Sunday, 28 March 2010

What Democracy? Whose Democracy? When choice is no choice.

“Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same”

Much of this article may rehearse well-known lines of thought. But it is important, in a time of elections, to reflect on the nature of the “choice” we are given. My inspiration for writing came when standing on a party stall; a member of the public criticised me for being a Communist and therefore not believing in democracy.

The quote at the top of the page comes from Orwell’s 1984. Many people read this as a direct criticism of communist systems. It actually forms part of Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism – Ignorance is Strength. This fictional work is not a diatribe against communism, but a scathing attack on any system that keeps the same elite in power. Sound familiar?

On average, a person will be allowed to vote in a general election twelve times in their lives. Unless something terrible happens, I’m a third of the way though my life, and have been able to vote just twice. This is what we call democracy. This “choice” underpins our democratic values. When was the last time an MP asked your opinion on a subject, let alone give you the opportunity to influence policy?

I’m not naive. We live in a representative Parliamentary system. We delegate power to our representatives. Ancient Athens is often held as the model and foundation of Western democracy. It may well be. But we have to remember that the Athenians practiced direct democracy. They did not hold elections to a parliament. Every male citizen was able to come to the assembly and directly vote on policy. Unrealistic in the modern world; but an important fact to keep in mind.

So if our MPs aren’t working for us, whom are they working for? The recent budget and the responses of the three main parties reveals a lot. It is not (as some on the left would claim) that our politicians are in the pockets of big business, although I’m sure some are. The truth is much more terrifying. Most politicians of the bourgeois parties actually believe that pandering to international capitalism is good for the country and good for the people. As George Osborne said:

“We will make the UK a more attractive location for multinationals” - A New Economic Model: Eight Benchmarks for Britain, Conservative Party 2010

That means low taxes, light regulation and as little power in the hands of the unions as possible.

Or we can look at Greece. The globalised capitalist economy has had disastrous consequences for the nation’s independent sovereignty and right to manage its own affairs. The people of Greece are suffering a financial crisis because of the global economic downturn and a reliance on financial markets opened up upon adoption of the Euro. Greece’s credit rating has therefore been downgraded by the very institutions that leant it money in the first place. This means that the interest it pays on national debt rises, turning the situation into a downward spiral. The Greek government, to avoid further penalties, is held to ransom by international finance and forced to adopt:

  • Pension freezes
  • Severe cuts in public sector pay
  • An increase in VAT from 19% to 21%
  • Rises in taxes on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol
  • Rises in taxes on luxury goods

Global capital turns democracy into a farce. The hegemony of the capitalist elite makes every choice an empty choice. We are allowed to tinker around at the edges as long as nothing changes.

So why bother to vote at all? In this we have to play the long game. The Communist Party calls for a vote for Labour, and has been criticized for this. But as the recent Daily Mail article would have us believe, the change in the Labour movement is slowly happening. Without a Labour government the change will be stopped dead. We cannot cut off the balls of capitalism in one go, but if we make enough changes, one day the capitalist will look down and think ‘Oops, where are my balls?’

And to go back to Ancient Greece, the source of all good quotes, for a reason to take the duty of voting seriously:

“We, unlike any other nation, regard the man who takes no part in these duties, not as unambitious, but as useless” - attributed to Pericles; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

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