Reclaiming Democracy: Say the Unsayable!


18 July 2016

This weekend at Take Back Our World festival in Devon, I spoke alongside two inspiring activists, one from London, one from Barcelona. The theme of our session was Radical Democracy- and amongst many other things, we all agreed that democracy is in crisis. 

So, what’s gone wrong with democracy? Let's start with the prediction from nearly 3 decades ago, when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama claimed everywhere in the world would move to capitalism and liberal democracy. He was half right. The Economist have just published their annual index on democracy. They found that out of 167 countries, only twenty are “full democracies”, meaning 9 percent of the world’s population live under Fukuyama-style liberal democracy. Without wishing to seem unduly pessimistic, it doesn’t look like the other 91 percent will experience basic human rights, the rule of law, a free press and fair elections anytime soon. Indeed, events in Turkey suggest a grimmer conclusion.

Yet, to give Fukuyama his due, capitalism is thriving everywhere, nearly 100% coverage. But even by The Economist's standards, it turns out- surprise, surprise- there’s no real relationship between capitalism and democracy. That’s the first conclusion we have to draw: capitalism can work with parliaments and human rights, but it works equally well, if not better, with a Pinochet or a Lee Kuan Yew, a Chinese Communist Party or a Putin doing the dirty work. 

However, for the 9 percent of us who live in capitalist liberal democracies, a crisis exists too. It doesn’t usually involve active repression, but there’s a crisis nonetheless.

And nearly every liberal democracy has some version of this crisis: there's a clear emergence of a populist right, with their taboo-breaking rhetoric-and it’s all being rewarded. From Trump to Theresa May: yesterday’s annoying extremists are tomorrow’s cabinet ministers and presidential candidates

If we want to reclaim democracy-let's ask ourselves: who stole it? The best answer was offered five years ago by Occupy Wall Street: if we’re reclaiming democracy, it’s because the 1 percent have stolen it. Their dollars buy elections. Their riches are stored offshore, beyond democratic accountability. They use 175 times more carbon per person than the poorest in society. They’ve stolen the future, and their existence marks the failure of our politics. 

They’ve got a stranglehold over the world in general, and in particular over the 9 percent of us who live in a liberal democracy. We watch their television and read their newspapers, we buy their shit, we slave for their companies, we send our children to fight for their interests abroad. And nobody seems to want to offend them: when a Jeremy Corbyn or a Bernie Sanders speaks out, there’s a "pragmatic centrist" ready to hall them down and maintain the taboo. 

And that's the biggest taboo in our liberal democracies: the power of capitalism, surely the number one threat to our democracy. 

Reclaiming democracy for me is about standing on any makeshift platform you can find, and breaking that taboo. That's how we'll seize back the initiative from the radical right, and maybe then the 99% will be rewarded, rather than them. 

Photo: Paul Mason and Cat Boyd speaking at Take Back Our World festival

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