Real Democracy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

This is an extended version of a comment I left on the Irish Times website in response to an article by Fintan O’Toole, which is titled What’s the Big Idea? It’s time for the State to consider a real democracy.

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It’s timely that Fintan O’Toole should be writing about the idea of real democracy on exactly the same day that Fine Gael Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan conjures up the image of a “vast majority” of anti-water charges protesters “led by forces who have no regard for democracy”.

What Flanagan’s perspective illustrates is the prevailing attitude towards democracy on the part of Ireland’s political elites. The mass public opposition to water charges does not emerge from a sense of injustice or from a sense of anger at being made to pay once again for the corruption and greed of Ireland’s political and economic elites. No: it is because protesters and by extension the people at large do not know their own mind, they are easily led, and the government always know best.

If we are going to talk about real democracy, then we should be talking about the concentration of political and economic power. How is it, for instance, that GMC Sierra, the company tasked with installation of Irish Water meters, is owned by the same individual who is also the key shareholder in Independent News and Media, as well as a host of national radio stations? The fact that a billionaire can exercise such influence over public affairs is incompatible with real democracy. In fact, the idea that some people can be billionaires whilst others live in situations of deprivation and poverty is entirely at odds with the idea of democracy that has been fought for by countless millions since the 19th century, in the Easter Rising, in the Spanish Civil War, and in the Second World War. None of this, of course, troubles Charlie Flanagan or the rest of his party, who supported the fascists when they were running rampant. Nor the Labour Party, for that matter.

We should also be talking about how Ireland’s political parties have a very dubious track record, not just in terms of their general attitude, but also in terms of legislation when it comes to matters of censorship and free speech. Even more important, the prevailing idea of democracy in Ireland is that the only truly legitimate form of participation in democratic political life is voting every now and again, and in the space between one election and the next it is a matter of submitting to the will of the Cabinet, or the Economic Management Council, with just enough farcical attempts at public consultation to get over the hump of occasional opposition.

What is more, it is also clear that Ireland’s political, economic and media elites have no interest in extending the idea of democracy into the economic realm, whether in terms of material equality and dignity, or in terms of collective ownership of vital resources or the means of production. Democracy by their lights means that the economic realm should be kept separate from political intervention, except when it’s a matter of suppressing the rights of workers, of stripping away entitlement to health, education and welfare supports, of prioritising the financial sector over the interests of the population at large, and of sending in the police to batter protesters.

So, the first step, then, in talking about real democracy, is to recognise that what passes for democracy, right now, is a complete fake. It means recognising that everyone has the right to participation in political life and to a decent and fulfilled life. And it means realising that the representation of the public as unthinking violent hordes has to be brought to an end. Recent days have shown that Ireland’s elites are not up to such tasks. In fact, they are dedicated to frustrating them, and they are therefore the major obstacle to the ‘real, vibrant, engaged, republican democracy‘ that Fintan O’Toole quite rightly advocates.

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