Response to Creative Syria’s discussion of Syrian regional alliances (see previous post) was dominated by arguments about democracy between an Israeli poster and others. The Israeli accused anybody who supported any aspect of Syrian government policy of being an apologist for dictatorship, and there, unfortunately, the debate stuck. If you agree with an undemocratic regime, he implied, you are not worth listening to. Here I will write a little against the propagandist uses and religious idealisation of the word ‘democracy,’ a word considered as little and used as injudiciously as the word ‘terrorism.’
First there is the irony of a Zionist lecturing us about democracy. We often hear the preposterous claim that Israel should be defended because it is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ when in fact it is an ethno-democracy or an apartheid democracy. Israeli state apparatus rules over a population equally split between Jews and Arabs. The ‘Arab Israelis’ are at best second class citizens, disadvantaged and under threat of transfer. (There are 20 laws which discriminate against the Arab Israeli minority. For more information visit Adalah . The oppressed Arabs of the occupied West Bank and Gaza only have voting rights in a non-existent state. And this vaunted state of human freedom is possible because most of the indigenous inhabitants of Israel-Palestine have been driven into exile. Establishing a state for the Jews in an Arab country and then calling it a democracy has been one of the blackest jokes of modern history.
Beyond that there are the pervasive Western assumptions that the current system of government in the United States is the model and endpoint of human freedom, that it must be universally applied, and that it is the only form of human organisation of any value. Democracy is good and civilised; anything else is evil and barbaric. These are some of the assumptions responsible for the tragedy in Iraq, and they underly a great deal of nonsense in the global (still West-dominated) media.
The notion that only democracies can offer people the freedom to excel is simply absurd. Elizabethan England, Islamic Spain, the Roman Empire, and the Sumerian city states were not democracies. The Old Testament prophets, the Buddha, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were not produced by democracies.
The original democracy of Athens was not particularly democratic because slaves and women played no role in decision-making. However, given that ‘people’ was defined as ‘free men’, there was ‘rule by the people’ in that decisions were made collectively following a debate contributed to by everybody. Athens and similar Greek cities were small enough that every free male, or at least every head of household, could meet in the theatre to argue and make suggestions.
Tribal shura (consultation) in premodern Beduin societies approached this pure democracy, as did some workers’ councils, for a month or two, in revolutionary Russia, Italy and elsewhere. But such direct popular contribution to decision-making is obviously an impossibility in complex modern states made up of millions of diverse individuals. ‘Democracy’ is reduced to ‘representation’, and this in practice means putting a mark on a piece of paper every four, five or seven years. It is a testament to the power of ruling ideology that some people leave the voting booth feeling that their pencil mark has altered their nation’s destiny.
Now let us briefly examine what is called democracy by the nation that wants to export it as the final, finished product of human history. In the United States the most important positions except for the presidency are held by unelected officials. National security advisers, military strategists, financial planners and supreme court judges are all appointees. Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger never had to stand for election.
Those who do stand are selected more for their physical characteristics and acting skills than for their ideas and experience. Fundraising is more important than winning debates. Hysterical rallies, with rock music soundtracks and plenty of balloons, and the ability of a campaign team to associate their candidate with a fairytale grand narrative like ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘defeating evil’ count for more than detailed discussion of the real world. Elections are a spectacle to dazzle the people, those gullible enough to take them seriously. Such democracy, like anything else in this form of late capitalism, is a product to be consumed. Thomas Jefferson said, “No people can be both ignorant and free,” and the mass of the American population is kept ignorant by the combined efforts of the media and the public education system. Famously, a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussain was responsible for the September 11th attacks. The fact that American heads are crammed with celebrity gossip, TV plots and brand names ensures a system in which the scum rises to the top.
The corporations own the two political parties, the presidential candidates, and the big TV stations and newspapers that cover them. This is not surprising. It would be naïve to expect the corporations to leave the world’s largest economy and military complex in the hands of the people. As in other ‘first world’ countries the range of debate is severely limited. A propagandistic consensus has been manufactured (to paraphrase Chomsky) on the economy (a ‘free market’ which is actually corporate controlled) and ‘security.’ Anyone who points beyond the limits of acceptable discourse is mocked or, more effectively, ignored. The result, as my grandfather used to say, is that whoever you vote for, the government always wins.
As soon as there is the possibility of any real change, or any real threat, ‘democracy’ shows its teeth. When the Black Panthers started to take their constitutional right to bear arms seriously, and to make links between the position of Blacks in America and that of other oppressed groups throughout the world, the state resorted to violent repression. I don’t accept the Syrian regime’s excuse for emergency rule – that the country is under attack – but the excuse does stand up better in Syria, with the Golan occupied and America and Israel threatening further war, with war on the eastern and south-western borders and chronic instability to the west, than it does in the United States. There it took one day of explosions for detention without trial and torture to be normalised, and for the Patriot Act to be ‘democratically’ passed by Congress. This awards the American government the freedom to read its citizens’ emails and keep files on which library books they consult.
More than 7 million Americans are in prison, on probation or on parole, a greater proportion of people than in any other country, and a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are poor and black. Blacks made up 45% of the prison population in 2002. More young black men experience prison than experience college. The American democracy seems to function as well for Black Americans as the Israeli democracy functions for Arab Israelis. If China or Saudi Arabia imprisoned similar numbers of an ethnic minority the Western media would rightly call it persecution.
Surely we need to step back from the word ‘democracy’ and examine the more meaningful concepts of law and rights. If a nation votes to invade another country, or to eradicate the Gypsies, must we regard its democratic choice as lawful?
We need to subscribe to the idea that people, and families, and communities, and nations, have the right not to be interfered with. The mirage of democracy obscures this bedrock of lawfulness.
We need also to establish as a principle of international relations that systems of government are not universally applicable, and that nations must be free to develop their own governments according to their own circumstances. In countries where loyalty to the official bureaucratic state identity is weak (which may not be a bad thing) people will feel loyalty primarily to their tribe, sect or ethnicity. In such countries, democracy in the Western sense may not be a wise idea. Sri Lanka, for instance, has always been populated by Tamil and Sinhala communities. When the modern state inherited ‘majority rule’ from the British, the more numerous Sinhalese defined the country as a Sinhalese homeland. Alienated Tamils became secessionist, and years of bloody war ensued. It would have been better to allow both communities to build institutions, to have a large degree of autonomy, and to coexist in a borderless island.
What we call ‘democracy’ exists most comfortably in nation states which have popular legitimacy and internal consistency, in which issues of tribe and sect have been settled. In most cases this has been achieved at the end of a long process of civil war and ethnic cleansing. America passed through the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants, revolutionary war, slavery, civil war, and the civil rights movement to reach its present imperfect state.
Democracy functioned – with severe hiccups – in Syria until the United Arab Republic, but this unwise and unequal union with Nasser’s dictatorship was at first wildly popular in Syria, precisely because ‘Syria’ in its reduced and mangled post-colonial form lacked legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
This is not to say that democracy is not an admirable aim. I wish America really supported Middle Eastern democracy as it claims. If it did, it would have to talk to Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, shut down its military bases in the region, switch its favour from the Saud monarchs to the Iranian parliament, and so on. Greater informed control of the people over the political process, the economy and the environment is desirable in every country of the world, and most crucially in what is still for a while the world’s most powerful country, America.
On Blacks incarcerated in the US: