Democracy: ‘People’s Power’ Usurped (Part I)

By Jim Miles

(Part I examines the business values – globalization, free trade, corporations and capitalism – that define the workings of our democracy today.)

One of the many words in the mantra of the imperial apologists is that of democracy. From its Greek roots meaning “people” and “power” the word has travelled a long and convoluted journey but needs to be questioned as to whether it has achieved the real ideal. For the people, the “demos” to truly have power requires a system that acts considerably differently from actions by the global elites currently in power.

I differentiate between democracy and freedoms. Having power for the people indicates that the people have an actual say in what the government is doing, and that the government, being of the people, by the people, for the people, responds to the wishes – and hopefully educated wishes – of the populace. Freedom, as present in our current society, represents the wide range from any kind of licentious but licit behaviour through the practical freedoms of the press and media up to the philosophical freedoms of religion and thought. It seldom represents responsibility towards society and its various parameters of poverty and the environment, or towards other less fortunate members of society. It does represent choice, choice to one form of behaviour or another, for the environment or against the environment, for the people, or for the corporation. Democracy and freedom are highly compatible but not necessarily the same thing.

The Vote

Democracy as envisioned by most is encapsulated into the act of voting. Our grandfathers died for it in the First World War, “sacrificing” themselves for the empire in order to achieve it (either that or be shot as a traitor or deserter or for treason). The same mantra is brought forth every Remembrance Day, of our soldiers dying so that we have the freedom to vote. Consider that Soviet Russia had votes, Mugabe had votes, occupied Iraq and Afghanistan had votes, occupied Palestine had a vote, Cairo, Islamabad, Honduras, and Russia all had votes, yet the effect of those votes ranged from no democracy to only nominal democracy, or a nominal democracy invigorated with great helpings of violence.

In modern democracies, the psychological spin doctoring is so intense that a vote becomes a popularity contest, decked out in mudslinging, fear of the other, and so many outlandish promises (some call them lies) that votes are essentially bought on the rhetoric of uneducated platitudes to try and soothe the seething angst of the voter. The billions of dollars promised during an election, the great calls for more openness, clarity, and better communication, for more citizen participation are all forgotten once the election has been confirmed one way or another. The ‘representatives’ then head off to the seat of power to learn what they need to do in order to stay in power and to stay within the confines of the party they are nominally elected under and to not get kicked out of caucus. Foolishly the majority of citizens believe that what was talked about will be delivered (Did we want NAFTA? No, got it anyway.)

The real power, without the people, begins its work in the hallways and private rooms of the institutions that represent our democracy. The interplay between corporations, big business, government lobbyists, bureaucrats, and the military, is what truly runs our democracy. It is in these elite corridors of power that businessmen and women collude in private for a new world order, where decisions made will later be justified to the people under some manner of fear mongering or some well inculcated belief system ever present from the very first time a child watches television or runs a computer game.

Globalization and a not so Flat World

The cry of globalization is frequently incorporated within the context of democracy, an almost supra-democracy wherein global communications, the internet, cell-phones and the laptop computer are making the world a level playing field. It encompasses the business world of Thomas Friedman’s work of the same verbiage, to the exhortations of politicians and soft imperialists towards the coloured revolutions around the world. Certainly it has had its impact, but it is only technology, and one might as well describe the ubiquitous kalashnikov as a more effective leveller in the world of globalization.

The world remains bumpy and lumpy as the various contenders to power, or those trying to tame them, rise and fall within the technological capabilities of their most recent state of the art purchase. Whether it is big business, or big government, ranging through to subversive elements or insurrections against occupation, the technology has enabled the various players to continue making the world as uneven as possible, trying to tilt it entirely within their own favour. The ultimate bump that denies the level playing field are the computer nerds somewhere in the middle of U.S. playing their war games in real time as they control missile firing drones over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan blasting mostly civilians to shreds. No kalashnikov will ever be near them – and they call the insurgents cowards….

But globalization is much more the Friedman’s technological wonders of communication. It is much more about the World Trade Organization (WTO) which is “the place where governments collude in private against their domestic pressure groups," those pressure groups being environmental, labour, health, and other social organizations. Renato Ruggerio, former director of the WTO said, “We are writing the constitution of a single global economy.”[1] Ironically, the credit goes to the internet for the destruction in 1998 of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) to which this quote refers. Globalization as envisioned by the WTO and the other members of the Washington consensus – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund who have carried forward the effective work of the WTO and its MAI intentions – is completely non-democratic.

