The End of Democracy

The council of barons established by the Magna Carta grew over the centuries into a parliament representing the church, wealthy noblemen like the barons, commoners and people from the emerging middle class. William signed the English Bill of Rights assuring the power of parliament and indirectly denying that kings have the divine right to rule. The Glorious Revolution in 1688-1689 marked the beginning of modern English parliamentary democracy. It was called glorious because it achieved its goals without bloodshed in England. This struggle between the king and parliament ended in victory for the people. The new parliament separated the dominant institution of the day, the church, further from the process of government to reduce the church interference in government. Some describe the Enlightenment as beginning with England’s Glorious Revolution.

The Enlightenment writers were concerned about the inequality of the existing system and introduced questioning and critical thinking to replace the dead weight of tradition, and challenge the blind faith in institutions. The philosophers wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. Voltaire criticized the class system of the time – a rigid class system based on inherited positions of nobility and wealth – as being a system exclusively dominated by elite who possess all the financial, political and social power. Voltaire spread liberal rationalist Enlightenment to continental Europe.

Classical liberalism is associated with the movement of political and social philosophy which from the mid-seventeenth century interpreted human society to be an association of free individuals. This liberalism emphasized the freedom of individuals to pursue their own self-interest without reference to traditional collective privileges (of the land-owning nobility, of the guilds of artisans, of the Church). Over the past two hundred years individualism and capitalism rose together. Individualism supports self-interest in business organizations, and is responsible for many of the possibilities available to society. A philosophy developed by Ayn Rand during the Cold War blends free market, reason and individualism. Since the last three decades of the 20th century, people expressed their individuality through exercising choice. Rand espoused a philosophy that leaves the individual unencumbered to pursue self-interest enlightened or otherwise. She promoted the American values rational egoism and individualism. This philosophy supports globalization, which enables the spread of individualism around the world.

When Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘end of history’ in his essay in 1989, it was based on the belief of the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over other forms of government as the great ideological battles between east and west were over. Liberal capitalist democracy allows people to thrive in an increasingly globalized world. It was believed that if a state wished to enjoy the greatest prosperity possible, it would have to embrace some form of capitalism. The natural desire for peace and well-being would set nations on a path to progress. Since wealth protection depends on the protection of private property, the ‘capitalist’ creep would invariably demand greater legal protection for individual rights. Since only liberal capitalist democracy allowed people to thrive in an increasingly globalized world, this, in turn, would guarantee the future of free democratic states. However, the era of accelerated deregulation and individuals moving money around the world with the click of a button had just commenced when Fukuyama recorded these observations.1

Individualism is a balance between self-reliance and personal responsibility and egotism. The rise of individualism was the result of people living and acting as individuals, rather than members of a larger group. Alex de Tocqueville observed in the 19th century that private interest and personal gain motivated the actions of most Americans which, in turn, cultivated a strong sense of individualism. His definition of individualism was withdrawal from society at large, with a spiritual isolationism. He noted, “It tends to isolate them from one another, to concentrate every man’s attention upon themselves; and it lays open the soul for an inordinate love of gratification. [The advantage of religion] is to impose on man some duties towards his kind and draw him from the contemplation of himself.”2 He saw individualism and market capitalism as a significant force in America. To keep individualism from slipping out of control, he recommended participation in public affairs, growth of associations and newspapers to ensure the principle of self-interest was properly understood and to create a support system from religion.

Globalization is driven by the desire of corporations to pursue economic liberalization. In this system countries primarily compete for the world’s investment capital. This means capital moves to locations where it will find the best conditions for return. This activity increases the opportunities for commercialization or introduction of a commodity into the free market for mass consumption. The process of corporate expansion across borders creates rapid change in many communities with subsequent negative consequences for workers. The fact that there is little international regulation has dire consequences for the safety of the people and the environment. Multinational corporations are responsible for the removal of traditional government accountability to a fixed population for much of politics. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The new corporate values of globalization normalize through a doublespeak, selling commercialization and free market choices as democracy.

Neoliberalism broadly describes a regulatory system, encompassing economic policies emphasizing market deregulation, privatization, and an altered role for the state. Neoliberal capitalism applies to all sectors of society. Neoliberals emphasize that the role of government is to create a good business climate rather than look after the needs and the well-being of the population at large. In a crisis, conflict between the integrity of the financial institutions, on one hand, and the well-being of citizens on the other, the former is privileged. Deregulation has been above all else, a means to reducing corporate business accountability to the public. This system claims the common good depends entirely on the uncontrolled egoism of the individual, and especially on the prosperity of the corporation, hence freedom for corporations consists of freedom from responsibility and commitment to society. Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as it is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost.

At the individual level neoliberalism insists that rationality, individuality and self-interest guide all actions. Neoliberals reform society by subordinating it to the market. The goal is to essentially erase any distinction among the state, society and the market. The major challenge of the neoliberals is how to maintain their pretense of freedom as non-coercion. Their answer is to treat politics as it were a market and promote an economic theory of democracy while redefining the shape and functions of the state. The system constantly proclaims anyone can make it if they try hard enough. We are forever told we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Neoliberal ideology serves the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in the redistribution of wealth upwards.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall there has been a belief that there is no alternative to globalization, but we now realize we bought into an illusion. As expectations give way to reality we realize the connection between capitalism, democracy and liberalism is broken. It is a consequence of restructuring class power in favour of the elite. Free markets have enlarged the gap between rich and poor as well as reduce the average income across developed and developing countries. In the 17th century the church was the dominant institution, while today the corporation is the dominant institution. Today there is a need to challenge the blind faith in the present deregulated market, to understand that the middle class has been deceived, and introduce interventions to reduce the influence of corporations in government affairs. In reality, this system rigs the market – from low capital gains taxes to stock buy-backs – for the elites to ensure the markets benefit them.

Health equity suggests that everyone can reach their full health potential and that they should not be disadvantaged from attaining this potential as a result of their class, socioeconomic status or other socially determined circumstance. One of the most important life conditions that both determines whether people are included or excluded from society and whether they stay healthy or become ill is their income. This is especially the case for people living on very low income, that is, poverty. In addition to an individual’s income affecting whether he or she stays healthy or becomes ill, is the overall health of all the members of a society which is more determined by the distribution of income rather than the overall wealth of the society. In summary, inequities reduce the freedom and opportunities for an individual to reach wellness or good health in general, and, their full potential, in particular.

Everyone must have the freedom to reach their full potential – the opportunities one has to reach his or her potential is the most important measure of freedom. We now live not only in a market economy, but also a market society, where the market and its categories of thought have come to dominate ever more areas of our lives. The spread of the paradigm of the market means commodification into every aspect of life – money appears to be able to buy anything. However, competition dictates that corporations maximize profits which, in turn, triggers the ongoing commodifying of services. A major driver of this commodification is to cut labour costs. The commodification of everything – with the increasing income gap, many lost the opportunity to achieve their full potential – is the end of democracy.

1 Stanley, Timothy and Alexander Lee. (01 Sept 2014) It’s Still Not the End of History. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/its-still-not-the-end-of-history-francis-fukuyama/379394/

2 de Toqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America Vol 2 section 1 Chapter IV http://www.gutenberg.org/files/816/816-h/816-h.htm

 

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