we really want -- some of us -- is good public education, comprehensive public health care, work for all, adequate housing, nutrition and clothing, for everyone, no matter where they live, as well as an end to racism, homophobia, aggression and despoliation of the environment.

If given a choice between this, and strong democracy, I'll take the former. I'm betting Nader and Swift will too. Even if they're not admitting it.

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1.  The New Internationalist, hardly partial to "globalization," ran an article by Ike Oguine in its March 2002 issue. Oguine wrote, "We must support the courageous Zimbabweans in the MDC," the same MDC that unreservedly supports a neoliberal program for Zimbabwe. Many of the "non-authoritarian" Left also supported Yugoslavia's DOS, a party wholeheartedly committed to globalization and neo-liberal "reforms." How is it that parts of the anti-globalization movement, so dead set against capitalism red in tooth and claw, can end up supporting so many US-backed parties abroad intent on spreading what the movement so ardently opposes?  (back)

2.  All quotes from Swift come from Richard Swift, The No Nonsense Guide to Democracy, New internationalist Publications Ltd, Oxford, 2002.  (back)

3.  There's nothing more astonishing to an outside observer than the persistent belief among progressives in the United States that anything remotely resembling reform can be accomplished through the Democrats. If ever there was a model of the persistence of folly in the face of mountains of evidence pointing to the stupidity of an act, the progressive community's refusal to give up on the Democrats is it. Even those who, in a massive struggle with their consciences were able tear themselves away from an accustomed vote for a Democratic candidate to vote for Ralph Nader in the last presidential election, believed a Green vote would force the Democrats to wake up and reform. Some still believe this to be true. Once the Green vote gets large enough, they reason, the Democrats will have to change, and then Greens can return home to the party they're most comfortable supporting. How can this attachment to the party of war criminals, frauds, and promoters of US capitalism be explained without invoking the idea of mass insanity?

Meanwhile, there are traditional left wing parties in the United States whose platforms are far more congenial to the progressive community's views, that are, however, routinely eschewed on grounds they are authoritarian and historically associated with the dreaded Soviet Union and its crimes: the invasion of Hungary, the Gulags, etc. Since WWII, 35 million people -- 90 percent of them civilians -- have been slaughtered in wars, many perpetrated by the United States, many carried out under the direction of a Democrat in the White House and with the approval of Democrats in the Congress. The last Democrat in the White House ordered illegal attacks on the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yugoslavia. He did nothing to dismantle the murderous sanctions regime against Iraq, and ushered NAFTA into law. It would seem that Democrats have committed far more numerous crimes against America's working people, to say nothing of people elsewhere in the world, millions of whom are dead as the direct result of decisions taken by Democrats, than the communist party of the former Soviet Union. Yet progressives revile their own country's communist and socialist parties, while reserving a warm place in their hearts -- and their support -- for Democrats, most of whom seem to be following either of the great American political handbooks: How to Elevate the Rich and Stick it to Everyone Else: A Sure Fire Guide to Election and Glowing Media Coverage in the United States and Pandering to the Blind: How to Screw Your Supporters and Keep Them Coming Back for More.  (back)


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

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Published May 20, 2002
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