They don’t represent us!
“They don’t represent us.” These are words we often see
– and which we can also hear frequently when we witness the demonstrations
and assemblies taking place day after day in the squares and streets
Obviously it is an insight many have reached, a thought
and feeling that is again and again expressed. By women and men. By young
people and by older people. By the unemployed and by people working in
factories, offices, shops. In the public service sector, schools, hospitals
and so one. In the transport sector. The once public utilities…
In Spain, today, we read
No les votes
[Don’t vote for them]
The merged acronyms PP and PSOE stand for the two big,
« competing » parties, the Partido Popular and the Socialist
Workers’ Party of Spain (the once social democratic party that has largely
abandoned its old program, just as New Labour in Britain and the Social
Democrats in Sweden and Germany). Popular wit has fused the well-known
abbreviations mockingly into a ridiculing «PP$OE». And the
dollar symbol apparently stands for the influence of big money. An influence
that is very apparent in the policies they pursue, as we can see more clearly
every day when we note how they handle (or, in the case of the «opposition»)
would handle the crisis. The same neo-liberal recipes are
dear to them. Or at least to the inner circle of party leaders and the
advisers they lean on: BILLIONS FOR THE BANKS, TAX CUTS FOR CORPORATIONS
AND THE WEALTHIEST 1 PER CENT. AUSTERITY MEASURES FOR THE REST OF US. Middle-of-the
road economists like Stiglitz and Krugman think that even from their point
of view, it is madness.
Distrust of Politicians: It is general – not an expression
of paranoia among people “on the fringe”
“You don’t represent us!”, many people out in the street
today, have shouted, carrying posters that were displaying the faces
of senior politicians. Some even added the word “traidores” (traitors).
The distrust of politicians that has become so apparent
in today’s Democracy Movement in Spain is symptomatic. It is part of a
wider, more general disillusionment with political parties and with
a very unpresentative election law. But also with representation as such,
if and whenever it enables elected public servants (politicians, in other
words) to cheat and lie, to make promises to the voters in order to get
elected, and then to break these promises one by one, without any sanctions
or the real chance of immediate recall.
The feeling that we are not or not
well represented as an electorate, as voters, as citizens is widespread
in Western democracies. It is felt by voters that lean to the right, by
middle-of-the-road voters, and by voters that lean to the left. It is felt
by many youngsters and many older people who have given up caring for parties
of whatever color, and who simply don’t take part in elections anymore.
In the U.S., for example, trust in “politicians”
AS SUCH has been waning for decades. The entire Tea Party movement is a
reflection of concern and anger among a large section of voters who lean
towards the Republican Party but don’t trust the established leadership
of their own party anymore – that bunch of people like McCain or Romney
or Rockefeller, people belonging to an “elite” that defends its vested
interests by sending its clever sons and daughters to Washington, in order
to be represented by them in Congress and if possible, as President in
the White House. Small wonder that George W. Bush craved the anti-intellectual
image of a “redneck”, an image that would appeal to an owner of a small
plumbing or construction business, a self-employed roofer, a small,
independent-minded farmer, perhaps even a toiling steelworker or construction
worker. Small wonder that those corporations who finance the Tea Party
movement today are presenting a woman as a Presidential candidate who was
a hairdresser. In Frankfurt (Germany) the Conservatives presented a hairdresser
as their candidate, too. And she became mayor of a city dominated by the
big financial institutions. A populist image, and close connections with
the bankers – it doesn’t seem to go well together, you may think. But it
can be so easy to kid some people.
Within the Democratic Party, the same disillusionment
as in the Republican Party abounds. It let many people change their mind
about the party of FDR, the party that ushered in the New Deal, and that
was for long seen as a defender of the rights of working people, the rights
of immigrants that came from all over the world, and a proponent, in the
1960s, of Civil Rights.
More and more people, disillusioned because they no longer
felt “defended” AND “represented”, chose not to vote. Why switch? Was there
a real alternative? Why vote for the Democratic candidate?
It seemed better to stay at home.
The progressives, within the party, always said, “If you
abstain, if you don’t vote, it only makes things worse. The right
win, and they will dismantle your rights still further.” Of course, that
Unionization and the power of unions have declined. The
trend in labor legislation and the trend within the legal system was to
the disadvantage of the common people, the working people (blue collar,
white collar, and employed professionals). That is to say, the bulk of
the U.S. population suffered. Don’t they command the overwhelming majority
One thing we have to note, however. People who deserted
the Democatic Party because they, in turn, felt deserted by it had good
reason not to expect much from a Democratic election victory. After all,
it’s hard to deny that the centrists in the Democratic Party,
known in the nineteen nineties as the Clintonites, contributed to the attack
on popular rights. They camouflaged the real extent of unemployment. They
dismantled a “welfare state” that by European standards was already very
deficient. And they enjoyed the support of many corporations. It is true
even today. If the Republicans get a lot of support from “Big Oil” for
instance, the Democrats enjoy close ties to “Big Pharma.” Just an example.
