Democracy is for the rich
By Kevin Barr
Times" -- -- Democracy is a system of government
where the political power rests with the nation's population
either directly or through elected representatives. It is
government of the people, for the people, by the people.
From this one should be able to infer that the purpose of
democracy is to build a just society where the interests of all
the people are cared for rich and poor, men and women,
minorities as well as the majority and the economy works for the
benefit of all. Democracy should be about the ordering of
society to bring about justice for all. If it does not work for
the common good then there is something seriously wrong.
The United States, in particular, has been a staunch promoter of
democracy and has fought to have democracy entrenched throughout
the world. Yet some writers have raised a number of important
questions about the nature of US democracy.
For example, why is it that only those from wealthy backgrounds
are able to become presidential candidates?
Why is it that the US not only champions democracy but champions
extreme individualism and unbridled capitalism and has strongly
opposed any form of socialism (which might spread the benefits
of development more widely among people)?
Why is it that America's wealthy elites are able to exert such
strong influence on political elections and economic decisions?
Alesina and Glaeser in their book Fighting Poverty in the US and
Europe (2004) point out that all the American political
institutions are ultimately the product of an 18th Century
Constitution which was crafted by a minority of white and
wealthy men of property determined to stop the State from
expropriating their wealth and to limit the amount of
redistribution the poor could demand of the rich.
Hence, the concerns of the rich are strongly protected and the
US has a bias against welfare for the poor and redistribution of
wealth. Comparing the US and Europe they note:
"Not only does government spending in the Europe favour the poor
much more than in the United States, but government tax policy
as well is much more distributive. Income tax rates are more
progressive than in the United States."
Phillips in his book, Wealth and Democracy: a Political History
of the American Rich (2002) provides hard evidence of the
extreme prosperity of America's wealthy elite and shows how they
are able to use their strong political influence to structure
economic policy (e.g. tax policy) in their own self-interest. On
the other hand, Barbara Ehrenreich in her Nickel and Dimed
(2001) shows how the US economic system so adversely affects the
lives of the working poor.
So, while all Americans may be able to vote in elections, does
democracy in the US work for the benefit of all the people or
mostly for the benefit of those with wealth and power?
If democracy is for the benefit of all the people of a nation,
why is such blatant inequality tolerated? Does democracy
necessarily work in the interests of justice for all?
William Blum once of the US State Department in his book Rogue
State (2000:170) notes that: "Americans are raised to fervently
believe that no progress can be made in any society in the
absence of elections. They are taught to equate elections with
democracy, and democracy with elections."
Yet, as we know, elections alone do not guarantee real
Some would say that liberal democracy in the US (and some other
countries as well) has become an integral part of the capitalist
system and, therefore, is class-based and not fully or truly
democratic or participatory. It is "bourgeois democracy" where
only the most financially powerful people have their say.
Consequently it is fundamentally un-egalitarian and facilitates
economic exploitation of the poorer classes. Certainly the cost
of political campaigning may mean that the system favours the
rich (who may be a small minority of the total number of voters)
and thus in reality the elected government becomes a form of
plutocracy (or rule of the elite).
Thus, according to Marx, parliamentary elections are an
opportunity citizens of a country get every few years to decide
who among the ruling classes will misrepresent them in
Or again, modern democracy may be regarded as a dishonest farce
used to keep the masses from getting restless by providing the
hope that things might get better when they have another
Reforms are needed in the electoral process so that the power of
big money is removed. Otherwise democracy can never be "of the
people" i.e. poor or middle class people. It will always be
class dominated. Democracy will be for the rich.
In this connection ownership of the media by a few of the rich
elite may lead to more specific distortion of the electoral
process. The media are themselves a vital element of the
electoral process. They can be used to protect the interests of
their own class and suppress any criticism of the status quo.
It is important for us to understand this US bias towards
individualism and wealth and against welfare and redistribution
because the US dominates decisions made by the World Bank and
other financial institutions.
Moreover it is a key player in the decisions of the G8 countries
which advise us on development.
The US will obviously side with regimes which think as it does
and try to mould us in their own image. Consequently the
benefits of its form of democracy will not benefit all the
people but only the elite. We have seen this happen even in our
own country. In this connection it is interesting to note the
words of Epeli Hau'ofa (1987:101): "One very important
development that we have to watch carefully is the emergence of
privileged classes in the islands of the South Pacific for it is
certain that the fates of the island communities are being
decided by the ways in which these groups act, first, in
relation to their own underprivileged people and, second, in
relation to their important connections with each other and with
similar groups elsewhere. It is the privileged who decide on the
needs of their communities and whose rising aspirations and
affluence entail worsening conditions for the poor."
Father Kevin Father is the program co-ordinator economic justice
for ECREA. The views expressed are his and not necessarily that
of his employer
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