On democracy

by Richard on August 31, 2004

We all believe in democracy, right? The freedom to choose who it is will govern us. Some say in the way our communities and nations are run. I’ve been listening to the Republican Party Convention and it’s pretty clear they believe in democracy. The party Conference season will start soon in Britain and if there’s one thing that all the parties agree on it is democracy.There may be disagreements about the form and mechanisms of democracy, but not about the thing itself.


There is no argument that democracy is the best way to organise our politics. It wasn’t always so, of course. Students of history will know that many of those now counted among the architects of modern democracy didn’t really believe in it — not the way we do, at any rate. It was taken for granted that inclusion in democracy had to be restricted. No women. No blacks. No poor. But as time has gone on the circles of inclusion have been widened and, as far as I know, no one is seriously suggesting that they should be rolled back. Democracy gives everyone “a stake”, and we all do better because of that.

It’s odd, really. We believe in democracy so strongly that we’ll fight wars to defend it (and extend it) and yet there are so many spheres of life from which we exclude democracy without a thought. How many people work in a democracy? There are a few, but the prevailing wisdom is that in the economy, efficiency is preferred over inclusion. A few enlightened employers will sometimes consult their workers, but they are rarely obliged to do so. Still less are they required to take any notice of what they hear. In the workplace we believe in (at best) benign dictatorship.

On the world stage, our comitment to democracy is similarly challenged. International relationships are governed by such august institutions as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The UN is so democratic that a mere 5 nations (being the ones that came out on top at the end of WWII) can not only veto the business of the Security Council (where the really important decisions are taken) but can also prevent change in the organisation whatever the other 186 members might want. The World Bank is effectively controlled by the United States, which owns a large enough share of its stock to block any decision not in its interests. The IMF, founded for sustainable economic growth and the reduction of poverty, is believed by many to be the source of much of the misery of the developing world.

Real democracy in the international arena would mean what it is does in national and local politics - that each citizen has an equal stake and inflence over decision-making. Impossible? Three hundred years ago the whole notion of a democratic state would have been pretty much unthinkable. It’s a cliche to speak of the world as a global village, but that is what it is. The forces of globalisation can’t be urned back. But they can, with imagination and courage, be democratised.

We do believe in democracy, don’t we?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


Bene Diction 08.31.04 at 4:18 pm

Whew. Did the Convention set you off? I watched a few minutes last night and had to turn it off. In 2000 the buzzword was compassion. This election it is values.
I turned it off because of the disconnect between the rethoric and the reality. I know delegates genuinely believe what they are saying…that is part of what makes it so sad. Blog on!


Richard 08.31.04 at 4:31 pm

That must have been it.
I wouldn’t dispute that the delegates believe what they are saying, but I’m not convinced that alot of what I heard contained any genuine content. Many of the speeches ammonted to “9-11…freedom…this great country…support our troops…re-elect Dubya”


Bene Diction 08.31.04 at 4:41 pm

All these years of covering politics and my stomach lurched.
The delegates are who facinate me. I know it is essentially a rubber stamp process and party time, but one lady floored me. And I should be past being surprised.
She was asked if she felt the war in Iraq was justified.
“Amen!!” she blurted out. And then she said something to the effect that is was better the bullets were flying at them over there.
It was TV and a soundbite…amen?

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