In the period leading up to the last presidential election
campaign, and during this campaign, something extraordinary happened inside
the Democratic Party, however. Or would it be more correct to say, “in
its orbit or sphere of influence” – among its sympathizers? The equivalent
of the Tea Party revolt that shook and shocked the Republican establishment
happened. Young people, middle aged and older people with long-standing
sympathies for popular rights organized at the grass-roots level, and they
ended up, in the primaries, by fielding “their” candidate against the centrist
candidate, Hillary Clinton. We must not underestimate the idealism, the
activism, the belief in the possibility to reinvigorate democracy that
energized this campaign, and that was an expression of the hopes and goals
of all those committed activists, in civil rights groups, among political
and labor organizations (some with strong ties to the Chicano community),
among proponents of disarmament, of women’s rights, among college students,
and so on.
They brought out the vote, of so many who – talked to,
convinced – were again filled with hope. The candidate supported by the
grass-roots, by small donations, by efforts to organize or
network via the internet, won. And hopes that “Yes we can! Change! (THINGS
FOR THE BETTER IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA)” were immense. What the
supporters of the man who became President didn’t know was that this man
was a careerist and a “centrist.” That he wasn’t the committed Black social
worker who cared for the poor in South Chicago and Gary, Indiana that so
many had believed he was. That he was a Senator and a university professor
with a family income of – wasn’t it six million dollars per year?
– and a house worth another two million. Not exactly the income (and
property) of an ordinary American but of a man on his way up. Ready to
be coopted by the “elite” just as the Clintons were when Bill was still
on his way to the presidency. Here was a Chicago-based professor specializing
in jurisprudence (and don’t we know that many politicians have first pursued
careers as lawyers in order to build connections to powerful clients?)
who knew how to profit from his image as a “socially concerned” AND “committed”
man, from his image as a “Black American”, from his image as a man who
understood the plight of Chicanos, of Blacks, even of Palestinians in the
West Bank and in Gaza. It was all “image”, it seems; just as George W.’s
joviality was the façade of a smug millionaire who was afraid
that a woman who had just survived Katrina in New Orleans would actually
lean against him, seeking to be comforted, when he came to shake hands
in front of the photographers. You can see it on the picture, how he shrinks
back. As if he could catch the measles. Or worse yet, the smell of ordinary
O yes, some people draw conclusions. Some people learn
from experience. And there is a feeling that the corporations, with all
their money that enables them to co-finance election campaigns and to buy
influence, is betting on two horses, in every election. And whatever the
outcome, they win. Sometimes able to lean on their most favored candidate,
sometimes on their second-best choice.
Doesn’t this describe, in a way, the situation in the
U.S., in Canada, in Australia, in Britain, France, Sweden, Germany, Spain?
Well functioning Politicians: Why many people question
It would probably be unfair to assume that Barack Obama,
as a young man who just graduated from law school, never made his legal
knowledge available to the common people in Chicago. In all likelihood,
he earned a reputation because he served the Black community, because –
in a sense – he did ‘social work.’ And because, even later on, he revealed
a (perhaps genuine) interest in certain political issues, from the question
of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine to questions related to the rights
of working people, of materially (rather than formally) discriminated Black
Americans, and of immigrants, particularly those from South of the Rio
If we return to what’s on in Spain, we can also speculate
that Zapatero, the man who was the head of Spain’s PSOE government during
the last few years, also started out as a genuine democratic socialist.
Or a social democrat, perhaps – but in the old sense of the word that has
been lost by now, betrayed, some say, by social democratic parties all
We can assume that he was a young, enthusiastic militant
and that this, in part, contributed to his career in the party. (And here,
we must remember that at least in parties that attract voters because of
their traditionally ‘progressive’ image, a certain non-fictional “progressive”
element sticking out in your biography is necessary if one is building
the reputation of an advocate of the common people.)
There are other things that further a political career,
such as an astute sense for political situations and for the rapport
des forces, a sense that tells you which is the loosing and which
is the winning side in an intra-party power struggle. Then, of course,
loyalty to those who ‘further’ your career matters, as does network building,
and the outmanoeuvering of possible competitors. An image of being ‘brilliant’
is sometimes very helpful but one cannot generalize. Other images, on other
occasions, may be preferred. But above all, one element seems to matter
almost always when people rise to the top echelons, the leading inner circle
of a hierarchic institution (and political parties in Western democracies
are, in a perhaps somewhat informal way, hierarchic and even bureaucratic
institutions or “political machines”). And this necessary quality in a
man aiming for the top position is his ability to betray his own views
and opportunistically support a different position if only that position
is broadly backed in the influential ‘inner circles’ or commissions of
All this, of course, testifies to the lack of internal
democracy, of real influence of the “party base”, the rank and file, the
ordinary card carrying members, in our “democratic” parties.
