Thinking about democracy

It is odd, how we think of democracy these days – as something ordinary, inherent to the West, something to strive for yet something taken for granted, also. It is a concept that has plagued the politically vexed mind since time immemorial, well, at least since our ancient forebears. Aristotle envisioned it, Plato feared it (‘Democracy passes into despotism’), as did Mill, and Machiavelli idealised it, believing that the majority would preclude oppression, which was preferable to the tyranny of the few, who would always look to subjugation to maintain control and order. It used to be a radical concept: tyrannical or feudal systems didn’t benefit the majority and were subject to the whims and natures of the privileged minority.

If we were to ask a passerby in the street, ‘How do you define democracy?’ it’s impossible to predict, based on recent observations of democracy in action in Australia, in the Unites States, in Israel, in the outbreak of democracy across the free world, what their definition would look like. George Orwell alluded to this when he wrote, ‘It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.’

At its most rudimentary level, democracy means government by the people. It’s a theory of governance in which the state’s power is vested in the citizens, or their elected representatives. Democracy is supposed to ensure equal rights for all, behaviours and actions in accordance with the rule of law, and governance subject to public scrutiny – and accountability.

These days, you would be hard-pressed to find much resembling democracy in those regions that not only holler its merits from the rooftops, but also force-feed other nations its diet. What has happened to our notions of democracy? Did we squander them on compulsions to overthrow governments, control resources and reclaim territories?

Israel is a nation commonly hailed as a beacon of democracy in an enslaved Middle East. Last week, Gideon Levy, who continues to churn out heartbreaking masterpieces as he watches his democracy collapse into the sea, wrote:

[For Israeli nationalists], democracy means only an election every few years, tyranny of the majority and the crushing of the minority, lockstep thinking, the state above all else, Judaism before democracy, a coopted media and clapped-out control mechanisms, an academia under supervision and citizens subject to a loyalty oath – and to hell with all the fundamental values, which are being trampled before our very eyes.

We could be forgiven, in this Australian democracy, for not knowing about the laws currently being read in the Knesset that will make it illegal to boycott Israel or Israeli goods, that will work retroactively and will be used against Palestinians and Israeli activists and will ban international BDS supporters from entering the region for 10 years. For not knowing of the plight of Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi, who participated in the Freedom Flotilla and as a result was stripped of parliamentary privileges, was given a mock passport during parliamentary proceedings and told ‘contact Ahmadinejad and ask him to give you an Iranian diplomatic passport … because your Israeli passport will be revoked this evening.’ For not knowing of Netanyahu’s proposed immigration law adopting Avigdor Lieberman’s favoured slogan ‘Citizenship depends on loyalty’ – a loyalty, that is, to ‘Jewish democracy’, which forces new citizens to recognise and remain loyal to Zionism and Judaism.

Considering that more than 20% of Israel’s population is Arab, how is this democracy? As Ishai Menuchin, the executive director of the Public Committee against Torture in Israel observed, ‘Democracy is far more than majority rule … For Israel to be truly democratic, civil society organisations are needed to challenge the government and legislature through the media and courts, and in public protests.’

Israeli principal Ram Cohen, who is opposed to the rewriting of history textbooks, and IDF recruitment in high schools, phrased it like this:

A principal must have, for example, something to say about the deportation of the children of migrant workers, trafficking in women, the separation fence, the withdrawal from Gaza, minimum wage law, settlers attacking Palestinian villagers to exact a ‘price tag’, the removal of Arabs from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the siege on Gaza, corruption in government, or the relations of religion and state.

Take the United States, as another example, where an administration was elected on a platform of hope, change, equality and a retreat from US imperial misadventure. This is a democracy with an administration that, despite electoral promises to the contrary, keeps open Guantanamo bay, home to detainees who have been imprisoned for 8 and half years without trial. Out of 779 prisoners, only 3 have been convicted, including David Hicks. In a country that can’t afford universal health care, post-9/11 Guantanamo has cost US taxpayers $2 billion. More than 20 million Americans are, or near, unemployed. The US has 4.7 millionaires and 39 million people who barely manage to find food.

Meanwhile, the US has 865 foreign bases in more than 175 countries and the US ‘spends almost as much on military spending as the entire rest of the world combined’ – which is 50% of their GDP. They’ve recently discovered their democracy is overseen by a Secret Government that has 854,000 employees with top security clearances who monitor the ‘1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications’ of US citizens daily.

