CounterPunch: Whose Democracy?

Whose Democracy?


Just before Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, I had the immense good fortune to be studying Anthropology, Sociology and Politics at the country’s ten-year-old university (UPNG). It was a kind of decolonisation laboratory in which boffins from everywhere, shared their expertise in everything: tropical medicine and agriculture, public administration, development studies, Third World literature, and much more. They were agitated years of intellectual ferment, student (and teacher) activism, Marxism, feminism, opposition to the Vietnam War, small-is-beautiful, free love and parties, lots of parties. Many of us believed that Papua New Guinea would be different. It could never be just another neo-colony. Its future leaders were fellow students and friends. We were tear-gassed together at demonstrations over Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor and, side by side, fought the bureaucrats to get a students’ vegetable garden (the dining room slop was a prelude to nutritional disease). Several of those friends became politicians in this marvellous, resource-rich country and did their bit to make it one of the most corrupt in the world with extremely high levels of (mainly sexual) violence and over 50% of the population below the poverty line ($1/day). Some of those scintillating teachers went on to unexceptionable careers elsewhere. Ken Good remained outspoken and exceptional.

A respected Africanist, Ken Good was deported from Rhodesia in the early 1970s for hurting Ian Smith’s feelings with his caustic, accurate tongue and, in 2005, as a “threat to national security” from Botswana, where he was Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Botswana. Why? Because he had co-authored and circulated a paper titled “Presidential Succession in Botswana: No Model for Africa”. The Attorney General referred to the frail 72-year-old as an “outlaw”.

The future outlaw was one of my teachers at UPNG, the best I ever had. Forty years on, he is a dear friend. I give this background not just to be upfront about my partisanship, but in particular because Ken the man can’t be separated from his writing. An unwavering critic of any anti-democratic establishment, champion of the underdog and now in his eighties, he is still feisty and still fighting. His new book, Trust in the Capacities of the People, Distrust in Elites, distills the essence of Good. Trust the people. Don’t trust the elites. The political best seller list of The New York Times, March 2015, features American Sniper in first place, followed by more SEALs, another sniper, a hedge-fund manager and an Obama campaign strategist in the top ten. If you want to find a publisher who’ll take on a title like Ken’s, it won’t be easy. It wasn’t easy. Now the book is finally out, it costs $83.64 on Amazon, an inaccessible price which (together with snipers, SEALs and Co. crowding the political panorama) suggests that democracy is up against the wall. Good has plenty to say about that but the elite-gripped media won’t be putting this book on any bestseller list. A voice like Ken’s upsets people like the great expert on “democracy” Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana, and the 1% who are set to own more than the rest of the world by 2016. Democracy is very unwell but this enkheiridion has not ousted the SEALs from bestseller lists. This flies in the face of logic, to say the least.

Ken Good’s democracy is about grassroots organisation, radical education and the ever-burning ideals of freedom, justice and respect for the dignity of all humans, a socio-political process and society in which people make decisions on matters that affect them. If “representative democracy” is the fiefdom of competing elites who get elected because of their wealth and celebrity – Warren Buffet’s class warfare (“it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”) – Good’s participatory democracy is the “aspiration and impulse by determined men and women” who, battling deeply entrenched power disparities, fail more often than they succeed, knowing that others will try again, guided by the “natural truth and lustre” of eternal principles: “[P]osterity we doubt not shall reap the benefits of our endeavours whatever shall become of us” (Freeborn John Lilburne, 1648).

Good roams widely in space and time, showing how these principles have always shone and still shine today. He begins with democratic Athens (508 – 322 BCE), where the “political disempowerment of the elites was the vital accompaniment which made possible and extended the power of the people” (p. viii) for almost two centuries during which the demos was “a self-conscious and a determined actor in its own right” (p. 17). In these times of almost constant warfare the system did not collapse due to internal contradictions but was brought down by an external force: Alexander the Great. Good sagely notes the contrast between its longevity and the brevity of twentieth-century totalitarian states. Hitler’s Thousand Years’ Reich lasted only twelve years.

The next study is “Britain’s long and profoundly incomplete democratization”. The background in the mid-seventeenth century was feudalism in extremis, the rise of capitalism in commercial agriculture and trade, and the clashes between Catholicism and protestant faiths, and the parliament (of merchants and Grandees) against King Charles I. The Civil War (1642 – 1651) took about half a million lives, if conflicts in Scotland and Ireland are included (p.22). The poor (some 100,000), represented by the Levellers, stepped into thetrustgoodequation, calling for popular sovereignty, accountability and respect for the rights of even “the poorest he that is in England” (p.25). There is a proviso or cautionary note here, though. Good (p. 26) cites Lilburne’s biographer Pauline Gregg: “the spirit of Leveller teaching was more revolutionary than its content, and a spirit of equalitarianism was present in their doctrine. But this egalitarianism did not encourage them to ally with the dispossessed below them.”