A state of affairs that is not good for democracy and
for society as a whole.
Obama was apparently raised in what may have been a working
class or lower middle class family. Given the racism that continues to
exist in our world, being a son of a North American mother and an African
father probably left only to alternatives to a child: Lose confidence and
accept defeat, or resist and grow in terms of self-confidence. His maternal
grandmother seems to have instilled self-confidence in him, too, but the
source of the energy is always in every single human being. This energy,
like a flame, can be suffocated or fanned. It seems that his upbringing,
in a context that was difficult for him – an upbringing that was in a fine
way giving him strength to resist – also is (at least partly) responsible
to the excessive ambition of the man. But more than any parent or grand-parent
who can put too much stress on “achievement”, the dominant ideology or,
in other words, the dominant socio-cultural values emphasize achievement
orientation and value it highly. Such personalities, who rise from small
backgrounds and “make it,” often tend to be particularly harsh in the criticism
of “underdogs” who don’t “make it” and who, such achievers tend to think
very often, deserve all the blame for their failure. It is perhaps foolish
to expect too much empathy or a “social conscience” from such personalities.
Perhaps they can cause less damage as engineers, and are not really ideally
suited for caring professions, or for the position of a leader of a party
that promises to protect those who are described by today’s well-adapted
sociologists as “underprivileged.”
Zapatero, we know, had a grandfather (or do I get the
details wrong and it was an uncle?) who fought on the side of the Spanish
Republic during the Civil War, and who was murdered by the falangists.
It is likely that this conditioned and still conditions, somewhere, in
some hidden layer of his psyche, his emotional stance towards the people.
He knew or must have had an inkling that you can be a
fine, integer, intelligent man and that you can be defeated. That the fairly
good cause does not necessarily triumph. That the putsch brutally carried
out can change life for an entire people, for decades. And that the putschist
leader who is responsible for so many deaths, may at the end die peacefully
in bed. No, he was not asked to stand trial. Nor were his accomplices.
It must have shaken religious and worldly certainties, except possibly
this one: that the integrity and courage of his grandfather (if it was
his grandfather) was admirable, defeat or no defeat. And that it
offered an example.
Strange that such a man has been leading a government
that pushed through measures that trampled on the rights of the people.
It was under his government that special riot police and
the guardia civil (an heritage of general Franco’s dictatorship)
carried out brutal, yet completely unprovoked and unnecessary attacks on
protesting workers (for instance the EADS workers in Cadiz). And more recently,
on peaceful people who took to the streets, forming the new Democracia
real, ya! movement that demands participative democracy and a nationwide
democratic debate of the urgent problems that haunt Spanish society.
If in the old Christian stories, a Saulus could become
a Paulus, obviously a Paulus also can become a Saulus? Or do we see a torn,
defeated man – defeated by circumstance, coincidence, the political structures
that exist, by his own actions and inaction, his own lack of courage to
swim against the current and defy pragmatism?
What is bringing about such change – from idealist youth
to pragmatic, certainly a lot older, leading politician – in political
figures? In a man like Zapatero, a “socialist” who is blamed and called
a traitor in the streets today – and who may have started out quite
honestly as an advocate of people’s rights in his younger years?
There is what some call the “force des choses”:
governments, political leaders find themselves quite often faced with CONTINGENCY,
i.e. situations that one doesn’t know how to handle, given that the political
facts leave little manoeuvering space. But sometimes it would be
better to say, the politico-economic facts pose these hard
obstacles. And this because political decisions of governments that concern
the economy, hit upon – or else, give in to – other, indirectly felt
economic decisions that are pushed through by powerful social forces
outside the government. We all aware of the fact, or might be,
that “the economy” as we know it today (or that faction of the population
which owns and controls the decisive chunks of it) is extremely “political”
in its way of lobbying and voicing requests, also in the socio-economic
effects it produces. And that it is strongly affecting government policies.
Being part of the government machinery, there is enornous
pressure to be “pragmatic.” That is to say, these people feel an
enormous pressure to give in to, and almost pander to, the side that is
stronger: the side that owns and controls the economy.
And this will continue to be so in a democracy as we know
it, as long as the economy is regarded as being “outside the democratic
sphere:” if democracy ends, once you and I, as ordinary citizens, step
through the factory gate or enter our work place in a hospital, a power
plant, the parking lot of a bus company, in a bank, a school or university,
the government will also regard this territory as largely out of bounds,
as more or less outside their control and our control as citizens. With
tied hands – hands tied by laws that largely exempt “the economy”
from democratic control – governments, even so-called progressive
governments are condemned to “co-operate” and listen to the whims and whishes
of corporations. Willy nilly they give in to them, sometimes “willy” (that
is to say, indeed very willing), AND sometimes kind of “nilly.”
