The Dictatorship of the Majority


In her book, The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman makes the point that while humankind has triumphed in, say, the arts, science, medicine and the like, it has failed dismally in the field of government.

Let’s face it: we’re as much in a muddle as we were two hundred years ago “ or whatever. In the matter of government, there is no real exponential curve of ‘progress’. This is arguable, I know. But last year, for example, the global military budget exceeded US$1 trillion. This is hardly a confirmation of successful government.

I sometimes have the feeling that our belief in ‘democracy’ “ that is, government by numbers “ is naïve, if not absurd. All you can say, I suppose, is that life with John Howard is better than life with Idi Amin or Augusto Pinochet. But for a lot of us, that is rather cold comfort.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

If humankind is around in a couple of hundred years’ time, it may well be that the notion of democracy is found to be rather quaint, if not downright foolish. We should remind ourselves that a military coup is not necessary for a dictator to seize power. For example, Hitler achieved power through democratic means. Authoritarian governments can be elected. Dictatorships can be self-imposed. I am no longer sure about universal franchise. When you see people en masse at, say, a football game, you start to wonder. It was the Victorian philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who warned against the tyranny of the majority.

President George W. Bush is fond of saying, ‘We are going to bring democracy to the Middle East.’ He orates this with all the fervour of a nineteenth century, proselytising missionary in Africa or the Pacific Islands. What Bush is really saying is: ‘We will protect American oil supplies and make sure Iraq is run in the future by US corporations.’

On the other hand, President Bush believes in democracy. The people have spoken and, in his case, they made the right choice. But, of course, they didn’t.

Another thing we have to consider, are elections of any real value? Would things have really changed had John Kerry got up? Liberals in America might have slept more easily in their beds, had he done so. There might have been some changes in domestic policy, and the Presidential cabinet would not have been so unpleasant. Paul Wolfowitz may not have become chairman of the World Bank. But that’s about all. American military and corporate power would have been untouched “ as would the belief in ‘democracy’.

If by some miracle, Labor were elected to government in Australia, nothing of any consequence would change at all. One dull-witted person would be exchanged for another. See Danielle Service: A Sinking Ship . Kim Beazley might buy an Akubra hat; but the policy of mandatory detention would stay “ although, we would hope, not applied so heartlessly. But with Laurie Ferguson as the responsible minister, who knows?

As in the American case, the military and corporate power base would remain untrammelled. Life would be a little more pleasant for the readers of New Matilda “ or would it? We might, for instance, have a Bill of Rights. But somehow I doubt it. I don’t think a Bill of Rights is high on Kim Beazley’s agenda.

Elections are a great night on the telly. They always remind me of talk-back radio. The illusion of people power “ HAVE YOUR SAY. Every three years or so, we have improved graphics, but not improved government. I’m always interested to see politicians from both major parties, chummily analysing the election results. It’s male club land. But the trouble is that politics are important; they determine, for instance, whether or not someone goes demented in a detention camp, or sleeps in a park. Every death in Auschwitz was the result of a political act. Every soldier who died on the Somme, died as the result of a political act. David Hicks is in a gulag in Guantanamo Bay because of a political act.

There is the theatre, or music hall, of politics “ elections, debates in parliament and so on “ and realpolitik “ corporations, the military, etc. Life for the corporations and the military is easier under a conservative government than a radical one. But life for the corporations and the military under a radical government goes on, anyway “ albeit, in some cases, a little less smoothly.

However, there are occasions when politics and numbers are not to be denied and do work in a lasting and liberative way. An example that comes to mind is the Czech revolution of 1989, led by Vaclav Havel and which brought about the overthrow of the authoritarian Communist Party. Havel “ also a worthy dramatist “ was elected by direct, popular vote. (Vaclav Havel, let it be said, was a chain smoker and used to ride his moped up and down the corridors of the Czech parliamentary offices. Long live eccentrics.)

And I’ve always thought that the Vietnam marches of the 1970s did have some influence on government policy “ as did the CND marches of the 50s and 60s. The times then were, indeed, a-changin’.

In her article on a Bill of Rights, Susan Ryan says: ‘Public opinion does matter. Politicians eventually respond to it.’ The trouble is that political change by argument and numbers takes a damned long time in a conservative society.

America has a Bill of Rights. Has it made any difference? We’ve still got George W. Bush, Halliburton and torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

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