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Saturday, January 29, 2005

That's not what democracy looks like

I notice that Dog Stew has linked to my earlier post below on South Korean democracy (thanks are in order) and the subsequent discussion between myself and Skip. I have to say that although this discussion was useful, I was slightly disappointed that it got stuck on the details of what happened in Kwangju in 1980, on which myself and Skip obviously could not agree.

Under the current circumstances it would certainly be interesting to have a more wide-ranging discussion on the meaning of democracy and the strategic orientation of the US government toward it. There is no doubt that the US has staked much ideologically on the word 'democracy' using it as a sort of psychological pressure point designed to be repeated endlessly, eliciting a pavlovian response from the Fox-addled masses, but devoid of meaning. Zeynep Toufe of Under the Same Sun puts it thus:
All these precious words have now become something akin to brand names: "democracy," "freedom," "liberty," "empowerment." They don't really mean anything; they're just the names attached to things we do.
It should be obvious in the Iraqi case that free and meaningful elections under military occupation are highly unlikely. But when the occupying force has also recently destroyed an entire city, turning its residents into refugees, is backing its own favourite to the tune of millions of dollars and has an 'ambassador' who just happens to have run deathsquads in El Salvador and plans a reprise, then... (I'd like to add that even the limited and highly compromised form of democracy offered to the Iraqis this weekend could still cause as many problems for the occupiers as it solves. See the interesting recent discussion between Alex Callinicos and Gilbert Achcar on this at ZNet).

So the word democracy, as used around us on a thousand media outlets, is nothing more than an ideological tool in the armory of US imperialism. Of course US client states with a democratic veneer can also be strategically useful, but the US (and the UK of course) will quite happily settle for any sort of compliant regime, veneer or no (Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Uzbekistan... how much time to we have?).

The word democracy literally means 'people power' and we know that if the people of the world had real power over the things that affect their lives Iraq would not be occupied and Bush, Blair et al certainly would not be in power. The important point is, as Callinicos pointed out recently at a conference, we urgently need to contest and reclaim the word democracy. We need to refill it with meaningful content. All significant steps forward in democracy from the Chartists to the South Korean movement have had to be taken by the people themselves. Imperialist powers have this odd tendency to have their own strategic interests in mind when they intervene in other countries. They don't tend to provide the necessary conditions for democracy to flourish, even by accident.


At February 01, 2005 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd be curious if you claim that the past three presidential elections in Korea are not really true forms of democracy. After all, the US military is still in South Korea.

At February 01, 2005 3:10 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Well... there certainly are come people who would claim that Korea is under occupation and a semi-colonised country. But I think that is nonsense to be honest. South Korea is not under US military occupation - there is a big difference between having troops stationed somewhere and occupying an entire country and running it from behind the scenes as they are in Iraq.

The US government does have quite a bit of influence over whatever government is in power in South Korea and I'm sure that they also support their Korean political allies in various clandestine ways. However, that is completely different to what has been happening in Iraq.

One more point: I'm not on the other hand claiming that the Koreans have achieved a perfect democratic system either. I think there is still a process going on and Korean politics is still plagued by regionalism, clientilism, and a general lack of politics based on principles and policies. Although elections in South Korea reflect to some extent the wishes of the population, people still need to defend their democratic rights on the streets as they did last year when President Roh was impeached.


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