Monday, February 13, 2012

The Corruption of Democracy

The 18 months of each presidential term that it takes to elect the next leader has shifted up a gear with the Republican caucuses well underway. This translates to 37.5% of each term being taken up by single-minded and aggressive media attention at the cost of actual news.

Races between candidates are billed in sporting terms such as ‘clashes’ and ‘nailbiters’ which ‘go down to the wire’. When the Republicans finally pick their challenger, he will go on to the main event against reigning champion Barack Obama. The big fight will have all the usual attractions: preliminary bouts (the presidential debates), rule-breaking and unsporting behavior (the campaigns), ‘expert’ commentary (the media and the pollsters), cheerleaders (the media), entertainment between bouts (the media) and anything else you can imagine (the media).

It is a sham. As a not particularly credible trader once infamously (but correctly) claimed live on the BBC: ‘The governments don’t rule the world; Goldman Sachs rules the world’. And not only Goldman Sachs, but also the other top banks and financial institutions, big corporations and certain billionaires.

Conspiracy theory? No. The US presidential campaign in 2012 will be an increasingly desperate affair as even wall-to-wall media coverage on which candidate has the most attractive first lady and other information deemed essential to democracy will fail to drown out the fact that the Democrat versus Republican narrative is utterly out of touch with the realities of modern society: namely the fact that the US, and by extension numerous other nations, are controlled by a small powerful and wealthy elite, and that the inequality gap between the very rich and the rest is widening into a yawning abyss.

As can be seen in this graph, between just after the end of World War 2 and 1979, US productivity rose 119% and the incomes of the bottom 20% of the population rose by 122%. Between 1979 and 2009, productivity rose by 80%, while the incomes of the bottom 20% fell by 4%. The top 20% saw an increase of 55%, the top 1%: 275%.

Numbers like these resound far more with ordinary people than partisan party politics. The precise differences about where candidates stand on social issues like guns and abortion, while of clear importance, fade into insignificance when compared with concerns about the economy, jobs, homes and simple quality of life. This is because significant numbers of people really are suffering now in terms of personal wealth, employment, prospects, education for themselves and their kids, and ditto for access to healthcare.

In the recent State of the Union address, Barack Obama inevitably co-opted the message put forward by the Occupy movement and others, making it his platform for the coming election, because he knows it is the defining issue of our time. He spoke of inequality, and of the rich paying their fair share. The question for his campaign team is simply this: will the electorate believe this new version of Hope and Change?

They just might, but they would be fools to. Under Obama, powers claimed by George W Bush post 9/11, which at that time horrified supporters of the Democratic Party, have been greatly expanded and extended. In his election campaign in 2008, Barack Obama strongly criticized the Bush NSA wiretapping program, leading his supporters to believe that he would end the program when elected. After he was safely in the White House, Obama performed an about-face, expanding the powers of this program and also extending it, betraying those supporters who had given him their money and votes for the very purpose of ending this program.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Law Professor Jonathon Turley detailed ten powers which have been aggressively pursued under Obama, significantly reducing civil liberties in a nation which has always prided itself on the freedom of its citizens. Hope and Change turned out to be something quite different from what those who voted for him expected.

Fool me once.

With widespread access to the internet, far more people than at any time in history are able to find information directly, as opposed to having it spoon-fed to them by the newspapers and television news networks. Ordinary people have become aware that Congress (in which almost half of the members are millionaires) is in the pocket of corporations by means of donations to political campaigns; that a large chunk of the establishment media is owned by large corporations; that successive administrations are filled to the brim with former bankers or those with former ties to banks, financial institutions and corporations; and that executive boards always have chairs pulled out for politicians who retire or are voted out. With all their contacts in Washington, they make excellent lobbyists.

This situation is hardly surprising: after all, from a poisoned lake you will get poisoned fish.

Via lobbying and this revolving door policy, the US government is owned by the rich, the banks and the corporations. As their interests rarely, if ever, coincide with those of ordinary people, a better word to describe the modern US system of government would be ‘oligarchy’.

What can be done? The ballot box is essentially worthless as there is broad bipartisan agreement on so many domestic and/or international issues, particularly in the field of foreign policy, leading to serious repercussions for the rest of the world. The predator drone program, for example, started under President GW Bush, has been dramatically expanded under Obama. For those Americans who feel uncomfortable with their tax dollars paying for remote controlled flying machines which kill hundreds of civilians (collateral damage) in poor countries, and, shockingly, even target rescuers who come later to the scene of a strike looking for survivors, there is simply no voice for them at the ballot box as both main parties support the program.

Popular protest? To take one well-publicized example of recent protest, the Occupy movement is subjected daily to police violence or intimidation, as well as endless slander, ridicule and condemnation from the establishment media and paid astroturfers on comments boards, discussion forums and elsewhere. In such a hostile atmosphere, only the hardiest, the most passionate, or those with nothing to lose will venture out into the streets.

What else is there? At this point, many political writers might throw in the obligatory line lamenting the fact that the vast majority of people are sleepwalking through this horror show. This is human nature, however, and until people are confronted with direct and undeniable evidence that they no longer live in a democracy, and that their own personal interests are in imminent danger, they will continue to go about their lives, no matter how hard they may be. Yes, they will grumble, but grumbling does nothing to improve dysfunctional systems.

A common expression on discussion boards these days: ‘Obama is the lesser of two evils’. In other words: yes, Obama has gone back on his word on many things he promised, but the Republicans are even worse. This apathetic and defeatist attitude ill serves the legacies of those who fought and, in some cases, gave their lives for the freedoms guaranteed in a democratic society, those same freedoms which are now being so blithely quashed.

In the state of Wisconsin, around a million signatures, almost double the amount needed under state law, have been collected in an effort to remove Governor Scott Walker from office. This is a simple form of so-called ‘direct democracy’, a system of government which, in its most basic form, allows ordinary people to wield the power of veto over unpopular laws and power of recall over corrupt or incompetent public officials. With the internet now accessible to so many, direct democracy could be extended even further into direct governance based on policy recommendations from scientists, economists and other experts, and voted for by the people directly perhaps once or twice a year.

Given that it has been established that the ballot box and popular protest have been rendered ineffective, the only viable alternative is to begin a grassroots movement towards direct democracy, a form of government which is almost impossible for the elites to corrupt. It is now an indisputable fact that corporations and banks have co-opted democracy for their own interests; given the evidence now freely available, only the naïve or ignorant could deny that. Along with corporate editorial control of the establishment media, the enormous power and wealth in their hands gives them control by extension of key societal institutions, as well as military and police forces, essentially covering the bases for the stifling of all serious dissent.

For these reasons it is vital that the people regain executive power over their lives and societies. The alternative is further erosion of human rights and a long, irreversible descent into greater misery and inequality both in the US and out.

The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy’ by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood (on twitter and Facebook)

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