Monday, February 6, 2012

"Democracy" marches on

Democracy, as we've all been taught (whether we learned it or not), depends on an educated demos. As one of the people who tried to teach you that, watched your drooping eyelids, and read the essays you wrote for your state mandated tests, I understand that that Jeffersonian ideal is kind of a pipe dream (which is an appropriate metaphor for a bunch of you who sat in the back row.)

Nevertheless, given the impossibility of finding Plato's philosopher king and forcing him to rule against his will, democracy will have to do. It has the advantage of forcing the evil overlords to work hard at persuading the mob that they are well ruled. That makes it much harder for the rulers to be blatantly repressive — democracy tends to make essential civil and human rights better respected, and the exercise of those rights by the demos helps to hold the rulers in check. Sometimes.

It wasn't that long ago that we were supposed to be entering a New Age of Democracy — the Soviet Union had fallen, making it possible for American administrations to allow increasing democratization of Latin America. It looked like there might be real progress in Africa. Granted that China, a major portion of Earth's land area, was not even remotely democratic, but it was moving quickly towards capitalism! Could democracy be far behind?

It was around then we got into nation building. Damn, did that turn out to be a bad idea.

So, let's review. Yeltsin corruption led directly to Putin autocracy, and Putin is not especially distressed by bourgeois protests. Bye bye, bourgeoisie. The outside-of-Moscow handlers have everything under control. Corruption continues apace. Yeltsin, you see, has successfully kept the demos terrified of change. Life is hard, and it might get harder. Why take the risk?

China, recently, seems to have been softening — but don't bet on it continuing. That little rebel village was allowed to elect a new Communist Party leader and labor unions are getting a smidgen more assertive, but critics of the system still have a way of remaining behind bars for many years at a time, and corruption among regional and local party leaders is rampant.

Freely elected left-wing governments in Latin America are starting to slide toward the same kinds of authoritarianism as the old right-wing governments — slowly enough so that there still is hope of reversal, but troubling nevertheless. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, elections have a way of turning into civil wars, and the Union of South Africa's one-party system is increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional.

While there may be rays of hope for the Middle East arising from the "Arab Spring," it may be because the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates winning elections there probably will do more to help the masses of poor than the old monarchs and dictators did. On the other hand, I still don't see the Egyptian army giving up political power and thereby losing its tight grip on the Egyptian economy — and anywhere the Salafists gain power may as well be Saudi Arabia as far as human rights go.

European democracies — especially those in the Eurozone – are giving up more and more sovereignty to the European Union. Nobody elected the technocrats now installed in Italy and Greece.

Then there's the United States. Yes, it looks like a democracy, but the plutocrats are stronger than ever before; the only viable political parties are center-right and far-right; and civil liberties have taken a nosedive since 9/11. Can Americans "vote" to change this? Ideally, we can, but this is not an ideal world. The politicians, the media, and even the leading charitable foundations are firmly controlled by corporate interests, and Citizens United was just another straw on the camel's back. The plutocrats will not be satisfied until they have all the wealth.

Sadly, the only thing I can think of powerful enough to bring about major change is a worldwide economic disaster which will flush away the old and bring on the new — but then the new might turn out to be significantly worse than what it replaces.

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