Friday, 25 January 2008

Democracy and Human Rights: A Class Perspective

Nowadays, millions of people talk about the importance of democracy and of respecting human rights. Several TV shows and newspapers are quick to drop these terms when dealing with various events around the world. Sadly, although these terms are heard and written so frequently, it appears that relatively few individuals bother to take a closer look at two very important questions: 1.) How are the concepts of democracy and human rights transmitted to the general population? 2.) To what extent does the popular perception of democracy and human rights reflect reality?

Starting with the first question, it seems that numerous intellectuals enjoy conveying the notion that the Western world hardly has any rivals when it comes to its respect for democracy and human rights. To substantiate such claims, many state the fact that one of the main requirements for a country to join the European Union consists of embracing a "democratic" type of government. The countries of the Western world are also often depicted as exemplary supporters of human rights. Such affirmations are made explicity or implied in the media as well as in countless classrooms extremely regularly, to the point of appearing similar to indoctrination attempts. Of course, as certain ideas are repeated over and over again, many people end up merely parroting what they have read or heard on countless occasions without ever questioning the contents of various statements. Even when discussing issues such as democracy and human rights, cliches are apparently unavoidable. Sadly, such cliches - devoid of scientific analysis - tend to fall somewhat short of reality.

Focusing on democracy, many individuals echo Abraham Lincoln's belief that it is a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." This view is often accompanied with the notion that politicians exist to serve the people. Realising the vague character of the word "people" in such definitions (without qualification, the word used in this way suggests that all human beings are the same and share the same interests), many individuals have apparently redefined democracy as a system characterised by majority rule, but including respect for the rights of the different minority groups. And this is where the notion of human rights is frequently invoked.

It appears that when it comes to the general perception about the concept of human rights, most people label a number of abilities as rights that every person should have at any time. This approach suggests that no matter how different an individual is from the majority, certain rights should always be respected. As an example, one could mention the freedom of speech. According to the common perspective, in the name of safeguarding this freedom, every person should be allowed to say whatever is on their mind.

When comparing the above popular perceptions to reality, it seems that the latter is quite different. Starting with democracy, if one had to view capitalist societies (virtually all Western countries have embraced the capitalist economic model) using a class perspective, it would not be too hard to notice that it is always the same basic philosophy which prevails - the capitalist one. Even if elections are held once every four or five years, these do not usually reflect substantial changes. The leaders might change, some policies might be altered, but the basic ideology remains largely untouched.

Taking present-day Malta as an example, an increasing number of individuals are attributing their apathy towards politics to the belief that it has become very difficult to identify considerable differences between the two most popular political parties (the PN and the MLP). Regardless of which party wins the next general election, the problems that accompany capitalism are here to stay. This realisation that capitalism remains as the dominating ideology in spite of regular elections has led many people to talk about the dictatorship of the capitalist class. Sadly, the general population is often deceived into believing that just because there is more than one political party, the status quo could really be altered dramatically. In reality, rephrasing Lincoln's words, capitalist societies end up having governments "of the capitalists, by the capitalists, and for the capitalists"! At the end of the day, even though it is a majority of the country's population that elects one party instead of another, if the choice of parties is extremely limited, the people are not really presented with clearly different options at the time of voting.

In the real world which acknowledges the sharp split between the capitalist class and the working class, critiques of capitalism are allowed as long as they do not really threaten the status quo. When the latter is threatened, the capitalist class usually resorts to all sorts of techniques to neutralise the threat. The CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile (in 1973) remains as one of the most powerful reminders of the fact that the capitalist class will only talk favourably about democracy when the results of an election do not threaten their interests.

What about human rights? Like democracy, these are also often discussed in a very abstract way, with hardly any relation to the dynamics of the real world. As was the case with democracy, in order to understand how human rights are truly toyed around with, it is essential to be aware of who holds the greatest amount of power in a particular society. Taking freedom of association as an example, when the elections were held in Iraq in 2005, the Baath Party was declared as an illegal organisation in spite of the fact that the country was still full of individuals who supported it. What about the right to life? In the US, if a person commits certain deeds (which are viewed as highly offensive by the most powerful people in a number of States), the right to life is taken away from the individual by the authorities who condemn that person to death.

