4 March 2006

Democracy Now!

By Rupert Read

'Podcasting' seems all the rage at the moment, the new 'in' way of accessing broadcast media over the internet. There is a fine example of how podcasting can offer exciting listening opportunities, at http://www.democracynow.org/.

When I lived in New York, I got to know Amy Goodman (pictured below), the presenter of Democracy Now!, while she worked for local radio there. She is a real investigative journalist of the good-old-fashioned variety, a female version of John Pilger or Robert Fisk.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Photo: Amy Goodman

But why is her show called 'Democracy now!' Aren't Britain and America leading examples of democracies? What could it mean, to call for democracy in a country such as ours?

True democracy would mean that we - all of us - were seriously involved in deciding the vital questions of our time: questions such as how to combat global warming, and how to spend our Council Tax. Consider for instance what democracy would mean, in connection with the current controversy on whether or not to build an incinerator at Costessey, right on the edge of Norwich. It would surely not mean that a small bunch of Councillors who had said not a word about the issue in their manifesto would ride roughshod over local opinion on the issue. No; it would mean that the local people were deeply involved, from the start, in deliberating on how to deal with the 'waste' problem.

Consider the fascinating experiment begun a decade ago in Porte Allegre, in Brazil, which has now spread across much of that country, and that could be introduced here, if politicians were ready to will it: the 'participatory budget'. What happens is that, each year, the citizens of a municipality get together in an intense series of meetings taking place over weeks and months, and they decide collectively what will be in their Council's budget over the next 12 months. Now that's an exciting exercise in rule by the people!

Karl Marx once remarked, "in Britain citizens are 'free' for one day every 5 years". If our system were more genuinely democratic, if it gave us more than just the occasional right to vote, then massive protest meetings and marches to try to keep us safe, healthy, free, and at peace, wouldn't be needed, as often as they are.

In any case, most of the politicians we are permitted to choose between nowadays, under globalised market capitalism, barely even disagree with each other: for example, all three main political parties in Britain now favour further privatisation, and the giving up of yet more of our remaining national freedoms and rights to patently undemocratic bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. Only in small but increasingly effective parties such as the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Socialist Party does a different point of view prevail. One real hope for future, I believe, is more MEPs, MSPs, and, yes, MPs from these emerging voices for true democracy.

It would be simplistic to treat the 'main' political parties as monolithic organisations. As EDP columnist Chris Fisher often reminds us, there is an interesting struggle taking place within the Labour Party, to change 'New Labour' policies espoused at the top by Brown and Blair. But again, the Labour Party, which used to be much more democratic than the British state, has given up much of its internal democracy: for the sake, allegedly, of 'electability'. So it will be very hard for the anti-New-Labour rebels ever to prevail.

It may be that we hear a lot less about 'democracy' in the near future than we have done, over the last few years, from the British and US governments. Why? Because they have been shocked by what has just happened in Palestine – the victory of the 'wrong' side (Hamas), in the elections there. The Bush administration is unlikely to want to bring more 'democracy' to the Middle East in the near future, unless they can be confident that those elected will be those they want elected. The US and Israeli governments are likely to withhold aid en masse from Palestine, because its voters made the 'wrong' choice. Has the definition of 'democracy' become: whatever the US / Israel decides it is?

The vote is surely worth having, if it still can produce results that don't go the way in which 'the coalition' would like them to. The vote does give we, the people something.

But it was not what the Chartists fought for, in the nineteenth century; it was not what the Suffragettes fought for, in the early twentieth. They fought for democracy; they were given only the vote.

And that's why I say: Democracy Now!