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Participation: Of Whom, By Whom, For Whom?

By Farooque Chowdhury

31 August, 2014


Without participation, democracy is not democracy. And, participation – a process and an auger – in election is only a part of practicing democracy. It’s an important indicator of democracy, but not the only indicator.

“Participation is the process of people being involved in, and sharing, a variety of activities with a communal goal.” [Katzenellenbogen J M, W M Pick, M Hoffman and G Weir, “Community Participation in the Mamre Community Health Project”, S Afr Med J, 1988, 74 (7), in Lammerink Marc P and Ivan Wolffers, Some Selected Examples of Participatory Research, 1994] People’s participation in democracy requires resolution of crucial questions, a set of variables: Which interests are to be legitimized and served with the participation? Does the participation make subjugation of subaltern classes – the majority – acceptable, and formalize tyranny of minority classes?

“The Fascist conception of the state”, wrote Mussolini, “is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarianism.” [“The Doctrine of Fascism”] Mussolini’s fascism – totalitarianism – required, and it still requires “popular participation”. Hitler’s Nazi politics compelled a vast portion of society to “participate” in its “democracy” of sectarianism and annihilation. “By the end of 1938, the Hitler Youth numbered 7,728,259”, and after destroying the German working class movement, enslaved millions of German workmen were coerced to “contribute” to the bloody Nazi war machine, which had its politics and “democracy”. These examples show: participation is not interest-neutral, and is not the sole motto for democracy. Tyrannos, “illegitimate ruler”, resort to varied forms of popular “participation”, actually coercion, within its defined limit to legitimize its rule under the guise of popular consent.

Of democracy, Guizot, the French statesman wrote in 1849: “Democracy … is the sovereign, universal word. All parties invoke it and want to appropriate it as a talisman. … Such is the sway of the word democracy that no government or party dares to exist, or believe it can exist, without inscribing the word upon its banner.” Today, the word democracy is more than an amulet Guizot identified. Global capital sells the word; imperialist conspiracies are implemented using the catchword; lumpenized rule uses it as a sacred text to legitimize its plunder and persecution. They all need popular “participation” in their form and under their terms to ensure their “democracy”.

This deviation demands considering the questions raised above, which in reformulated form stand as: (1) who participates for whom and why, where, when and how? (2) what’s the issue – the interest – that inspires/compels one to participate? It’s a 5-W-and-1-H question. Without attending to the questions people’s participation may turn into an aberration that can help a tyrant – individual/group/social force/interest – to turn participation into a virtual absolute zero although in politics finding an absolute zero is difficult as opposite side, may be weak and feeble, is always there.

Historical perspective and destination; class interests, alliances and alignment; ownership and distribution of resources; economic, political, social, cultural, ideological and scientific progress; ruling machine, level and orientation of oppression and persecution; shifting of balance of power, form and level of political struggle; and immediate and long-term goals of interests define form of participation by the people in democracy irrespective of its class character. Elections, and its preceding and following political and administrative phases/activities don’t escape the issue with all the aforesaid questions.

Participation – a complex of principles and practices – can also be used to materialize liberty of, and equality and fraternity among the people, the principles dominating capital reserves only for its owners. Property relations, ultimately class relations, play a role in the area of participation. The relations bring in the issue of power, situational, institutional or systemic, in the area of participation.

The related penultimate facts, bitter and harsh, are obscured by a group of scholars and a type of NGOs. Facts help draw conclusion/formulate statement. A brief look at a few facts, found recently and cited below, help gauge the space for people’s participation in a hostile environment.


2.1 Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage against Nonprofit Organizations, a report by Washington DC-based Center for Corporate Policy (CCP), reveals the “amazing” world of corporate espionage on a global-scale: Giant corporations engaging private spy agencies to smash activism. Like a public-private partnership (P-P-P), the catchword in vogue, government intelligence agencies are collaborating in the surveillance-espionage “enterprise” that targets activists and organizations active in the areas of social justice, public interests, safe food, environment, consumer rights, animal rights, insecticide-pesticide reform, opposition to war, nursing home reform, gun and arms control. With extensive evidence collected from sources that include government documents the report exposes a “mine” of chilling facts:

[1] Probably, one in four activists being private spies.