In the late 1690s and early 1700s the poor people’s heroes were robbers and men and women who actively resisted the rich and powerful. The “thanatocracy” (Peter Linebaugh’s coinage) responded with “legal massacre”. Every six weeks a jury of small landowners, doing the oligarchy’s dirty work, determined who would die on London’s “hanging days”, eight or so a year”, when three to five people strung from the “Tyburn tree” drove home the lesson: don’t cross the rich. Hundreds were hanged, mostly Irish men and women, sailors, weavers and butchers, plus some members of the city’s sizeable black community. “The deeply corrupt oligarchy was hanging multitudes of the poor for trivial and often necessary theft (for survival’s sake), while they themselves practiced theft and avarice on a giant scale” (p. 30). The rise of industrial capitalism, the calibrated wage system and ever-harsher factory discipline eventually rendered the hanging spectacle obsolete in England but it survived well into the twentieth century in the British possession of Kenya, where 1,090 Kikuyu – “Mau Mau insurrectionists” – went to the gallows between 1952 and 1960. Methods that are unacceptable or outdated at home can always be used elsewhere (“targeted” killings, for example).

Industrialisation brought great social turbulence. “The transformation of the organization of production was a potent, totalizing process” (p. 36). As an 1832 report described it in almost Blakean terms, “men, women and children are yoked together with iron and steam” (p. 37). The brutality of the system meant that the oligarchy needed protection. By 1814 some 890,000 men were under arms and “routinely employed” (p. 42) against unarmed civilians.

Yet, through the Chartist Movement (1838 – 1858) and the few means available to the poorest people – crime, riots and insurrection – some two to three million people kept resisting. Workers set up self-help organisations, co-ops, benevolent societies, educational groups, sick and burial societies, trade unions and finally a Labour Party. Through solidarity and resistance built on an ancient democratic culture the people, demanding universal suffrage, strove to topple a thoroughly corrupt state system and thus to achieve clean government and participatory democracy. What followed was far from that.

[…] the successes of the working-classes were intermixed with failure. They had placed trust in their own capacities to construct a range of self-help organizations, and their trust had been vindicated broadly and deeply in improved living and work conditions, in their heightened participatory capacities and in the reduction of corruption. But they had failed to control the elites which eventually arose in the Labour Party […]. Participatory values and institutions were gradually incorporated into a passive and elite-dominated liberal model of democracy, and caused to atrophy. The erosion of the cultural world of labor neared completion by the 1990s. The cultural world of popular democracy largely went with it.”

In his compelling chapter on South Africa, trenchantly subtitled “The People versus a Militarist, Predominant Ethno-Nationalist Elite”, Good takes apart the myth of the “Struggle Heroes”, the fable that “democracy is the gift of great men who sometimes come together in almost ‘miraculous’ circumstances, like Nelson Mandela and F. W. De Klerk, 1990 – 1994, to confer good government on their fortunate people” (p. ix). Mainstream newspapers are full of stories about the prison woes of the girlfriend-killing celebrity athlete Oscar Pistorius, but hardly anyone dares to broach the deplorable political and social legacy of Mandela’s African National Congress, which helped to shape this violent culture. Neither does Good flinch from describing the crimes and immunity of Madikizela-Mandela (otherwise known as Winnie), or the “authoritarianism and elitism lurking in [Nelson] Mandela’s thinking” (p. 102) and how the Great Man principle gagged critics. “[R]ule by the heroes of the struggle was itself essentially democratic” (p. 103). So the heroes said.

The heroes wrought a government notable for its factionalism and greed. President Zuma’s South Africa is effectively leaderless as he works hard to control his party’s warring factions, attend to his six (last count) wives and accumulate wealth. The upshot is patent in a few figures (p. 208). In 2011 a majority of South Africa’s people were living in poverty; 58% earned some $US30 (€24) a month; 36% were jobless but, for the under-35s, unemployment stood at 73%. Poverty is worsening. The number of people living on less than $1 day rose from 1.9 million in 1996 to 4.2 million in 2005. All this goes hand in hand with “State incapacity and the indifference of the ruling elite” (p. 209). “State incapacity” includes indifference to such vital areas as water and sanitation, housing, education, and a disinclination to address endemic violence. After all, the “State” has fortress-houses complete with armed guards.

Chapter Six, devoted to the little-known “living politics” of a “Determined Autonomous Movement of the Poor”, is perhaps Good’s most outstanding contribution in this book. It was widely believed that the end of apartheid would mean the end of shantytowns and squatter settlements. The situation was extreme: in 1994 the urban housing shortage was rocketing at the rate of 178,000 households a year. Living conditions in many settlements were appalling with, for example, 6,000 people sharing six toilets, disposing (or not) of their own refuse, trying to ensure that kids didn’t knock over candles, and hours of queuing for the tap.

