|This essay written by Olli Tammilehto was published in 1992 in the issue '00' of Balloons, an English language journal of Japanese Seikatsu Club Co-op. An earlier Finnish version was published in February 1990 in 'Helsingin Sanomat', a daily with wide circulation. In the beginning of 1992 a Spanish translation appeared in the supplement 'Opciones' of the Mexican daily 'El Nacional'. It has probably been published in Russia, too.|
Does not democracy mean rule by the people? Certainly there has never been complete democracy in any state and there scarcely will be in the near future either. So it is not possible to move to democracy: democracy can only increase or decrease.
In western "real-democracy" the people have more power than in an autocratic system, but nevertheless that is very limited. This is shown for example by opinion polls. In a survey carried out in Finland, a country boasting of its western democratic system, recently 76 % of those asked thought that "citizens' opinions do not have much influence on decisions made in society".
One might expect that everyone knows about these restrictions of democracy. Why then do people write as if it is possible to move to democracy, just like that? Apparently democracy has begun to mean something else besides rule by the people: a certain form, which includes a parliament, elections, universal suffrage, and more than one party. Because "democracy" is used indiscriminately in both of those senses, they easily get mixed in the mind of someone who does not know or does not think about the matter: the western electoral system is regarded as being democratic in a nearly absolute sense.
How has this confusion come to arise? According to its origin in ancient Greece democracy meant the rule by the people. Contrary to what is commonly supposed nowadays, the form of government in Athens and some other city states was not called democracy. This system, ruled by freemen, was generally called a "polity". According to Aristotle the polity was a mixture of democracy and aristocracy. He did not regard genuine democracy as being in any way positive, and neither did other writers who represented the Greek elite.
Among those who have made themselves immortal through literature the same negative view of democracy was dominant up until modern times. The French Revolution changed the situation in continental Europe. In widespread social movements and among numerous writers in the final decades of the eighteenth century democracy began to mean an ideal in which the citizens ruled themselves. At the same time attributes of democracy began to be connected to all those matters that could be thought of as bringing reality closer to the ideal. The words 'democratic', 'democratize', and 'democrat' appeared in European languages.
Many people lost their faith in the ideal of democracy during the two centuries of unforeseen violence and exploitation that followed the French Revolution. Democracy was even suspected of being contrary to human nature. The social-Darwinists claimed that submission and acquiescence to submission derive from human biology.
The ideal of democracy gained support, however, from a surprising source: from the anthropology that developed in the wake of the European conquerors of the world. The 'primitive' peoples living outside the influence of centralized states were studied thoroughly. And oddly enough, the ideal of democracy appeared to be realized by them. On the other hand, Hobbes' "everyone waging war on everyone else" did not prevail among 'primitive' tribes. On the other, 'chiefs' who gained the trust of the tribe were not rulers or leaders in the European sense: they had no resources of power whatever with which to compel recalcitrant tribesmen to their will. As soon as a chief was no longer trusted he was a former chief.
These tribes have practised a democratic way of life for hundreds of times longer that the elite groups of the centralized states have subjugated other people. Thus there should be nothing in democracy that is against human nature: contrary to Rousseau's idea, it could be applied also to others than gods.
The concept of democracy as an ideal condition, which can be continuously approached in many ways is also the view of many political scientists at the present time. For example according to Dag Anckar, Professor of Political Science at Åbo Akademi University, a community is the more democratic the more the acts of its government correspond to the rational wishes of the people who are the objects of the acts. Robert A. Dahl, Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, is of the opinion that in a democratic process of making collectively binding decisions, each citizen must have an adequate and equal opportunity of expressing a preference concerning the final outcome, and the preferences expressed must be taken equally into account.
The concept of democracy that became widespread through the French Revolution has been exceedingly troublesome for many in power: on the one hand democracy is a constant threat to their power, on the other it has often been precisely support for democracy that has brought them to power, so they cannot begin to oppose it. It is apparently for this reason that those belonging to the dominant elite have, together with suitable academics, developed other concepts of democracy. 'Democracy' is said to prevail when the power of the dominant elite can be justified by some formalities.
A year after the revolution, in October 1918, Lenin claimed that "proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy". At that time he still defended Soviet democracy by claiming that the groups of people forming the great majority of the new state could govern themselves by means of the soviets.
Lenin had also, however, another conception of democracy. This became predominant among communists in governing positions when, after the Second World War, the 'peoples' democracies' began to be established in Eastern Europe. The state was democratic if only those governing represented the people. Representation was determined by marxist-leninist ideology and not by any wavering opinions of the populace. Good representatives were the 'democratic forces' i.e. the workers' and peasants' parties, but best of all was the communist party. Even within the communist party democracy was not left to the unreliable ideas of the members. The 'democratic' line of the party was best represented by its central committee, still better by the politburo, and best of all by the chairman.
This ideology has provided autocrats with a powerful justification. Even Nicolae Ceausescu of Rumania could apparently believe from time to time that he was a genuine representative of the working class, the majority of the people. Before his execution in December 1989, when the prosecutor asked who ordered the people to be shot, he looked at the ceiling and said, "I only answer to the working class".
Even the elite groups of the western industrialized countries have not been content to understand democracy as meaning self-government by the citizens. It has sufficed here too when democracy has meant that the rulers represent the people. The criteria for representation are, however, different: those in power must be chosen by free elections with at least two parties participating. Even though this 'western democracy' gives citizens better opportunities for having an influence than peoples' democracy, it is nevertheless still a far cry from the ideal of democracy.
