Friday, 11 March 2011

Democracy - our gift to the world

This week’s New Statesman editorial argued that “support... for democracy in the Arab world remains both a moral duty and an act of national self-interest” and called for a multilateral fund – similar to the Marshall Plan – to be “deployed to support economic development and civil society in the region’s nascent democracies”. The New Stateman’s assertion – mired in flawed logic – is symptomatic of the left’s struggle to find a coherent response to the unravelling revolutions in the Arab world.

The NS contends that Britain needs “an unambiguous commitment to the promotion of democracy” and criticises the coalition’s intention to withdraw all UK funding from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO, according to the NS, is “the UN agency that co-ordinated the trade union struggle against apartheid in South Africa and Stalinism in Poland”. But both the Polish and South African transitions to democracy show us that international bodies can be used to impose a particular model of liberal democracy – often counter to the interests and desires of the population – that aggravates wealth inequality and undermines the local economy in favour of international capital.

In Poland the International Monetary Fund – in cahoots with transnational corporations – exerted severe pressure on the leading trade union Solidarity to implement neo-liberal Friedmanite policy and sell off national resources such as state shipyards and factories to the private sector. Solidarity – born from the stagnation of centralised Soviet communism – craved real democratic worker ownership of the economy, but international finance – using the rhetoric of democratisation – conspired to create a ruthless market economy. Similarly, in South Africa, the strangulation of the economy by the IMF forced the ANC to abandon many of the legitimate democratic demands of the Freedom Charter – such as nationalisation of key industries, industrial control and land redistribution to indigenous peoples – and, just like in Poland, the catch-all term ‘democracy’ was used to denote something very specific: neo-liberal democracy.

Democracy is an emotive term which few people could disagree with; but ask someone to define democracy and the question becomes more troublesome. The Guardian reported today that “Britain wants to withhold £1bn in annual EU support for the region unless greater democracy is introduced” – but where was our moral compass when we were cosying up to these dictators before? The fact is – perhaps unsurprisingly – that our foreign policy is not motivated by international altruism but pragmatic self-interest and the contention that it is our “historic debt to the people of the Arab world” to promote ‘democracy’ through international organisations controlled by the Western powers is little more than cloaked (albeit skewed) imperialism.

Support for democracy is a moral imperative – but our interpretation of democracy cannot be confused with neo-liberalism and it cannot be imposed by an alien force – either militarily or economically. Neither can it prescribe an economic programme or dictate how natural resources should be organised. It needs to be a movement of the people and by the people without outside influence.

The New Statesman’s leader is imbued with a subtle tone of nationalism and colonialism that suggests we have the right – and obligation – to dictate to the Libyan people what political system they should choose. Developing nations do not seek to interfere with the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, so why should we seek to impose our model on them? Despite what some on the supposed left may believe, democracy cannot be implemented from above; it must be a demand from the mass of people below. Some people might have faith in international bodies helping to orchestrate democracy but many people – from South Africa to Poland and from Latin America to Iraq – might just disagree. I don’t know for sure though, because I don’t feel I have the right to speak for someone else.

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