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Banking on Democracy

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman directs readers to report highlighting declining support for democracy in parts of the old Eastern Bloc – specifically those parts comprising ‘New Europe’.

This should be no surprise. These are countries only a generation or so removed from outright tyranny and dictatorship. Democracy itself is still at the stage of needing to prove itself in those countries; it’s folly to presume that once a country shakes off the shackles of dictatorship democracy becomes an unquestionable part of its make-up. Freedom and repression are points on a sliding scale, and since no democracy is perfect – and a number of them very flawed indeed – democracy can exist at a range of points along that. The notion that the move from dictatorship to democracy is the crossing of some clearly demarcated line, and that no one would ever want to go back, is laughable; the concepts involved are simply too vague, people can go back without realising that’s what they’re doing.

Democracy is defined by the form in which it exists. Countries which have long been democratic often have a variety of examples from their own history to draw upon, and it’s easier to see improvements in the system of democracy as the solution to its failings. Where democracy is younger and newer, with perhaps a single example – that of the present and recent past – occupying the popular imagination, the danger of the baby going out with the bathwater is all the greater. Differentiating between flawed or failed forms of democracy and democracy itself as flawed and failed is not nearly so simple as we’d like to imagine. People’s beliefs and expectations are rightly shaped by their own experience; the experience for those in new democracies is different to that in ours, with a different set of past or collective experiences to contrast it with. It’s easy to assume that the more recent ghost of totalitarianism should be all the more incentive towards continued support for democracy, but of course mightn’t it equally be all the more reason to see its failures as the same?

The economic systems in most of the developed world are profoundly undemocratic; this is sustained variously by the contradictory myths that the free market is essentially cognate to democracy anyway, or that it can’t be, and that it must be left to obey the laws of its own nature: interference, even if democratic, will break it.

It’s all rubbish, of course, since the economic systems in questions are already hugely regulated in favour of existing, well-financed vested interests anyway. They’re just undemocratic, not non-democratic (which we might, of course, allow certain things to be – like individual choice, for instance). The financial services industry in Britain has itself a seeming monopoly over economic policy. The failure of democracy to prevent economic catastrophe understandably paints it in a very negative light for those affected. Some might attach blame to democracy, others might feel it revealed as hollow and illusory, and in both cases the strength and degree of the sentiment will, of course, vary from individual to individual, but it shouldn’t be any surprise negative sentiment manifests most strongly amongst those with the most disappointing experiences of democracy – not those with the least democracy (support for democracy is shown to be rising in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), who have a perspective allowing them to perceive something of its ideals rather than its realities, but those it has let down the worst: Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, where democracy has not brought with it what was promised. Which one do we want to be the first in modern Europe to fall out of the democratic club?

This is dangerous stuff. Economic circumstance had a huge role to play in the rise of Hitler; economic grievance motivated the Bolsheviks and communist revolutionaries elsewhere, even if the immediate economic circumstance might not have been quite as closely entwined with their rise as was the case in Germany with fascism.

The basic lack of democracy within our economic systems is manifesting even now in the argument that economic concerns must come first, that the views of the market should come first as the only way of fixing things. That’s a dangerous lie. Shadows rising in the east remind us that the needs of democracy – of peaceful, free and just societies – must come first. That means listening to the people, not the money. We’re told that ignoring the signals coming from the markets risks the recovery. But ignoring the signals coming from the people risks everything else.

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