The governments of capitalist countries often say that anti-capitalist demonstrations are allowed as a sign that freedom of speech is accepted. That is the rhetoric. The reality seems to be that since anti-capitalist demonstrations do not really constitute a serious threat to the status quo, they can be allowed to take place.

Talking about human rights, many people might also be asking themselves why certain rights are not given more attention. For instance, why doesn't every State in the world provide free healthcare to its citizens? Why doesn't every State in the world provide free education to its citizens? Free housing? Job security?

At this stage, I think that it is clear that the concepts of democracy and human rights cannot be discussed in a vacuum. One should always attempt to analyse such notions on the basis of what happens in the real world.

The Revolutionary Process Continues in Venezuela...

Today I read an article that offers some very interesting views about last December's referendum in Venezuela. Following the foiled attempt to introduce a new constitution, many individuals asserted that this symbolised the beginning of the end for Chavez. This article, however, makes it very clear that even though a battle was lost, the effort to construct socialism in Venezuela is far from over.

At one point, the article touched upon the issue of democracy. More specifically, it stated: "The proposed new Venezuelan constitution recognised that real democracy is not just a question of voting in elections; it is a question of ordinary people having real control over decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. It is also a question of being able to influence what work they do and the conditions in which they do it. This is real democracy, which unleashes the creative powers of masses of people – a democracy that scarcely exists in any capitalist country. Under socialism, however, workers are liberated from the master-servant relationship in which they worked under both feudalism and capitalism, and no longer therefore have to accept that only the master, the owner of the means of production, can issue orders. Instead, they are able to participate in the process of determining what the orders should be so as to achieve the common aim of maximising production for the benefit of the people while at the same time protecting workers’ quality of life.One of the most important provisions of the new constitution in this regard was the reduction of the working week from 42 hours to 36. This has been presented as a bribe to the working masses to get them to vote for the constitution. In actual fact, the reduction of the working week is essential for democracy, in that it would provide workers with the free time that would enable them to participate in the decision-making processes both at work and in their communities." Very interesting!!!
At the end of the day, even though good leadership is fundamental, it is the masses who have to transform a country. To implement all the desired changes. Educating them might be a slow and painstaking task, but once they understand the importance of building and of defending the gains of socialism, huge positive difference will be witnessed in Venezuela and, hopefully, in the rest of the world.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Nanjie: Food for Thought

Zunxian Huang, 71, is one of about 3,000 commune members. He was assigned this three-bedroom apartment and nearly all the furniture in it, down to the sofa cushions.

As I was browsing online, I came across a very interesting article about Nanjie village (in China). Of particular interest is the following excerpt: "Huang [the man who appears in the photo] says the village gives him 30 percent of his income in cash -- a total of $32 a month. The other 70 percent is all benefits: free food and housing, cradle-to-grave health care and education."

While Huang was able to receive his three-bedroom apartment without having to pay a cent, several people around the world cannot even dream of buying such an apartment since their income does not allow them to apply for a mortgage that could cover the cost of a similar place!

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Lonely People

In a small country like Malta, where everyone seems to be either connected through family or via some other way, the fact that it is possible to identify a considerable number of lonely people could make one shudder. Taking into account the Internet's role as a socialising tool, it could be hard to imagine how loneliness could still torment so many individuals!

Living in Sliema, I enjoy going out for walks along the promenade with my wife. It is amazing how often we spot the same people inside a bar or walking around without ever having someone with them. It is quite sad to see such people on their own even on Saturday nights when friendly groups, families, and romantic couples seem to be all over the place!

Although most of the lonely individuals I have spotted were usually in their late 30s/early 40s, loneliness is a disturbing phenomenon which goes beyond specific ages or cultures. In a country where several shops have already started advertising heavily for St Valentine's Day, those people who have felt lonely for a fairly long period of time might be facing a great deal of anxiety. They probably keep listening to countless messages about the importance of love and companionship, but who is exhibiting any affection or care towards them?


Sunday, 13 January 2008

Thank You, Michael Moore!

Yesterday I finally got the chance to watch Michael Moore's latest documentary Sicko; it is available on DVD at some movie rental shops. I had spent several months waiting for the local cinemas to show it, but they never did (I wonder why...?).

