The most recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (IEU) has caused many a sharp intake of breath for many, writes Dr William Briggs.
PETER HARTCHER, international editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, was quick to quote that only 21 nations are ‘fully functioning’ democracies. He argued that events in China and Iran show that people want an end to autocratic and theocratic regimes. The argument follows that if people want change, then democracy as we know and understand it must be that change.
The Hartchers of this world are quite right. People want democracy and not only in Iran or China. The democratic model so beloved by many in the media and in all branches of government and in all mainstream political parties is the democracy of the ballot box. It is the democracy so closely linked with the economic structures that dominate the world. It is in this conflation of economics and governance that problems arise.
Peter Hartcher uses the report in the EIU to drive home the message that democracy is in danger but that the people are beginning to rise against tyranny. The report uses the term "democratic recession" to describe the state of affairs in the world since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. It is a term also used freely by the Journal of Democracy.
The authors of these reports are fearful that faith in democracy is on the wane. Hartcher missed the irony that democracy, as the report showed is now measured in economic language and quite probably in economic terms.
Events in Iran and China are showing that people want something better than authoritarianism and the rule of force. There have been eruptions of people’s anger against governmental corruption, economic mismanagement and the failure of states to offer even a sham of acting in their interest. This is particularly sharp in Iran and China, although popular uprisings and protests have rocked states, and increasingly since 2019.
Are these uprisings pro-democracy? Yes. They are struggles for the transfer of power from the few to the many. It goes to the core of the meaning of democracy. It is all about the power or rule of and by the people. These struggles are not about who will control the capitalist economy. It did not start last week, or last month. Responses to the murder of Mahsa Amini in Iran and the disgraceful house fire in China are the latest in a long wave of protest movements.
This wave of protest erupted in 2019. COVID briefly paused the demands of millions around the world for fairness, dignity, a decent standard of living and some control of their lives and futures. The streets are once again witnessing this anger.
The situations in Iran and China have captured the attention of the media and rightly so. Peter Hartcher has linked the visible anger of the people with the demand for democracy. The demands, on the streets, are for freedom, for an end to authoritarian regimes, and for the people to be able to direct how society might develop to best suit the needs of the people.
This is being neatly equated by many in the media as a call for democracy. Democracy, in this context, becomes indivisible with capitalist democracy. The inference, if not so bluntly stated, is clear for all to see.
Democracy, by inference, must be good for the economy. If we get more countries adopting democratic values, then things in the garden will be rosy.
Just who this message is meant for is uncertain. The economic gains of democracy are probably not all that high on the priority list for Iranian demonstrators, or for the Chinese who are increasingly demanding change. Democracy for these courageous people is about freedom and for the chance to live without fear of arbitrary arrest. It’s certainly not about electing one group or party to organise a capitalist economy that will deliver better economic returns to a minority.
Perhaps the target audience of the call to overcome democratic "recession" is the working class in the west. The period since the economic crisis of the 1970s has seen a steady decline in living standards, a stagnation in wages, a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, a rise in inequality and now a reduction in wages, inflation, higher interest rates, housing shortages, poor medical outcomes, and a general despair.
Australia is proudly declared to be one of the EIU’s 21 "fully" democratic nations.
Something is terribly wrong. A "fully" democratic nation that is a successful and leading capitalist economy, is not providing for the people. What does this say about democracy and the mythology that it exists as an expression of the will of the people. It calls into question just what democracy or capitalist democracy is for. It is for capital. The state is there to facilitate the actual rule of capital and to keep the people in a general state of acquiescence.
What needs to be borne in mind is that capitalist democracy has little, if anything to do with the people who keep things ticking over. Elected governments do not control what happens at the point of production. We do not vote for unemployment, or for economic measures that drive up inflation or interest rates. We don’t vote for any of these things. These decisions are generally made in the boardroom and not on the floor of parliament.
Yes, the people of China and Iran want change. They want what we all want but do not have. They want a society that is run by the people. They want real democracy.
Dr William Briggs is a political economist. His special areas of interest lie in political theory and international political economy. He has been, variously, a teacher, journalist and political activist.
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