The western world in which we live embraced democracy in the aftermath of the Second World War, an era that held much promise for the further evolution of mankind into a free and intelligent species finally capable of breaking the shackles of the past.

The new millennium has, however, brought different challenges with it that threaten to reverse the process. Mostly, they take the form of ancient, regressive belief systems imported from less progressive parts of the world, the unrelenting pressures of corporate globalisation and disillusionment with the parliamentary system that is at the heart of our modern way of life. Democracy, therefore, remains as much an embattled ideal as ever.

There was a time when, at least in the prosperous, advanced countries of the world, we believed that the days of tyranny, warfare and barbarism belonged to a distant past.

Now we’re not so sure; in many ways it seems as if the world is regressing, from the rise of fundamentalist Islam to the less militant but often equally conservative Orthodox Judaism, neo-conservative Christianity and hard-line Hinduism.

Such belief systems are questioning much of the scientific progress made over the past century and a half, and in the process plunging us back into a world of dogma and superstition, not to mention intolerance. Is our parliamentary democracy really free? The current backlash comes in the midst of ever-faster technological advance and change.

In other words, the gap between science and large sections of the world’s people is growing rapidly, and some might say the accelerating rate of change is creating a sense of uncertainty and instability that is causing many to seek refuge in old certainties.

The gap between ‘normal’ citizens, businesses and even countries on the one hand and the ever more powerful globalised corporations on the other is also growing continuously, and with it the disparity between rich and poor.

In economic terms we are in the midst of what is called Creative Destruction, and while much of this replacing of the old with the new is driven by technological development, many feel disenfranchised by an economic and political system that allows them to vote but doesn’t listen to them. So what is democracy anyway?

Democracy is a word and concept derived from classical Greece, where a democratic system complete with a legislative assembly evolved some 2,500 years ago. Ok, women, slaves, foreigners and non-landowners were not included, but then neither were they in medieval Iceland, home of the Althing, the oldest existing parliament, established in 930.

Originally designed to be a system with checks and balances in which the elected executive government is responsible to the law-making parliamentary organ, itself made up according to election results, its judiciary arm provides a legal filter right at the end.

In the modern scenario, the power of the executive has indeed been curtailed, but often at the expense of rendering both it and parliament ineffectual in the face of the judiciary, which is spinning a stifling legal spider web around not just those parts of government that unlike itself have actually been elected by the people, but also around society as a whole.

Yes, and then there are the supranational institutions, such as the EU and UN, which add yet another layer of bureaucracy and prescription without actually being able to contribute to major issues such as the environment, drug and people trafficking or the standardisation of international norms and regulations.

True democracy There is no single definition of true democracy. For some it is the system of direct involvement practiced by the Swiss, for others more or less government intervention, Communism, Authoritarianism, Theocratic states, post-liberal secular welfare states where the main concern is with gay people and minorities, conservative central government where the principal focus is on the wealthy and corporations, constitutional monarchy, absolute monarchy, qualified franchise, Libertarianism, Anarchism and many more.

As the world and its problems – and solutions – grow ever more complex, our instinctive desire to seek remedy in old answers will increasingly fall short of our needs. This said, an overly complex legal web does not provide a satisfactory system either, especially since its protagonists are unknown and unelected.

At a time when the concept of democracy is being questioned and the perfect political and economic system remains as elusive as ever, I believe the basic tenets of it to be quite simple – namely that any system which calls itself democratic should provide personal liberty and safety to its citizens, but in return demand responsibility, participation and a commitment to the greater good from them. In other words, any system is only successful when the social contract upon which it was founded is alive and well.

Words Michel Cruz


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