From Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2004
Elections are due soon in the United States, Afghanistan, Iraq and Indonesia. Democracy, the creation of the Greeks, remains the least bad political system. But it has to work properly: it must remain accountable to ordinary people and not suborn power.
So while the rich may legitimately participate in the democratic government of the polis, the unchallengeable principle of proportionality means they will always be in the minority. Aris totle was right in one respect: the rich have never been more numerous than the poor. Despite that, they have always governed the world or pulled the strings of those who governed.
Any textbook of constitutional law defines democracy as 'an internal organisation of the state in which the source and exercise of political power lie with the people, enabling the governed to govern in turn through their elected representatives.' To accept such a definition, with its precision that borders on an exact science, is to ignore the infinite gradation of pathological conditions affecting the body politic at any moment.
The fact that democracy can be defined so precisely does not mean it really works. Look at the history of political ideas and you discover two things often dismissed as irrelevant to the modern world. The first is that democracy appeared in Athens in the 5th century BC; it was based on the participation of all free men in the government of the city, the direct attribution of office through a mixed system of elections and lots, and the right of citizens to vote and submit proposals in popular assemblies.
The second is that the democratic system was not successfully imposed on Rome, the successor to Greek civilisation, because of the inordinate economic power of the landed aristocracy, who saw it as a direct enemy. Although historical ana logies are risky, it is hard to avoid asking whether modern economic empires are not also radical opponents of democracy, even if a pretence at it is maintained for the moment.
Political authorities are concerned to divert our attention from the obvious conflict at the heart of the electoral process between political choice, as represented by a vote, and the abdication of civic responsibility. At the moment when the ballot paper is dropped into the box, the voter transfers into other hands the political power he possessed until then as a member of the community of citizens, and he gets nothing in exchange except promises made during the election campaign.
Let us consider what our democracy really is and what purpose it serves, before claiming, in accordance with the obsession of our time, that it should be compulsory and universal. The caricature of democracy that we want to impose on the rest of the world is not Greek democracy but a system the Romans would have been happy to impose on their territories. Democracy of this kind, undermined by economic and financial factors, would have changed the minds of the landowners of Latium and turned them into ardent democrats.
Since I have strong ideological inclinations (3), some readers may doubt my democratic convictions. But what I am arguing for is a truly democratic world that could become a reality 2,000 years after Socrates, Plato and Aristotle: the Greek dream of a harmonious society making no distinction between masters and slaves, as conceived by innocent souls who still believe in perfection.
Some people will claim that suffrage in western democracies is not based on race or tax assessment, that the vote of a rich citizen with blond hair counts for no more than that of a poor, dark-skinned citizen.
If appearances are believed, we have reached the height of democracy. But the brutal reality of the world makes nonsense of this. What we always meet is an authoritarian body clothed in the finest trappings of democracy.
The right to vote, an expression of political will, is also a renunciation of will, which the voter delegates to a candidate. The act of voting is, at least for part of the population, a temporary renunciation of personal political action, which is put into abeyance until the next election, when the process of delegation begins again and repeats itself to the same effect. Despite the vain hopes of the electors, their renunciation of the political is often the first step in a process that enables the elected minority to pursue aims in no way democratic and sometimes illegal. In principle, no one imagines voting for people known to be corrupt. Yet we know from experience that higher spheres of national and international power are peopled by criminals and their agents. No examination of ballot papers would reveal any sign of the relations between states and economic groups whose criminal activities and acts of war lead our planet to disaster.
Experience confirms that political democracy is of little use unless it is based on economic and cultural democracy. Yet economic democracy is now a despised idea, replaced by an obscenely triumphant cult of the market. Cultural democracy has been replaced by the no less obscene idea of industrialised mass culture, a pseudo-melting pot that conceals the predominance of one culture over all others.
We think we have progressed but we are regressing. Talk of democracy will become absurd if we persist in identifying it with institutions called parties, parliaments and governments, without examining the use those institutions make of the votes that bring them to power. A democracy incapable of self-criticism is doomed to paralysis.