[2] In Ecuador, after a lawsuit against Texaco awards the giant with a $9.5 billion fine for spilling 350 million gallons of oil, private investigations firm Kroll tried to hire journalist Mary Cuddehe as a “corporate spy” for Chevron, to undermine studies of the environmental and health effects of the spill.

[3] Shell and BP reportedly hired Hackluyt, a private investigative firm with “close links” to MI6, to infiltrate Greenpeace by planting an agent who “posed as a left-wing sympathizer and film maker”. The “left-wing” agent’s mission was to “betray plans of Greenpeace’s activities against oil giants” including gathering “information about the movements of the motor vessel Greenpeace in the north Atlantic.”

[4] Multi-national corporation espionage is facilitated by government agencies including the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “InfraGard”, “a little-known partnership between private industry, the FBI and the [US] Department of Homeland Security”, institutionalized the FBI’s involvement in corporate espionage. The P-P-P involves the participation of “more than 23,000 representatives of private industry” that includes 350 of the Fortune 500 companies. Even, in at least one case, the US Justice Department found that one of the FBI’s activities “was inconsistent with the FBI’s Manual of Investigative and Operational Guidelines (MIOG).”

[5] The UK-based Camp for Climate Action, an organization standing for decommissioning of coal-fired plants, was infiltrated by private security firm Vericola on behalf of energy companies E.ON, Scottish Power, and Scottish Resources Group.

[6] French private intelligence firms hacked and spied on Greenpeace offices in France and in other Europe countries. This was done on behalf of Électricité de France, the world’s largest operator of nuclear power plants. The French government owns 85% of the company.

[7] “[A]ctive-duty CIA operatives are allowed to sell their expertise to the highest bidder”, a policy that gives “financial firms and hedge funds access to the [US] top-level intelligence talent. Little is known about the CIA’s moonlighting policy, or which corporations have hired current CIA operatives.” This fact of outsourcing leads the report to conclude: “[C]orporations are now able to replicate in miniature the services of a private CIA, employing active-duty and retired officers from intelligence and/or law enforcement. Lawlessness committed by this private intelligence and law enforcement capacity, which appears to enjoy near impunity, is a threat to democracy and the rule of law. In essence, corporations are now able to hire a private law enforcement capacity – which is barely constrained by legal and ethical norms – and use it to subvert or destroy civic groups. This greatly erodes the capacity of the civic sector to countervail the tremendous power of corporate and wealthy elites.”

[8] Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence firm, reportedly “conducted espionage against human rights, animal rights and environmental groups, on behalf of companies such as Coca-Cola.” In at least one case, Stratfor investigated PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the famous animal rights organization, at Coca-Cola’s request, and the private intelligence firm had access to a classified FBI investigation on PETA.

[9] Blackwater (renamed XE Services, and then, Academi), the now “famous” US defense contractor, had sought to become “the intel arm” of Monsanto. The private defense firm was paid to “provide operatives to infiltrate activist groups organizing against the multinational biotech firm.”

[10] “Many of the world’s largest corporations and their trade associations – including the US Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP, BAE, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON – have been linked to espionage or planned espionage against nonprofit organizations, activists and whistleblowers.”

[11] Greenpeace is one of the most targeted groups. In the 1990s, it was tracked by Beckett Brown International (BBI), a private security firm, on behalf of Dow Chemical, the world’s largest chlorine producer. At that time, Greenpeace was campaigning against the use of chlorine in paper mills and plastic factories. The spying included: “pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.”

The unearthed facts led Gary Ruskin, author of the report, to the finding: “corporate power … is subverting democracy.” Gary asks: “Who will rein in the forces of corporate lawlessness as they bear down upon nonprofit defenders of justice?”