It is enough to think of the relatively progressive policies
ushered in by the French government during Mitterrand’s first term as president.
Faced with social programs they rejected, the entrepreneurs, as a solid
bloc, forgetting all their internal antagonisms, went on what amounted
to an investment strike, pursuing a coordinated policy of economic obstruction
that had a bad effect on both the economy and the popularity of the coalition
government. When Mitterrand won the presidential election the second time,
he did it the other way round. This time, he did not take on big business,
offending their interests. He offended those who had believed his progressive
This turn-about is typical of the kind of pragmatism that
many ordinary people have come to see as typical of politicians, and it
is the pragmatism that they loathe.
There exists more than one kind of pragmatism
The word pragmatism can have very different meanings and
implications, however. A politician who sides with the ordinary citizens,
caring to protect and expand their socio-economic rights, can be pragmatic
in that he assesses the possibilities to achieve gains for the people,
and by forming alliances and taking little steps that bring some advances,
step by step, while keeping the broad goal of justice and empowerment of
the disempowered in mind, as a necessary, long-term orientation. Something
like the lighthouse a captain uses for orientation.
The pragmatism that characterizes most politicians
today – and what sweetens it
Today, pragmatism usually means “to cave in”. And this
for personal gain. If we have to betray our erstwhile goals and ideals,
some politicians seem to think, we at least want to live well.
Perhaps in this way it is easier to forget ideals.
Others, having had no “erstwhile ideals”, have wanted
to live well from the start. For a man like Cheney who is worth more
than a hundred million dollars (in fact, several hundred, if the financial
crisis hasn’t wiped out part of his ill-gotten gains), to enter politics
is a way to take care of his business and class interests. For the upstart,
it is a possible way to rise from relatively poor beginnings to at
least, by Cheney’s or Nancy Pelosi’s standards, “modest wealth.”
Actually, political careerism may be more connected with
personal gain, generally, than – in the first place, and in the most narrow
sense of the word – with money.
Personal gain can take on many forms.
Power has a very apparent seductive appeal to certain
people, especially men. (Certain women, in our society, on the hand, are
very much attracted by powerful men, and because sex is another seductive
force, the impulse to strive for positions of power is often reinforced
by the less openly admitted striving for sex. It is enough, today, to think
of Strauss-Kahn, Berlusconi, Sarkozy, Clinton.)
The other seduction, in our society, is money or rather
– to be specific – considerable wealth.
And of course, you know that politicians – like you and
me – are no angels. They are humans, and in our society today, a market-driven,
competitive society, the competitive impulse is engrained (or I should
rather say, it has been encouraged and trained and again encouraged, since
childhood) in many.
Today, the “salaries” of members of parliament are considerable.
Take members of the European Parliament: About 8,000 Euros per month plus
expenses (for staff, office, travels etc.) is a lot.
A member of cabinet, or a head of government earns a lot
more. The logic we, the people, are sold is this: “These people are really
underpaid. If we want the best minds, we have to pay them very well. At
any rate, they could earn even more if they were working for financial
institutions, or in private industry.
Well, many of us ordinary citizens rather note the mediocre
credentials and qualities of governing politicians. And we also note that
not being content to be paid far above the wage or salary of ordinary citizens,
quite a few of them accept “perks” from the very wealthy. We have all read
about Tony Blair who, as Prime Minister, was spending free vacations in
the tropical mansions of rich “friends”, and about French members of cabinet
enjoying a similar hospitality in Tunisia or Morocco. Being so well paid,
they are too stingy to pay for their own vacation. Apart from that, far
more disconcerting corruption scandals are not rare in Western politics.
And this mentality reaches from the top to the bottom.
A well-known oil multi-national financed sex and drug
parties in the very department of the U.S. government that was to oversee
the security of the MNC’s deep-sea drilling operations and that miserably
failed to do so.
A respected liberal senator from South Dakota who endorsed
health reform and might have been named a member of Obama’s cabinet, in
charge of public health, was found to be a lobbyist of “Big Pharma.”
His case is among the less auspicious ones. Just think
of Cheney’s or Rumsfeld’s involvement in corporations like Haliburton,
and the latter company’s lucrative deals in occupied Iraq.
Or the close connections of top Republicans with “Big
Oil” and the military-industrial complex.
In Germany, a country that once boasted that its “Prussian
virtues” outruled corruption of any sort (a myth already in the period
of the empire that lasted from 1871 to 1918), big, oligopolistic energy
corporations (many of them having evolved out of a largely privatized public
utility sector) have been found to invite members of city governments as
well as members of urban parliaments (city councils) and their spouses
to attend meetings “for purposes of information” in locations that are
coveted holiday resorts, whether in Norway or in the Western hemisphere.