One young man, S’bu Zikode, who had lived in one of Durban’s slum settlements, decided to change things. At the age of 25 he became chairperson of the Kennedy Road Development Committee (KRDC) and set about “restructur[ing] everything in terms of democracy” (p. 202). The KRDC mobilised the young people through youth activities and tried to work with ANC organisations and the Durban City Council to address the community’s problems. Lies and broken promises led them to take action on their own terms. A new organisation was formed by and for shanty dwellers, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), which came to represent tens of thousands of people in at least thirty settlements. The AbM democratised the administration of settlements, halted evictions, won some concessions regarding services, illegally connected electricity, built toilets, introduced crèches, and combated the exclusion of the poor from the life and amenities of the cities. This gave rise to close-knit, very active, thinking and demanding communities.

Of course repression wasn’t long in coming but even when its leaders had to go into hiding the movement persisted because, echoing the Levellers, they declared they had the moral strength of “those who know who they are … what they stand for … and speak the truth” (p. 206). State violence against protestors came shockingly to a head on 16 August 2012 at the Marikana platinum mine when 34 miners were shot dead by the police and almost 80 were injured. The “Tyburn tree” now spoke in the form of bullets: look what you get when you step out of line. The South African police killed 566 people in 2009 and 2010. This is war against the poor. People like AbM members or miners living and working in harsh, dangerous conditions, who want to participate in and influence the decisions affecting their daily lives, are “outlaws”, an enemy of the state. The linkages between militarism, criminality and the ANC were made very clear with the Marikana massacre, and the product of this culture of violence and impunity is a governing elite that is incapable of managing a modern state.

The poor, working with non-corrupt members of the trade unions, especially COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), are trying to forge a political majority from a social majority. Like AbM, the Unemployed People’s Movement has declared that its mission is to humanise politics and “keep working to unite all the struggles – in the shacks, on the mines and on the farms – into a revolutionary mass movement of the working class and the poor that can change this society from below” (p. 224) Good points out that no country, not even the ANC’s South Africa, can be properly understood in isolation from the rest of the world. Internally generated elitism is a danger everywhere. And local elites, however repressive they may be, are small fry by comparison with global elites and their self-enriching institutions like the WTO which are fast destroying the planet.

The two masterly chapters on South Africa are separated – an error of structure, I think – by chapters 4 and 5, “Democracy in the Capitalist Heartlands: Alienation and Dysfunctionalities” and “Democratization from Portugal to Poland, 1970s-1990s, and in Tunisia and Egypt Since 2010”. The former deals with the liberal form of capitalist democracy prevailing in Britain and the United States for some 150 years but now discredited by widespread alienation, corruption, dysfunctional institutions, draconian definitions of “national security”, gag laws, contempt for the masses and greed of the elites. This is now being countered by participatory democracy with a clear ideology of institutionally supported equality. Over hundreds of years, people struggled to achieve this in Britain. More recently, as the mega-rich 1% aggressively pits itself against the rest of us, it has also been aspired to in Portugal, Poland, Tunisia, Egypt, Iceland and elsewhere. As Good observes, it is always necessary to know what kind of “democracy” is being talked about:

The exemplars of democracy now are patently no longer the United States and Britain, not the established liberal systems, but popular movements built on civic groups imbued with resonant ideas about inequalities, in the struggles for democratization in South Africa, Tunisia and elsewhere. Failures will almost certainly be more numerous than successes, but democracy as a process of struggle and revolution is again center stage, and is being separated off from liberal, elitist Anglo-American models. In Iceland the greed of some 30 individuals collapsed the financial system, but the other 320,000 people have been reconstructing the framework of their government since 2009 in innovative and participatory ways reminiscent of Athens.

In sum, the book’s key argument is that participatory democracy is insistently appearing in many places where the liberal capitalist democratic model has unquestionably failed.

Apart from his scathing critique of liberal “democracy”, Good shows that grassroots organisation for democracy and social justice is no wild utopian scheme but a real possibility. A recent openDemocracy article titled “Reinventing Urban Democracy in Barcelona” describes the “citizen’s platform” (rather than political party in the old sense of the word) Barcelona en comú (literally Barcelona in Common), grist to Good’s mill although it appeared after he finished his book. With a name which conjures up the English commoners and their struggle against the enclosures, this strong contender for the City Council elections in May has invented a “newly resonant language of rights and democracy”. Very well-organised and disciplined, Barcelona en Comú grew out of the anti-evictions movement and the model is being taken up in other cities. In 2014, the WHO calculated that the 54% of the world’s population was urban-dwelling. Taking over municipal power might prove to be a very effective way of making participatory democracy workable on a smaller but linked-up scale. Watch this space…

Ken Good is a no-nonsense visionary who is keenly aware of the importance of history. In her recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein shows how the neo-thanatocracy is doing its best to kill the whole planet but stresses that “social movements have grabbed the wheel of history before and might just do it again”. Ken Good trusts the people and so did the Leveller Thomas Rainsborough (1610 – 1648): “Either poverty must use the power of democracy to destroy the power of property, or property in fear of poverty will destroy democracy” (p. 25).