Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's time for a shift to direct democracy

IN LESS than a month, Filipinos will flock to the booths to elect their new senators of the state, their provincial district representatives in Congress, their provincial officials, and city or municipality officials. Facebook is filled with an exchange of virtual posters and banners and videos and essays promoting or mocking candidates. But there is no guarantee that the senators or congressmen or officials we'll elect will fulfill promises through legislation or implementation, and we'd have to wait till the end of their term to avenge broken promises with our own promise to ourselves not to reelect them.
     But this morning, my friend the poet Marne Kilates re-posted a video essay, titled "The United States of Inequality," by the American left-liberal journalist and commentator and former press secretary of the Lyndon Johnson administration, Bill Moyers. Among my Facebook friends, I believe it was first posted by the journalist Sylvia Mayuga. Marne tagged me, along with six others, to his video posting, which showed Moyers presenting anecdotal as well as documentary evidence of a broadening gap between a pampered (by government) wealthy class and the burgeoning neglected (by government) poor in his country. Here is that video:

     Marne offered this caption to both describe the video's topic and sentiment as well as pose a challenging question to all those tagged and others: "The bitter truth that no one is talking about in the United States of Silicon Valley (or Texas Instruments): That capitalism is failing or has failed. The inventors of modern democracy have bought and sold FDR's Bill of Rights to corporate lobbyists. Warren Buffet: 'If there was a class war, we have won.' The 1% has won because the system that should protect the 99% has failed."
     This instigated the quick regrouping of my long-silent thoughts on this problematic---of democracy's and capitalism's having failed as the prevalent political and economic systems of much of the world---so to finally make themselves be heard. Time and Newsweek magazines have time and again posed these very same taunting and attractive questions, which perhaps woke many a student (or the students in people) to grab a pen and write their assignment. I grabbed the opportunity.

I SAID, there are democracies and there are democracies. And a representative democracy that cradles an oligarchy is a betrayal of the tenets of democracy.
     But it's quite understandable to me why the US Constitution framers avoided the temptations of direct democracy at the federal level (as against Switzerland, for instance, which embraced it); and that understanding may come from my being an Americanized Filipino, quite familiar with the American experience with oppressive majorities lording it over minorities. But representative democracy, in the US as well as in the Philippines, has also exposed the contradictions within the mother system of democracy, and these contradictions are precisely due to representative democracy's incompatibility with a demos that is largely uneducated, gullible, and manipulable by the magic of public relations, press relations, advertising, and a corruptible privatized media. In essence, such a representative democracy has become a democratic lie, where campaign lies are heeded by duped, ignorant masses who are participants in a vicious cycle of victimization and exploitation. Given this fact, I would argue with America's declarers of independence and say that I'd much rather struggle as a minority within the direct democracy lorded by a majority that may nonetheless be persuadable than struggle within the elite-handled machinery of representative democracy where the entrenched elite always wins.
     Then there are capitalisms and capitalisms. A capitalist system operating through a neoliberal or ultra-free market or right libertarian attitude of governance necessarily begets a society of oligarchies. A capitalist system, meanwhile, allowed to operate by a government of regulations and transparency (allowing freedom of information over corporate books, for instance) begets a society of equal opportunity. The American Dream is founded on the latter. Sadly, the American Dream concept may have been bastardized by a Texan oilman's definition of the phrase, where winners take all and losers go to hell.
     Now, the Moyers video above has a socialist voice to it that seems to want to call out to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. But there is no poverty of FDRs in American politics. The trap that is hindering progress is representative democracy that has been conscripted by exploiters from the American industrial Right, aided by strong machineries like the Tea Party and Fox News. When such a contaminated representative democracy is applied upon a largely ignorant or poorly informed manipulable demos, whose ignorance is enhanced by a just-as-manipulable media, then there is the logical likelihood of this demos' ignorance manifesting itself in how it votes. For instance, let us assume that you have an FDR in Barack Obama. While you, the ignorant demos, elect a social liberal to the White House because you were persuaded by his speeches of promising to create socialized programs for the impoverished people such as those around wealthy Silicon Valley that Moyers mentions, you also elect people of the Right to Congress because you were persuaded by their speeches promising to create alternative ways of delivering socialized programs that would complement as well as check the President's. Unbeknownst to you, these elements of the Right are sure to stifle or handicap the efforts of the liberal you elected to the White House to deliver all those socialized programs he promised you and you agreed to accept. But you cannot blame yourselves, being ignorant of the stupidity in your act, so you blame the liberal president you elected who has been forced to make concessions here and there just so he can deliver some of the programs he promised stupid you. It is this ignorance in the voter that creates the contradiction in representative democracy that recreates its own perennial failure.
     Now, Philippine politics has the same dilemma. The virtuous idea of check and balance is also constantly hijacked, nay hostaged, by people in Congress who would not stop at merely achieving a lame duck social liberal or progressivist leadership. The ransom is a free and dirty market economy run by elite corporations both legal and not, unhindered, unregulated, untaxed.
     It's neither democracy nor capitalism that has failed, it's the form of democracy we've chosen that has.

