12 October, 2004
Le Monde Diplomatique
while the rich may legitimately participate in the democratic government
of the polis, the unchallengeable principle of proportionality means
they will always be in the minority. Aris totle was right in one respect:
the rich have never been more numerous than the poor. Despite that,
they have always governed the world or pulled the strings of those who
Any textbook of
constitutional law defines democracy as "an internal organisation
of the state in which the source and exercise of political power lie
with the people, enabling the governed to govern in turn through their
elected representatives". To accept such a definition, with its
precision that borders on an exact science, is to ignore the infinite
gradation of pathological conditions affecting the body politic at any
The fact that democracy
can be defined so precisely does not mean it really works. Look at the
history of political ideas and you discover two things often dismissed
as irrelevant to the modern world. The first is that democracy appeared
in Athens in the 5th century BC; it was based on the participation of
all free men in the government of the city, the direct attribution of
office through a mixed system of elections and lots, and the right of
citizens to vote and submit proposals in popular assemblies.
The second is that
the democratic system was not successfully imposed on Rome, the successor
to Greek civilisation, because of the inordinate economic power of the
landed aristocracy, who saw it as a direct enemy. Although historical
ana logies are risky, it is hard to avoid asking whether modern economic
empires are not also radical opponents of democracy, even if a pretence
at it is maintained for the moment.
are concerned to divert our attention from the obvious conflict at the
heart of the electoral process between political choice, as represented
by a vote, and the abdication of civic responsibility. At the moment
when the ballot paper is dropped into the box, the voter transfers into
other hands the political power he possessed until then as a member
of the community of citizens, and he gets nothing in exchange except
promises made during the election campaign.
Let us consider
what our democracy really is and what purpose it serves, before claiming,
in accordance with the obsession of our time, that it should be compulsory
and universal. The caricature of democracy that we want to impose on
the rest of the world is not Greek democracy but a system the Romans
would have been happy to impose on their territories. Democracy of this
kind, undermined by economic and financial factors, would have changed
the minds of the landowners of Latium and turned them into ardent democrats.
Since I have strong
ideological inclinations (3), some readers may doubt my democratic convictions.
But what I am arguing for is a truly demo cratic world that could become
a reality 2,000 years after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: the Greek
dream of a harmonious society making no distinction between masters
and slaves, as conceived by innocent souls who still believe in perfection.
Some people will
claim that suffrage in western democracies is not based on race or tax
assessment, that the vote of a rich citizen with blond hair counts for
no more than that of a poor, dark-skinned citizen. If appearances are
believed, we have reached the height of democracy. But the brutal reality
of the world makes nonsense of this. What we always meet is an authoritarian
body clothed in the finest trappings of democracy.
The right to vote,
an expression of political will, is also a renunciation of will, which
the voter delegates to a candidate. The act of voting is, at least for
part of the population, a temporary renunciation of personal political
action, which is put into abeyance until the next election, when the
process of delegation begins again and repeats itself to the same effect.
Despite the vain hopes of the electors, their renunciation of the political
is often the first step in a process that enables the elected minority
to pursue aims in no way democratic and sometimes illegal. In principle,
no one imagines voting for people known to be corrupt. Yet we know from
experience that higher spheres of national and international power are
peopled by criminals and their agents. No examination of ballot papers
would reveal any sign of the relations between states and economic groups
whose criminal activities and acts of war lead our planet to disaster.
that political democracy is of little use unless it is based on economic
and cultural democracy. Yet economic democracy is now a despised idea,
replaced by an obscenely triumphant cult of the market. Cultural democracy
has been replaced by the no less obscene idea of industrialised mass
culture, a pseudo-melting pot that conceals the predominance of one
culture over all others.
We think we have
progressed but we are regressing. Talk of democracy will become absurd
if we persist in identifying it with institutions called parties, parliaments
and governments, without examining the use those institutions make of
the votes that bring them to power. A democracy incapable of self-criticism
is doomed to paralysis.
I am not against
parties (I am a militant member of a political party). Nor do I despise
parliaments, though I would appreciate them more if they devoted themselves
to action rather than words. I havent invented a formula that
will enable people to live happily without a government. But I refuse
to accept that we can only govern, and want to be governed, according
to the current model of democracy - a model that can only be described
as incomplete and incoherent.
True democracy should
begin with what is immediately to hand - the country of our birth, the
society we work in, the street we live on. Without that, all the underlying
reasoning, the theoret ical foundation and practical operation of the
system will be vitiated. It is no use purifying the water in the taps
if the reservoir is contaminated.
Power has always
been the central issue of all human organisation. The main problem has
always been to determine who holds it, by what means it was got, how
it is to be used, its aims and methods. If democracy really were government
of the people, for the people and by the people, there would be no further
discussion. But only a cynic would claim that all is for the best in
the world. Democracy has been called "the worst system of government,
except for all the others". No one seems to realise that resigned
acceptance of the least bad is a brake on the search for something better.
is by nature temporary. It is dependent on electoral stability, ideological
flux and class interests. It is a barometer that records the variation
of political will in society. But it is obvious that there have been
many apparently radical political upheavals resulting in changes of
government that have not been followed by the fundamental social, economic
and cultural transformations that regime change had led us to expect.
To describe a government
as socialist or social-democratic, or even conservative or liberal,
and to apply the word power to it, is a cosmetic operation. Real - economic
- power lies elsewhere. We perceive it only dimly. It slips away whenever
we approach it yet hits hard if we attempt to loosen its grasp and subordinate
it to the public interest. Citizens do not elect governments so that
those governments can serve up the citizens to the market on a platter.
But the market conditions governments to make a present of their citizens.
In our era of free-market globalisation, the market is the super-instrument
of the only powers worthy of the name, economic and financial power.
That power is not democratic: it was not elected by the people; it is
not managed by the people; and the peoples happiness is not its
These are elementary
truths. Political strategists of whatever shade impose a safe silence
so that no one dare imply that we are continuing to nurture a lie and
act as willing accomplices. What we call democracy looks more and more
like government by the rich and less and less like government by the
people. We cannot deny the obvious: the masses of the poor called upon
to vote are never called upon to govern. Assuming the poor could form
a government in which they were the majority, as Aristotle imagined,
they would lack the means necessary to change the organisation of the
universe of the rich who dominate and control them.
has entered a phase of retrograde transformation that it cannot halt
and will foreseeably bring about its negation. No one need take responsibility
for killing it: it is committing suicide. What is to be done? Should
we attempt to reform it? But we know that reform, as Giuseppe Tomasi
di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (4), means changing everything so
that it can stay the same. Renew it? Which period of history would be
a viable basis for rebuilding, in modern materials, a system on the
way to perdition? Ancient Greece? The merchant republics of the Middle
Ages? English 17th-century liberalism? The French Age of Enlightenment?
A pointless question.
So what should we
do? Let us stop considering democracy as an immutable value. In a world
in which everything can be questioned, only democracy remains taboo.
António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), the dictator who governed
Portugal for more than 40 years, said: "We do not question God,
fatherland or family." Today, we happily question God and fatherland,
and the only reason that we do not question the family is that it is
questioning itself. Only democracy is not questioned. We must question
it at every opportunity. Unless we discover a way to re-invent it, we
shall lose not only democracy but all hope of seeing human rights respected
on earth some day. That would be the greatest failure of our time, a
betrayal that would mark humanity for ever.
Le Monde diplomatique.