By Jim Miles
(Part II looks at how theological considerations, meritocracy, and the fear of social democracy influence perceptions on democratic values and influence actions justified as democratic, from Palestine and Israel through to U.S. actions around the globe.)
This is perhaps the strangest relationship within this argument but it is within this context, from an article written by Ramzy Baroud about the ability of democracy to fit within the Muslim system of beliefs, that my original thoughts started. In the article Baroud argued that an “entire school of Muslim thought was in fact established around the concept that democracy and Islam are very much compatible.” Continuing through his arguments on the values of democracy and their fit with Islam – with the awareness of the damage done by the U.S. occupations and invasions and their bringing of democracy through the barrel of a gun to the peoples of the Islamic world – he notes, “However, these idealized assumptions missed the fact that Western democracy was conditional. And unconditional democracy can only be a farce.”  I can only concur.
Most religions have within them the philosophical/moral basis for the establishment of a democracy. Most would fit a social democracy or even true communal communism if beliefs accorded to family and community were respected and implemented. The discussions about the umma within Islam, the communalism within Christianity, and some of the Talmudic traditions within Judaism, all carry strong elements of democracy. Most importantly as will be discussed later, is the attention to the weak and the poor within society, as well as care for society in general and the environment – and at the opposite end, the kings and rulers were not above the law. Unfortunately many religions – and certain sects within all religions – become dogmatically structured around a patriarchal system, or become entangled in some political philosophy that denies the communal-democratic basis of the religion.
Volumes could be written arguing from this perspective on the ins and outs and validity of democracy versus church regulations versus theological interpretations but there are two points I wish to make here. First is the concept of a Jewish and democratic state. Secondly, the semi-religious beliefs of Confucianism raise the idea of a meritocracy as a possible permutation of democracy.
A Democratic and Jewish State?
Many problems occur around the idea of a state that determines its democracy on the basis of one particular religion. While Israel is not alone in this, it serves as an indicator of how far religious zealotry and dogma and political will based on that zealotry – through belief or simple utility – can deny democracy to its citizens and to citizens of areas that it controls.
It is obvious that there is nothing democratic about an occupation. Democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, both occupied countries, is essentially a farce. A government supported by foreign money, a country that has various war lords serving within its institutions, a government that would change dramatically if the occupiers withdrew cannot by any definition other than the lie of propaganda be considered a democracy. For Israel, its denial of Palestinian rights with the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself is a denial of democracy. It is a denial of democracy prejudiced upon a religious “holier than thou” belief system – in which the “thou” becomes homo sacer, the other, outside the law and thus subject to whatever treatment is accorded it without retort – and it is omnipresent in all areas of Israeli/Palestinian society.
The pure lie of democracy as a gift from the rulers, the elite, was fully demonstrated during the Palestinian elections in which Hamas emerged a surprise winner. This democratic victory was quickly denied by the U.S., Canada, and Israel, with the ongoing results being the continued subjugation of the Palestinian Authority to the Israeli political will and the demonization of Hamas and its enclave of Gaza, an enclave determined mainly by outside forces trying to entrap Hamas. Which is in effect what happened, again with results that demonstrate the full lack of democratic ideals of the Israeli government as it subjects the territory to ongoing containment – essentially a huge outdoor prison camp – and savage military attacks that are demonstrably against international law. Democracy has only been achieved by the people, the demos, standing up for their rights, fighting against the abuses of the elites and rulers – and that fight is at its most physical and savage in occupied territories such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and even more so in Palestine.
A Democratic Meritocracy?
With the rise of Chinese power through economic wealth, technological advancements, and increases in its military budget, most recent works on China as the rising power of the East contain arguments about the nature of Chinese society as influenced by its Confucian background. While not truly a religion, its philosophical underpinnings and the manner in which it is used parallel in certain respects the philosophical structures of the other main religions. Part of the Confucian belief system is that of an ordered society, with a hierarchal structure, but it is not a completely rigid structure and is supported by the belief and application of the concept of merit as a means of advancement.
Historically the rulers and elites of Chinese society were supported by a bureaucracy that was determined theoretically by the merits of those doing the work. The merit was established by a series of examinations to determine the best candidates for the bureaucracy. The rulers themselves were perceived to be there on merit, and if they no longer deserved or earned the merit of the populace, they would be overthrown. These greatly simplified explanations give support to the concept of the intellectual rigor that the Chinese apply to their education. It can also in part help explain the demographic statistic indicating that the distribution of wealth within a meritocracy, in this case China, is not nearly as widespread as in the “democracies” – of which the U.S. has one of the largest spreads in the world. China’s current economic growth is increasing the spread, but the idea of a meritocracy remains strongly within its societal structures.
It is hard to imagine a meritocracy in place in North America. Very few of our politicians would merit any of their positions or wealth if they had to pass tests in order to be in power. Many of our politicians are surprisingly ignorant of much of the world, its cultures and beliefs, its geography and life. Democracy in North America comes from the power of wealth and not from the power of common sense and merit. While a meritocracy is not necessarily democratic, it certainly has a level of appeal and would be a highly valid instrument to incorporate within a democracy. Perhaps China will become democratic after all, in a manner that most pundits observing China are not even capable of considering, a social democratic meritocracy.
Another look at today’s democracies and their achievement of wealth demonstrates that free enterprise had very little to do with that wealth creation. Rather, all countries that have harvested the world’s wealth have done so by protecting their own industries and products at the expense of those from other countries. This applies to the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish empires, as well as to the American empire. It also applies to the current rise in the wealth of the Chinese. Protection can be afforded in many ways, from tariffs, to quotas, to tax laws, to rules and regulations imposed on imported goods. However it is achieved, most countries that have become wealthy have done so through some form of protectionism.