Its non-democracy comes from several factors. First and most obvious is that representatives to any of these institutions are not by election, not by representation, but through invitation. The representatives are appointed from international corporations, from banks, from lobbyists and other government institutions. Secondarily, the institutions from where these people are chosen – the business corporations and unelected members of government bureaucracies – are decidedly non-democratic as well. Thirdly, the “free trade” demanded under the WTO banner is anything but free.

The free trade espoused by these people and institutions is only free for the manipulation of wealth. Workers are not free to travel to wherever the pay and working conditions are better, but are constrained to their own geographical regions. The environment is not free although its resources are taken for free without too much concern about the long term negative results from pollution caused by extraction, transportation, consumption, and elimination through burning or waste dumping. And rather than being free trade, trade and commerce is bound up in multiple layers of rules and regulations that tend to over-ride national rules and regulations, especially pertaining to health, safety, education, and workers rights, entrapping the weaker governments into a cycle of democratic social welfare destruction. The overall result is wealth and resources rising to the dominant financial countries (ignoring momentarily the elites and their cronies within the weaker countries) while the weaker countries remain perpetually indebted to the member states of the Washington consensus.

Corporations and Capitalism

Corporations are probably the least democratic institution in the world, designed and purpose built to gather wealth, to avoid paying taxes, and more particularly to avoid the managers and shareholders from having any responsibility for institutional damages, either on the personal level or the global level. The corporation becomes a person under law, an invisible person, as the real people hide behind the legal barriers set up by corporate lawyers and accountants and MBAs and governments to protect their harnessing of wealth.

They have been around for a while, set up as a mechanism to harvest the wealth of the East Indies, of North America, and to transport that wealth back home. They have continued to receive government largesse in the form of favourable rules and regulations to the extent that they now are part and parcel of government and all too frequently are powerful enough to over-ride government constraints – until when things become really shaky because of their own manipulations, government steps in and bails them out – their own form of social welfare without the democracy aspect.

Corporations are decidedly non-democratic and their paramount place within the so called “capitalist” system (by whichever definition or permutation or purity of idealism it is defined to actually be) renders the capitalist system non-democratic as well. Economists rank about the lowest in my judgement of the range of careers available to anyone, working within a world of abstract perfection with mathematical models that are invented and created out of thin air without a connection to reality (all math should represent physical reality in some way as it does with chemistry and physics). Those economists who define themselves as supporters of capitalism are arguing for a world with its base mired in poverty and its peak in the giddy heights where the few control by far the most wealth of the world.

The underlying basis of capitalism necessitates unemployment in order to keep labour cheap and mobile (at least within a region or country). It necessitates poverty, if not for a motivator then for the same cheap labour. It requires consumption at all levels which because of the need for poverty and unemployment, also requires a complacent middle class to be the consumers of the world. Without a truly decent wage, with both parents working, with unending propaganda/advertising beating it into the consumers brain that they simply are not cool, sexy, articulate, or beautiful if a certain product is not purchased, the theoretical middle class drives itself – sometimes literally as our culture is based on the automobile – into ever increasing levels of debt. That debt is wealth to the corporations, as the consumer is trapped into an ever larger cycle of purchasing and debt creation.

The peaks of capitalism thrive on market control, elitism, cronyism and the ever revolving door between big business, government, and the military. It returns us to the world of globalization and the WTO and Washington consensus discussed above. Its reality is a world in which ten per cent of the population control over half of the global wealth, while half the global population controls only one per cent of the wealth – and really probably do not ‘control’ even that. From these vertiginous heights of wealth the world perspective is perhaps flat, the bottom layers being so dim and distant in view that we are all of equal powerlessness to the elites.

(Part II of this article will take a look at how other than business and political philosophies – theological considerations, meritocracy – and how they influence perceptions on democratic values and actions.)

– 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.


[1] These quotes are widely cited in a variety of sources active against the deservedly deceased MAI. Also quoted in Chomsky, Noam. “Hordes of Vigilantes”, Profit Over People – Neoliberalism and Global Order. Seven Stories Press, N.Y. 1999. p. 163.

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