Look, I think historical forces have dictated the ebbs and flows of these ideologies or these systems that you’re talking about, be it communism or capitalism, and capitalism has become the dominant force governing most of the planet and it got there through a process of competition, of ideas and delivery, in a similar way, as has democracy. I mean, democracy is finding its own places around the world. It is spreading around the world because people are choosing it. But both of these ideas, capitalism, democracy, even communism, historically these are not very old ideas.
- Michael Ware, on ABC1's QandA, 13th Jul 2015¹
It always bothers me when I hear claims like this because it's almost invariably made by someone trying to justify democracy and tie it to capitalism as though those two concepts are either entwined and natural, whereas the long game of history leads me to believe otherwise.
Democracy, or at least in the sense that we understand it today of parliamentary democracy elected by a majority of the populace, is not only insanely new in this history of the world but has had to be fought for at every step of the way and often with tremendous losses of life.
This being the year 2015, the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, has been symbolically taken to be some sort of great victory for democracy and indeed human rights, when the truth is quite a long way from this in reality. At Runnymede, in probably what was the middle of a boggy field, King John was more or less cornered by the barony to surrender a degree of power and with a list of demands which included representation in parliament. I think that it's reasonable to assume that John would have been under duress as he signed the document because he would have tasted the sword had he not done so.
Magna Carta although it has been held up as all sorts of things, certainly did not extend the franchise to the vast majority of the populace, who were still peasantry who were the de facto property of the lords and barons who ruled over them. For most people, the great 99.99% of people, Magna Carta did precisely bupkiss for them as it specifically excluded serfs and unfree labour from representation and any rights at all. In fact, the Great Council of the Magna Carta, only included 25 barons who represented themselves.
It's also probably telling that in its first incarnation, Magna Carta only lasted about nine weeks before it was flung onto the dungpile by King John.
Things bumbled along for centuries as cities started to coagulate and in England at least, democracy never really woke up for a long time. Not even through the seventeenth century as Charles I became increasingly belligerent towards the parliament and the rise of puritanism led the parliament and the king into outright war, did democracy wake from its slumber. It rolled over as Charles was beheaded, Cromwell became quasi dictator, the monarchy was recalled and even after the glorious revolution and the passing of the Bill Of Rights act which set out many conditions as to how the King and Parliament would work together in future, the franchise was still not extended to the majority of folk.
Really, it was only the coming together of cities and a process which in England is akin to gerrymandering that the franchise was slowly extended via the Reform Acts in the nineteenth century and the rise of unionism that saw any change at all. Faced with a group of relatively rich people in a growing middle class, the franchise was extended slowly as the various factions of parliament were seeking to gain an advantage through the ballot box by the blunt force process of acquiring more votes by including more voters. Even so, the franchise wasn't extended to women, arguing that they lacked the capacity to make informed decisions.
In all honesty, Australia only really played with the idea of giving women the vote in the face of impending federation of the states and a similar sort of thing happened in New Zealand but in places like the United States and Britain, women only got the vote after millions of corpses were flung violently across Europe in the First World War. Even then, in Australia we were still only clearing up the last vestiges of the franchise when we had to take the questions of the rights of Aboriginal peoples to the electorate via a referendum.
At the same time though, actual power was slowly shifting away from governments to that of corporations and now we're kind of at this weird point in history where a lot of governance to do with how we actually live our lives, is being carried out by corporate boards. Corporations reset governance by selling democracy to the people with the most money; so we're back where we started before Magna Carta in a lot of cases. Governments which used to own public goods and services, are now paltry rulemakers.
People aren't choosing democracy. How can they? In what sense do you choose a system of governance anyway? What difference does it make if although you are given the choice of who your elected officials will be, if you actually have no choice at all over the actual economic decisions that matter.
Consider one of the most famous passages in the story of democracy:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
- United States Declaration of Independence, 4th Jul 1776²
I wonder about the phrase "the consent of the governed". Consent implies some sort of voluntary permission and I'd argue that unless you were there when the systems were put in place, there is no way that permission can ever be voluntary. Overt consent must surely shift to tacit consent at some point and does that mean to say that you are by default giving your tacit consent to those that govern by not engaging in revolution and civil disobedience?
Is showing up once every few years and putting a few numbers on a ballot really giving your consent to those that govern? I've voted in numerous elections and often I've looked across the spread of candidates and decided that I don't like any of them. I suppose that I prefer the idea of compulsory voting because it does ensure that you have a passing approval of the people or at the very least, a default choice leftover after eliminating those candidates who the majority of people disapprove of the most. Even then, does a vote by the majority of the people imply consent? If you live in a constituency where you are utterly opposed to everything that your sitting member stands for, then I don't think that it makes any sense when you absolutely would not have given your consent to them but have had the tyranny of the majority decide for you.
In the recent referendum in Greece where the people voted "No" to austerity, they've had their wishes trumped by the supranational organisation of the European Union and the IMF by basically twisting the arm of the government to make it agree with what they want. When the people make their voice known through the ballot box and the government either does not or in this case can not listen to the will of the people then there's little point in choosing anything democratically. A vote has been held and even with a simple yes/no question consent was withheld but the government acted anyway.
I seriously wonder if democracy, or at least parliamentary democracy in the form that we have today is either a form of government chosen by, truly representative of, or even with the consent of the people. It's the best that we can come up with for the moment and so the utilitarianist in me says that it will have to do for now.
That sentiment has been echoed before:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
- Winston Churchill, to the House of Commons, 11th Nov 1947