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Democracy is for the rich

KEVIN BARR
Friday, March 30, 2007

Democracy is a system of government where the political power rests with the nation's population either directly or through elected representatives. It is government of the people, for the people, by the people.

From this one should be able to infer that the purpose of democracy is to build a just society where the interests of all the people are cared for rich and poor, men and women, minorities as well as the majority and the economy works for the benefit of all. Democracy should be about the ordering of society to bring about justice for all. If it does not work for the common good then there is something seriously wrong.

The United States, in particular, has been a staunch promoter of democracy and has fought to have democracy entrenched throughout the world. Yet some writers have raised a number of important questions about the nature of US democracy.

For example, why is it that only those from wealthy backgrounds are able to become presidential candidates?

Why is it that the US not only champions democracy but champions extreme individualism and unbridled capitalism and has strongly opposed any form of socialism (which might spread the benefits of development more widely among people)?

Why is it that America's wealthy elites are able to exert such strong influence on political elections and economic decisions?

Alesina and Glaeser in their book Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe (2004) point out that all the American political institutions are ultimately the product of an 18th Century Constitution which was crafted by a minority of white and wealthy men of property determined to stop the State from expropriating their wealth and to limit the amount of redistribution the poor could demand of the rich.

Hence, the concerns of the rich are strongly protected and the US has a bias against welfare for the poor and redistribution of wealth. Comparing the US and Europe they note:

"Not only does government spending in the Europe favour the poor much more than in the United States, but government tax policy as well is much more distributive. Income tax rates are more progressive than in the United States."

Phillips in his book, Wealth and Democracy: a Political History of the American Rich (2002) provides hard evidence of the extreme prosperity of America's wealthy elite and shows how they are able to use their strong political influence to structure economic policy (e.g. tax policy) in their own self-interest. On the other hand, Barbara Ehrenreich in her Nickel and Dimed (2001) shows how the US economic system so adversely affects the lives of the working poor.

So, while all Americans may be able to vote in elections, does democracy in the US work for the benefit of all the people or mostly for the benefit of those with wealth and power?

If democracy is for the benefit of all the people of a nation, why is such blatant inequality tolerated? Does democracy necessarily work in the interests of justice for all?

William Blum once of the US State Department in his book Rogue State (2000:170) notes that: "Americans are raised to fervently believe that no progress can be made in any society in the absence of elections. They are taught to equate elections with democracy, and democracy with elections."

Yet, as we know, elections alone do not guarantee real democracy.

Some would say that liberal democracy in the US (and some other countries as well) has become an integral part of the capitalist system and, therefore, is class-based and not fully or truly democratic or participatory. It is "bourgeois democracy" where only the most financially powerful people have their say.

Consequently it is fundamentally un-egalitarian and facilitates economic exploitation of the poorer classes. Certainly the cost of political campaigning may mean that the system favours the rich (who may be a small minority of the total number of voters) and thus in reality the elected government becomes a form of plutocracy (or rule of the elite).

Thus, according to Marx, parliamentary elections are an opportunity citizens of a country get every few years to decide who among the ruling classes will misrepresent them in parliament.

Or again, modern democracy may be regarded as a dishonest farce used to keep the masses from getting restless by providing the hope that things might get better when they have another election.

Reforms are needed in the electoral process so that the power of big money is removed. Otherwise democracy can never be "of the people" i.e. poor or middle class people. It will always be class dominated. Democracy will be for the rich.

In this connection ownership of the media by a few of the rich elite may lead to more specific distortion of the electoral process. The media are themselves a vital element of the electoral process. They can be used to protect the interests of their own class and suppress any criticism of the status quo.

It is important for us to understand this US bias towards individualism and wealth and against welfare and redistribution because the US dominates decisions made by the World Bank and other financial institutions.

Moreover it is a key player in the decisions of the G8 countries which advise us on development.

The US will obviously side with regimes which think as it does and try to mould us in their own image. Consequently the benefits of its form of democracy will not benefit all the people but only the elite. We have seen this happen even in our own country. In this connection it is interesting to note the words of Epeli Hau'ofa (1987:101): "One very important development that we have to watch carefully is the emergence of privileged classes in the islands of the South Pacific for it is certain that the fates of the island communities are being decided by the ways in which these groups act, first, in relation to their own underprivileged people and, second, in relation to their important connections with each other and with similar groups elsewhere. It is the privileged who decide on the needs of their communities and whose rising aspirations and affluence entail worsening conditions for the poor."

Father Kevin Father is the program co-ordinator economic justice for ECREA. The views expressed are his and not necessarily that of his employer


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