The documentary was SUPERB!!! It confirmed my analysis of how the obsession with profit and with individualism in the US has replaced the desire to see other people, especially the sick, in a caring way, as fellow members of one's community. It also showed how one US administration after another indoctrinated countless US citizens to despise anything that even smelt of socialism.

At one point, a list of countries was shown in order to see the ranking of the US healthcare system when viewed on an international level; it stands at the 37th place. I was glad to see that Malta's healthcare system was ranked 5th in the world!!! I did some research earlier on today and I found the list on the Internet; the ranking was carried out by the World Health Organisation.

Thank you, Michael Moore, for showing some of the many victims of the merciless profit-driven US healthcare system! Please keep on shedding more light on how socialism is the remedy to the evils of capitalism!

Studying and Working

Yesterday morning I went to the post office to collect my CII study materials for the next exams that I will be sitting for in October of this year. More specifically, I will be studying Insurance Law and Business Practice. Each book is quite thick and there are also several assignments to be completed for each subject. The sheer amount of paper was enough to make me feel fairly worried about the amount of hours that would be required in order to remember so many legal cases and principles, not to mention the assignment-writing!
When I was at university, I normally had to read hundreds of pages and prepare various assignments over a three-month period. During that time, however, I was living in an apartment on my own. I was also single and did not have a job. Hence, I had the best possible circumstances to be able to focus on my studies.

Nowadays, as a full-time, married employee, the situation is radically different. At work, the amount of pressure to do countless tasks has been mounting over the past few weeks. As soon as I start working on something, one of the managers comes to my room to dish out the dirty work that he does not want to do. When I inform him about how much work I already have, he states that his instructions should take top priority. Having to deal with so many things during a typical working day leaves me feeling almost totally drained by the time I go home.

Upon getting home, there is usually always something that needs to be done. It is either a few products that need to be purchased or an urgent chore that has been postponed for several days. This adds to my fatigue.

At this stage, I should also mention that given the meagre lunch I eat at work (usually a toasted ham-and-cheese ftira), I normally get home in a semi-starving mode. Coupled with my fatigue, my physical state does not normally allow me to be in a very jolly mood. :)

I usually arrive home at around 6PM. Once all the day's errands are seen to, it is already almost 7PM. Feeling famished, something needs to be prepared for dinner. While my wife usually washes the dishes, the cooking is frequently in my hands. On a tranquil day, I really enjoy cooking. Having said that, it is not something that I look forward to after a hard day's work! :) Considering the fact that we try to avoid eating frozen foods, preparing dinner is often a relatively time-consuming task.

By the time, we have dinner, I am normally feeling so exhausted that I can barely summon enough energy to watch a 2-hour movie. Given that we tend to avoid sleeping late, I usually end up with hardly any time to read, blog, or write! It is this realisation that scares me when I ponder the several hours that are going to be necessary in order to pass the Diploma exams!!!

Yes, it can be very tough to study and work simultaneously. Just hope that I can work out an effective time management plan to get the best results. Of course, many social activities will have to be thrown out of the window. :( Well, forward I go, hoping that this sweat will contribute to a brighter future. :)


Wednesday, 2 January 2008

My Blogging Experience: Setting the Record Straight

Ever since I started blogging in 2007, I have really enjoyed writing online. The blog has now been in existence for several months. During this time, I have written about numerous topics. Given that the blog can be read by anyone, it is only natural to receive varying types of feedback from different people.

Human beings change. Some change their hair colour while others switch from one religious faith to another. Throughout 2007, as I learned new things, met new people, and faced new trials, my opinions regarding certain matters changed. Those individuals who have become acquainted with me only through my blog might have noticed certain changes. Others might have read a couple of articles and drawn an incorrect conclusion about me or about some of my views. The aim of this post is to correct a number of perceptions that might have been developed by a number of readers. As the saying goes, it is time to set the record straight!

Several people have described my blog as being a very political one. Although I admit that many posts that I have written in the past were - to various degrees - related to politics, the intention of this blog is surely not that of writing about a particular political ideology. I mention politics quite frequently since virtually everything we do in life has political connotations. It seems that far too people still associate politics with corruption and with a great deal of arguing. While such matters could surely be somewhat tied to a country's political scenario, politics is so much more than that! If one takes a close look at various issues such as obtaining a work permit, abortion, gay marriages, and receiving social assistance while involuntarily unemployed, one would easily notice that every country has a position on such topics as a result of the type of political party currently in power in that place. If gay people can get married nowdays in Spain, this has only become possible thanks to the PSOE's 2004 electoral victory. Since politics is so intertwined in the fabric of our lives, it is only understandable that those people who keep their eyes wide open will be able to see the links between ideologies, individuals, and daily events. Even though I have sometimes expressed my support for a particular type of leftist ideology, when it comes to political issues, my blog is intended to serve as a platform for analysis and for discussion.