In the case of at least one major energy corporation, an alliance
of German cities holds a major stake as public shareholders. But
instead of protecting the interest of the public, and thus customers of
this utility, these elected public servants that sit on the board of directors
of the corporation as representatives of the common good, have apparently
chosen again and again to betray voters and okay policies advocated by
management that bring unwarranted and excessive rate hikes, drive up profits
and basically respect management’s desire to get big bonuses and the parallel
expectations of major private shareowners to receive high dividends.
Similar ties between public servants on the local level
and private business have been found in a number of cities, leading to
publicized scandals in Berlin, Cologne, Wuppertal etc., and implicating
the management of companies active in various sectors (the financial sector;
water; waste management).
In the case of corruption, the public only notices the
tip of the iceberg of course. But it has been admitted that German corporations
have routinely bribed public officials in order to obtain contracts abroad.
This may also be happening inside the country, particularly in the case
of the construction industry. In the case of their dealings in Greece and
in Saudi Arabia, the corruption practiced (perhaps almost routinely
for decades) has come to light in trials. It would be unfair to believe
that Siemens, Mannesmann and Thyssen-Krupp are the only corporations that
deserve our suspicion. In the case of Daimler-Benz (or Mercedes),
the families of “disappeared” shop-stewards murdered by the henchmen
of the dictatorship after Mercedes managers apparently denounced them (if
we believe the side of the victims) also throws a strange light on German
corporations in another respect. They love to corrupt, and they love production
sites in countries run by dicatorial regimes that “offer stability” and
suppress organized labor.
If we continue to look at the German case, we note that
while transnationally operating corporations based in Germany bribed Greek
public servants, a French MNC in all likelihood may have bribed high-ranking
German public servants, although proof has been suppressed in Germany.
At least one Swiss judge investigating the case as well has expressed surprise
at the uncooperative attitude of German legal authorities. I am referring
to the Leuna-Elf Aquitaine case. This case involves the French “Socialist”
government of Mitterrand, too, and in France it has led to a trial and
stiff sentence for a top manager of Elf Aquitaine, the French oil multinational.
In Germany, hard drives on government computers in the German chancellor’s
office have been destroyed and many files have vanished when the head of
government (and chairman of the Christian Democratic Party), Mr. Kohl,
defeated in the national election, left office. Subpoenaed, Mr. Kohl usually
claimed that he “forgot” what he should have known about. Although a commission
was formed in Germany to investigate matters, its Social Democratic
members did not push too hard: Did they fear that their Christian Democratic
‘opposites’ had some as yet undisclosed files about shady deals of the
Social Democratic Party?
The Lessons Learned by the People regarding Privileged
Politicians: O yes, how they live influences the way they feel and think
The common people by and large have their own common sense.
Sometimes common sense misguides and deceives us. But often, it contains
grains of truth, even wisdom. A saying that has the popular ring of such,
common-sense based wisdom maintains that only a man who has gone truly
hungry (and not just for a day, or two, or three – mind you) knows what
it is to be hungry.
In the wake of the Clintonite welfare reforms, many countries
in Europe “reformed” what was called the “welfare state”: Sweden, Holland
and Germany among them.
In an interview printed in the German weekly Die
Zeit, Mr. Schaeuble, a member of the cabinet under Ms. Merkel,
remarked about people on welfare that they should indeed feel the pinch
of hunger. Sie sollen hungern, that was more or less the
essence of what he said.
This means that a man of 37, unemployed for a little more
than a year (in fact, a day more than a year) after 19 years of uninterrupted
employment, gets unemployment benefits for the “long-time unemployed” which
condemns him, his wife, and his children to experience hunger. And this
because the economic crisis is making it impossible for him to find a job.
The same is true of the 50-year-old who gets fired because
he is considered “too old.” Unlike employers in Denmark and the U.S.,
German employers are very averse to considering a person’s true experience
and qualifications once they learn that he has been fired.
But that’s not the point here. The point is, politicians
with high incomes, invited again and again, on official occasions, to exquisite
meals which they don’t pay for, have dared to decide that, in order
to put pressure on unemployed people to find a job, these people
and their families (that are in effect taken hostage) SHOULD FEEL THE PINCH
Of course, Wisconsin was a pioneer in this respect. Of
course, we owe much of it to the Clinton administration. Today, with an
effective UNEMPLOYMENT RATE OF WAY ABOVE TWENTY PER CENT, more than thirty
million people in the U.S. experience what is euphemistically called food
insecurity. The Churches and other groups who run soup kitchens use plain
English. They call it by its true name:
What has all this to do with a debate focused on the privilege
It is quite easy: Those who don’t live like the common
people, don’t know the plight of the common people. Even if they
have risen from their ranks. Those who have made it way up to the position
of a well-paid clerc of the elites sometimes are the worst.