WikiLeaks’ 92,000 documents granting ‘an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan … more grim than the official portrayal,’ verify what many already grasped: the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and the US COIN mission, absurd:

At the meeting, an old Afghan man spoke scornfully of democracy, which he saw as little more than a guarantee of an equal right to bribe. In response, the reconstruction team’s first recommendation was to:
DO an Information Operation campaign explaining [to] the Afghan people: What DEMOCRACY is? How a democratic systems works? What they can do to report wrong doing? (The last only if there will be real consequences to the wrong doing, if not the confidents/narrators will be squash[ed] by the system).

On the same day WikiLeaks released their data, the Age reported:

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans a staggering $US1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $US4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents.

There is now doubt as to when America plans to withdraw from Iraq, the 2011 timeline fading into political rhetoric, so the interminability of war seems assured. Since the US bombardment of Fallujah in 2004, there have been ‘dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia’ that ‘exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.’ Hardly facts to holler from our democratic rooftops.

Orwell, who could have written this passage just this morning, said:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

In Australia, we have a democratic two-party system that doesn’t allow people to directly elect a head of state, nor the head of government. Which doesn’t give people a lot of choice, yet we have to make a choice – it’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. And it has reached a crisis point where we expect our representatives to lie, and we suspect our votes are worthless.

A majority of the Australian population has a much more progressive view on climate policy and war – 61% want to see an end to the conflict in Afghanistan – than our government, who have dismissed our opinions on the subject: ‘so long as the bipartisanship holds in Canberra … [public opposition to the war] is not a critical electoral factor,’ boasted former Labor senator, Stephen Loosely. The Age advised that our representatives view ‘bipartisan support for all of Australia’s overseas deployments’ as a ‘measure of a mature democracy.’

Given the war ‘coverage’ in this democratic nation, we could be forgiven for forgetting that we’re still at war – still at several wars, in fact. The platforms our politicians choose to run on are all about political popularity, as opposed to policy that affects us. While they may pretend they’re kowtowing to racists in Sydney’s West, these politicians are the ones controlling the political discourse, constructed around topics of their choosing. It’s not about what’s popular with the people; it’s about avoiding topics like defence spending by focusing on the illusory ‘border security’. ‘No politician can or should defy the wishes of the electorate,’ said Tony Abbott, who clearly has a memory that doesn’t extend beyond the headlines of that day.

Our democracy is so stunted in Australia in 2010 that it is not a critical factor in this election that the majority of Australians are against the war; it does not matter that our leaders were caught lying about Iraq, about Afghanistan, about refugees. It does not matter that are leaders are never held accountable under the rule of law. How is this democracy?

If Israel can get away with an attack on a humanitarian flotilla in broad daylight, if the US can get away with never-ending war, and Australia can get away with obfuscating responsibility, then what can’t these democratic nations get away with under the banner of progress?

One vote every four years is not participatory politics and it is not the way to a functioning, progressive and ‘mature’ democracy. We need to stop with the democracy delusion; it’s time for democracy with a pulse.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

More by Jacinda Woodhead ›

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  1. Excellent stuff. When my local member comes electioneering at my door, I’m going to ask what he’s going to do to end our war involvements, and when they’ll finally bring in 1 vote 1 value.

  2. Just a few general remarks on “democracy with a pulse” and what it might involve, abstracting from the depressing specifics of our situation as described in this post…

    (1) Direct decision-making by referendum is the most democratic system. This means it should be preferred wherever feasible. As Paul Cockshott and Karen Renaud have
    shown, there exist procedures allowing popular control over issues of broad social direction, e.g. tax and allocation of public expenditure. There is no reason for representatives or delegates to makes these decisions instead of us all.

    (2) Mediated decision-making is a necessary evil. Taking a population-wide vote on everything is clearly infeasible.

    But it’s also clear that parliamentary representation is unsatisfactory as a form of indirect democracy. Whichever characteristic we choose – sex, race, class/profession, educational level, age, income, opinions – elected assemblies are unrepresentative of the populations they’re drawn from. In every polity, elected parliamentarians are disproportionately male lawyers or businessmen from the dominant ethnic group. Why? There are glaring institutional failings – patronage, nepotism – that help to cause this, and which could conceivably be removed, alongside Emily’s List-style campaigns. But it also seems an unavoidable byproduct of choosing the “best” candidate, the aristoi, who is more likely to be a polished smooth-talker, a “respectable” and “well-presented and informed” man attuned to the interests of the powerful, than a member of the common people, a person “of no birth, indigent circumstances, and mechanical employment” as Aristotle put it.