The authors of the books on China mentioned above relate how this is true of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, all but the latter being considered democratic and held up as exemplars of free trade capitalism. Neither concept holds. They all operate as quasi democracies, having succeeded economically with strong government support and interventions, while the democratic aspect is arguably much more in line with the Confucian meritocracy of China. Certainly the people vote, but it is the underlying bureaucracy and rules and regulations of business and the economy that truly determine the power of the government, not the people, the ‘demos’.
Examined in that light, many other countries become nominal democracies as well, with that paragon of self -defined enlightenment and freedom, the United States, presenting many aspects of its political culture that deny democracy to its people. The U.S. along with many other western countries are more correctly a plutocracy or an oligarchy, where the wealthy control the power structures of the country.
An aspect of democracy that is singularly lacking in the western powers is that of the openness and transparency that they all call upon others to demonstrate. Corporations, as seen above are decidedly non-transparent, as are their military liaisons and their governmental cohorts. Corporate secrets, government secrets, are subject to tests under the Freedom of Information Laws extent in most democracies, yet it is increasingly more and more difficult to access full information without denial through classification or redaction.
It can be argued that the reasons for this secrecy have very little to do with intellectual property rights, or that the information is “too sensitive” to be dealt with by the public, or that the security of the country will be compromised. Governments and businesses keep secrets not for the protection of the business, the government and the state in face of dangers from abroad – except that, ironically that is exactly what it is for, because in a true democracy, if the people had all the information that they wanted through truly free requests, the revelations of government incompetence, culpability in various crimes (national and international), obeisance to various lobbying groups (think AIPAC), and disregard for people, their cultures, and the environments they live in would be glaringly obvious. Secrecy is not to protect the country, but to protect the people in power from the wrath of the citizens that they are manipulating.
So What Becomes Democracy?
The democratic ideal is difficult to achieve. Anything that is remotely related to a social democracy comes under the gun – literally – of the U.S. military. Most of South and Central America have experienced the interventions of the U.S. military in one form or another, either direct invasion, or covert operations, or not so covert support of the right wing business elites of the countries. From the “banana republics” of Central America – so called because of the dominance of United Fruit and its offspring, Chiquita, and Standard Fruit and its offspring Dole in co-opting much of the agricultural landscape – through to the southern state of Chile and the overthrow of the Allende government to be replaced by the militaristic Pinochet dictatorship, the Americas have suffered under the non-democratic and internationally criminal actions of the United States.
Further away, in Iran – with the overthrow of the Mossadegh social democracy, through to the invasion and massacre of millions of south-east Asians in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, to similar massacres of so-called communists in the Philippines and Indonesia – the U.S. record is consistently the denial of democracy when it comes in the form of a social democracy, wherein the people actually have or want to have some say in the government and its application of rules and regulations.
A associated directly with all this are the multinational corporations that harvest the wealth of the countries on the receiving end of these military adjustments. Combined, the two are, in spite of all their wonderful rhetoric of democracy and freedom, only interested in wealth accumulation with no interest in the people or the environment.
A social democracy attempts to protect its resources and use them for the well being of its own people, through carefully managing sales and extraction, by protecting the environment, protecting the health and well being of the people, by supporting health, welfare, and educational systems for the betterment of all, and finally to protect the environment and culture of the cultural and geographical systems of the country.
Would not most people of the world, given the chance to vote on it, tell their governments to provide health, education and welfare for all, to protect the environment, to provide for the aged, sick, and disabled? Would they not vote for clean water – the right to water which has been denied them in national and international rights? Would they not vote for local agriculture supplemented by fair trade for other agricultural products, at the same time maintaining the integrity and sustainability of the agricultural landscape by avoiding monocrop genetically modified agriculture supported by a few big businesses? Would they not vote to tell occupying forces, or any military foreign forces to go home and leave them in peace? Would they not vote to constrain the rights of corporations, to keep them responsible for environmental as well as personal damages and apply responsibilities and liabilities to the owners and managers?
Unless heavily inculcated with the dogma and rhetoric of military glory and economic survival through debt riddled consumerism, an educated public (remember the meritocracy argument?) would more than likely make choices that protect the cultural community as well as the agricultural and geographical resources. An informed public, informed through a critical media, informed by truly free access to government and corporate information, would certainly rule the nations differently than our current crop of secretive elites.
All these arguments are of course short versions of what could become chapters, books, on the various topics quickly over viewed. A true democracy would be ideal, but that ideal will not be realized until the armies of the world are constrained, until the corporations of the world are put back under control of the nations, until the nations are allowed to choose their own destinies through unhindered noninterfered-with truly free elections. True democracy, true people power, is a long way off in much of the world. It is to realize that and to understand all its permutations that will help bring it about as a reality, through the long slow process of education, protestation, agitation, and resistance.
(Read Part I)
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.
 Ramzy Baroud. “The Hypocrisy of Al-Demoqratia,” December 12, 2009. Palestine Chronicle.
 three useful recent works; Eamon Fingleton. In the Jaws of the Dragon. Thomas Dunne Books, New York. 2008: a readily accessible read, a more ‘dramatic’ read than the others, but allies with Jacques’ book.
Martin Jacques. When China Rules the World. Allen Lane (Penguin), London. 2009: a more academic read, a bit more difficult to follow, but supports the ideas presented in Fingleton. Very good at interpreting the Chinese representations of themselves.
Bill Emmott. Rivals. Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) , Boston. 2009: Emmott is an economist and thus argues grandly using many monetary statistics and is much more a western interpretation, based on some typical western stereotypes and interpretations of Chinese character.