As if they want to distance themselves from their origines. As if they
have to bend over backwards. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the phrase
‘trahison des clercs’ even though the man who coined it (Julian Benda)
had something else in mind.
Edward Dahlberg once wrote that what matters is a society
where we can all “rise with the ranks, not from the ranks.” Not by moving
to heights way above the rank and file and looking down scornfully. Incidentally,
“competitive” ethos of “achievers” who distance themselves from
the “losers” rather than helping them to move along and up, to levels of
more knowledge, more understanding, more empathy, more love and mutual
cooperation, is – and has been – the basic ideological tenet of social
democracy: THEY CALL IT “EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES” or in some countries “EQUALITY
OF CHANCES.” Yes, we know, the kid crippled in childhood during a work
accident and the nurtured offspring of well-to-do parents who has practiced
tennis since he was ten can both be given an equal chance to win a tennis
match. And the girl from the cabin behind the tracks, and the other girl,
the professor’s daughter, have the same legal chance to earn a Ph.D.; thank
you for such largesse.
Other lessons we might learn
I HAVE ANOTHER PROPOSITION: LET’S ASSUME THAT ALL MEN
ARE CREATED EQUAL, that they have the same right and longing to lead happy
lives, that happiness does not mean riches and power but decency and friendliness
and readiness to lend a helping hand to those who grieve, who are in need,
to Lazarus in the ditch by the roadside. Let’s assume that compensatory
justice means that the crippled kid (and kids can be mentally as well as
physically crippled, by adults and by circumstances) NEEDS MORE CARE, ATTENTION,
HELP, SUPPORT than the kid that found itself in a luckier situation. Let’s
assume that instead of teaching our bright kid to get ahead and leave the
others behind, we could give him an example by which he would perhaps
comprehend that deep down inside him, inside all of us, there are not only
selfish urges. There is also a need, alive in you and me, in every one,
to extent a helping hand. An urge to be friendly. An urge to truly share.
And, you know, as far as sharing insights and knowledge with others is
concerned, you don’t loose anything. Emotionally, culturally, socially,
you as well as the Others gain.
This of course is a slow way of getting to the point.
I remember how the press in Europe gleefully informed
its readers how
Castro was buying Alfa Romeo cars for all the officers
of the Cuban army.
Apparently these journalists and their editors rejected
such “buying of loyalty.”
Whether their report was accurate, I don’t know.
These days, I often read in the papers about corrupt politicians
in China, recently also about Mubarak’s way of plundering the Egyptian
people, and so on.
Apparently, corrupt politicians are not okay.
But the people who take to the streets in Spain protest
against corruption among the politicians, and apparently the press is not
eager to uncover so very much, in this respect. In France and Germany and
Italy and even in the U.S., many ordinary citizens don’t feel comfortable
about the close connection between people in public office and private
business. There are many ways to practice corruption. One way is to give
office holders who favor a certain corporation a well-paid job when the
person is no longer in office, a nice and also a costly way of saying THANK
YOU. But of course the bill has usually been paid in advance by the public,
and the THANK YOU is just the cut that the complying politician gets, post
festum. Apart from the revolving door practice which, in the described
case, is just a door from a well-paid public job to a position in
private enterprise that grants an even better income as you approach retirement
age, there are other ways to “repay” so-called servants of the public for
illicit favors. You can give their spouse, the daughter or son, their niece,
nephew, sister or brother a well-paid job. Sometimes even an ordinary job
seems to suffice, at a time of elevated unemployment and even higher youth
unemployment. The system of corruption and of related practices even extends
to the public media. You would be surprised in the U.S., how many people
which may well be sons and daughters of important politicians work today
for public radio and television in Europe. When you hear the all too
familiar names, it rings a bell. In Germany, for instance, the two major
political parties have a major supervisory role in the public media sector.
Their delegates sit on supervisory boards, and it makes it easy for them
to secure well-paid jobs for party members. Perhaps also for politicians
who are defeated in an election, or for the offspring of politicians.
In a way, a competition-based social ethics and economic
practice is bound to have such results.
Competition is a social attitude than can have damaging
effects for a person and for a group, for a community.
I never understood how Ernesto “Che” Guevara could write
a letter to his daughter, admonishing her to “be always the first.” It
puts such pressure on kids, it isolates them. It’s good that you want to
learn. But why overtake others, rather than helping them to comprehend
problems posed? Isn’t it more humane, more joyous and more creative to
find answers in a group, sharing your discoveries? Which doesn’t exclude
individual thought. Yes, you dream or daydream all by yourself. And the
rhythm of day and night, of waking and sleeping, can find its analogy in
the rhythm of withdrawal, when you are on your own, reading,
thinking, musing, faced perhaps with unanswered questions, and of
joining others, when you share insights, when you listen and speak,
when you learn in a group, when you debate.
