The appearance of democracy

This is an update of an article first written in January 2008, some months before the election of Barack Obama, in response to a widespread and unrealistic hope that he would radically change the internal and external policies of the USA.

For thousands of years, all large-scale human societies have been based on exploitation and coercion. I think it will be possible to change this, eventually – to bring about societies that work for the common good. But changing them will require understanding that none of the large-scale societies we live in have ever been democracies, but that some have acquired the surface appearance of democracy as a protection against real change.

Since the Industrial Revolution in the developed nations, our technology-based economies required ever higher levels of education, access to information and communication among the general population. But this also enabled workers to organise more effectively against being exploited, and to demand a fairer and more democratic society.

There had to be a concession, and the concession was to allow the appearance of democracy. Real democracy was not necessary to concede as the appearance was enough to convince the population to settle.

Many of us in the developed nations now carry the identity of being a citizen of a democracy. (By ‘identity’ I mean who we feel we are deep down). Because it’s held as an identity, any suggestion that we don’t have a real democracy may feel like a personal attack. We identify with and defend the system that exploits us.

Many of the politicians who get to national government level are well-meaning people who have been, little by little, forced to give up on the dreams they entered politics with. ‘Succeeding’ as a politician often meant that each step upwards involved yet another small compromise with the fact that the ‘democracy’ is a just a cover for an economic system that is fundamentally based on exploitation.

Deep down those politicians have come to understand that they have no real power, but find themselves in the position of having to pretend that they do – and have the terrifying job of looking and sounding like they are in control of situations that they cannot control and don’t even fully understand.

Aside: It’s worth mentioning here that even the people at the top of the pyramid of exploitation (we might call them the owning class) are themselves subject to the economic system, and don’t understand it fully. It’s like a runaway train – they ride it, but they are not in control.

Eventually, many who started out with a dream of making the world a better place give up all hope of changing anything for the better. As they may see it, their dreams were naïve and unfounded, so what is left but to be a ‘realist’ and join in with the exploitation they have provided cover for all these years?

The politics we see in the mainstream media is like a soap opera: dramatic but largely without substance, designed to distract attention away from noticing our society is based on economic exploitation.

The ‘multi-party’ system is part of this. Much attention is drawn to small differences between political parties or candidates standing for election in order to hide the one big thing they have in common: that they all support the overall exploitative economic system. The differences in parties or candidates are only in which particular false solutions they offer for the huge and inevitable problems thrown up by a society and an economic system organised around exploitation rather than mutuality and cooperation. Where a party or a candidate doesn’t support the exploitative system, they are ignored. If they can’t be ignored then they are misrepresented.

The owning class, who have been conditioned from childhood into the role of exploiters, are often aware that they only ‘get away with it’ to the extent that the rest of the population don’t realise their own strength in unity.

Each time the general population gains enough clarity and unity on an issue to demand that something change for the better, the owning class have no choice but give way. At those times the mainstream politicians’ job is to claim that it was ‘democracy’ that delivered the gain, not the unity of the people despite ‘democracy’.

In order that not too many of these popular victories happen it has to continually appear that ‘democracy’ is just about to take an issue seriously, so no further action is necessary. Controversy is deliberately created on any real issue to prevent clarity and unity forming around it. Also it can then be claimed that the issue is not clear-cut, which provides a cover for deliberately-slow progress. Issues that are not critical, but are suitably controversial, are raised in order to distract attention away from the critical issues.

An inevitable consequence of the mainstream politicians’ role – the impossible job of trying to make exploitation look like democracy – is that each government is discredited by the time it’s been in office a couple of terms (or sooner).

Each incoming government, always of ‘the other’ party, is presented by the mainstream media as a fresh start after the by-now obvious failings of the outgoing one. Many of us desperately want to believe this even though it has been proven false repeatedly. To see the situation clearly requires challenging any self-identity of being a citizen of a democracy.

Parts of these articles may appear pessimistic in that they document irrational human behaviour. Actually, I think that all human beings are by nature thoughtful, caring and cooperative, but the systems we currently live within depend on suppressing thought, care and cooperation, and it’s necessary to have at least an overview of how these systems operate if we are going to change them. I’ve written more about this here: A framework for understanding exploitative societies

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