    Shalom’s multi-tier council system, which Joshua promotes above, is an improvement on parliamentarism. Delegates are recallable and more clearly accountable to lower levels. But it has also been subject to serious criticisms, on the grounds of diluting voting power, from e.g. Daryl Glaser and Moshe Machover. It’s also vulnerable to domination by the aristoi, i.e. the opinionated, the committed, the ambitious.

    Perhaps, instead of being elected, public officials should be chosen by lot as for a jury. This is known as sortition and is the only way to obtain a statistically representative sample of the population. It also seems the only way to guarantee the original democratic principle of isonomia. There’s a blog, Equality by Lots. Equality by Lot, which advocates sortition.

    Of course, sortition alongside direct decision-making will have to wait for a radically different society, and the problem is how we can get there from here, given the circumstances Jacinda describes above. But it seems worthwhile to consider what a better, more authentically democratic system may look like.

  3. ha! reCAPTCHA says ‘ask tonnes’ and tonnes true governance asks – tonnes of courage, interest, sacrifice, creativity, intelligence, humanity …

    But it has less and less to do with our politicians, doesn’t it? Isn’t it what’s on the TV and deals made in boardrooms of wealthy big business pulling the strings. The pollies will mouth anything they’re told to mouth. Raised to be thoughtless consumers led by liars and fools, no wonder a goodly chunk of our young people aren’t interested

    This election, more than any other, is like the pigs and the ‘humans’ merging at the end of Animal Farm.

    Great article, Jacinda. Thank you. We’re all fucking peasants as far as I can see…

  4. Yes Jack, thanks for the post.

    Look, I think it’s pretty clear what the problem is but as Nick says:
    “Of course, sortition alongside direct decision-making will have to wait for a radically different society, and the problem is how we can get there from here, given the circumstances Jacinda describes above.”

    I’m encouraged by the swing towards the Greens because I believe that without a strong third force in Australian politics we have no means by which to build the bridge from here to some better place. I’m not a member of the Greens or any other political party but I don’t see any progressive movement gathering force without the Greens as its basis.

    Furthermore, without the progressive trade unions, key intellectuals and community interest groups galvanising around a Green base I can’t see any real future for progressive politics in Australia. (Getup! obviously plays a very important role too) This is a time when alliances need to be forged and comprimises made if necessary. The Greens need to be supported and the base widened. I see no other viable way to gain ground and crack through the message machinery of the major parties and their corporate backers.

    However, as I’ve said several times in previous posts and comments, care needs to be taken that faith in the political culture is not overtaken by apathy and cynicism. I know that it’s difficult to see under the current, soporific conditions but widespread cynicism can give way to demagoguery and Australia has always had, throughout its history, a certain subterranean, and at times fully exposed, authoritarianism. Disenchantment with the political culture, especially in times of economic stress, creates the preconditions for the appearance of charismatic authority. Imagine if Obama was a fascist and not a democrat. If Bush had had Obama’s mojo. If Hanson had been intelligent and well connected.

    I believe a non violent, participatory, articulate and cooperative social movement can be built, yes built and not just dreamt about, with patience and a measure of pragmatism. But then, what would I know? I’m just sayin’.

    1. Reeling from the stench of this appalling election campaign and what seems, to me, a lacklustre failure of the Greens to ‘rally the troupes’ and yes, I mean troupes, I am currently experiencing a spate of apathy and cynicism – time to snap out of it and begin a little paradigm shifting eh … *sigh* … bucket (mmmm) sand (ahhh)

  5. Thanks for this. It seems so easy for countries like Australia to sign conventions/charters to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, like children, yet take actions that undermine the rights and safety of a child by detaining them in prisons. The label of democracy – when not taken seriously – is like a façade that can hide so many injustices.

  6. This post makes me weep. I think democracy has become so entwined with power – which I’m sure wasn’t the original idea – that it’s morphed into a hybrid of itself. The pull and push of the day’s contest between politicians (often made up of point scoring) can be won and lost on matters that are not vital to our way of life, while other crucial topics, deemed too difficult to change the status quo of, remain unchanged and often (and I’m thinking of climate change and war) doing much harm.

    So much energy goes into propping up the wheel, it’s hard to know if it’s turning forward or languishing back. And politicians, I think they often know why they were voted in (and I’m thinking of Obama) but, in the end, compromise much (way too much) in order to serve the machine.

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