Democracy: Everywhere and Nowhere
The word “democracy” is of Greek origin and means “people power,” from the combination of demos + kratia.
Basically, what democracy then denotes is the power or rule (that is, the government) of the people which they may exercise either directly themselves or indirectly through those persons whom they may have chosen to represent their interests. This in turn would empower people to better their lives.
Now let’s say a certain person is living by herself and is managing her own affairs. How would she manage them? A reasonable answer would be that she would try to prevent misery and introduce happiness in her life. And if there is distress and not much joy then she would do her best to abolish and if not possible then minimize the pain and make efforts to maximize the pleasantness as much as possible.
Let’s assume that the person in the above case is not taking care of her own affairs but has instead hired some one to look after things for her. We’ll suppose that this person is decent and would not mind that her manager should also gain as much happiness as a result of the task he is assigned to perform as she would get. However, if somehow it happens that the manager gains much more happiness as a result of the work he performed or pretended to perform, then a question arises, would she allow that to happen? Or in another scenario, her life becomes miserable but the manager’s happiness knows no bounds. Is this possible? In some cases, of course, it is possible, such as where the person is mentally not sharp, or the manager is a crook or terrorizer. However, in most cases, the person hired is not going to gain more benefit than the person he was asked to work for.
When we extend the above argument to a city, state, or federal government, people would naturally expect similar results from the people they voted in office because democracy is not just a piece of paper called a vote. Democracy is made up of various components such as food, education, health, shelter, voting, justice, security, peace, a humane working environment, decent pay, public transportation, preservation of environment, and several other things which give some meaning to life and makes it a worthy thing to live, and to feel part of the nation as equal to other fellow citizens. Why would you put someone in office that would benefit more than you?
The more people that have access to the country’s resources, the more people have democracy.
Democracy can be many things. When people of any nation have free access to university education, one can say that they have university-level-education democracy.
When more women are elected to government positions, it is likely that more women have democracy. Of course, one has to determine whether the number of women elected have also been able to better women’s condition and to what extent, or if they have just become part of the system. Like in any other case, one has to judge carefully whether the victory was symbolic or substantive.
The argument (when more people benefit there is more democracy) can be further extended to gauge nuclear democracy. When few nations have nuclear weapons and others do not have or are prevented from having those weapons, it is safe to say that those countries have been denied nuclear democracy. The much maligned (in western press) Pakistani scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan was doing a wonderful job of spreading nuclear democracy by supplying the necessary technology and components to built nuclear weapons to Third World countries. But due to pressure from the US, his mission came to an abrupt halt depriving many countries of nuclear security (real or imagined).
In this same fashion, democracy in other fields of life can be measured too.
A simple analogy would be an umbrella: it protects you from sunlight, rain, snow, and wind. Similarly, a real democracy cannot just be a right to vote, but much more. Equality is the essence of democracy.
It is contrary to democracy’s nature to be inegalitarian.
Is the US a Democracy?
The United States is known as “the greatest democracy” and so it would be useful to examine if it is living up to its title.
Various statistics related to political, economic, and social issues do not paint a rosy picture because the concentration of power is in merely a few hands, and the rest of the people are there to say yes; those saying no would be gently ignored and if they are assertive then would be treated as outcasts.
Many people exist in a miserable condition trying to make ends meet and to meet deadlines imposed by managers, who in turn are under pressure from their superiors; who then have their bosses on their nerves. Also, there are people who are in search of employment with their own set of problems.
On the other hand, the people elected (and unelected, such as big corporations and capitalists) to govern public affairs roll in happiness—not of a simple kind but a luxurious one.
The central reason for this disconnection is the way democracy is practiced by the United States (which also has become a model for many other countries), the majority of people are not permitted to be a part of the decision making process—even when those decisions may involve their welfare and their lives.
The US led crusade, with its weapon of NED, or National Endowment for Democracy, is busy imposing this model throughout the world.
Last year’s mid-term elections in November gave the Democratic Party a slight lead in Congress. The lead was the culmination of anti-war feelings in the country. If the Democratic Party was an opposition party (in the true sense of the word) it would have threatened to boycott the Congress if the Bush administration didn’t pull out all the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them are making some right noises (including few Republicans), but the President is sending 21,500 additional troops to win the war, nevertheless. Not only that, but the US has opened up another front in Africa by supporting Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, in addition to directly bombing some sites in Somalia. On top of that, within hours of Bush’s speech on January 10, the US troops raided the Iranian consulate in Iraq, arresting five employees and seizing computers. This seems like a warm up for the planned war with Iran. In his speech, he warned Iran and Syria to stay out of Iraq.
