The Democratic Dilemma

by Stephen Gowans

June 25, 2001

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With Tony Blair's New Labour taking roughly 40 percent of the popular vote in the UK elections, and the voter turn out at 60 percent -- the lowest rate since 1918 -- the election results shake out roughly like this: Labour had the support of 24 percent of eligible voters; 36 percent of the eligible vote was split among the opposition parties; and 40 percent abstained. Looked at in this way, it's clear that headlines that proclaimed a lopsided Labour victory were wrong. Labour didn't win the election. The Abstention Party did.

Why did 40 percent abstain? It would be going too far to suggest that all 40 percent saw the exercise as one of futility, but it's probably a good bet that there's a large current of indifference that runs through these results, indifference based on the view -- or is it the realization? -- that a vote cast for Labour, or the Tories, or even an alliance of left-wing parties, would yield much the same thing -- a government subordinate to business and to the pursuit of business's interests, though it's highly unlikely abstainers would put it that way. They're more likely to say, "What's it matter whether I vote. Things will go on pretty much as before." Robert Reich put it another way. Said the former US Secretary of Labor, "Capital's in charge, now." Whichever party is in power, offered Reich, Democrats or Republicans, Labour or Tories, is a matter of complete indifference.

Toronto newspaper columnist, playwright and novelist, Rick Salutin proposed a thought experiment. Imagine, Salutin wrote, "Tony Blair's Labour government going berserk and antagonizing big business." Heck, imagine what would have happened had the UK election been won by the Socialist Alliance, a gaggle of left parties -- the Community Party of Great Britain, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and others, that decided to contest the election under a single banner. Would income taxes be rejigged, away from the vogue of huge tax cuts for the rich, toward a vigorously progressive system? Would funds for public health care and public education be liberated? Would unemployment be abolished? Unlikely. In Salutin's words, any party that took on business would "incur (1) a business backlash, including threats to move out capital -- made more plausible by free-trade agreements that are really about free investment; (2) savage attacks by corporate-owned media; and (3) the drying up of campaign funds, dependent on corporate sources." Of course, point 3 doesn't apply to the Socialist Alliance, which was as likely to receive campaign funds from business as Margaret Thatcher is to give the keynote address at the next meeting of the London chapter of the Socialist Workers Party, which is one reason the Socialist Alliance made little dent in the British election. But you get the point. And maybe the 40 percent who abstained get the point, too.

In a society dominated by business, winning an election with an unapologetically left platform is hard enough. Acting on the platform after having formed a government is even harder. It's what might be called the democratic socialist dilemma. How can you transfer power from business to the public through electoral means, when a wealthy elite, by virtue of its control of the economy, dominates the electoral arena and the state, and has no interest in seeing its power diminished? And when the US is always waiting in the wings, ready to reverse, through violence if necessary, the outcome of voters making the irresponsible decision that neo-liberalism, and unquestioning obedience to Washington, is not the answer? Anyone who supported Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile ousted by Augusto Pinochet in a 1973 CIA-engineered coup, knows all too well the lengths to which Washington will go.

Salutin suggests a way out of the dilemma. "Eventually, if such a government wanted to challenge the iron grip of global business," he writes, "it would need a strong, politicized population behind it, because of the attacks it would face. A separate, strong set of social movements and an independent-minded, educated public would be essential."

Okay, fine. But is this a way out of the dilemma? How does a population become politicized, and how do a strong set of social movements and an independent-minded, educated public arise? Don't these developments face the same impediments the election of clearly left-wing governments face? It's not as if a business-dominated media, and business-dominated school curricula, are fertile soil from which a politicized public is likely to spring.

Don't get me wrong. Strong social movements do arise, and they do back parties that challenge the hegemony of corporate interests and their agents. But there's a tendency to lose sight of just how ferocious the attacks on these social movements and governments can be.

Take the case of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. After deposing the hated and despotic Samoza regime, the Sandinistas were eventually set upon by Washington's four horseman of the apocalypse -- a guerilla army, economic strangulation, the funneling of scads of money to opposition parties, and threats of more war, more sanctions, and more misery unless the population came to heel and paved the way for the installation of a US puppet government.

A similar tableau was played out recently in Serbia, though many of those who rushed to the defense of the Sandinistas missed the parallels, and have left Slobodan Milosevic twisting in the wind, hounded by a war crimes tribunal with a fixation on Serbs, a weakness for manufactured evidence, ties to Washington, and a blindness to war crimes committed by Croats, Muslims, and NATO.

