Friday, June 01, 2007

The Unbearable Emptiness of Democracy

(originally posted on Сиви Соко, May 9. 2007)

The past few months of political intrigue around the new Serbian government are one of the best case studies for the vacuity of democracy in modern times.

What is democracy, really? The Greek compound that meant "rule of the people" in Athenian practice denoted a political system in which decisions were made by a simple majority of present citizens (excluding women, slaves, children and foreigners). Socrates and his disciples spent a long time debating human motivations, nature, truth, virtue and justice, because they had to. Democracy itself was blind to virtue or vice; the will of the majority at any given time was supreme, even though that same will could be completely different the following day. Athenian philosophers thus devoted their lives' work to figuring out a way to make the majority's decisions good and moral. They never found one. Socrates was democratically sentenced to death for "blasphemy and corrupting the youth."

What is democracy today? Is it just multi-party elections? Tolerance of political opposition? Freedom of the press, speech and thought? Everyone talks about democracy, but no one dares say what it means. When Serbian political magazine НСПМ reprinted one of my columns last year - in which I assailed the arbitrary definition of democracy by the Empire - I was criticized by another contributor for disputing "universal values.” What values?

How can something that's absolutely undefined can be some sort of universal value, or a moral and ethical category? Yet "democracy" is being presented as both.

For four days this month, Tomislav Nikolic was the Speaker of the Serbian assembly (Skupština). It's a largely administrative post, charged with presiding over the sessions and making sure the rules of order and conduct are followed. Now, it is true that under extreme circumstances, the Speaker could become the President of Serbia; this was used by the late Prime Minister Djindjic, who appointed his crony Natasa Micic to the spot just before arresting and extraditing President Milutinovic to the ICTY. However, given the atmosphere in the Serbian assembly, one would think only a hardcore masochist would want a job best described as "herding wildcats."

Nikolic's election was protested by EU commissars. A scheduled delegation from Brussels canceled its visit. The world media (otherwise known for their fair and impartial coverage of Serbs, right?) are spreading panic about Nikolic being an ”ultra-nationalist” etc. President Tadic, head of the Democratic Party, said Nikolic's election was ”harmful to state interests” and a ”democratic Serbia.” Or was that a Democratic Serbia?

Tadic's party has been negotiating (or not) for months with the old PM Kostunica about a new government, without results. They claim they got the most votes, so they can dictate the make-up of the government. One teeny little problem with that argument is that the Radicals actually got the most votes. But that's an inconvenient truth, and thus overlooked in "democratic" discussion. Because, you see, only the "democratic bloc" can act democratically and build democracy in a democratic state... At which point I'm getting flashbacks to an 1980s cartoon where every Smurf smurfs smurfingly the entire smurfing day!

The United States is (yes, singular, alas) the self-proclaimed pinnacle of democracy, a country that has arrogated itself the right to spread this concept of government throughout the world (by force if need be), and to judge everyone else's degree of democracy. So they are bothered by Nikolic, or Milosevic, or Lukasenko, or Putin - but not by a star like Saparmurat Niyazov. This recently deceased "president" of Turkmenistan, who declared himself a prophet, erected hundreds of golden statues to himself, abolished libraries and imposed his own book as the only literature Turkmens would ever need, etc. Turkey is considered a "democracy" even though the military has to stage a coup every couple of years to prevent Islamic radicals from getting into power via ballot-box. Boris Yeltsin, the recently deceased president of Russia, democratically sicced tanks on the parliament in 1993, with the roaring applause of Washington. Now that same Washington is jeering his successor Vladimir Putin for "autocracy" because he cracked down on NGOs receiving funding from abroad without adequate tax paperwork. I wish someone would try that sort of stunt in the "democratic" US of A, where no one messes with the IRS. In fact, the IRS is a favorite tool for cracking down on dissidents and undesirables, even though some years back there were those tanks and teargas in Waco...

Come to think of it, Bush the Lesser got fewer votes than Al Gore in November 2000, thus becoming Emperor - er, President - on account of some shady voting in Florida. Relative thing, this democracy. Once all is added up, it turns out democracy is whatever the government in Washington or the commissars in Brussels say it is. At least the autocrats in Washington are elected; who voted for Olli Rehn, Javier Solana, or their fellows? To be clear, I honestly don't think being elected gives anyone legitimacy, but one can't exactly pontificate about the be-all-and-end-all character of democracy without even bothering to at least respect its forms!

Did the Radicals get the most votes in the January election? Yes. Was it shocking that their leader became Speaker of the assembly? Yes, but it should not be. Was Nikolic's election democratic? Absolutely. That this bothers people whose mouths spew democracy daily is just proof of their hypocrisy. Either that, or that they don't know what democracy means. I'm not sure what's worse.

Now, it's a whole different story that the Radicals refuse to propose a government of their own, because it's easier to criticize the "democrats" from the sidelines. It's as if politics were a reality-show contest rather than the very serious business of running a country in crisis. That's why I cringe at the popular expression in Serbia, the "political elite." If this is "elite," then no wonder Serbia is in trouble.

American Founders, back in 1791, didn't put a word about democracy in their Constitution (which had seven articles and ten amendments). It is said that Benjamin Franklin, asked about what the Convention had produced, replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." Ask an American today if his country is a republic or a democracy, he'll say "A democracy, of course." Poor Franklin was right about the "if" part.

It was no accident that Orwell attempted to describe totalitarianism through the abuse of language. Every time I hear modern political discourse I get a feeling I'm listening to exercises in blackwhite doublethink of doubleplusgood duckspeakers.

Democracy isn't half the things the "democrats" of all stripes claim it is. Nor is it intrinsically good or moral. It is simply a decision-making process in a political system that assumes the will of the majority is the best way to reach a solution. As to the validity of that assumption, I suggest you talk to Socrates.

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