The war in Iraq has cost the lives of over 650,000 Iraqis and 3,000 US soldiers without counting the wounded on both sides. Just for nothing. What could be a better excuse than the untimely death of hundreds of thousands of people to act like an opposition party?
Besides a few differences, even a telescope would fail to detect any major policy difference between both parties. People have been victimized by both parties. Republicans violate them shamelessly where as the Democrats screw them after a bit of fondling—but screwing nonetheless.
In ten years, one of the parties has decided to raise the minimum hourly wage by almost nine-quarters over a period of two years! That is, if the other party goes along with it and the president signs it.
In 2005, 479,000 people were employed at minimum wage. For millions of other workers it wasn’t so good either; they just received a dollar or two more than their minimum wage counterparts.
Since 1997, the federal government has not raised the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. For an individual working at that rate, a forty hour work-week brings in an annual amount of $10,712. (Though some states, including Washington, California, and Massachusetts, have more than the presently proposed $7.25, they are all below $8.00.) On January 10, the House passed by 315 to 116 an increase in minimum wage to $7.25 over a period of two years; (8) which would enable the worker to see $15,080 annually. The bill would now go to the Senate for a passage. The median household income for the year 2005 was $46,326.
On the other hand the representatives and senators earn $165,200, the minority and majority leaders of both houses get $183,500, and it is $212,100 for the speaker.
We won’t even discuss the pay of the unelected leaders: the Brahmans—they are beyond the reach of the achhuts (untouchables) or the average people. These Brahmans are the real masters who run the whole show.
The 1998 figures for wealth distribution throw some light on the democratic disparity between different classes:
Top 1% own 38.1% of wealth
Next 4% own 21.3%
Next 5% own 11.5%
Next 90% own 29.1%
So 90% of the people in the US own 29.1% of the wealth as opposed to 10% who control 70.9% of the wealth.
In 2005, 46.6 million people, that is, 15.9%, did not have health insurance while 37 million people, that is, 12.6% of the total US population, were living in poverty.
On the other hand, the US is wasting $10 billion every month on its so called “war on terrorism.”
There is so much political, economic, and social discrepancy in the US that one can go on, and on, and on.
The question then arises: Can people do anything to change this state of affairs?
One can say vote, write letters and make phone calls to your elected officials. How much would it change? To some extent it works; but not much. It has now been 230 years that the United States separated from Britain and has never experienced a coup or any other kind of serious disruption in its governmental functioning of building a global empire. (There has been constant opposition from the people such as the movement against the Vietnam War but every time government has recovered and grown more powerful and violent.) The tradition, if one can call it that, has remained unbroken since then—the rich class has maintained its grip on power with the façade of democracy. For a long time now, the Democratic and Republican Parties have stayed in power (of course, through legal means) by carrying on elections in which the candidates are financed by mostly the same corporations.
This raises another query: Then why do people vote those lawmakers in of whom many are simply the hirelings for the moneyed and propertied class?
This is only possible when the voters have been misled through sheer lies, have been made fearful of foreign foes, have been made apolitical, have been subdued through display of massive state power, and through other tactics.
The US ruling class uses all these tactics on a regular basis. Million dollar anchor persons on corporate owned television networks and radio stations, influential reporters and columnists in print media, the academics and intellectuals in universities, and think tanks take care of the lies.
Just one example: Rarely, there comes an occasion when a former US president speaks out openly for the underdog. Jimmy Carter has raised the question of Israeli inhumane treatment of Palestinians in his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” And what happens? The news media, the pro Israel lobby AIPAC (American Israel Political Affairs Committee), and many academics, instead of thanking Carter for bringing a six-decade old problem into the open, have hounded Carter as if he has killed their puppy. Carter has also been accused of anti-Semitism—an overused old weapon to malign anyone critical of the Israeli government.
Like people addicted to drugs and alcohol, the United States cannot survive without foreign foes. It constantly needs enemies, which has a twofold function: firstly, it takes care of the economy to a good extent through the sale and manufacturing of arms and ammunitions and other related industries while giving it unhindered access to the labor and resources of the Third World, and secondly, it keeps people in constant fear that some or other international enemy (at present it is the “Muslim terrorists” or “Islamic terrorists” or “Islamo-fascists”) is going to get them. It also makes them appreciate the greatness of the US.