MARNE, ONE of the Filipino poets whose politics I admire, said, "there has to be some other way of handling power for the benefit of the majority of the people who are poor. In America or elsewhere, you will immediately be branded socialist or communist or dictatorial. The point is to create an opposite action to the forces of absolute economic power, entitlement, and impunity." Which kind of taunted me to present a Marxist axiom.
     Instead I wrote: The US is not wanting of people in politics who have those very objectives. But the opposition is strong and the masses are easily duped into thinking these other guys are their heroes. In the Philippines, meanwhile, which has the same problem, it's about time we took a second look at Switzerland's direct democracy model (along with the proportionate representation in that country's National Council). That could be the one solution to the problem of oligarchies and "political dynasties" that continue to proliferate in our government and influence daily governance.
     Then, here, a friend of Marne's (Dave B-) offered a quote from Noam Chomsky's book The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many which, he said, "seems relevant as it supposes that the current structure has morphed into something new and different: An executive board-of-sorts corporate structure . . . of the world." And the Chomsky quote goes:

"Throughout history, the structures of government have tended to coalesce around other forms of power — in modern times, primarily around economic power. So, when you have national economies, you get national states. We now have an international economy and we’re moving towards an international state — which means, finally, an international executive.
"To quote the business press, we’re creating 'a new imperial age' with a 'de facto world government'. It has its own institutions — like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, trading structures like NAFTA and GATT [the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, both discussed in the next section of this book], executive meetings like the G-7 [the seven richest industrial countries — the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, Britain, France and Italy — who meet regularly to discuss economic policy] and the European Community bureaucracy.
"As you’d expect, this whole structure of decision-making answers basically to the transnational corporations, international banks, etc. It’s also an effective blow against democracy. All these structures raise decision making to the executive level, leaving what’s called a 'democratic deficit' — parliaments and populations with less influence."

     "There is, however, a glimmer of hope," said Dave, "in that we are at least cognizant of capitalism's unfulfilled promises."
     "The glimmer of hope, maybe, is that we will not just be cognizant of unfulfilled promises but will act on changing the system itself. We have no choice. Rescue the planet from the voracious blind and the power-mad, or perish," Marne seemed to taunt me again with this.
     But here, our Wall Street-based business analyst Peter Casimiro (who fortunately happens to be in a firm he's not embarrassed to belong to) chimed in, saying, "Thanks for the tag, Marne. . . . While I agree that there are inherent problems with both democracy and capitalism, and further argue some of the points you and Jojo [that's me] in particular raise, one thing that's curiously missing is the fundamental understanding that both democracy and capitalism, whether functioning models or dysfunctional models, are indeed determined and controlled by none other than the very same people who suffer or flourish from it. Neither democracy nor capitalism can be corrupted if the masses are not silent victims, or more often the case, abettors to the usurpation of power by its all too familiar hijackers (the political class empowered by law and their evil cohort-cum-boss the economic-elite-cum-slave-owners). Now, what mechanisms would effectively police our insatiable desire to one-up each other? Again, unfortunately, much as the problem lays (or lies . . . take your pick, both are useful descriptions in this case) within, so does the answer---we are after all, like it or not, our brothers' keepers. As for a model to mimic, hmm, perhaps Sweden (still, though not nearly as much as a decade ago, a decent egalitarian one) might be the only one left. But if you're really willing to venture out to no-man's-land (think political economy and capital markets fundamentals), perhaps Bhutan and its GNH index is the most ambitious. In the end, Marx can not be faulted for his famous quip that 'capitalism can not abide by a limit' because he knows all too well that the only reason that is true is because capitalism's formula relies on something inherently flawed---humans."
     Then, here, Peter recommended Thomas Ferguson's book Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Politics.

YES, THE greed of humans.
     But that is precisely why government regulation was invented. That is the reason why the rules of even the WTO improves an inch towards fairness almost every year. That's thanks to other humans policing free enterprise and the intermittent abuses of the greedy humans. Thanks, likewise, to democracy that provides these other humans space wherein to challenge the power of the greedy.
     As for Chomsky's reality bite of a picture, yes. The solution for which problematique has been a globalized counter-force of organizations who have chosen to speak against governments (domestic or regional or global) that have ceased to service Everyman. Greenpeace, Amnesty International, etc. are examples. The activism of the global left-of-center is an example of something that has been playing an important part in the checks and exposés. It's a question of numbers, really. When only 2,000 people show up to present placard protestations at a gathering of global bankers, that will still be nothing compared to the 3,000 policemen put in place at the summit area to fire teargas at any group of protesters. When the time arrives, however, that a whole city has been informed, which city might then decide to in turn act, then all abuses by any global entity will be forced to think twice. If Karl Marx has taught us anything, and this is what I am taunting myself to say now, it is that no one X who is benefiting from a rotten system will want to let go of that system. Some alternative force (aided by the left, the reformist military "right" or the "occupying" center) would have to decide whether it will content itself with pleading or henceforth plan to wrest that system away from X.
     So, will government (the executive branch as well as Congress and the Supreme Court) of the present or the oncoming years be positive towards a change from a representative democracy to a direct democracy? Will it resist such a change because it doesn't want to give up benefits it can milk precisely from the failure of the status quo? Will we then have to plan a way by which to wrest that system away from an existing government's hold?
     I don't know how popular or unpopular this idea is among our academics and party-list parties. So far, I have found a positive note regarding this from the political analyst and writer Mon Casiple. I have yet to look for more proponents. Here's the Casiple piece: click here.

THE ALTERNATIVE to a free-for-all economics of the elite that has failed the majority is not the impossible economics of early-20th-century trendy communism but corrected economics (regulation!), development economics, welfare economics, New Keynesianism, post-Keynesianism, etc. The alternative to a failing representative democracy is direct democracy.
     How do we get there? The ultimate ideal for any of the forms of democracy is a well-educated masa. But only the socialization of education and awareness (through the schools, yes, but primarily through a freer media and social media) will make that possible, which won't be attained unless the neoliberal philosophers are at least half-removed from the system where governance votes. In the meantime, the vicious cycle maintained by those who enjoy seeing a stupid majority continues. And this is the situation that inspires coups and intelligentsia-driven armed revolts, the end result of which still marginalizes the 99%. [END OF PART ONE]