Chris Harman


Free to vote – but only if US approves

(26 April 2003)

What socialists say, Socialist Worker, No.1848, 26 April 2003.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman unravels the Bush gang’s idea of democracy

“THE RETURN of democracy to countries like Iraq does not mean that people can then vote for, say, an Islamic party which will abandon that democracy.” So said Francis Fukuyama on BBC2 last week.

He is one of the ideological luminaries who signed the foundation statement of the Project for the New American Century seven years ago, along with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other architects of the war against Iraq. Their mission is to carry “democracy”, along with “free market” capitalism, across the world. Summing up Wolfowitz’s views, a Financial Times journalist said he saw “democratic change as a historical certainty that occasionally needed the prodding of the US and other Western countries.”

But Fukuyama’s understanding of the word “democratic” is very different from most people’s. This was also made clear a year ago, on 11 April 2002. A military coup briefly overthrew the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who had won two landslide election victories in the previous four years.

It replaced him with the head of the employers’ organisation Carmona, which dissolved parliament and arrested Chavez supporters. Bush rushed to recognise Carmona as president.

A Financial Times editorial claimed the coup against the elected president had meant “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened”. By “democracy” people like Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Fukuyama do not mean the mass of ordinary people exercising any real control over the conditions they live in.

Rather, they mean a set-up which gives the impression of some control through voting in periodic elections while the key positions of power remain outside popular control.

They argue that “democracy” goes hand in hand with the “free market”. This means you can vote for parliaments and, sometimes, heads of state (although not in Britain), but not for those running industry and the banks.

Yet it is those people who determine what is produced, who gets a job, and what is printed in the newspapers and shown by the TV channels they control. Limitations on real democracy have been built into the constitutional theory of both Britain and the US over the last 200 years.

Only around 10 percent of the population were allowed to vote for the British “mother of parliaments” until 1867, and it was not until after World War Two that businessmen stopped having more votes than anyone else.

The vote was extended to the better-off half of the male population in 1867 because the government wanted people to identify with the political system that protected wealth and privilege.

The scheme has worked well for Britain’s capitalist class. A hundred and forty years later, wealth is still concentrated into very few hands and 80 percent of those running the army and the judiciary still come from private schools. The same undemocratic sentiments underlay the writing of the US constitution in the 1780s.

Soon after the US obtained its independence from Britain, a wave of revolt by the poor swept through the state of Massachusetts. Those who framed the new constitution were determined to stop the national government being shaped by popular feeling.

They established a “separation of powers” which meant senators could overrule Congress representatives and the Supreme Court could overrule all the elected representatives.

The aim was to combine security and stability for the holders of big property with the appearance of democratic control. This is the system that the Project for the New American Century want in Iraq.

They want the Iraqi capitalist class to identify with big business. They want the media to be as tightly controlled by the pro-capitalists as it was by Saddam – they have put a CIA man in charge of the information ministry.

And they want the government bureaucracy, army and police run by people who accept their dominance, even if those people were in the old Ba’athist bureaucracy. They see precedents for what they are doing.

Such institutions of limited capitalist democracy helped to stabilise capitalist rule and US dominance of Central America in the 1980s.

They were able to ensure that the countries of the old Eastern Bloc moved from Stalinist dictatorships to corrupt electoral systems dominated by old bureaucrats who became billionaires. They will, however, find it much more difficult to get away with the trick this time round.

There are too many people who know what the British and the Americans have done in the region in the recent past. Most people in the region identify with the ideas of Arab nationalism or political Islam, and some with socialism.

That’s why the “democrats” are worried about people voting the wrong way. It is also why the US troops may find themselves stuck among an increasingly hostile population in a way that can only weaken US imperialism in the long term.

Last updated on 13 December 2009