There's the guerilla army, the KLA, funded, trained and supported by the CIA, like one of Washington's other proxy armies, the "contras." The KLA are as much a band of cut-throats as the "contras" were. And this band continues to destabilize the Balkans, ethnically cleansing Kosovo of Serbs, Jews and Roma, and carrying their insurgency into Macedonia and southern Serbia, while US KFOR troops turn a blind eye. A European KFOR battalion commander told the British newspaper, The Observer: "The CIA has been allowed to run riot in Kosovo with a private army designed to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic. Now he's gone, the US State Department seems incapable of reining in its bastard army." One wonders whether the State Department really cares to rein its bastard army in.

There were years of sanctions, a crafty way of pursuing a war against civilians without the inconvenience of having to fire a single shot. And in Yugoslavia, sanctions are still in place. US President George W. Bush recently declared Milosevic's languishing in a Belgrade jail, and not having been turned over to the star chamber at the Hague, a serious threat to the security of the United States. So too were the Sandinistas, a minnow against the American whale, as writer William Blum put it, portrayed as a serious threat to the security of the US. Menacing the US public with hobgoblins, none of them real, most of them absurd, is standard operating procedure in Washington.

There was US financing of the opposition, not only the DOS, but Otpor, the student resistance movement. And then, when it looked as if Milosevic might be re-elected, Washington, which was pitch forking money to the opposition to buy the election, declared the vote bought and stolen by Milosevic, reminiscent of Washington dismissing the election of Daniel Ortega in 1984 as a sham. Another of Washington's standard operating procedures: If our guy isn't going to win, declare the election invalid.

By 1990, tired of war, sanctions, and misery, Nicaraguans turned away from the Sandinistas at the polls, and elected a coalition of opposition parties running under the banner of the National Opposition Union (UNO). Sound familiar? Of course, like Yugoslavia's DOS, UNO was "pro-democracy" and in Washington's pocket. And they were prepared to undo the social gains the Sandinistas had been able to eke out of a budget increasingly strained by the necessity of battling Washington's contra army. Today, the DOS is introducing Serbs to the harsh economic medicine of the IMF. It's called reforming the economy, a nice word for removing price supports that allow poor people to eat and heat their homes, while selling off the collectively owned wealth of a country.

But there are differences too between Serbia and Nicaragua. The US didn't try to railroad Ortega into jail at the Hague, maybe with some regret. Indefatigable, Ortega is running in Nicaragua's latest election and, horror of horrors, he might win. According to the Guardian of London, "Lino Guitierrez, number two in the State Department's western hemisphere bureau and a former ambassador to Nicaragua, made it clear...that the US would not look kindly on the Sandinistas' return."

And Washington didn't arrange to give Ortega a little bombing, as it did Milosevic, stopping at mining Nicaragua's harbors and funneling illegal funds to the "contras." But Nicaraguans suffered as much as Serbs, for the crime of living under a government that wasn't agreeable to letting the country remain a hostage of US political hegemony and American commercial interests. But then, now that Nicaragua is once again under Washington's thumb, and Serbia is becoming so, the misery continues.

Contrast Ortega and Milosevic with Carlos Menem, the former president of Argentina, a man who didn't share Ortega's and Milosevic's misgivings about letting Washington run the show. Today Menem is under house-arrest, pending an investigation into illegal arms sales. It seems, or so investigators believe, that Menem did an Ollie North, funneling arms illegally to Ecuador and -- here's the Balkans connection -- to Croatia. A Reuters and AP article on Menem, dated June 8th, begins, "Carlos Menem, the flamboyant former president who resurrected Argentina's economy a decade ago..." ends by mentioning that Menem's two terms in office were plagued by an unfortunate development: "unemployment soared and poverty grew to affect a third of the population of 36 million people." That's what resurrecting the economy amounts to: massive unemployment and poverty. So too plunging an economy into an abyss, as the DOS has set about doing in Yugoslavia.

Countries which break free of the US orbit are bombed, set upon by US-backed terrorists, their harbors mined, their economies blockaded, their leaders demonized, and their governments destabilized. The object, as US Air Force Lt. General Michael Short explained, in connection with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, is to ratchet up the misery factor until the civilian population screams. Interviewed in the Washington Post, Short said, "If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, 'Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?'"

Whether you resist or succumb, or vote for Labour or the Conservatives or the Socialist Alliance, or Bush or Gore, or don't vote at all, the outcome is pretty much the same: business gets its head, and anything that stands in the way, like public ownership and public programs and subsidies and aid to the poor, gets crushed underfoot. Capital, as Reich says, is in charge, and it's got the US government, and NATO, to back it up. Resist, and you might find the bridge you take to work lying in a river.