In contrast to other countries, political discussions are not very encouraged. In other countries, one would find people discussing politics at work places, restaurants, street corners, and other places. That culture is not very visible here in the US.
Once in a while, Thomas Jefferson did say something nice, such as in a letter he wrote to a friend: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing…. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government…. God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion…. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is a natural manure.” But the government has become disproportionately huge and extremely violent. If Jefferson were here today, he would have faced a dilemma: the government won’t listen to you, and you can’t have “a little rebellion” because the ruling class controls the means of violence.
So what are the people left with? Just a vote. The ruling class in the United States has reduced democracy to the ritual of voting right. And even that is conducted on Tuesday, a work day, rather than a holiday so more people could participate.
So is the United States a democracy? The answer is both yes and no. It is a democracy and it is not.
One recent incident is necessary to point out. In the ending days of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the states of Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Over 970 people died in Louisiana and more than 200 in Mississippi. Despite early warnings, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to do much. “If a hurricane comes next month,” director of Louisiana State University’s Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, Ivor van Heerden, had warned in July, “New Orleans could no longer exist.”
The pictures of stranded people, mostly blacks, in a convention center in New Orleans begging for help didn’t look like they were in the US; it seemed more like the Haitian refugees trying to make it to the US.
For these people there is no democracy. For the then FEMA Director Michael Brown, there is democracy.
For George Bush there is democracy. He is doing what he likes to do. The families in the US whose members are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and are opposing the war do not have democracy.
When a Wal-Mart comes to any place it is enjoying its democracy. Several small business owners trying to be their own bosses but affected by Wal-Mart’s entry do not have democracy.
Pharmaceutical companies in the US have democracy to loot. Many people who cannot afford to buy these medicines do not have democracy. (But they do have the democracy to go to Canada and Mexico to buy affordable medicines. And many people do go there to buy medicines manufactured by the same US companies. The difference in price is because the Canadian government regulates prices.)
Exxon Mobile, the largest energy company in the US, has the democracy to make a profit of $36.13 billion in 2005.
President George W. Bush has democracy to refuse to tax high profits of oil companies. People do not have democracy to get oil at a discounted price. They have to turn to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez who is supplying oil at 40 per cent discount to many in New York and elsewhere.
So basically, US style democracy belongs to those who have the force: either financial or political. When the elite class feels safe and secure and have too much, they wouldn’t mind sharing some of the benefits with the general population, in order to avoid trouble and to maintain its hegemony.
Is Every Nation a Democracy?
If we take the US democracy as a barometer, then the answer is yes.
Let’s see, for example, if Saudi Arabia’s government is a democracy. Yes, the ruling class has democracy. When a Saudi prince loses millions of dollars in gambling he has democracy, but if someone wants to criticize government policies, that person does not have democracy.
In 2002, two thousand people, mostly Muslims, were massacred by Hindu nationalists under the rule of Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the Indian state of Gujarat on the false pretext that certain Muslims were responsible for the killing of 59 Hindu pilgrims when they set on fire one of the train compartments. Modi and those Hindu nationalists have democracy. Many Muslims living in fear in that state do not have democracy. (By the way, India is known as “the largest democracy.”)
When Pakistan’s defense forces eat up 19 per cent percent of the country’s budget, it has democracy, but the ordinary people suffering due to economic crunch do not have democracy. (
By constantly barking through corporate controlled media, a country does not become a democracy, or to use the favorite phrase of the US ruling class “the greatest democracy.”
There are more social welfare programs for the average citizens in Scandinavian countries or for that matter in Europe and Canada than in the US. So people in Europe feel more secure, which means they have more democracy of social welfare programs than their counterparts in the US. Cuba, despite US economic embargo and other harassments, has done (with its small economy and limited resources) comparatively more for its citizens in 48 years than what the US has done for its citizens in its entire history of 231 years.
Some have economic democracy, some have voting democracy, some have writing democracy, some have shouting democracy, some have looting democracy, some have warring democracy, some have a combination of democracies.
Little or more democracy is everywhere. Total democracy is nowhere. It is not an impossible task; it is the greed for money and hunger for power which prevents the ruling elites from spreading total democracy.
B.R. GOWANI can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org