Democracy: A Work in Progress

Contributed by Philip Goff Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Liverpool/Australian National University
February 20, 2012
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Democracy: A Work in Progress

In 2011 we witnessed two extraordinary international people’s movements: the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement followed the Arab Spring, and seemed to draw inspiration from it, to feel a certain affinity with it. The first day of the Occupation at St. Paul’s, someone put up a mock London street sign with ‘Tahrir Square’ written on it, expressing solidarity with protestors in Egypt.

But in what respect do these two movements resemble each other in their aims? To what extent can the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement be seen as trying to do the same thing?

The aims of the Arab Spring are clear: they want elections. The Arab Spring began in countries where leaders maintain power with force rather than votes, with protestors demanding the right to choose their own government.

The aims of the Occupy movement are less straightforward. It is clear what occupy is against: the movement is born out of a deep concern with global capitalism, at least in its present form. But what is the movement for? I participated in an early attempt at the St. Paul’s Occupation to draw up demands. It wasn’t easy. Some suggested demanding a tax on financial transactions; others objected that they didn’t believe in finance. Some suggested global government; others the abolishing of government altogether. With such a diversity of convictions and concerns, consensus proved elusive.

However, there is one thing which in my experience all those involved in the Occupation sign up to, and that is democracy. If there is to be one positive goal which unities the Occupy movement, it must be the desire to bring about true democracy: rule by the people rather than the powerful.

Counter-democratic forces

This might seem strange. Isn’t the Occupy movement taking place in countries which already have democracy? In UK and USA, you can go in a little booth every five years and tick the person you want to have power. Isn’t that democracy?

Well yes and no. It would be over cynical to suggest that universal suffrage is not a significant achievement in the journey towards ideal democracy, and perhaps unfair to those who fought hard to get it. But it would be naïve to think that the political system we have is anything more than a work in progress towards genuine democracy. There are significant counter-democratic forces operating, to a greater and lesser extent, in all ‘democratic’ countries, which ensure that the powerful have undue influence in how society is shaped.

We can divide these non-democratic forces into two categories: intra-national and trans-national. The intra-national counter-democratic forces include corporate lobbying, funding of political parties by big business and the wealthy, and the selective information given out by major newspapers in the pursuit of their own political agenda. Democracy is about society being shaped by the people, where each person counts equally. But in all these ways the powerful few manage to have a weighty influence on governance.

But perhaps even more significant are the trans-national counter-democratic forces, and it is here that the aim of enhancing democracy connects with the Occupy movement’s concerns regarding global capitalism. The defining contemporary problem is that (imperfect) democracy operates at a national level, whilst global capitalism operates at a global level. The power of an elected government to run the country as it pleases is severely constrained by the power of markets. Perhaps the most straightforward example of this is in the setting of tax rates. Countries are continually held to ransom by trans-national corporations threatening to leave should their tax obligations be increased. What is an appropriate level of corporate contribution to the public good should be decided by the people. Instead, to a large degree it is decided by trans-national corporations.

How can we achieve democracy?

In a sense then, we can see the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement as having the same goal: true democracy. Whilst the Arab Spring aims is trying to achieve the beginnings of democracy at a national level (by attaining free and fair elections), the Occupy movement is trying to perfect democracy within countries, and to attain it at a global level.

Despite this commonality of goal, there is an important difference in the two cases. It is (more or less) clear what the countries of the Arab Spring are seeking to achieve their goals; what they want (free and fair elections) already exists (more or less) in other countries. But the aims of Occupy lead us into uncharted territories. How can we counter the power wielded by the wealthy through political party funding and lobbying? How are we to protect the sources of truth from the pernicious distortions of certain elements of the media? Forming credible solutions to these difficulties requires thought, research, discussion, co-operation. These are the very things the Occupy movement is good at, but it’s not an easy task.

Working out the way forward regarding global capitalism is even more challenging. If the essence of the difficulty is that (imperfect) democracy exists at a national level, whilst global capitalism operates at a global level, there seem logically to be two ways to right this wrong: we can either pull capitalism down from a global to a national level (or get rid of it altogether), or we can pull democracy up from a national to a global level. My preference, at least in the first instance, is the latter approach, which I will now spell out in more detail.

Fiscal solidarity

Global democracy need not entail global government, but perhaps a kind of ‘fiscal solidarity’ between democratic communities. Marx taught us to conceive of the class war as between workers and capitalists. But we might think of the contemporary class war as between democratic communities and global capital. The ‘collective dictator’ of global capitalism sustains power by pitting democratic communities against each other. As individual nations compete by lowering tax rates and cutting regulation in order to attract capital, more and more wealth is transferred from the 99% to the 1%.

Marx taught us that workers need to organise to break their chains. Similarly, democratic communities have everything to gain if they organise. If we co-operate rather than compete, we can slay the dragon of tax competition by ensuring that global capital has nowhere to run to (which may ultimately involve refusing to trade with ‘scab’ nations). If the citizens of the world could choose how to tax big business, finance and the wealthy, free from the need to be ‘competitive’, then we might finally begin to redistribute wealth back from the 1% to the 99%. The days of not having enough to provide the highest standards of health, education and public services to all would be confined to history. Furthermore, equality at a global level could be regulated, by allowing developing countries the tax advantages currently afforded to Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

At the present time, this level of global co-operation seems not to be a realistic option, not least because national democracy is in each country either imperfect or non-existent. But what I have sketched above is an ideal, which could be worked towards in stages. The establishment of a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions would be an important first step. Once people see how much they have to gain from getting a grip on global capitalism, they may be inspired to go further.

This is an ideological battle. Nobody talks about ‘trickle down’ any more. The new myth to persuade the 99% to act and vote against their interests is the fear of ‘big government’. What the economic right don’t tell you is that freedom for capital and freedom for the people are diametrically opposed.

The next stage

The Occupy movement should see it self as a movement for democracy which aims at enhancing democracy within democratic communities, and reclaiming for democratic communities the power lost to global capitalism. How this is to be done is far from obvious. I have given outlined above one proposal, and encourage others to do the same. It’s not going to be easy, but if the Occupy movement is to continue to grow as an effective force for political change, it must begin the hard job of working out the details of how to bring about true democracy.

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