Before the people choose the rulers they like from among the candidates, the ruling elite chooses the candidates that have at least some chances of being elected. Business circles and the leadership of the parties are in a central position in this "first round of the election". It is only possible for candidates independent of the elite to be elected as a consequence of strong extra-parliamentary movements. Such movements do not, however, belong to the official script of western democracy.
The governing elite groups have decisively better opportunities to influence the citizens than the citizens have to influence them. When, for example, an employer threatens a catastrophic decrease in income as a result of voting 'wrongly', he cannot be disregarded.
The inequality in possibilities of influence can be seen best in information. A certain degree of freedom of speech is one of the more important achievements of democracy in the West. Nevertheless, those in power have vastly better possibilities to present their points of view in the mass media compared to other citizens. This is due to, among other things, relations of ownership, the possibility of using paid advertisements, the dependence of certain mass media on advertising income, the integration of many editors and journalists into the power structure, and the availability of secretarial assistance. Citizens thus often have an idea of reality that is distorted in the interests of those in power, also of their own possibilities of having an influence.
The fact that only a part of the ruling elite is changed in elections is also fundamental. The management of companies and the greater part of the higher civil servants remain in position independent of the results of elections. These have accumulated much more power in national and global affairs than parliamentarians. Besides, very often the business and civil service elite influence the elected elite to a greater extent than the other way round. This happens by briefing, lobbying, and providing the elected elite with food, drink or pocket-money.
On account of these reasons, it is very difficult for a citizen alone to have any influence even in matters that affect him closely. The limits of western democracy appear in many opinion polls. For example, according to a study conducted in the United States in 1982, 58 % of those questioned would have preferred to live in a society that emphasized environmental protection more than economic growth. Only 21 % preferred a society with the opposite emphasis. Similarly, in 1989 55 % of the public in the European Community were of the opinion that the protection of the environment is essential, and only 7 % that the development of the economy should take precedence. Despite such figures economic growth has still an absolutely central position in the policies of these countries. The environment will be protected if it happens to be commercially profitable to do so.
Even though the possibilities of citizens to influence matters within the framework of western democracy are few, there are fortunately other ways of implementing democracy: people can join together, form action groups and movements. By means of a movement's internal culture and information citizens can start to free themselves from the control of the governing elite and its ideology, and of their own apathy and despair.
There are, however, many factors that prevent the birth and growth of social movements. The social structures created by work, consumption, housing, and information technology can reduce the natural and unofficial interaction between people to such an extent that 'embryos' of movements seldom arise. The dominating culture and information can make those who attempt to create social movement appear to be ridiculous 'crackpots' so that no sensible person would join.
Exceptionally strong social movements have been active in Eastern Europe. On the other hand the state and economic structures have been weak. Therefore the amount of democracy in these countries has been unexceptional, even though there is a lack of all kinds of goods. When it has been claimed in the press that Eastern Europe is moving to democracy, it means that new state and economic structures of a western kind have been created. In the worst case this means the reduction of democracy to a level clearly below that in the West: economic power moves out of the reach of citizens to Frankfurt, New York, and Tokyo.
One important background factor in the explosive growth of movements in Eastern Europe in 1989 were social microstructures. Need and oppression gave everywhere rise to economic and mental support groups, and chains of groups, based on relatives and acquaintances. When some dared to take the first steps in resistance, it was not necessary to react alone to the challenge.
What is happening to the mutual support groups, when the individualistic culture of the West is having an influence in these countries? The future of democracy in Eastern Europe also depends on this because social movements are needed now and in the future, too.
At the moment the prospects of extensive democracy seem grim. The same serious limitations as in the West are coming visible in the East. However, the main reason of this failure is not lacking insights of the shortcomings of the western system among the leaders of democratic movements. Václav Havel, the present president of Czechoslovakia and a former political prisoner, criticized earlier strongly the western party system and consumer society: "But the whole of this state complex of fossilized and unimaginative mass parties that act tactically, all of these complicated structures of hidden manipulation and these burgeoning centres of capital accumulation, this perpetual demand for consumption, production, competition, and trade, the consumer culture and all of this flood of information all of this... can scarcely be the perspective and road that could help human being find a way back to himself."
One of the main reasons of the probable failure may lie instead in the fact that transformative politics and thinking generally in the world is now lacking a genuine idea what "the rule by the people" really could be. Movements in autocratic systems naturally want to take the power from the elite and don't want to give it to another elite. They seek democracy - but at present it tends to mean a nation state with multi-party system.
Earlier parliamentary democracy was not the only idea among transformative movements. Concepts of direct local democracy and federation of local entities on regional, continental and global level were also common. These ideas inspired many important movement leaders, for example Mahatma Gandhi. However, the idea of federative, direct democracy almost disappeared in the ashes of the Spanish civil war. It survives only in the internal democracy of some movements and among remaining small anarchistic groups.
A lesson of this "revolutionary" period in the eastern central Europe may be how important radical utopias are. A new period of social turmoil and weakness of governing elite may appear any time. But without living ideas of alternative society the power elite and its representations in our minds will sooner or later establish anew an exploitative system. Essential part of these ideas are alternatives to nation state and parliamentary democracy.
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