The deep crisis of democracy

By Johan Galtung


There is a crisis in the Western or more particularly the Indo-European political system – for reasons to be made clear. The system is referred to as “democracy”, meaning rule with the consent of the ruled; of, by and for the people. In practice this is interpreted as multi-party national elections for a national assembly, and majority rule in its two major forms, presidential and parliamentary democracy. The minority is given the role as “loyal opposition”.

The sovereign, people, are given choices not between positions on issues, but “platforms”, issue-bundles; and not between candidates, but candidate-bundles, “lists”, designed not by the parties, but by executive committees, officers, even by one officer, the boss. And this choice the sovereign can make only once every four years when a power window opens one or two days, 8-10 hours, called elections.

The system is better referred to as partyocracy than democracy, a reason that we often talk about “political class”, “political elites”, etc. There is one exception, Switzerland, voting in referendums on single issues; and in parliament on a single cabinet candidate.

The system does not work. One country after the other – USA-Greece-Italy-Spain-France-India-Nepal to mention a few – fail to come to grips with key problems of economic crisis – be that “fiscal cliff”, “sequestration”, “austerity”, debt–in ways acceptable to people. New parties with new ways of cutting the issues arise, some populist in the sense of promising much more than they can ever deliver. People go to the streets, “occupy movements”, huge “indignant” demonstrations (praise to Stéphane Hessel who just passed away at the age of 95) but they are long on words and short on ideas.

Italy is stuck in a two-camera system in which both have to accept a government; like France by “cohabitation” between presidential and parliamentary aspects. But these are technicalities.

The deep structure generating these anomalies in the political formation is in the social formation: the millennia old caste-class system with clergy, aristocrats, merchants on top, ruling with words, bullets and money respectively; trying to convince, coerce, corrupt; using their cultural, military, economic power as the key component to political power.

They compete, they circulate – maybe in the order military-cultural-economic, we now live in the Age of the Merchant – and they cooperate. They have one shared goal: prevail over the people, like Tocqueville praised Democracy in America because it was not.

Democracy and its tools, parties and parliaments, are about words, the specialty of the clergy and their latter-day incarnations, intellectuals and professionals. Having monopoly on the Holy Book and later on most texts they thought they could master verbal games better than warriors and merchants; certainly better than people. But it is hard to beat a teenager googling on a computer.

So they entrenched, the parties became a closed partyocracy system for arithmetic deals about mandates and votes, budgets and revenue, among themselves. Multi-party became very similar to single-party, autocracy, the system they agreed to abhor. True, it is still about words, not bullets.

The current trend is not toward dictatorship, however, but toward technocracy, rule by professionals, near cousins of the intellectuals inheriting the mantle of the clergy.

The crisis has economic aspects so the call is on economists (Greece, Italy, ECB). However, if the root cause is that the West is outcompeted by the “less developed”, now “emerging”, then it is not obvious that those who failed to understand it all suddenly will know how to put it all right.

There is a serious problem: with technocracy, legislative and executive powers coalesce; with the Chief Justice (Nepal) even the judiciary, killing the separation of powers. The next candidate might be the top military technocrat. A coup, without bullets. Israel?

The third level from above, the merchants, of course demand their share, using their bank capital to buy political power, even to the bailout point should the losses exceed the gains. Bankocracy works through a close relative, corruptocracy, the rule of corruptors over corruptees paid for their services. Corruption is rampant. Why?

Because corruption in the political system, converting money into decisions, has a close relative in the economic system, a commission.

Something is produced by primary producers, workers growing food, authors writing manuscripts. A long chain connects them to the end consumer eating a meal, reading the book. For each link a commission is charged; the final commission, in the food shop and the bookstore, being 40-50%, as against 10-15% to the producers. This is normal, accepted; with some efforts to buy straight from the producers.

Turn it around: start with huge amounts of finance capital, state revenues, official development assistance funds – and a long chain of decisions ultimately affecting huge numbers of people. For each link in the chain a cut is charged for the job to be done, the cuts being highest on the top, then less and less till what reaches the bottom, “the poor”, is the usual 10-15% (common in development aid). If traders and merchants can charge commissions, why not also “deciders”?

Conclusion: corruption will be with us as long as unfair commissions.

The way out is what the three on top fear most: local production directly to the consumers, at a fair price making both equals.

How about China, not Indo-European? Their system is mandarin-farmer-artisan-merchant, with power derived from education-culture. This would point to technocracy, not multiparty-ocracy; and that is what they have, with bankocracy and corruptocracy.

Democracy is as remote as in the West where more freedom of expression matters little if the words fall on the deaf ears of technocrats and bankocrats.

China is ahead, on the same wrong road. Let us reinvent democracy.

One Response to “The deep crisis of democracy”

  • sam baldwin says:

    Corruption seems to be a natural development within society, no matter the form of rule. How about term limits on the political class, rules defining liberty of citizens and limits on the ruling class, how about rules that limit the ruling class so that they are never treated any better than the people?

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