We have descended a long way from stated ideals of the original proponents of democracy. The great march of democracy and freedom has been replaced by a national and international political discourse that is consumed with fundamentalism and extremism of the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and even Hindu types. Lofty ideals about the nature of humanity, progress, and a bright tomorrow when racism, fascism, apartheid and sexism would be discarded to the dustbin of history to be replaced by a loving, green and peaceful world have been all but forgotten. The age of the Internet and the information highway, the collapse of totalitarianism, and intensified globalisation have rather surprisingly resulted in a greater and more severe pursuit of national interests and wars rather than the pursuit of happiness and international solidarity.
An exponential rise in the availability information has exposed extreme levels of ignorance, particularly among politicians. Civil society appears less civil than was expected. Significant improvements in standards of living across the globe have not brought humanity closer together on the level of ideas. At least this does not appear to be the case in a war-obsessed world. The media have regressed in information quality while they have improved on information quantity and presentation quality.
The situation has led to a sense of disempowerment or lethargy among the greater populations at large. The opportunities presented by technological progress have been seized on by states across the globe. The state is ever more powerful to monitor, control and direct people and their minds. Social engineering has been on the rise in recent decades. Instruments for the protection of civil liberties have become blunted, blurred and unresponsive. Politicians act like agents of the ‘market’ – whoever or whatever that elusive policy determiner may be. Wars are launched and maintained for indefinite periods in the face of public opposition. The elected representatives of the public treat public opinion as largely irrelevant. At best, public opinion is seen as something that must be managed rather than followed.
Vested interests are king today. Public officials and elected representatives are bought and sold like commodities. They do not possess a sense of responsibility toward the public, but arrange their time and efforts to manage their electorate instead. Put simply, representative democracy seems to have reached the end of its usefulness for the public. This may have been the case from its inception (we leave that argument to the academics), but the shortcomings of representative democracy are patently clear today. Elected representatives do not represent the opinions or interests of those who elect them, nor do they intend to so it would appear.
So it is time to go back to the drawing board and ask the question: what is democracy? What was the essence of all the fuss made in the first place? We will deliberately exclude an analysis of the modes of production here since it would add way too much volume to this short paper, and because it is essentially not necessary when we are discussing the basic principles and goals of democracy as an age-old concept in itself. Suffice to say, we will confine our discussion to the exigencies of today.
Democracy has in essence three separate aspects:
1. The free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government
2. A system of government based on the principle of majority decision-making
3. The control of an organization by its members, who have a free and equal right to participate in decision-making processes.
The core problem with the situation is that while the first two aspects are to varying degrees practiced in various countries, the third aspect is hardly ever practiced anywhere. This raises a fundamental question on the practicality of the ideal itself: how is it possible for individuals to participate in government-level decision-making if there is a dearth of democratic organisation in social institutions or organisations such as the family, the corner shop, the office, the shop floor, the hospital, schools and so on. There is always a representative or leader in place wherever you go and whatever you do. Inevitably we are being a little reductionist here, but the subject matter requires it, and there is undeniable truth in our basic statement: as a rule, democracy is absent from the family and the work place. The question is: Why? And,what is the impact of this situation on a quest for greater freedom and self-determination?
A simple answer to the question of ‘why’ is found in the capitalism/democracy dichotomy. But this is not a satisfactory answer to those who believe in freedom in a personal, human way rather than the intangible ‘market’ way. In fact, the mysterious ‘market’ appears to successfully negate democracy and our efforts to achieve it. In ‘Bush speak’ freedom is effectively reduced to the freedom (of Americans) to exploit others and to own vast amounts of private property at the direct expense of others and the environment, and virtually nothing else.
How is it that we are here claiming that the ‘free market democracy’ and ‘democracy’ are diametrically opposed to each other? The key would appear to be in the system of representative democracy itself: giving up individual freedoms in a social contract that essentially disempowers the ‘masses’ in favour of the chosen few – an idea that gained ascendance with the rise of the feudal aristocracy and later strongly reinforced by the rise of the bourgeoisie. Representative democracy would have looked highly attractive back then, but today, it effectively impedes democracy itself.
There is a structural contradiction between stated ideals and realities on the ground. Perhaps this is the case today largely due to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Perhaps it is time to roll back the power of the oligarchy. We are certainly heading in the wrong direction in terms of peace, the environment and citizens participation in the decision-making processes. Profits and short-term gains have drawn a large curtain over international solidarity. Hit-and-run economics have led to the present “credit crunch”. Who knows where this new financial crisis will lead. For sure, there are some positive signs among the wreckage. The Bali conference, November 2007, and other bits and pieces can be pointed out. However, decorations alone do not make a cake.
How then would one approach the question of achieving greater democracy today? Despite the foregoing arguments, we are not here looking at the idea of revolutionising the work place. That is at once too obvious and too impractical short of a global revolution. What may be more practical is to start at the top, and to aim specifically at reducing the decision-making influence of the new aristocracy: the super rich, the multinational corporations, banking warlords and the military-industrial complex. And the key to this shift in power may in fact rest in the Internet.