Abstaining from voting, of course, doesn't eclipse business's power, but neither does voting, even for left parties, if electoral challenges to corporate power are readily beaten back and contained. The Wobblies, members of the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, a union that flourished in the first two decades of the last century, argued that there was no point in voting, if control of the economy, and by extension, of a country's politics, rested in the hands of a privileged elite. You have to relieve the elite of their control of the economy, and therefore of their ability to dominate elections and government, before you can have real democracy at the polls, or, to bring the Wobblies up to date, real democracy in other countries, too. A vote cast for UNO, or for the DOS, is hardly democratic if cast under the duress of suing for relief from the crushing pressure of war, terrorism, and economic strangulation.

Sadly, capitulation doesn't end the misery, it only guarantees more. The object of extracting a vote for a US-friendly leader, much as you would extract a confession under threat of torture, is to undo whatever good the old regime offered: literacy programs, public health care, subsidies, free education, affordable housing, services in the public domain. Under US control, and the oversight of the World Bank and IMF, these will be drawn back into the private domain, where they can make someone, preferably rich American corporations, a tidy profit, on the backs of the previously bombed, terrorized, and pauperized population. It's like confessing under torture to a crime you didn't commit and ending up in jail, making sweatshirts in the prison sweatshop for 12 cents a sweatshirt, while the people who ordered your arrest sell what you produce for $29.99 and pocket the difference. Capitulation doesn't offer the promised relief. The promise is a sham.

The Socialist Party of Serbia, Milosevic's party, calls Western promises of aid for their beleaguered country sucker's bait, and for good reason. Countries whose governments have taken the bait have found themselves on the hook, in the words of the Bruce Cockburn song, with insupportable debt. "You see," say Milosevic's colleagues, "that is the whole idea. They use the inflated debt to get hold of the industry, and when it is all over, they leave the country stripped of all it sweated for years to build, of everything except billions of dollars in debt."

"Let us rely on ourselves, on our integrity and our own hard work," they offer as an alternative. "Let us trade with friends, not with thieves who try to break us with the fake lure of suckers' gold."

After facing more than 40 years of Washington's implacable hostility, an economic blockade, terrorism, subversion, invasion, and more, Cuba continues to rely on itself, its integrity and its own hard work. World Bank president James Wolfensohn marvels at Cuba's achievements. "Cuba has done a great job on education and health," Wolfensohn told reporters, at the last meeting of the World Bank and the IMF. "They have done a good job, and it does not embarrass me to admit it."

A good job is something of an understatement. The Bank's 2001 World Development Indicators show Cuba topping virtually every poor country in the world in health and education, and certainly every neighboring country firmly planted in the US orbit -- Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua. Haiti, the object of much US attention, is the most wretched country in the Western hemisphere. If the US would leave it alone, to develop as it pleases, it might not be so.

And Cuba's achievements have come despite Washington's four decade long attempts to put the screws to the Cuban economy, and its people. Infant mortality rates are lower in Cuba than they are in parts of the US, including Washington, DC, and stand well within the range of industrialized countries, sixth in the world. Enrollment in public schools is higher than the US rate. In 1997, there were 12 primary school students for every teacher, better than Sweden. The number of doctors per capita, at 5.3 per 1,000 people, is the highest in the world, and health care is entirely free. The tiny, beleaguered country has been recognized by the World Health Organization for its achievements. And significantly, Cuba is the only poor country, other than North Korea, to be denied the assistance of the World Bank, since 1960. "Spared" the assistance of the World Bank may be the apt way of putting it. And on top of all this, Cuba exports health care, in the form of doctors and nurses, to other countries.

You can criticize Cuba. No society is perfect. But whatever its imperfections, it's a vastly more humane place than neighboring countries under Washington's, and the World Bank's and the IMF's yoke, and a more humane place, in many respects, than the US itself. It's a model of what can be achieved, even in the face of Washington's implacable hostility.

Capitulation, collapse, catastrophe, or Cuba. Which is the better choice?

The choice is a meaningful one, with profound implications for whether large parts of the world remained mired in poverty and drowning in a sea of debt they'll never be able to swim free of, whether other parts of the world will sink deeper into a bog of growing poverty as they're reintegrated into a US-dominated global economy based on private ownership and concentration of wealth, or whether they'll find, or rediscover, another way, more humane, more rational. Cuba is an inspiring model, and for that, it's a threat, and one the US has taken great pains, with no success yet, to crush. That it survives is reason for hope.

As to the choice between Blair and William Hague, his Tory opponent, or Bush and Gore, the choice is illusory, and the illusion, judging from the growth of the Abstention Party, has begun to lose its power to deceive. That too is reason for hope.


       Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada. He writes a regular column for Canadian Content and is also a frequent contributor to the Media Monitors Network.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published June 25, 2001
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