Sadly, I have come across a few individuals who could not go beyond the perception of the blog as being "only about politics". The comic thing is that the same people who asserted that they do not read my posts because of their excessively political nature often write about matters that are highly political, such as Malta's adoption of the Euro! Such behaviour puzzles me!

During the last few months, as I expressed certain viewpoints, a number of bloggers reacted in an equally puzzling way. One person who had added me to his blog roll went as far as deleting me from his list of blogs following a clash of opinions! Another person stopped leaving comments on my blog. Both individuals project themselves as great supporters of tolerance, but their principles seem to fall quite short of their deeds. Very sad!

Without going into the specifics of my political beliefs, I would like to make it very clear that I am a declared leftist because I care very much about the welfare of other human beings. I cannot bear the obsession with money-making at the expense of widespread human welfare. Involuntary unemployment, homelessness, hunger...such realities make me shudder, especially when I know that the world could be a much better place if societies are run according to certain principles.

Moving on, I would like to say that tt is hard to get to know a person well simply by reading that individual's blog. The posts could surely help to open various windows on what a person believes, but they normally only allow others to take a peek. To know a person really well requires much more than merely reading relatively brief articles.

As far as I am concerned, I like to be rational when expressing myself. Having said so, I am just a human being. I have my flaws and I also have my feelings. Although I love debating, I also enjoy laughing a great deal.

Although this post is much longer than I intended it to be, I hope that it has helped to set the record straight. I am hoping to write a great deal during 2008 even though blogging is not so easy for me. Apart from having to devote a lot of time to my insurance studies, my job does not allow me to blog at all. When at home, my attempts to blog are often frustrated by shopping, cooking, and other similar tasks. Having said that, I will do my best to keep on reading blogs, updating mine, and leaving comments! As a believer in blogger etiquette, I think that it is a very nice gesture to drop a few words when visiting a person's blog. At the end of the day, words can change an individual's life! :)

Addicted to...Desperate Housewives!!!

A few weeks ago, a friend of ours lent us the first season of the famous TV show Desperate Housewives. I was aware that many people had been following this series, but I never got round to watching any of the episodes.

As I sat down to watch the first episode with my sweetheart, I was quite sceptical. I was expecting another show about a handful of superficial high-class women spending most of their time cheating or worrying about whether to buy an Armani dress rather than a Versace one!

Contrary to my expectations, as I watched one episode after another, I really fell in love with the series! Although some events are over-the-top to keep the audiences interested or amused, I found that there were many episodes that touched on countless issues that affect various individuals in different ways. I like the fact that the narrator (Mary Alice) sprinkles her reflections at the beginning and at the end of every episode. I have always been very fond of anything which provides me with some interesting food for thought! :)

As far as the characters are concerned, on an aesthetic basis, Gabrielle is - by far - the most beautiful of them all. Lynette, on the other hand, looks scary! :)

How would I profile the women in this series? I would say that Susan is terribly clumsy, caring, impulsive, and a total romantic; although she could get involved in fights, she hates grudges and normally tries to patch things up with whoever hurt her in any way. Gabrielle is an extremely determined woman with clearly-defined goals and she lets nothing get in her way. Edie comes across as the man-eater, but her rivalry with Susan makes her appear to be a rather insecure person. Lynette is a very dominant, selfish, and ambitious woman; whenever her husband or anyone else challenges her expectations, all hell breaks loose! Bree is tremendously conservative, a perfectionist, and an expert at using denial as a self-defence mechanism; whenever there is a problem, she usually either denies its existence or blames it on something/someone else without really trying to see whether she is contributing to the problem!
In less than a month since watching the first episode, Wendy and I have already finished watching the first two seasons!!! :) I am now really looking forward to watching the third one. I must say that I have become addicted to watching the adventures of the Wisteria Lane women! :)