How Democratic is Democracy?

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One of the most interesting aspects of the protests in Spain has been the emergence of the debate on democracy. Since September 11, democracy, or at least the Western capitalist conception of democracy, has been held as a sacrosanct ideal, heroically achieved by the people of Europe, America and the ‘West’ in general.

George W Bush and Tony Blair went forth to protect, defend and spread the word of democracy but in doing so they used and abused the word so much that it shed its original meaning and became instead a religious mantra.

To question the means or methods of spreading democracy or even analysing the type of democracy that we promoted was tantamount to joining the Taliban. Asking how do we know democracy is fair, is like asking a Born-Again Christian how he knows god exists: you know because you have faith. It doesn’t really help anyone.


Some of the most important topics of debate that have suddenly flourished along with the protests here in Spain have been whether representative democracy is truly fair, whether the representatives ever really promote the interest of their electorate or whether they could even if they wanted to.

Lately, in the mainstream newspapers you will read various formulations of the opinion that voting out a bad government every four years is simply not enough.

This may already be the assumption long-held by political scientists as they measure rational choice against voter turnout and find that it is more rational not to vote than to head out in the beating sun (or pouring rain), to stand in a queue to vote for a party that tends to be the same as the other party and that tends not to fulfill its promises.

But for people to begin questioning this openly really does signal a new soul-searching and critical re-assessment of something that was hitherto so precious and revered so as to be beyond human meddling.

Of course, democracy is not perfect – more an imperfect solution for an imperfect world. But is the modern incarnation working? Is it anyway near sufficient or proportionate? Is it in some ways actually detrimental?

At this point, it is important to highlight that I am not about to suggest that a Marxist-Leninist vanguard of informed and educated elites guide us into the light.

Very simply, I would like to see more participation in the decision-making that forms my society. I would like to be able to say: “No, I don’t think we should bail out the private bank that caused its own problems and really only has about 10 billionaire clients – most of whom have already transferred their remaining wealth into their wives’ names, left the country and never paid tax anyway.”

Or even simply: “Yes, I think my local council should use more of its funds on the local swimming pool and less on parking spaces.”

As the Athenians did, except with baths and stables.

Would enough of us take part to legitimise this? (Could we just text in our votes please?) What would happen to political parties? Would there be space for competing ideologies or would it be all theme based? Who knows!

But this proposal assumes something very basic, that along with more participation, there is little or no control over the media – and information in general – by the wealthy few.

This topic has been debated for some time now, but has become more obvious with the resurgence of the first set of problems. The central question is how control of language and the media – and therefore mainstream public opinion – by political and corporate interests has become the central characteristic of democracy.

If you take a small but democratic island, where the poor majority could, in theory, vote in a party that would take the island’s wealth out of the hands of a small few and spread it evenly among the entire population, why wouldn’t they just do that?

Because the information they receive on the pros and cons of this policy is primarily supplied by the minority that owns the wealth.

The distortion and misinformation on the benefits of an egalitarian society emitted by mainstream media are sometimes so daring that it’s easier to believe it than to imagine that people exist that believe we are gullible enough to swallow it if it wasn’t true.

When it comes to making a decision on a government based on information bearing a tenuous link to reality is difficult enough, only getting to do so every four or five years is not acceptable any more.

Democracy has proven itself, as a system of representation, too distant from the people it assumes to represent, too open to corruption and too malleable as a tool for the warriors of the free market.

A system that purports to be democratic and grants power to the group that promises the most appealing society to the majority, yet provides no useful safe guards for the majority when that group reneges on its promises, sometimes violently, needs to be reassessed openly, vigorously and very soon.

Mary Jane O’Leary is an Irish International Relations researcher currently based in Barcelona and former sub-editor and reporter with Thomas Crosbie Holdings. The photo is courtesy of Roar Magazine.

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2 Responses

  1. Davi Alexander

    June 3, 2011 3:59 am

    Interesting piece! Yes, the sheer aggressiveness of the worldwide “pushing” of their version of “democracy” [Vietnam and Iraq (total war) Venezuela (covert coup d’etat), and now Libya (semi-covertly)] revealed that “democracy” was no true “demos” but a malleable term at the behest of hawkish U.S. and U.K. “energy security” interests. “Interests” that know mates who probably own a radio or TV station, or two.
    Sure, media matters, but I wasn’t clear if this was good or bad, in the long-term, for the indignados of Spain. No doubt, “transforming the media” so that it reflects real community-based interests (beyond the profit-oriented) will be a monumental challenge for any organic group challenging the status quo.