Magazine article New Internationalist

Democracy Is Dead

Magazine article New Internationalist

Democracy Is Dead

Article excerpt

Benjamin Franklin is an American icon. Fathers' of the United States, he was a man of many talents: inventor, diplomat, traveller, media mogul, statesperson. he was also one of the small group who drew up the Constitution of the United States in 1787. At the time it was regarded as a radical leap forward for the concept of 'democracy' as a system of governance. Every American politician and most American people will still tell you that it is the basis of the best democracy in the world.

It might seem surprising, then, to learn that Franklin held a more realistic view of the document he helped to create. It was, he thought, merely a temporary creation; one which would probably serve the new nation well for a while, but certainly not forever. His last words before the Constitution was signed in 1787 are never quoted by today's American politicians, and with good reason.

I agree to this Constitution,' he said, 'with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us... [but] I believe... that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.'

Today, even the fiercest critics of the Bush presidency would have trouble maintaining that the US is (yet) a despotism. It might do us all good, though, to take Franklin's warning seriously - for it is hard to claim that the US is a real democracy either. Indeed, it is hard to make that claim for almost any system of national governance anywhere on earth.

'Democracy' is the last great Sacred Cow. Even in dictatorships (the Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea, anyone?) its name is taken in vain. From Washington to Moscow, from Davos to Porto Alegre, democracy is the only system to be seen to be promoting. The reason is obvious: democracy may not be perfect but it is, in Winston Churchill's oft-quoted words, 'the worst form of government except for all the others'. It may not be a panacea but it does, at least, let the people decide.

Except that, increasingly, it doesn't. The world finds itself in a strange situation. There are more 'democracies' on earth than there have ever been; more people can elect or reject their governments than at any time in history. And yet more people, too, are disillusioned. In most Western democracies the numbers of people bothering to vote are at an all-time low and still falling. In newer democracies things are rarely much better.

In late 2002 the World Economic Forum released the results of one of the biggest surveys of global opinion ever carried out. It took in the views of 36,000 people from 47 countries, which the Forum said could be extrapolated to represent the views of 1.4 billion of us. Two-thirds of those questioned - most of whom lived in democracies - did not believe that their country was 'governed by the will of the people'. Democracy, in other words, may well be spreading faster and further than ever before - but people don't seem to believe it.

There is a reason for this. It is a simple reason, but one that is not discussed as often as it should be. The global free market and systems of democracy are not, as we are told from all sides, complementary: they are antagonistic. You can have one but, it seems, you cannot have the other. The spread of the free market does not aid the spread of a free politics. Quite the opposite: it eats democracy for breakfast.

The reasons for this have been well rehearsed. Put crudely, the more globalized the economy becomes, the less control national governments have over their own economies. The liberalization of banking and investment laws has meant that distant shareholders and brokers can bankrupt entire economies in hours if they perceive a threat to their 'stability' - a threat, in other words, to the ability to make a quick buck within the boundaries of a nation-state. …

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