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.

1 comment:

La delirante said...

a governement of the people, by the people, and for the people...Human rights, 21st century, etc...I only think of how the democratic legal systems discriminate against same sex couples or immigrants...I guess those nice human rights documents should be rephrased to adapt to reality, you remember that of everybody having the same rights no matter your skin colour, sex, religion, etc.? Yeah right. That's why we don't have divorce in Malta or same-sex-marriages but in a few countries in the entire world...