2.2 Karianne Bruning, Legal Coordinator for Campaigns and Actions at Greenpeace International, presented a few examples of Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) in the blogpost “Are you being SLAPPed? How corporations and governments try to silence public debate” on May 23, 2014. The SLAPP suits, “a growing and pervasive trend globally”, are initiated “to scare critics into silence with excessively high damage claims and by burdening them with – often astronomical – legal defense costs.” The cited examples include:

[1] Shell’s legal complaint against Greenpeace Netherlands seeking injunction to permanently ban protests by Greenpeace or its sympathizers within 500m of all Shell properties worldwide with an automatic penalty of euro 1 million per breach.

[2] Essar’s suit against peaceful activists in India seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting protests on or within 500m from Essar’s premises and approximately euro 60 million for damage to its reputation.

[3] In Canada, an approximately euro 4.5 million defamation claim by Canada Resolute Forests Products against Greenpeace Canada and two campaigners.

[4] In India, an approximately euro 1.6 million claim by Tata for alleged damage to its reputation.

[5] In Mexico, an investigation against Rosina González, a Mexican activist that may dump her to prison for two years.

The “sins” by organizations and individuals committed during exercising of their democratic rights, a form of participation, are:

[1] In 2012, Greenpeace Netherlands protested Shell’s reckless plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.

[2] Peaceful activists’ protested against Essar’s plan to build a coal mine in the Mahan forests as the mine threatens a forested area and wildlife corridor, and the livelihoods of the indigenous communities.

[3] A report by Greenpeace Canada, which was critical of Resolute’s destructive operations in the Boreal Forest and impact on endangered woodland caribou and indigenous communities’ rights.

[4] A Pac-Man style game using Tata’s logo. However, the judge ruled that the game was not a clear-cut case of defamation and an order to take it down would be a violation to the right to freedom of expression.

[5] As a protest, Rosina climbed the headquarters of PEMEX, the Mexican state-owned oil company.

On the basis of these experiences Bruning said: “SLAPPs have a significant chilling effect on public debate and thereby on democratic society as a whole.”

2.3 The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) makes voters’ voice meaningless as the TTIP empowers MNCs to sue governments. The “magical” “partnership” will transform countries into “provinces” of the world capital as corporate lawyers can overrule national parliaments.

2.4 The now famous US Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC struck down barriers to the buying of elections by MNCs. Today, none casts doubt on the statement: the US democracy is dollarocracy.

Robert W. McChesney, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor at the University of Illinois, and John Nichols, associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, expose the US democracy controlled by money in their books Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America and Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy. William D Cohan’s Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World provides a few more evidences.

2.5 A Reuters report by Jonathan Kaminsky on July 14, 2014 tells of accusations of illegal voting by Democrats in Mississippi US Senate Republican primary race in last June. “We are very concerned about the integrity of the election process”, said Christina Sirois, a lawyer for Shaun McCutcheon, who filed the complaint with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office. McCutcheon, chairman of the Conservative Action Fund, a political action committee, asserts in his complaint that the election was tainted by illegal voting by Democrats. The case turns starker if division among Mississippi voters along racial or property line is taken into consideration.


What one can expect in a lumpenized democracy or lumpenocracy if matured democracies produce the accounts adverted above? What one can expect in the realms of election, democracy and politics that directly carry force of radical possibility if activism in areas of environment, etc. gathers the experiences referred above?

How much can democracy operate with TTIP, and how much participation of people will be there with it? Shall there be scope for participation by the ordinary citizens?

Do and shall the powerful banks and MNCs allow space for people’s participation while they own and control those political parties, which are still the determining political parties in countries?

Who can escape the global military-financial empire of today? Does the empire allow space for people’s participation in the peripheral countries?

