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Whatever you've been told, this is not what democracy looks like

Stephen Gowans

in his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that democracy had become a meaningless word, reduced to a hollow shell by frequent misuse. As a word that denotes a system of government, he's right. Democracy is used to denote all sorts of things, from arrangements that limit, even exclude, people from governing their own lives (clearly far from the spirit of the word), to participatory systems that involve people in the direct governance of their own affairs (more congenial to the word's etymological roots.) But "democracy's" emotive dimensions remain intact. Here and now, "democracy" means "good", which makes the word an effective tool of propaganda. Calling a system of government "democratic" is the same a calling it "good", "desirable", even if it isn't, no, especially if it isn't really democratic, and especially if it isn't really good and desirable for most people (though it may be quite congenial to a minority.)

An example of how democracy is used as a synonym of "desirable," and without reference to its original meaning, is provided in George W. Bush's calling the US-EU brokered "peace deal" in Macedonia a "step forward for democracy." A band of armed terrorists attack from neighbouring Kosovo, driving 120,000 from their homes. NATO puts a restraining hand on Skopje. "Your army," the Macedonian government is told, "will not crackdown on the guerillas. And these are the amendments you'll make to your constitution." Frustration on the streets of Macedonia at being dictated to by NATO boils over, and ordinary Macedonians attack government buildings. The president has to be spirited away under cover. Democratic? Hardly. It's dictatorship by NATO. But this dictatorship is desirable from Washington's point of view, so Bush calls it a step forward for democracy.

Here at home, the Liberals have wrapped up a two-day caucus meeting in Alberta. Party pollster Michael Marzolini presents results of a poll of over 4,000 Canadians on integration with the United States. Canadians, he tells the assembled Liberal MPs, like the idea of closer ties with the US. But you have to talk about it in vague terms. Just don't mention the concrete implications, like adopting the US dollar, he warns. Canadians balk at that.

Why are the Liberals conducting polls on integration with the US? And why is their pollster telling them what to say and what not to say, as if a wrong word could upset the government's plans? Did Canadians ask for closer ties with the US?

Did they ask for their health care system to be slowly left to wither away through starvation? This, from today's (August 24) Globe and Mail:

"Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini told the caucus Wednesday that health care remains Canada's top concern...The provinces have argued that Ottawa is in a far better position to increase health-care spending than they are, pointing to a $15-billion surplus Mr. Martin is expected to announce...However, that surplus will virtually disappear by 2002-2003, thanks to tax cuts already announced."

Marzolini is quoted as telling the Liberals to go slow on integration. Going slow is a favourite strategy. The government is going slow on health-care...slowly letting it die.

The same article says that Marzolini's poll shows that taxes are rated by Canadians as a lesser concern than health-care. Which means, in Canada, democracy amounts to giving Canadians what they're less inclined to want, while denying them what they're most inclined to want. That's good if you're rich, will profit most from tax cuts, and can readily afford to pay your own health-care. It's democratic; that is, desirable. To the rest of us, it's plunder, and hardly democratic.

As to whether the Liberals are planning to forge closer economic ties with the US, consider this: After introducing $100-billion in tax cuts, Finance Minister Paul Martin said " 'taxes must continue to come down' to ensure the Canadian system is competitive with the United States." Forget about more money for health-care.

Might we be forgiven for thinking that what we call democracy is simply a system that elects people to manage public opinion while public policy is formulated by an economic elite in their own interests, usually to the detriment of the majority? Elected representatives don't represent their constituents; they say what's needed to be said to keep the rabble quiescent. That's their job -- rabble control, which is why Michael Marzolini needs to tell MPs what to say about economic integration, and what not to say. Otherwise, people might balk. And that would be bad for stability. And that would be bad for profits.

Just think. Electing a government is like slaves electing an overseer. It doesn't matter which overseer you elect; they're still going to do what the master tells them to do, not what you want them to do, and not what's good for you. The overseer says, "But the slaves want to keep their afternoon break," and the master says, "We need to eliminate it, boost production. Go slow, but get it done. I don't want any restiveness from the slaves."

Here's another example. The Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee -- a group of appointees, some with links to the biotechnology industry -- was established to advise the government on whether, and how, to regulate genetically modified (GM) food. The committee says there's a "perception of a role conflict." The government tests GM foods and promotes it abroad. How, critics reasonably ask, can it be impartial in its testing? Not only is there a perception of a conflict, there is a conflict, but in our democracy, perception is the key, because that's what politicians do -- manage perceptions. So why are so many Canadians worried about GM foods? Because, says the committee, "The communication of information related to the regulation of GM ...foods has not been effective." Politicians haven't managed perceptions well enough. They need to communicate better.

Regulating GM foods, mandatory labeling, banning Frankenfoods under a precautionary principal that says the foods must be proved safe before they can be sold, are not options, no matter what Canadians want, no matter what's good for the majority. The only option is to communicate the government's position -- which is what the biotechnology industry's position is, set without regard to what people want -- more effectively. That's controlling the public through effective communication.

Whenever the Harris Tories get in trouble for trampling the public interest too brazenly, they say, "We've failed to communicate effectively," and kick start a multi-million dollar ad campaign to soothe a restive population. Backing away is never an option. Going in another direction is never an option. Public policy goes along its merry way, without reference to the public, and pollsters like Marzolini do mine-sweeping operations, to help the public-managers we call politicians avoid the trouble spots in the minefield of public opinion.

A fluff piece in the Globe and Mail on Ontario Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says, maybe people in Ontario hate him, but he's admired on Wall Street and in Japan and Tokyo. Now you know who dictates public policy.

In a dictatorship the people are kept in line by force. In a "democracy" they're kept in line by propaganda. The methods of elite control may be different, but the outcome is the same. Which makes you wonder: But for the methods, are Canada's politicians really any different from Latin America's death squads and repressive militaries?


Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at sr.gowans@sympatico.ca.

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