Do we really live in a democracy?

With the echo of the VE day celebrations drawing to a close it’s easy to view the Allied victory in Europe, and a few months later in Asia, through a more recent lens. We see modern Britain and the United States and their broadly democratic values as the victors. While we conveniently forget that Stalin’s Soviet Union was the biggest single factor in defeating Hitler, and that the Western Allies, through their Empires and then in pursuit of victory, committed a range of atrocities and human rights violations of their own.

In the post war era, Britain and the US were the bulwark against Communism but not always proponents of global democracy. Elected left leaning leaders were assassinated by the CIA in Latin America, corrupt regimes propped up in Korea and Vietnam – at vast human cost, and disastrous interventions across the Middle East helped to fuel radical Islam.

More recently, the un-elected leaders of fossil fuel companies, tech giants and others have exerted huge influence on our societies – poisoning our bodies and quietly turning us all into dopamine fiends.

Some myths need busting…

WW2 was not a battle between tyranny and democracy, it was a geo-political clash between the ’empires of the day’. Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union were all empires. Britain and France were notionally democratic domestically, but retained large global territories that had been acquired, and were maintained by force or arms. The US still treated its black minority as second class citizens and was growing its own over-seas possessions, while Stalin’s Russia was no beacon of free-will. That the Axis powers were ‘worse’ is undeniable but we should not be fooled into thinking this was a war between good and evil.

The post-war behavior of the Western Allies gives the lie to the wartime narrative. Britain and France sought to retain overseas territories in Asia and Africa, with France in particular showing little democratic sentiment towards the peoples of Vietnam or Algeria – who suffered greatly fighting for their independence. In Korea and then Vietnam, US led coalitions fought against the spread of Communism but not ‘for democracy’. Syngman Rhee’s South Korean government was brutal and corrupt – though admittedly to a lesser extent than Kim Il Sung’s North. While in Vietnam the US air-force carpet bombed millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian civilians in a failed attempt to prop up the South’s right-wing regime.

That the world has moved in a democratic direction since 1945 is without doubt – and the West can take some credit for this, but for those of us in Europe and the US – we would be minded to remember that we have in our recent history: readily subjugated millions, militarily intervened to protect our interests, and at times committed atrocities to rival those of the worst of WW2.

King Leopold II of Belgium’s, ‘rape of the Congo’ in the late 19th century came at a cost of 6-10 million people, Britain’s export of food from famine afflicted parts of India killed millions, and not forgetting the above cited US war-crimes in Vietnam. Our history is not ‘all’ bad, but we attain greater humility and clarity by retaining a balanced view of our democratic credentials.

And now?

In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, fossil fuel companies and heavy industry have poured billions into preventing effective action on the climate emergency. Even if you believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon, air pollution and ocean acidity is categorically man-made. Our global future is being manipulated by un-elected billionaires and mega-corporations.

Social media is also having two massively corrosive effects. Due to the plurality of options, politicians can often avoid scrutiny (see Boris Johnson’s cowardly avoidance of the BBC’s heavy hitters before the last UK election) while still gaining guaranteed air time. Both he (Johnson) and Trump lie with astonishing impunity – this is also a consequence of their support from right wing main stream media who are almost exclusively owned by tax avoiding billionaires whose agenda is anything but democratic.

Secondly, it is turning us into drug addicts. The average person checks their phone over 50 times a day, every time you receive a message or a like, dopamine is released into the brain…yep that’s the same dopamine that’s triggered by cocaine. All the major tech companies employ thousands of engineers to deepen your addiction. So, our personal democracy or ability to think freely is directly under threat.

Moving forward…

We should always remember that power corrupts, whether governmental or corporate. What we are told is only a version of events, and while it’s not necessary to dive down every conspiracy theory rabbit hole, it’s important to challenge political or media driven narratives that do not stand up to scrutiny.

The current pandemic offers opportunities for a Green New Deal and a revitalized sense of democratically driven national and global unity. However, it could equally lead to fear-mongering and levels of government surveillance (via our technology over-lords), that would be the fantasy of many who seek to restrict freedom of thought.

Our democracy has always been less wide spread than we have been led to believe. Now more than ever we need to hold leaders of countries and industry to account, so that it doesn’t slip from our grasp when we need it most.