IF you think that democracy is about 'government of the people by the people and for the people', you are dead wrong, not these days. The way democracy has evolved in recent years in both developed as well as in developing countries, it has become more of a system that may be, just may be 'of the people' and to an extent (i.e. after accounting for rigging which is a norm in many countries) 'by the people,' but certainly not 'for the people.'
Also democracy's sole lingering claim to legitimacy that it allows people the opportunity to remove leaders/parties that displease them is still valid but hardly inspiring. Indeed, in every democracy voters frequently change governments that they are unhappy with but such changes hardly bring much change in policies or in the style of governance!
With the rise of neoliberal economic system the vortex of the moneyed, the muscled and the morons (M3) has taken over the political landscape and colonised democracy. This shift has resulted in governments working not so much for the vast majority that put them in power but for a network of vested interests and mainstream politicians that help each other.
The 2008 United Nations World Public Sector Report reveals that the discrepancies between public policies and citizens' expectations have widened so much that in a worldwide survey when people were asked whether their governments do what they expect them to do, a resounding 75% said, “NO.” Surprisingly, dismay with policy incongruities seems more rampant in the developed than in the developing countries. Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University in their research on the representativeness of America's democracy in public policy conclude that “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks” when it comes to policy, what matters is the “interest-group alignments and the preferences of affluent Americans.”
Of late, in some countries the rich are seen to be using their wealth to form their own political parties and participate in elections to ensure that policies complement and not compromise their interests. For example, Mr. Clive Palmer, a billionaire mining magnate of Australia formed the Palmer United Party, participated in the 2013 Parliamentary election where he spent a huge sum during the campaign, got himself and few of his party members elected (enough to change the direction of policies). Since then, he has been instrumental in abolishing carbon tax, the mining tax etc., that unmistakably has paved the way to fattening his bulging purse and at the same time, halt Australia's progress in achieving climate change and wealth redistribution goals.
What is also quite disturbing about democracy these days is that you could be the dumbest and the most uncouth person on earth but if you play the game right, you would be elected. Take the case of Ms. Jacqui Lambie, a senator from Tasmania (Australia) who lately announced that as a single young woman her biggest ambition is to marry (not the welfare of her electorate but 'marry') someone who is rich. You cannot get crasser than this. Indeed, there is no dearth of clowns and morons in politics these days -- in some countries you have ministers who sleep through the meetings and sing in seminars!
Democracy's infection by the M3 is total in developing countries. Referring to the ever increasing intrusion of India's political space by the rich and the corrupt, Rammanohar Reddy observes that most of today's Members of Parliament are so “obscenely” rich that the Lok Sabha [Parliament] is no more “…a Hall of the People but of the Wealthy.” Reddy further argues that in India the link between the elected representatives, business, and the executive (and organised corruption) is now so intertwined that it is difficult to think that any government, elected or otherwise, can ever break this axis of evil. Farid Zakaria also thinks that most developing countries that conduct elections under the patronage of a nexus of profiteering politicians, businesses and also, sadly, a section of self-seeking civil society and media (largely a corporatised entity these days) and in conditions of weak rule of law and non-existent checks and balance do not practice democracy but, in the name of democracy, a system that rotates “plundering governments.”
Add to this the rising spectre of geopolitics, and you will find that democracy starts to look more like a weapon of mass destruction. These days, hegemons use the excuse of democracy to demonise leaders who resist their predatory demands and attack them militarily (and unlawfully), occupy their countries, kill their people and plunder their assets. At the same time, the obliging states, democratic or otherwise, that cooperate with and submit to hegemons are given free hand to govern in whatever manner they like. In these countries less 'democracy' is better for this allows the ruling parties to muzzle opposition and allow plunder in a mutually predatory unrestrained manner. Thanks to geopolitics and its patronage, we now have an example where government has been formed with an 'election' that virtually had a no-show voter turnout. Referring to its handy relationship to geopolitics Arundhati Roy observes that 'democracy' has now become “Free World's' whore, willing to dress up, dress down, willing to satisfy a whole range of tastes, available to be used and abused at will.”
So how does the coterie of M3 manage to capture political space and ignore the vast majority that elects them in the first place? According to Gilens and Page it is not that elected governments do not give nothing to the mass, some concessions are made but the pernicious thing about today's democracy is this that the politicians hide their plutocratic stratagem through promotion of “politics of nationalism, sectarianism, and identity -- a politics based on cultural values and symbolism rather than bread-and-butter interests.” Indeed, sudden worldwide surge in the political discourse of nationalism, sectarianism, scare-mongering etc. that manifest themselves in some contexts as 'fight against terror' and in others as 'fight against anti-liberation forces' and yet in others, in the form of bellicose sectarianism such 'Hindutva,' etc. are nothing but attempts at inflaming passions, distracting attention, and hiding from the people the acts of theft by the cabal of corruption.
This, in short, is the political economy of present day democracy. It is indeed quite depressing but should we despair?
The good news is that those that subvert democracy, corrupt systems and dent ethics are in the minority and, as is expected, they are not hugely popular -- a recent poll in USA reveals that “Congress is less popular than cockroaches and traffic jam!”
Thus, given that the human capital for goodness is in the majority, change is possible. The gutsiest way to bring change would be through mass upsurge but success cannot be guaranteed. Besides, this would be both messy and bloody. The other option is, use democracy to cure democracy.
Since all major political parties -- regardless of who these guys are, what they say and where they belong (East, West, North, and South) -- are infected, voting for these guys alternately gives you 'the government that you vote for but not the government that you want.'
So stop voting for the major political parties, result will be astounding!
The writer is Professor, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia.