Sovereignty of the people or democracy for the few?


Justice may be blind, but we can't be. Photo: Dan4th via Flickr.

Western industrial civilization is normally held up as the epitome of justice and democracy. Yet, a brief glance at the current state of the world gives us good reason to question this assumption.

Start by examining the ideas of justice and democracy. They’re both ambiguous and often disputed concepts.

Still, our basic understanding is straightforward enough as a starting point for examining society.

The people’s government

Democratic government denotes a system in which the decision about leadership is in the hands of the people. Random House’s English dictionary defines democracy as

…a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

What we mean by the concept of  justice is less obvious, and may vary significantly depending upon the context in which the term is used. However, when discussing just societies, we basically mean what’s known in political science as “distributive justice.” A just society ensures that its people are free from oppression; that all citizens have equal access to available resources, the same basic rights, and that no person without due cause may be excluded from that which these rights guarantee.

Therefore, justice and democracy presuppose one another in a fundamental way: a society in which the ultimate power can be said to be vested in the people, cannot lack the basic equality which guarantees every human being the same rights, the same influence and the same opportunities.

Similarly, a system in which the actual power to influence society and its processes of change isn’t essentially equally distributed among the people, can’t be called “just.”

These basic starting points give us a useful tool, by which we may critically examine the form of society under which the majority of Western people today live.

Power structures

For that purpose I intend to focus upon what I define as the most important apparatuses of power in industrial societies, and compare the functions of these, as well as the manner in which they’re controlled, to our understanding of the concepts of democracy and justice.

The apparatuses in question are: the industries of information and finance, governmental legislatures, and the military and police forces of the sovereign states.

When I talk about the information industry, I mean institutions like the mass media, school and university systems, the publishing industry, organized religion – even forms of culture such as sports and theater. All of these produce or communicate the basic information which underlies the manner in which each one of us perceive and understand the world around us.


The omnipresent information industry provides us with the foundations of our thinking, as well as a majority of our opinions. Producers of information interpret the world and let us know which problems exist and what may be done to solve them. But the perspectives are limited, and the public has little say regarding which ideas are to be purveyed or not.

Most mass media is in the hands of a very small number of private interests. A single person sometimes succeeds in communicating an opinion within this framework. The problem is that only a handful of individuals directly control what several million (or several billion) people may see, read and hear, and as such have nearly unlimited influence over which points of view are focused upon and which are by and large excluded.

Add to this that privately owned media corporations function for profit, are accountable to shareholders, and are by law obliged to maximize their income by whatever means necessary, and what appears is a media climate in which public influence and public good has been seriously undermined. The opportunities for truly objective and open debates becomes severely limited.

We don’t need no education

Schools have a similar problem.

Schools are a necessary source of objective and relevant knowledge, lovingly bestowed upon children by society so that they may efficiently function as responsible and informed adults. In many ways this is often the case – compassionate and inspired teachers heroically attempt to equip youngsters with indispensable skills and knowledge. At the same time, the basic purpose, and the main principles of organized schooling, don’t necessarily serve the interests of the people at large.

Originally, the purpose of modern schooling was to produce useful workers. Its primary function is still a way to foster familiarity with, and a submission to, the dominant system of production. It also provides the necessary skills for most types of labor within its context.

Offering the knowledge necessary for citizens in a vibrant, healthy democracy – the experiences and the abilities that empower us to question, criticize and improve upon our political and societal structures – is unfortunately almost always of secondary importance.

Some independent schools offer an admirable exception, but the same basic pattern of education often remains in others. A top priority is to imbue kids with an appropriate work ethic, foster obedience to societal hierarchy, and to relate cultural narratives about humanity. These stories are generally politically relevant, such as the story of the value of our industrial society’s growth-based market economy, or the value of technological development over other values.

American educational theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman argued in The End of Education that the purpose of education today had been reduced to providing the general public with the basic stories of our culture, intended to create a sense of meaning, and that schools today are in many ways equivalent to organized religion.

Whether or not it’s possible to reform schools is up to the reader to decide. But the general public, including the countless young people who every day, constantly under the veiled threat of various forms of violence, are forced to submit to the organized schooling of industrial society, has practically no influence upon its most basic purposes and goals. Even worse – we can’t readily withdraw from it.

Show me the money

The financial industry offers more of the same. As an apparatus of power, it exerts an even greater and much more explicit concentration of influence.

The miniscule group of players handling, marketing and producing currency, securities and other money substitutes (to a certain extent elected governments, but mainly private banks and other corporations) holds an enormous influence over the distribution and allocation of resources in our society.

Within the generous limits of international trade treaties and agreements, these entities shape investment trends, wielding great power over prices and wages. This happens without much public knowledge, at great distances from the local communities, and without any possibility of interference from the people.

Nationally elected officials haven’t been able to provide efficient safeguards against volatile securities and financial instruments, as the US subprime crisis and its consequences clearly revealed.

Sovereign states are also at the mercy of influential, private financial institutions that often own large parts of a nation’s private, corporate and national debt along with its resources. The investment policies of such institutions influence currency exchange rates, and in the long term the general economy of many nations, which are often prohibited from letting policy stray from the course set by financial giants.

We the people?

National legislatures are traditionally considered to be the basic protective measure against such unhealthy concentrations of power in the hands of private interests.

In principle they do have considerable opportunities to limit the influence of said interests, but in practice, the role of the legislator is tangibly circumscribed. The short-term interests of the state (and the political parties in power) are often inseparable from those of the dominant financial and corporate entities – their main goal is economic stability and growth no matter what.

Legislators are also elected within the framework of the ideological and political structures of established political parties. These structures change very slowly, without much active interference on behalf of the public. This has too often removed the legislatures from direct democratic influence; private individuals and public interest groups without lobbying resources have little influence upon the appointment of lawmakers, or the decisions made by them.

In countries which allow open list-elections or have similar systems in place for appointing lawmakers, independent members comprise a small minority, and only very rarely have an opportunity to tip the scales in any decision.

The media holds great sway over legislatures through unchecked lobbying. This is mainly considered a threat to democracy in the United States, but also happens in Europe – even in traditionally social democratic states such as Nordic countries. Much of the scientific basis for decision making in these parliaments is financed, and often produced by, lobbyists.

Uniform violence

Where does this leave the military and police forces – the tools of violence of the sovereign states?

Police forces protect citizens and property form harm, as well as uphold and enforce the law. Thus, the police have a conservative function; the distribution of property (and thereby of economic power) present in a certain society is preserved by the police forces, and protected from any extra-parliamentary redistribution attempts, which are criminalized.

If property and influence are justly distributed, the police will in theory work to preserve this order. But the same is obviously true if the distribution is immoral and unjust. This implies that police forces, upholding the status quo, often may have functions which are at odds with the interests of democracy as such.

Military forces roughly function as an equivalent of the police, excepting that it’s not to the same extent bound to enforce the law, and of course may be employed to further the interests of the state beyond its own borders.

The general public only has an indirect influence over the police forces. Same with the military, though even less so.

“Something is rotten in the state…”

All of this is cause for great worry to those who favor liberal democracy.

We often accept the flaws in our system, believing it’s generally just and fair, and that the imbalances will be corrected as society progresses.

But that’s not what the evidence shows.

Four of the most crucial aspects of power in western states are essentially free from public influence. These institutions are hierarchically structured, and are themselves governed by the oligarchical norms, by the influence of very few. And most of that is plutocracy, or rule by the rich.

In spite of this, the myth that the western world is chiefly a democratic society, persists. And that doesn’t square with the facts,

In reality, the western world isn’t really democratic at all. Showing up at the voting booth isn’t enough to constitute democracy.

The majority of political influence is in the hands of private interests. There’s little accountability to the people once the corporate interests take over.

What we have instead, is a thin, marginally democratic superstructure; a veneer which the general public to some extent may influence – but which itself has a very limited power over the actual tools of control.

A definition of this form of government, where the economy is dominated by a small number of agents, who at the same time exert massive sway over the dominant media is, unfortunately, a form of totalitarianism, however cleverly disguised under the appearance of freedom.

Totalitarian societies are characterized by rigid, centralized control over mass media, as well as a central management of the economy and productive forces. Western society fulfills these criteria more than amply (though social media provides a notable exception and avenue for popular disruption), and it does so across national borders, affecting society and politics. And all this is under the private agents — private enterprise — which caters to its own interests, not that of the public at large.

In A Preface to Democratic Theory, Robert A. Dahl coined the term “polyarchy” (also known as polycracy) to describe a system in which the ultimate power is wielded by a handful of individuals. And that’s what we have today. Power in the western world has considerably more similarities to polyarchy than to our notions of democracy.

Dahl argued that the United States (as well as those the majority of the western world) could be defined as a “democratic polyarchy,” since it was governed by a small group of formally elected representatives.

But considering the character and the influence of the international, centralized control systems discussed above, the pervading form of government today appears more as a totalitarian polycracy, with marginal democratic and egalitarian elements, mostly superficial.

The myths that persist

The idea that most Western states are truly democratic, is chiefly mythological. Yet it’s not an edifying myth, but rather a damaging one that fools us into believing that the illusion of democracy is the real thing.

Deluding ourselves about the character of our so-called democracies impairs an open, critical discussion regarding the problems of power distribution in our society. We ought to leave this mythology behind, and instead aspire to describe our institutions with reference to the actual realities of power; in regard to what actual influence common people have in their societies.

It’s time that the Western public joined forces with the worldwide civil rights movements, such as Occupy and the wave of Middle Eastern and North African protests and rebellion, in a shared struggle to build more just, compassionate and sustainable societies.

We must question the myths and half-truths that influence our understanding of the world around us. We often feel these stories as both harmful and untrue, but we cling to them for meaning, safety and context in an often unpredictable and hostile environment.

If we put on blinders, we’re placing the future in the hands of a very small number of people who lack the interest or will to serve the interests of the majority.

Yet, an inspiring atmosphere is spreading among people. It takes the form of a critical disposition which, unlike the ironic nihilism of the past generation, wants to try to find some sort of meaning.

Today’s democratically engaged participant wants to create justice and self-determination for all people, even though the mode to achieve this remains unformed. It’s a rather naïve disposition, and therefore vulnerable. It risks exploitation by well managed propaganda, devised to channel and dissipate dissidence and the longing for change before it results in concrete activism.

Turning a weakness into a strength

Yet, in the end, this naïvety may yet become beneficial.

The endeavor towards meaningful change might not be hampered by the defeats of past generations, nor disheartened by the enormous challenges every struggle to actually change society meets.

Perhaps it might instead become a truly informed, radical reform movement that seeks to preserve its childlike, yet robust hope that a better world always is possible. Such “beginner’s mind” would thereby inspire people to seek actual change.

But before any change is at all possible, we need to start examining the fundamental disconnect at the heart of our notions of self-governance, of democracy and justice.

We must have the courage to scrutinize our system and stop accepting the descriptions of reality served up without ever checking the facts ourselves. Social media offers ample tools to do this. Yet even as we enjoy such unprecedented opportunity, and in spite of access to more information than any other group of people throughout all of history, we seem to be among the very least informed, and most stringently controlled.

This can’t continue.

We have no other choice but to start over anew, and ask ourselves these most basic of questions regarding how our society is really organized, where we are going, and what we need to be doing if we want to go in the direction that most of us actually desire.

The myth no longer holds. A society cannot be just, and in any meaningful way governed by and for the people, if a very small minority owns and controls practically all existing resources.

And that society is neither just nor democratic when that same hyper-minority wields almost all economic and political power in a system whose main purpose has shrunk away from the public good, and moved instead to insure the private accumulation of capital, by any means necessary, for that self-same few.

Is rejecting such a blatant farce really so hard to do? We have it in us, if we #Occupy the truth, fearlessly.

–Johann Eddebo, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    “And that society is neither just nor democratic when that same hyper-minority wields almost all economic and political power in a system whose main purpose has shrunk away from the public good, and moved instead to insure the private accumulation of capital, by any means necessary, for that self-same few.
    Is rejecting such a blatant farce really so hard to do?”

    Yes. People do whatever they are most comfortable with, until they can’t. The development of our huge system, ‘where the rich get richer because we buy their stuff’, has ridden a wave of Convenience for the masses. The only way to reject it is the hard way: to either let it fail or make it fail. It cannot be ‘fixed’ because there is no scenario where it doesn’t accumulate resources and deny those resources to the masses. Making it even harder is the sheer size and massive consumption that has already taken place. Every fertile junction of rivers, every port city, every fertile area of land has been turned into a tool of consumerism and commerce, rather than an accumulation of skills and people serving each other. The rejection of this system requires first an internal battle with ourselves over our tolerance of oppression/conformity vs. the rewards of comfort and money. IF we come out of that battle alive or conscious, we then have to battle our peers and society for a place to live outside of their Story. If we are very lucky, we will find a place with like-minded people who have already been through the first part (rather than just deluded by their ‘love’ and ‘herbs’), and who have useful skills to share with each other.
    This Transition is not going to be a matter of “going back” to some better time or just “becoming” other people. It will be a war like no other. It will be the war between humanity’s delusions and Nature’s realities. Nature ALWAYS wins these battles. Humanism is her enemy. That doesn’t bode well for most of the psychology of the Occupy movement.

    • Johan says

      I see your point, and I agree that the inevitable transition will be a far greater challenge than any group of people has faced in our recent history (with perhaps a few exceptions). And just as you imply, in regard to this outlook, it becomes imperative that we do everything in our power to enable the creation of other narratives than that of civilizations dominator culture – which finally seems to be crumbling under its own weight. But a necessary part of such narratives, in my opinion, is the avoidance of such dichotomies as the one between, say, “nature” and “humanism”, and the search for more holistic descriptions of reality.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the essay, your comment is much appreciated.

  2. says

    Excellent essay that gets to the core of the matter…justice and democracy. If you have not read Plato’s Republic, that is the question he asks … particularly where he describes the structures of various ‘Imperfect societies’ and the transition from oligarchy to democracy. (Oligarchy is ‘government by the few’ and similar to your ‘polyarchy’). Unfortunately, Plato writes at a time some 200 years after the death of democracy and did not recognise true democracy. Yes, democracy died when Classical Athens introduced the idea of ‘representative democracy’ (which if you think about it is a form of oligarchy) and then used rhetoric to explain how it’s the same thing as ‘participatory democracy’.

    Participatory democracy is when all the citizens gather in the public domain to decide how they can help each other, how they can cooperate to make each others lives easier and better. The public domain is the domain of collaboration and cooperation. This is only possible in a small community (a city-state) and not in a nation-state because the bigger the city, the less is the value of each individual voice. In a smaller community, everyone not only has the right to speak but can actually expect to be heard… and when ALL the opinions are heard the optimum solution to the issue at hand can be found.

    The public issue at hand can range from providing public infrastructure (ie shared facilities) to, dealing with the actions of individuals that have affected others in the community. So ‘justice’ is to be found by collectively confronting the issues before the community. This is different to ‘law’, which is compliance with the rules imposed by others and designed to ensure everyone conforms to their order.

    I like the quote from Heraclitus of Ephesus… “Justice is strife”. Justice and democracy require the participation of all citizens. Citizens who have the courage to confront the issues at hand and to abandon systems that do not work any more. Citizens who have the courage to create something new and better.

    • Johan says

      Thank you for your feedback and the kind and inspiring words, I hadn’t considered the connection to Plato but it seems obvious now that you mention it.

      I fully agree that a meaningful, functional democracy necessarily must be local, since the “general will” (or whatever we name the intentions, hopes and desires of us and our neighbours) can only be realized in any meaningful way if the community is so small that most people know each other on a first-hand basis. Interactions between such communities can then of course be facilitated in many ways, but I believe the consensus-system practised in the Iroquois confederacy might be an especially useful example (Jerry Mander writes extensively about this topic in his “In the Absence of the Sacred”).

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