I am not against parties (I am a militant member of a political party). Nor do I despise parliaments, though I would appreciate them more if they devoted themselves to action rather than words. I haven’t invented a formula that will enable people to live happily without a government. But I refuse to accept that we can only govern, and want to be governed, according to the current model of democracy - a model that can only be described as incomplete and incoherent.
True democracy should begin with what is immediately to hand - the country of our birth, the society we work in, the street we live on. Without that, all the underlying reasoning, the theoretical foundation and practical operation of the system will be vitiated. It is no use purifying the water in the taps if the reservoir is contaminated.
Power has always been the central issue of all human organisation. The main problem has always been to determine who holds it, by what means it was got, how it is to be used, its aims and methods. If democracy really were government of the people, for the people and by the people, there would be no further discussion. But only a cynic would claim that all is for the best in the world. Democracy has been called 'the worst system of government, except for all the others'. No one seems to realise that resigned acceptance of the least bad is a brake on the search for something better.
Democratic power is by nature temporary. It is dependent on electoral stability, ideological flux and class interests. It is a barometer that records the variation of political will in society. But it is obvious that there have been many apparently radical political upheavals resulting in changes of government that have not been followed by the fundamental social, economic and cultural transformations that regime change had led us to expect.
To describe a government as socialist or social-democratic, or even conservative or liberal, and to apply the word power to it, is a cosmetic operation.
Real - economic - power lies elsewhere. We perceive it only dimly. It slips away whenever we approach it yet hits hard if we attempt to loosen its grasp and subordinate it to the public interest. Citizens do not elect governments so that those governments can serve up the citizens to the market on a platter. But the market conditions governments to make a present of their citizens. In our era of free-market globalisation, the market is the super-instrument of the only powers worthy of the name, economic and financial power. That power is not democratic: it was not elected by the people; it is not managed by the people; and the people’s happiness is not its aim.
These are elementary truths. Political strategists of whatever shade impose a safe silence so that no one dare imply that we are continuing to nurture a lie and act as willing accomplices. What we call democracy looks more and more like government by the rich and less and less like government by the people. We cannot deny the obvious: the masses of the poor called upon to vote are never called upon to govern. Assuming the poor could form a government in which they were the majority, as Aristotle imagined, they would lack the means necessary to change the organisation of the universe of the rich who dominate and control them.
'Western democracy' has entered a phase of retrograde transformation that it cannot halt and will foreseeably bring about its negation. No one need take responsibility for killing it: it is committing suicide. What is to be done? Should we attempt to reform it? But we know that reform, as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (4), means changing everything so that it can stay the same. Renew it? Which period of history would be a viable basis for rebuilding, in modern materials, a system on the way to perdition? Ancient Greece? The merchant republics of the Middle Ages? English 17th-century liberalism? The French Age of Enlightenment? A pointless question.
So what should we do? Let us stop considering democracy as an immutable value. In a world in which everything can be questioned, only democracy remains taboo. António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), the dictator who governed Portugal for more than 40 years, said: 'We do not question God, fatherland or family.' Today, we happily question God and fatherland, and the only reason that we do not question the family is that it is questioning itself. Only democracy is not questioned. We must question it at every opportunity. Unless we discover a way to re-invent it, we shall lose not only democracy but all hope of seeing human rights respected on earth some day. That would be the greatest failure of our time, a betrayal that would mark humanity for ever.
-- José Saramago is a Portuguese novelist and 1998 Nobel literature laureate. His translated works include Baltasar and Blimunda (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1987) and The Cave (Harvill, London, 2002)
-- (1) Aristotle’s Politics, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Clarendon Press.
(3) Saramago is a member of the Portuguese Communist party.
(4) The novel Il Gattopardo by the Sicilian writer di Lampedusa (1896-1957), first published in 1958 (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, 1961) contains the famous line: 'If we want things to stay the same, they are going to have to change.'
Translated by Barry Smerin see: http://mondediplo.com/2004/08/12saramago
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From Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2004