Do Bilderberg and other powerful global “clubs” of the rich, banksters, MNCs, oil giants, arms demons, anti-people politicians, kings-queens-princes, media emperors allow people’s participation? These clubs influence major policies at world scale. Are the peripheral countries spared of those clutches that influence rule and overall politics in these countries? How much space for people’s participation is there in these “democracies”, a number of which is lumpenized/compradorized, a distorted version of bourgeois democracy implemented in peripheral countries ruled by lumpens/compradors?

Is it logical and rational to assume or imagine, although imagination some times tries to defy logic and rationality, that the global capital allows space for democratic participation while it grabs all and everything, from lithosphere, wind and sunlight to exosphere and beyond to that?

Non-interference and enfranchisement, David G Smith found in his “Liberalism”, are two most important objectives of liberalism. [International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. IX] But, now, in this period of global surveillance and control, and the power to control, one may term it as the Period of NSA, capital’s unquenchable thirst strengthens state, the rule turns more ruthless, and space for people’s participation gradually gets lost; and now, it’s the global experience, from “liberal” to “illiberal” democracies. (Both the terms, “liberal” and “illiberal”, are misleading.) The so-called color revolutions, the non-tolerance of/effort to overthrow populism in a number of south-east and south Asian countries, the “democracy” designed and implemented by imperialist agencies, the experience of implementing the doctrine of R2P, the no-fly zones, dropping of bombs and armed interference to change regime are burning examples. Did the international bankers allow people’s participation while they resorted to regime change in Greece and Italy, two democracies matured than the so-called democracies in the periphery?

While defending capitalist economy in “The Political Economy of Freedom” [Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays], Michael Oakeshott denied recognizing capital’s all encompassing power that makes participation by/of others impossible. The power capital commands shatters down to pieces all building blocks of participation by others. The more power capital commands the more squeezed gets the space for participation. Capital’s unabated assault takes away areas of participation by others, and there remains only capital’s participation.

It’s billionaires’ – Koch brothers and others in the US and in other matured democracies, and “X”, “Y”, “Z” bank buster-share bazaar “magician”-land baron-forest robber-river pirate- foreign “aided” project contractor-nail stuffed fish exporter-plunderers in peripheral countries – democracy with economic agenda that gives no space for people’s participation. Control, and crooked and forceful use of all instruments of rule by dominating interests, an appropriate reality for the interests in a time of general crisis of the interests, make participation of people at the subaltern level an illusion, make it a “realizable” dream of pseudo-democrats and propagandists of democracy of the rich.

Even, at times, dominating capital’s factional fight takes away space for participation of its one faction or another; people are compelled to pay for it while the factions formally or informally engage a number of “friends” of the people to begin propaganda defending any of the factions. This reality sends the question of people’s participation to a place named nowhere. The “friends” gather image of “combatants for democracy” while they dupe the people. It harms the people.

The aforementioned factional fight in the area of national election, part of democracy, begins long before an election embarks on. In cases, it begins with gerrymandering; in cases, with legislative offensive; and in cases, with voter registration. Other tactics are also there in the moneybag of the moneyed persons. The fight is married to all forms of interference with money and muscle power including bribery, use of executive power, violence, intimidation, and similar other “civil” crafts. Electoral fraud including manipulation with laws and rules, election mechanism, exclusion of candidates are in-laws of the political fight. Capital’s control over media denies freedom of expression and space for people’s participation.

Even, participation in national election by all dominating factions turns ineffectual when participation in legislative process by those factions doesn’t turn effectual. The practice/tact, whichever faction engineers, disallows people to advance its interests through legislative functions, and gain space even in a lumpenized structure.

In this reality, people’s position on participation is, as Bruning of Greenpeace said: “[W]e cannot allow ourselves to be silenced.” This makes people’s participation a struggle. Moreover, struggle for participation, and for creating space for participation is also a struggle. It’s an everyday struggle in every sphere of public life. Thence, it’s people’s struggle.

The essay completed on August 17, 2014 is carried by New Age, Dhaka on August 31, 2014 in its 11th anniversary issue.

Dhaka-based Farooque Chowdhury is freelancer.




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