A Defeat in the Battle for Democracy By Stephen Gowans
March 10, 2005
Having had the legs kicked out from under the dozens of pretexts he trotted out to justify the take-over of oil-rich Iraq, George Bush has settled on a pretext everyone can feel good about: US soldiers will occupy Iraq for some years to come to see to it that Iraqis get to elect their own leaders. Electing your own leaders is what democracy’s all about, right?
Well, yes, in a way.
Capitalist democracy has always been about electing leaders – about process, in other words, not outcomes (which are always implied to, but never actually do, follow naturally from the process.) Being free to elect our own leaders as opposed to having no real formal, organized, or constitutional choice in the matter (as in pre-war Iraq) is, in Bush’s view anyway, humanity’s highest achievement.
If so, humanity is an underachiever.
Electing our own leaders hardly seems to be much of an achievement, if the leaders we elect repeatedly go about organizing the affairs of state with little regard for what we want or need, and yet, the history of capitalist democracy has never been about elevating the interests of the vast majority to the ruling interest, except for brief periods, when elected leaders have been compelled by ideological rivalry or the growing strength of organized labor to make temporary concessions.
Contrary to the mythology, elected leaders have conducted the affairs of state, not in the interests of the majority that elect them, but in ways that preserve and extend the economic and political dominance of the narrow oligarchy of corporate leaders, investors, press barons and well-connected statesmen – the real power in capitalist democracies. Clearly, some elected leaders have been well-meaning, intending to make some progress in the interests of the majority, but have failed, not because they haven’t been determined enough, but because they’ve led the assault on a decoy (parliament), not on the enemy’s redoubt (its mastery of the economy and the state.)
Because it focuses on parliaments, capitalist democracy, like the parliaments at the heart of it, is theatre – an exercise in illusion designed to keep the patrons happy. For all its decades of allowing people to elect their own leaders, the United States can hardly be said to be a society organized in the interests of the majority, unless sprawling slums, homelessness, incessant economic insecurity, profound inequality, and tens of millions without health insurance count, in some perverse way, as majoritarian gains. Clearly, being able to elect our own leaders hasn’t counted for much – except it has convinced us (at least those of us who still vote) that ours is the best of all existing political systems because it relies on the consent of the people.
But consent to what? Not to who exercises power. Nobody consented to be jobless or to be exploited at work or to be deprived of a public healthcare system or to send troops to Iraq – and yet all of these things happen. They happen because real power in capitalist democracies resides in boardrooms and stock exchanges, not in parliaments, and not in the executive of governments, whose members almost invariably include corporate leaders and investors and their agents, and who are, in any event, subordinate to the collective power of those who own and run the economy for profit.
This, a German philosopher once remarked, means that capitalist democracy amounts to nothing more than voting every few years for the person who will represent and oppress you in parliament. This may be an achievement of sorts, but it’s an egregious underachievement against, say, what exists in Cuba today, and what existed elsewhere only a few decades ago in the name of our German philosopher, for while these experiments may have fallen short on the trappings of capitalist democracy, they produced concrete and robust gains for the majority – gains capitalist democracy has refused to allow.
Evidence of the sham is close at hand. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi insists Italian troops remain in Iraq as part of the US-led occupation force. Italians may have elected Berlusconi’s party – and so in theory he governs with their consent – but they didn’t consent to put Italian boots on the ground in Iraq. On the contrary, a solid majority is opposed, a seeming democratic obstacle to continued Italian participation in this particular US-led exercise of in-your-face imperialism – one of which Berlusconi, the elected leader, is not unaware. And yet the Italian troops remain. They’re there, explains the Prime Minister, to help create democracy, by which he means, to allow Iraqis to vote for leaders who will, as Berlusconi, do whatever accommodates the real seat of power, no matter what the people want or is in their interest.
The point of representative democracy, its proponents say, is not to follow the polls, but to govern? Yes, but in whose interest? When ownership of the economy and the media is in the hands of a narrow band of the population, and their representatives hold decisive positions in the bureaucracy, the cabinet and the inner cabinet, it’s clear who elected leaders, willing or not, govern on behalf of.
Since this is what is promised Iraqis, they will be no further ahead, and indeed, quite a distance behind, considering the real governors of their society now live half a world away. The country’s wealth will not, as it was under the unelected Saddam Hussein, be used for internal development, but will be skimmed off for the benefit – and juicy profits – of investors and corporate leaders in richer countries far away.
In the battle of democracy, this can be counted as a set back, not a victory.
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