Thoughts on Democracy, Part 4.
Representative democracy is loud, messy, and inefficient. Needless to say, the process is often unpopular with special interests, unless the outcome is gamed in their favour.
The former British prime minister Winston Churchill once said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” The philosopher John Dewey added a sobering proviso. He described government as “the shadow cast over society by business.” That last line certainly applies to present-day Canada, thanks to a regime in Ottawa that is divesting itself of regulatory powers, while extending the reach of transnational corporations.
Harper won his majority government with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, but don’t expect mass protests from those who failed to vote Conservative. For one thing, Canada hasn’t seen austerity measures comparable to Greece or even Britain. That said, our law enforcement infrastructure certainly seems prepared, even if most of us aren’t, for the possibility of mass civil disobedience. It’s hard to believe the decade-long spread of CCTV surveillance technology across Canada, Britain, and the U.S. is solely about crime detection in the streets. And do we imagine our proroguing Prime Minister, with a government ruled in contempt of parliament by the Speaker of the House, is incapable of criminalizing public assembly if he ever saw fit?
Since Canada’s inception, or nation has mostly been a “hewer of wood and drawer of water,” with comparatively little in the way of secondary industries. We are now also haulers of bitumen and drillers of gas, with most of the profits flowing to foreign interests. Harper did not invent this dynamic of production and capital flight, but he is definitely turbocharging it.
Like many other underdeveloped nations, Canada’s status as an export-driven, commodity-based economy is not a historic accident, or a climate-related contingency. It’s largely the result of decisions outside the electoral process. In other words, democracy and capitalism are by no means one and the same, in spite of reams of editorials and op-ed pieces telling you otherwise. In fact, a “free market” defined by monopolies, by and for a plutocracy, appears to be incompatible with a free, civil society.
The American screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky knew firsthand the various shades of populism and propaganda. Blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts of the ’50s, Chayefsky anticipated the present age with eerie prescience. In his script for the 1976 film, Network, news is reduced to entertainment, reality TV series reign supreme, and an onscreen nervous breakdown is retrofitted as a career move, all thanks to the transnational broadcasting firm UBS.
At the close of the film, the mad anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is brought before the enraged CEO of UBS, played by Ned Beatty. The fictional harbinger of Rupert Murdoch thunders at Beale:
“You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear? You get up on your little 21-inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today..... We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale..... one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
From students to seniors, from the streets to the executive suites, our lives are embedded in this Chayefskian control system, through personal debt, stock-riddled pension funds, and all the velvet handcuffs of high finance. If it’s a prison, it’s a mostly benign one, although the walls are now closing in for the middle class. To somehow free yourself from that which you cannot clearly see or are unwilling to acknowledge: that remains greatest challenge for the citizens of western democracies.