Sunday, January 6, 2013

More on Democratic Gaps. . . .

Given the visceral and sometimes racists attacks on the Idle No More movement and its supporters, I think it is important for me to continue to address, in a little more detail, the democratic issues that I touched upon in my previous post.

First of all it is important to understand that, even if we are supporters of legislative democracy it is essential for us to be critical of the system in which we live. We are obligated to engage in a continual investigation and critique of democracy. Failure to understand both its strengths and its weaknesses means we risk dictatorship. And make no mistake, dictatorship is always waiting in the wings ready to pounce, as we have learned so effectively in recent years.

As I have said before, Democracy should never be seen as a fixed and complete system. Rather it should be seen as a continual 'working toward.' We have gained very little if we dare see democracy as a system already achieved. Now, first we must understand that we live in a rare position in the world by the fact that very few countries in the world continue to use our rather antiquated 'first past the post' electoral system. Canada fails by any decent definition of democracy because even without the shocking decreases in participation, we have a system whereby a relatively small portion of the population elects a government that then rules more or less by decree. So let's make it clear at the beginning, Canada is nowhere close to being an effective working democracy. However, even a very effective democratic system possesses significant flaws. One of the primary problems here is that people make the mistake of seeing a so-called democratic system as an expression of the general will of the people. At its very best (in an effective system of Proportional Representation) a good democratic government would strive to represent the widest array of interests possible rather than some abstract notion of a "general will" that doesn't exist anyway. At its worst a government (like the one we sadly have) seeks to represent the interests of a very small, and in this case elite, minority.

The reasons that a good government should seek to represent the widest spectrum of interests possible while still maintaining social cohesion should be obvious. The rule of a minority, or even a majority, can be a dangerous thing to other interests in society. The Jim Crow laws in the US are a prime case in point. The majority white population used its power to control and oppress the African-American population, and they did so while still maintaining what they claimed was a democracy.

Because of the dangers that majorities (or even powerful minorities like the one represented by Harper and his Storm-Troppers) represent, democratic systems have committed to written constitutions and bills of rights which are inspired in part by the need to protect people from a majority or from the arbitrary use of government power. And even though governments can move glacially slow, these government mechanisms have been somewhat effective at protecting the rights of certain groups. The gay community has gradually used governments and courts to assert their rights and the recognition that they deserve the same rights that others enjoy. But even though such communities can, at least in theory, prevail, it should be clear to anyone that is informed that even though democratic systems contain mechanisms that are meant to protect people against people or governments with too much power, these mechanisms don't always work and even when they do they can be incredibly difficult and slow.

The rights of Indigenous people have been arguably the most under-addressed in democratic (and non-democratic) societies. The reasons for this gap in democracy are many and complex. The process of subjugating Indigenous people has often been seen as central to the creation and maintenance of the state at large. Indigenous peoples have often had legitimate claims to resource rich land to which capitalists and governments want access. Because of greed on the part of colonialist forces, governments have gone to great lengths to undermine the ability on the part of Indigenous peoples to assert their rights. Courts have constantly ignored treaties, and governments have impoverished Indigenous peoples so that it is difficult for them to assert their rights. These groups, in other words, have little hope of filling the 'gaps' in the democratic system because the system itself is designed to make it difficult. (And this doesn't even address the fact that Indigenous people have a unique status in as much as they are part of separate nations within the state, a fact unrecognized my the majority)

Anyone who is familiar with these facts about democracy and the history of colonialism, understands that we cannot simply limit democracy to whatever governments or the courts say or do. For people to fill in the gaps in democracies, for them to ensure that majorities or those with power cannot simply dictate their will to everyone, they must resort sometimes to messy, extra-political action. Martin Luther King understood this and so does Chief Spence. The problem is that many others don't understand their own system or their own history. Such people imagine that because the system serves them ok, anyone who dares to fill in the gaps of democracy through extra-political action must be a "terrorist." And for Indigenous people this process is particularly problematic because they are facing genocide. There is no imminent threat that the African-American community or the Gay/Lesbian community is going to disappear. As unjust as it is, there is a sense in which these groups can afford to work their way through the system to assert their rights. On the other hand, there has been a concerted effort to destroy Indigenous cultures, to destroy their relationship to the land, to wipe-out their languages and their cultures. And for this reason they have a moral right to undertake unorthodox, extra-political action to assert their rights. And failure to realize this fact is a failure to understand the very principles on which our democracy is supposed to be founded.


Owen Gray said...

The Mound of Sound has been documenting the growing discontent of Canadians, Kirby.

Belatedly, Stephen Harper has begun to take notice. Let's hope that he is too late to the scene of the fire.

Lorne said...

You have written a thought-provoking essay here here, Kirby, one that reminds us that a healthy democracy requires on-going commitment by and engagement of its citizens.

As you point out, for us to rest on our own self-satisfaction is an invitation to autocracy.

KayKay said...

Amazing ! This is cool!