Justice and Democracy Denied

by José Saramago

In a village just outside Florence over 400 years ago, the villagers were at home or working in their fields when they heard the church bell. In those pious times the bells rang several times a day, so the sound came as no surprise. But the bell was tolling the death knell and no one knew of anyone dying in the village. The villagers soon assembled in front of the church, waiting to be told who was dead. The bell rang a while longer, then was silent.

Then a peasant came out of the church, not the usual bell-ringer. The villagers asked him where the bell-ringer was and who was dead. The peasant replied: "I rang the bell. I rang the death knell for Justice, because Justice is no more."

The greedy local lord had been shifting the boundary stones of his land, gradually encroaching on the peasant’s patch. Every time the lord moved the boundaries, the peasant’s land shrank. The victim protested; then he begged for compassion and, finally, decided to seek the protection of the law. To no avail — his land was still plundered. And, desperate, he decided to announce urbi et orbi (for if you have lived in a village all your life, it is the whole world to you) that Justice was no more.

Perhaps he thought his wild gesture would swing all the bells in the universe. Perhaps he thought all the bells would be silent only when Justice had been resurrected. I do not know what happened next. I do not know whether the villagers rose up to help the peasant, or whether, once Justice had been declared dead, they returned, heads bowed, to their daily grind. History never tells the whole story.

I imagine that was the only time, anywhere in the world, that a bell mourned the death of Justice. That knell was never sounded again, but Justice dies every day. Even now someone somewhere is killing Justice. And whenever Justice succumbs, it is as if it had never existed for those who trusted in it, who expected what we are all entitled to expect: which is justice, pure and true.

I am not talking about justice that dresses up in theatrical costume and hoodwinks us with empty rhetoric. Or justice that allows itself to be blindfolded and its scales tilted. I am not talking about justice whose sword cuts sharper on one side than the other. My justice is humble, and always at humanity’s side. Justice, in this context, is synonymous with ethics, and is essential to spiritual well-being. I do not mean only the justice administered by the courts, but, more importantly, the justice that flows spontaneously from society’s own actions. The justice that respects every human being’s right to exist as a fundamental moral imperative.

Bells did not only toll the death-knell: they also chimed the hours of the day and night, and they called the faithful. Until recently, they warned people of catastrophe, floods or fires, disasters and danger. Now their only social functions are ritual tasks. Now the enlightened action of the peasant would be thought mad or a matter for the police.

Today other bells sound to defend and affirm the possibility that justice can, at last, be established in the world; the kind of justice, always at humanity’s side, that is essential to spiritual well-being and even to physical health. If we had that kind of justice, no one would ever die of hunger or those diseases that are curable for some but not for others. If we had that justice, existence would no longer be the dreadful sentence it has always been for half of humanity.

New bells are sounding

The new bells that are sounding are the many opposition and social mobilisation movements struggling for a new justice. The justice they ring for accords each human being a fair share, and has the power to transform; all human beings can recognise it as inherently their own. This justice protects freedom and the law, but never those who deny them.

We already have a practical code for this justice that is within our understanding. For the last 50 years, it has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30 fundamental principles that are mentioned vaguely, if at all. They are more spurned today than was the property of that medieval Italian peasant. In the integrity of its principles and the clarity of aims, the Declaration as it is worded, without altering a comma, could beneficially replace the manifesto of every political party on earth.

I speak particularly to what we call the left. Hidebound and obsolete in its approach, it appears unconcerned with or unable to tackle the brutal realities of the world. It closes its eyes to the already evident, formidable menaces that threaten in future the rational and sensitive dignity that we imagine to be the aspiration of humanity. The same is true of national trade unions and the international trade union movement. Consciously or unconsciously, the acquiescent and bureaucratised trade unionism that remains to us is largely responsible for the social torpor that has accompanied economic globalisation. I don’t like to say this, but I can’t hide it. Unless we intervene in time — and that time is now — the cat of economic globalisation will inevitably devour the mouse of human rights.

And what of democracy — "government of the people, by the people and for the people?" I often hear it claimed both by genuinely sincere people and others who have an interest in feigning good will, that though most of the planet is in a desperate state, it is within a democratic system that we are most likely to achieve full or at least adequate respect for human rights. No doubt about that, provided that the system of government and social organisation that we call democracy is actually democratic.

But it is not. True, we can vote. True, the sovereignty delegated to us as voters means we can choose who will represent us in parliament, usually through the political parties. True, the number of representatives and political combinations that the need for a majority dictates will always produce a government. All that is true; but it is also true that the opportunity for democratic action starts and ends there.

A voter can overthrow an unsympathetic government and replace it with another, but his vote has never, does not and never will have any perceptible effect on the only real force that governs the world and therefore his country and himself. That force is economic force, in particular that constantly expanding sector administered by the multinationals in accordance with strategies of domination inimical to the very common good to which democracy, by definition, aspires. We all know that is so, but we mechanically talk and think in a way that stop us acting on that knowledge. So we continue to speak of democracy as if it were vigorous and effective, when all we have left is the ritual, innocuous moves and gestures of some secular mass.

And we fail to see, as if it were not obvious, that our governments, the very governments we have elected for better or worse — and for whom we therefore bear prime responsibility — are increasingly assuming the role of political administrators for those with real economic clout. Governments are left to draft the kind of laws the big economic players want. Packaged with the appropriate public or private spin, the legislation can then be introduced into the social marketplace without provoking protest, except from a few unsatisfiable minorities.

What can we do? We discuss everything: literature, the environment, the drift of the galaxies, the greenhouse effect, waste disposal and traffic jams. But we never discuss the democratic system. It is as if it were by its nature untouchable until the end of time.

Along with the many other issues we should discuss, we need urgently, before it is too late, to encourage an international debate on democracy and the reasons for decline. We need to debate the intervention of citizens in political and social life, and between states and global economic and financial forces.

We need to think about what enhances and what denies democracy; about the right to happiness and dignity; about the woes and hopes of humanity — about human beings, as individuals or collectively. Self-deceit is the worst of errors. But self-deceit is all around us.

José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. This is an edited extract from a speech by Saramago to 6,000 people who met under the auspices of Attac in Paris in January; the text was then read out at the closing session of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in February.

Translated by Julie Stoker


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