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Reclaiming Democracy--Again

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Message Niloufar Parsi

A worrying challenge to the very idea of democracy is arising from various quarters. This new trend has two main drivers, among others: First, a number of Western "democracies," particularly the US, with the UK and France in typically obliging tow, have given the concept a bad name. Their litany of human rights abuses and barbarity in the world today make a mockery of the concept of democracy. With "democrats" like these, who would want to become democratic?!

democracy or dictatorship?
democracy or dictatorship?
(Image by AK Rockefeller)
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democracy or dictatorship? by AK Rockefeller

The second driver comes from China's alternative model, which is gaining much traction among emerging nations. China's highly successful economic development over four decades since the 1980s has caught the attention of academics and politicians alike. Rather logically, many are asking whether a benevolent dictatorship may be the preferred option for the greatest benefit for the largest number in situations where a country is trying to rise fast from a low base of economic development. This notion is further supported by the fate of the so-called "Arab Spring," especially in Libya and Syria where the chaotic outcomes have been disastrous.

The second driver is the easier one to deal with in any defense of democracy. China has never had democracy, but there is little reason to believe that its growing wealth will not push it toward democracy. The Tiananmen protests in 1989 indicated this, as does Hong Kong's relative autonomy (far more than it ever had under British rule) and the various labor disputes that have challenged the Chinese state's power. For as long as economic prosperity continues to rise very fast for the general population in China, there may not be too much of a challenge to a one-party state--similar to the situation in Saudi Arabia, for example. But as soon as the pace of growth slows down, China will probably have to reform. In any case, rising wealth will necessarily create competing nodes of power, and these will either have to learn to compete in a democratic fashion, or they will fight each other. For now, the focus of China is on greater economic parity for the inland and western parts of the country, as the coastal populations have so far taken the lion's share of profits. This also represents a form of greater democracy, albeit on an economic level for now.

However, the manner is which today's warmongering "democracies" like the US trample on the inalienable rights of people and nations all over the world, while "communist" countries like China and Vietnam concentrate on respect for sovereignty and economic relations with other nations instead, encourages a more positive outlook on "benevolent dictatorship" throughout the world. Conversely, China's economic success has many in the West scared for their own future, insofar as this is seen as "dependent" on the West's hegemony over the world economy. Some are beginning to question the merits of democracy in the face of a Chinese challenge.

This uncertainty is compounded by deep corruption in the West's financial sector, and by the control by major corporations over the policy space, mass media and main political parties. A lack of accountability by political leaders in these countries has led to a situation where a growing portion of their citizenry has lost faith in their countries' "democratic" systems, as seen, for example, by diminishing rates of popular participation in their countries' elections.

Within this section of the West's population, some are even losing faith in the ability or competence of their fellow citizens to make the "right' choices in elections. While, traditionally, it was the extreme Right that showed a propensity to support authoritarianism in the West, today some progressive-minded people are also "hoping" for a benevolent dictator to save countries like the US from themselves. And some "academics" are writing "scientific' articles" in support of this.

But the irony of the situation is that the policy mistakes made in a country like the US over the past few decades have been in the service of interest groups, and in direct opposition to the will of the people. Public opinion in the US, the UK and France has consistently been against foreign wars, austerity measures, or the deterioration of social services. The general public has wanted decent incomes for all, reduced corporate power, accountability for corrupt bankers and politicians, and better and more equitable relations with other nations and cultures. Most people support clean energy and less pollution, as well as healthcare and education sector reforms that benefit the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

So, it is too little democracy rather than too much of it that has led to disastrous Western policies. It is precisely in the fact that politicians are corrupt and non-responsive to the wishes of the electorate that we can find the reasons for the current debacle. Should there be more democracy in the West, many of the ills of today would be cured. A more people-centered system of governance in these countries would automatically reduce the power of corporations over the media, banks, academia, and public policy.

And herein lie the reasons behind such unexpected "campaigning" against "big government." Portraying "government" as the "enemy" of the "people" certainly ensures that the potential power that average citizens could exercise over their own fates can never be realized. Instilling an irrational fear of foreign "enemies" or "terrorists" also helps the cause of corporate fascism.

So a question arises on the cause of this weakness in Western "democracy." And the answer to this seemingly complex question may be quite simple: The problem is in "representation" itself. Representative democracy is not real democracy. It rather is a form of shirking responsibility, by pushing the difficult decisions onto the shoulders of elected representatives who cannot possibly be expected to take care of the needs of so many constituents.

By placing our trust in elected representatives and allowing them to take decisions on our behalf for the next four or five years, we are in effect saying that we do not care enough to take charge over matters that affect our lives on a daily basis. We even allow them to declare war in our name. By bowing to the power of "leaders," we admit our willingness to be led by others, even to the limit of life and death decisions. This encourages corruption and throws the elected politicians to the wolves--the 1% who do have the resources and the power to practically own "our' representatives. These are people who would not hesitate to steal our savings in banks, and to declare war on the world for the sake of greed alone.

Put differently: If all major national and local policies had to be voted on by the general population of a country, no interest group or lobby could have as much control over the wealth or policies of a nation. A president could never start a war on another nation willy-nilly. Extra-judicial killings would be impossible. Corrupt bankers could not get away with murder. Corporations could not rape and pillage the world. People would be earning decent incomes, and they would have free access to healthcare and education, especially in a country as rich as the US.

In a system of Direct Democracy, people would actually see good results from good government, by the people and for the people. 

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An average Iranian with a keen interest in international affairs. Niloufar is a graduate in Development Studies in the UK, and works as an international consultant in the field of international development (non-profit).
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