In East Germany, the ordinary people were rightly furious
because of the privileges enjoyed by their leadership. The West German
press was glad to expose them. The head of government owned a modest home
in Wandlitz, at the Berlin periphery. He drove a Swedish car, I think,
a Saab. It caused anger. Yes, I understand those angry East Germans. After
all, their leaders preached water (or frugality, in a difficult period)
and drank wine. But the privileges of the East German head of state were
about the same as those of a manager of a mildly profitable company with
some 200 or 250 workers in a West German provincial town. Why isn’t real
privilege, of noteworthy dimensions, critiqued – in our societies?
Have you seen the palace that the president of the republic resides in,
in Germany? Have you noticed how office holders routinely use planes specifically
reserved for official use, regardless of prohibitive cost, rather than
traveling by car or train? Have you witnessed the almost feudal style of
their meetings in Canadian, Swiss, German, French or other resorts that
so-called world leaders take for granted? Have you seen how they fear the
public, ordinary citizens, when their limousines pass along an avenue?
No king or dictator would ask for more protection from “his” people.
More thoughts about money – the money ordinary people
demand, and the money that those supposedly serving them, the politicians,
Recently, I listened to the song of a Berlin based rock
The lead singer was singing or rather shouting angrily,
I want money.
A very sincere song.
A very reactionary song, too. Or should I say, regressive?
Certain psychologists tend to identify this desire as
an “anal” desire.
Forget about Freud.
Return to political common sense.
As long as you and I have to pay the rent and get no bread
without paying for it, and cannot replace worn shoes without buying new
ones with money, we will ask to be paid for our labor, and decently enough
because we want to lead decent lives. We also want decent unemployment
benefits as long as people become unemployed due to company restructuring,
due to a crisis, due to the fact that a company is “relocating”. In other
words due to reasons that at present we can do nothing about, or let’s
say, very little. We also want decent pensions when we are old. We want
it for ourselves, and for our sisters and brothers. That is, for our fellow-man,
our fellow-being, for mankind.
But money is like a drug. Who hasn’t thought about the
possibility to win a million in the lottery? Why has it become an “American
dream” that you can wash the dishes today, in a country of allegedly unlimited
possibilities, and that you can be a millionaire tomorrow?
But, mind you, the millionaire, even though he proclaims
to give others “work,” is involved in a redistribution scheme. In effect,
without knowing it, he steals the bread out of the mouth of the hungry.
His tax cuts are the other side of a story that can be called: “Hunger
The question of bread was at the heart of the democracy
movement in Northern Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt. It started it all,
hunger for bread and thirst for freedom.
Today, in Spain, where people are taking to the streets
and plazas, you read placards saying:
ni pan, ni
[Without fighting, no bread and no liberty.]
And others say :
[With bread, peace.]
What people really need, is so simple, so essential. FOOD,
CLOTHING, SHELTER, awareness of and access to and immersion in CULTURE.
And they need human warmth, rather than competition,
They need courage to emancipate themselves, and to take
the conditions of their lives into their own hands. As far as that is humanly
And, yes – whether it’s the ecology, climate change
or mass unemployment, whether it’s war, millionfold hunger, or other such
issues, you soon learn that you cannot solve things alone. These are problems
we can only tackle together.
The quest for more real, participative democracy voiced
in Spain is about all these things…
When these people focus on immediate questions – the reduced
pensions of old workers, the insufficient wages earned by many who have
been pushed out of ordinary and into part-time jobs, the plight of youngsters
when the unemployment rate of those under 26 years-of-age is 45 per cent
– it is not waxing rich that they have in mind: it is the quest to survive,
and the longing to lead decent, normal lives.
Yes, but money can seduce: LIKE A DRUG, it can take
control of your life. Is that the case with top bank managers who earn
up to 30,000 Euros per day? Is that the case with politicians who
play in another league, yet receive incomes way above what normal working
people would ever get? And still, so many are susceptible to “perks” –
and perhaps not immune to attempts to “buy influence”, in other words,
efforts that intend to corrupt.
It is understandable perhaps that many ordinary people
distrust politicians. That they think mechanism of public control that
make greater transparency likely, are needed.
Politicians being like us, temptable, seducable – but
much more exposed to the danger of being seduced – need to accept such
increased transparency and society’s interest to closely monitor their
and their spouses entire financial affairs.
