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Imprisoned by ÒDemocracyÓ?


By Aziz Choudry

We could just start over but it’s oh so hard to do When you’re lost in a masquerade (George Benson, This Masquerade)

“Social democracy is the new right. It has taken on the historic task of taming neoliberalism in a spirit of vacuous opportunism. It is at war with Serbia today and may be fighting its own suburbs tomorrow. All in the name of realism, not rocking the boat, above all not disturbing the status quo”, wrote Ignacio Ramonet in Le Monde Diplomatique (Social Democracy Betrayed) in April 1999.

Many in the various movements against corporate globalisation frame their campaigns in the language of attacks and constraints on “democracy” by corporate power. Alternative visions commonly put forward by NGOs implicitly accept existing social democratic models as the only possible way forward. In framing the problem in this way, they glorify and legitimise fundamentally unjust systems of government.

So many people are absorbed in confronting transnational corporations and concentrating on the minutiae of WTO agreements, IMF and World Bank policies. But we must also work to deconstruct, delegitimise and dismantle the nature of this “democracy” and the systems of political and economic controls it maintains. If we agree that political parties are little more than changeable masks on the face of corporate power, why do many of us still direct so much energy towards them?

In the face of unbridled imperialism and war – emanating from the very governments which proclaim themselves to be bastions of democracy – many of the demands made by NGOs, trade unions and other organizations about corporate globalisation sound little more than pleas for more state power.

More interventionist economic policies, more regulation, with some nice words like “accountability”, “participatory”, “environmentally sustainable” and “people-centred” thrown in for good measure.

There is a correlation between the “radical” and “reformist” elements of the “anti-globalisation movement” and their respective faith – and investment – in what purports to be democracy in the countries in which they are situated. Some argue that the political system is basically good but nasty corporations came along and hijacked it, bought off some politicians and it all got bad.

Our mission is supposed to be to save the system and affirm the freedoms and values we all supposedly shared and enjoyed before big business ruled the roost. Meanwhile we are expected to believe that those at the top can and will make real change if we concentrate our time and energies into performing like porpoises, jumping up and down enough to keep them in line.

Adherence to this notion of democracy for which we are told to daily give thanks greatly constrains the parameters of thought and action for change. It is a cage. If we don’t like it, we can vote every few years to change the colour of paint on the bars. Those who organise outside of electoral politics are told to get real, be “constructive” and engage with the process if we really want to make it better. But who is it that needs to get real, exactly?

What masquerades as “social democracy” has nothing to do with the politics of liberation and everything to do with social control. Indeed, in many places the current systems of government are founded on colonisation, occupation, and the suppression of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination. These governments’ continued existence, power and privileged place in the world rest on their access to natural resources through colonisation of the lands that they occupy and their involvement in imperial exploits of the past and present in other parts of the planet.

Analysing the impact of colonisation and Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination, Maori lawyer Moana Jackson writes:

“Monotonous but persistent arguments that the English Westminster system or the French republican models were the only valid and civilised ways in which people could exercise self determination interacted with the belief that real law was only the product of a European mind. Complex theories about where sovereignty resided in a society, and the Victorian notion that primitive peoples could not possess it because of their ignorant nature, were colonising myths developed to ensure that colonisers could legitimate their dispossession of Indigenous Peoples.” That’s democracy, folks.

Once one accepts the legitimacy of the system of “democracy” in countries like New Zealand, Australia or Canada, one also accepts the legitimacy of conquest, of dispossession and of the imposition of colonial rule. Not to mention, capitalism.

Our strategies and alternatives to the neoliberal agenda must reflect an unequivocal opposition to colonialism and imperialism in all its forms. Locally and globally.

Outrageously, “democratic” Western governments continue to pontificate about “democracy” to the rest of the world, which in their view must go hand in hand with a wholehearted embrace of the free market.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof begins his ridiculous apology for Musharraf’s rule in Pakistan (What Is Democracy Anyway? May 3 2002) with:

“If there were a form of government that produced autocrats who sponsored terrorism, stole millions of dollars while impoverishing their citizens, shredded public education and health, permitted child bondage, tortured dissidents and tolerated pogroms against minorities, then we would all condemn it. Except in South Asia such a system is called democracy.”

Silly me, until I got to the last sentence I could have sworn Kristof was writing about the USA!

There is a direct link between the foundations of coloniser settler states and their global imperialist exploits. Some years ago, in his book Struggle For The Land, Cherokee scholar and activist Ward Churchill noted that the USA

“now possesses the capacity to extend essentially the same sort of relationships it has already imposed upon American Indians to the remainder of the world. And, given the experience it has acquired in Indian Affairs over the years, it is undoubtedly capable of garbing this process of planetary subordination in a legalistic attire symbolizing its deepseated concern with international freedom and dignity, the sovereignty of other nations, and the human rights of all peoples.”

In countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Indigenous Peoples conveniently become “minority interests” as genocide and invasion has reduced them to numerical minorities within their own territories. Hysterical cries of “reverse racism” and “tyranny of the minority” are heard – including from some on the “left” – whenever there are real or perceived challenges to the status quo from Indigenous Peoples.

Now I am watching the lead up to New Zealand’s July 27 general election, reflecting on the resources, energy, and hopes being sucked into electoral politics. I wonder about the enormous differences that could be made if these were channelled into building extra-parliamentary communities of resistance which were prepared to contest the very foundations of this “democracy” we live in.

A decade or so ago, enormous energy went into changing the electoral system to one of mixed member proportional representation. Such reform did not address in any way the fundamental fact that the institutions of “democracy” are built on the denial of Maori rights to self-determination. Nor has it arrested the free market fundamentalism which has underpinned successive New Zealand governments’ policies for so long.

With a pro-war, Blairite Labour government in power here at the moment, this is the time when various people, trade unions, and community organisations make it clear that we cannot dare be too critical of this neoliberal “centre-left” party for fear of helping the neoliberal “centre-right” party win the election.

James Petras argues: “The “street” and not the ballot box is the road toward creating authentic forms of democratic representation against the corrupt, impotent and complicit political institutions.” (Right/left polarization: The ballot box and the street, Rebelion, 10 May 2002).

By contrast with many of the social democratic NGO-dominated movements on corporate globalisation, many of the popular mobilisations on these issues sweeping the world have little time for electoral politics, putting forward radical critiques of the systems of government operating in their country. We can see this in the neighbourhood popular assemblies of Argentina, and the slogan “Que se vayan todos” (All politicians should go!).

It was also there in June’s “No One is Illegal” march in Ottawa during the G8 Summit which linked the “war on terror” with the continued, systematic policies of genocide and dispossession in North America, racist immigration policies and other manifestations of imperialism at home and abroad.

When communities are badgered into making submissions, attending “consultations” or lobbying MPs they are being corralled into a system in which they have no real power, and into participating in a meaningless charade, the parameters of which have already been determined. For some, the illusion of being heard and the thrill of rubbing shoulders with bigwigs is far more important than real change.

Naturally, the pressure groups and organizations which value lobbying political parties more than community education and resistance get better resources and perks. There are rewards for taking part in this masquerade. But free finger food, cocktails, warm fuzzies and a chance to namedrop don’t add up to much when weighed against the stamp of popular legitimacy that governments derive from such encounters.

In colonial settler-states like New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the USA, we have the choice of Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. Vote for Chris Columbus or Ferdie Magellan. We can vote for any party we like, so long as they are capitalist colonisers. If that’s democracy, is it worth fighting for?

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