By Brendan Ogle
So what is democracy? We hear about it all the time. We are constantly being told that we live in a democracy, wars are waged to create democracies and anybody who ever wants to do anything better do it in a ‘democratic’ way or else! Right?
I bet you if you think of a democracy, or ask someone to describe a democracy they will talk about ‘votes’ or ‘elections’. And if votes and elections are what denotes a democracy then we have them, lots of them sometimes on issues and institutions we don’t even understand. We must be a very ‘democratic’ place altogether if it is about votes. But is it?
I listened to a Nun recently. I have never listened to a Nun before, about anything, but if all Nuns are like this Nun I must start doing it. Her name is Sister Teresa Forcades and she is a Benedictine Nun from Catalunya. Sister Teresa talked a lot about what denotes a democracy and, in doing so, pointed to something that is described as ‘democracy’ but is, in fact, the ‘kidnapping of democracy’. Our democracy has been kidnapped. It has been kidnapped by the neo-liberal agenda which represents 1% of the world’s population in terms of wealth at the expense of the other 99% of us. It is this kidnapping of democracy which has led Oxfam to report (see below) that in 2016 for the first time in human history the top 1% of wealth holders will hold more wealth than the other 99% of us. Not even slavery achieved such an unfair wealth distribution as neo-liberalism has achieved. And it has done so by kidnapping democracy. This is how it is done.
There are not one, but three phases to democracy. Voting, that is citizen participation in an election or referendum, is a key part. But it is not the first part. The first part of democracy is the phase of consideration. This phase of consideration is crucial in a functioning democracy. It is the phase during which the citizenry to be affected by the matters at hand are engaged and participate in a dialogue. The quality of this dialogue and the ability of citizens to shape the outcome by choosing the policies and persons to be tested in the election are crucial.
Then of course there is the vote where the citizens choose those policies and persons to implement them.
And then there is the third phase – the phase of implementation. If the implementation phase has the result of the persons and policies that have been chosen being implemented, following a proper consideration phase then perhaps we have democracy in action. It is working. So, is it? In my opinion in Ireland today it manifestly is not.
First let us look at the quality of the consideration phase? If the richest 1% of the world’s population are getting ever richer at the expense of the rest of us, and they are, why do the rest of us vote for that? Or, to be more precise, why do we vote for policies and parties that implement such social and monetary inequality? Are we all stupid? Well, perhaps we do it because the consideration phase is controlled. The dialogue and debate is not one of citizen’s rank and file discussions considering real issues. It is one where we consider the issues as presented to us by the media. In recent years, since Thatcherite/Reaganomics to be precise, the organs of the media have been increasingly bought by the richest 1% and their stooges. In the USA just six corporations effectively own all mainstream media, the UK is even worse and our own Oligarch Denis O’Brien’s control of our media, and much else, is truly extraordinary.
In Ireland we are waking up to the extent to which every piece of news or current affairs information we get is presented in a way that kills debate while giving the ‘illusion of debate’. The outlets are owned and are only there to support the neo-liberal agenda. One very clear way this is done is by using language to condition us. For example any reasonable person would think that taking €65billion of private banking debt and socialising it on the citizens while paying all the gamblers as we did in 2008 was an economic policy of the far right? No? Of course it was! But did you ever hear it described like that on RTE, on in the newspapers, or on Newstalk of Today FM? No. It was described as ‘the only choice’ and those who suggested it was wrong and should not happen are then labelled as ‘far left’. Or ‘ultra left’. You all seen it and heard it and it happened for a reason. The debate is being controlled. Another example? Well, we live in a country where citizens pay the same income taxes as France (more actually), the same consumer taxes like excise and VAT etc. as France but wealth only pays 1/3 of the taxes it pays as a European avergae. So we get into financial trouble because we aren’t collecting money and anyone who points out the obvious source of more money i.e. asking wealth to pay its just and fair share, is immediately treated as some dinosaur threatening civilisation as we know it. In fact the only civilisation being threatened by such common sense is the bizarre world of the 1% know.
There are many other ways in which the ‘consideration phase’ is kidnapped by the 1%. But that is possibly the stuff of another article. For now I just think it is worth considering, asking ourselves, to what extent are we the citizens able to partake in a proper debate of the issues that affect us all and shape policies to address these issues in the period before an election? I suggest, to a very small extent indeed.
Let us assume that the voting phase is fair and honest and not ‘rigged’. I do have issues personally about the numbers of people who don’t vote and would argue for compulsory voting. In one part of Dublin in the last general election the turnout was a paltry 14%. It will not come as a surprise to know that this is one of the most under invested in parts of our city with massive electoral, political and social alienation. The parties of the 1% don’t even have to spend their money in our most deprived areas because those areas are not holding them to account in the ballot box or elsewhere. At least not until recently.
But it is after the vote that the kidnapping of democracy is it at worst. For example what democratic mandate does Labour have to introduce Irish Water? Did it argue for it? Put it in a manifesto? Did Labour persuade people to vote for them because they wanted Irish Water? No. The very opposite was the case in answer to each of those questions. How can it be democratic for a party to be elected on one basis and to then govern on the very opposite basis? And what remedy have citizens to address a situation where they have voted for a person or a party who does the exact opposite to that which they were elected to do? If there is no remedy, and there isn’t, then that is not ‘democracy’, that is the kidnapping of democracy.
In the almost five years of this Government policies have been followed which the majority of the people did not vote for, and some of the parties implementing them vehemently campaigned against! Telling people they live in a democracy in light of those facts is a very contorted definition of democracy indeed. Let us build a new democracy which puts focus on each of the necessary phases. Together we can do it.