It is true, their penchant for honesty, by and large,
In Hungary, a particularly honest “socialist” prime minister
(and the term socialist, today, in Europe, among its politicians
and in the media, always means New Labour, a tendency
and policy that is right-wing, neoliberal “social democratic,”
in a way “Clintonite”) told party delegates at a closed meeting that he
lied to the voters about the actual deficit. The press got wind of it.
For good reason, he lost the next election although those who won were
probably worse, and simply too clever to speak about their lies.
In Germany, a high-ranking social democrat, a member
of cabinet under chancellor Schroeder, told the press publicly that “you
can’t take seriously what I promise during an election campaign.” These
are not his exact words, but it’s the essence of what he said.
Ordinary people knew that all along, with regard to –
more or less – all politicians. They lie. They promise this and that and
then let you down.
In Germany, a member of the Free Democratic Party (they
are right-of-center “liberals”) who was also a member of cabinet under
chancellor Merkel apparently told a closed meeting of businessmen recently,
the government’s public statement shouldn’t be taken seriously that several
aged nuclear power plants would be shut down temporarily and perhaps for
good. It was only because of the (at the time) UPCOMING STATE ELECTION
in South West Germany that such promises were being made, he said.
The press got wind of it. The Free Democrats and the
Christian Democrats of Ms. Merkel lost the election in the South West.
There is something that’s comforting and reassuring in
the fact that the public expects integrity, and that some investigative
journalism still survives in a media world dominated by infotainment.
Yes, people in Spain have a right to distrust parties,
politicians and their politics. And because both parties and politics will
probably stay on, they want checks and balances. They want to increase
public control. They want a more direct, democratic, participative say
of the people, especially in those 4 x 365 days between elections. Because
they note that many politicians profess loyalty to the people, and profess
that they will serve the people, and then they get elected and turn their
back on the people, serving other masters.
SO IT’S CLEAR WHY THE IDEA IS VOICED TO LET PEOPLE
TAKE DEMOCRATIC DECISIONS BETWEEN ELECTIONS - WHENEVER A PROBLEM
OR ISSUE THAT CONCERNS THEM COMES UP. They don’t want things to be decided
under the table, they don’t want envelopes with money that are handed over
under the table. They don’t want promises exchanged between government
people and private parties that remain secret, kept out of sight of the
public. They want all the cards on the table, they want to determine the
rules of the game democratically, and they want the possibility of having
the final say if necessary.
And for the same reason they want incomes of well-paid
politicians reduced and transparency increased. If these people think they
wouldn’t earn enough, okay then, nobody forces them to run for office.
Also, all this business of campaign contributions (above,
should I say, 2 dollars per week and person), of using personal wealth
for campaigns, and all that lobbyism has to go. At least this sums up what
many concerned, ordinary people today think and feel.
This does not mean that there are a number of people (and
they are certainly a large number of people, out in the streets today)
who want to dictate such “solutions” to the rest of the country.
They rather sense that they are merely enunciating what
many others think as well. And if they come to the ASSEMBLIES that are
attended by both young and old, by non-working and working people, what
they do is a kind of brainstorming. They encourage each other to share
ideas, to utter concerns, to voice grievances, to suggest possible solutions.
And all that they voice and publish in the social networks can be regarded
AS NO MORE AND NO LESS THAN EARNESTLY DEBATED SUGGESTIONS, for the rest
of their compatriots, sympathizers, friendly and unfriendly critics. Let
them take up the invitation to debate, and to reach democratic decisions
in ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand public assemblies. And then let’s
have a referendum on all that, a referendum on every major issue. By the
people, directly, without the intermediaries that will continue to perform
a more limited function in parliament: ONE THAT WILL BE EXPOSED TO PUBLIC
CONTROL AND CHECKED BY THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO REACH DECISIONS
BY DIRECT VOTE IN A REFERENDUM.
We know there are also dangers involved. Think of all
the propositions that voters in California were asked to
vote on. Demagogues could suggest legislation curtailing the rights of
children of illegal immigrants, for instance the right to education or
to obtain health services. The press, in the hands of the few, could incite
division among the common people. We are far from finding perfect solutions,
and there never will be perfect solutions. But we can ask, as a people,
that we the people are given a real voice and a real say, so we can regain
our trampled on dignity and can finally begin to take the conditions of
our daily lives into our own hands.
It is this quest that is at the heart of the democracy
movement in Spain today, just as it is at the root of the democracy movements
in Egypt, in Tunisia… Or in various corners of Germany where more and more
people who had been embracing single issues like opposition to various
wars, ecological needs, anti-nuclear resistance, the plight of the unemployed,
are discovering that the political process bypasses and disempowers them.
A fact that leads spontaneously to a new quest for participative democracy.
But then, of course, this is a demand that is taken serious today in far
more countries. In fact, from India to Brazil and Canada, from the U.S.
to China, more people than ever are awake today and asking for change.
And for the right to determine its goals and course.
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