A LIBERAL DEMOCRACY?

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 19 February 2009

by Jake Lynch

Whenever I see a BMW Mini I think of home. Our last English address, before moving to Australia, was in Cowley, a suburb of Oxford, which has been a centre of car-making for nearly a century. Indeed, the hall at the top of our road had been the old Morris Social Club, where workers went to relax between shifts on the production line. All the Minis you see on the roads today come from the Cowley factory, in what’s been a rare UK success story in the industry in recent times.

The other day, however, the plant’s present owners sent word from their German base to hundreds of assembly workers that they were fired. Just like that. Many – so-called ‘agency staff’ – were given just an hour’s notice that their livelihood was gone. Trade unions were quick to make the obvious point – that the rules of Britain’s vaunted ‘flexible labour market’ allowed BMW to get away with contemptuously consigning their jobs to the scrapheap, whereas, back home in Germany, they would be allowed to do no such thing.

I even sampled some of the same treatment myself, a couple of years ago, when I worked as a reporter and presenter for the BBC in London. The Corporation unilaterally announced it was “changing the way it relates to the freelance community”, part of an attritional attack on terms and conditions for casually employed journalists and technicians. We, like the agency workers of Cowley, were not covered by collective bargaining arrangements, which at least provide a minimum of protection, although nothing like the consultative process mandated on employers in Germany.

The spread of such contrivances is tantamount to a violation of basic rights. Convention 87 of the International Labour Organisation, which Britain ratified in 1950, commits signatory states to “take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers and employers may exercise freely the right to organise”. There should be some way for workers to obtain trade union cover if they want to, even as freelances. The European Charter of Fundamental Rights provides for workers to be consulted about significant changes in their workplace, as well as restricting the number of hours they can be called upon to work. Solemnly proclaimed by all the EU institutions, it’s now legally binding on all member states except Britain and Portugal.

The situation in the United States, where the neo-liberal onslaught against trade unions began, shows what is at stake. A colleague, recently arrived at Sydney University from an American campus, was keen to caution us against any complacency over our unionised workplace:

“Let me share my personal experience of employment in non-unionised universities in the US, most recently the University of Pittsburgh. First, in the non-union environment university pay is much lower, both in absolute and (especially) in relative terms for all but the best-paid star performers. Finance faculty may make more in the US, but social sciences faculty make far less.
 
Second, in the non-union environment, there are no annual raises. There is a modest (5%-10%) raise with promotion from assistant to associate professor, IF you get tenure.  Half the time you’re simply fired after six years (if you don’t get tenure).  Of course, you can be denied tenure even if your tenure reviews are positive, at the discretion of the provost.  If you make tenure, you may never get a raise again, since deans are very aware that it’s difficult for senior faculty to move universities.
 
Third, in the non-union environment the administration’s wage offer is the final settlement. Period. At most US universities the chancellor announces a flat university-wide salary increase (for all but senior administrators, of course) that is generally a fraction below the inflation rate. In lean years, the chancellor announces a wage freeze. Wage freezes are never ‘made up’ in future years.  Most US academics see their real wages decline year by year over the course of their careers”.

Venezuela

There’s a paradox here, of course. The US and UK generally regard themselves as patterns of liberal democracy, accustomed to accusing others of rights violations. The US State Department releases an annual audit, country by country, through its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Here’s what it has to say in the latest report on the south American country of Venezuela: “Politicisation of the judiciary and official harassment of the media and of the political opposition continued to characterize the human rights situation during the year”.

The stacking of the US Supreme Court with right-wing judges, following its decision to award the 2000 presidential election to George W Bush, presumably does not count as politicisation of the judiciary, but we won’t dwell on that for the moment. Venezuela has been in the news recently because President Hugo Chavez has won a referendum allowing him to stand for unlimited re-election, overturning a clause in the constitution which limited the head of state to two terms in office. It’s led to a few sharp intakes of breath, even among Chavez sympathisers overseas – after all, the limit on any incumbency in the White House to eight years at least made sure Bush himself would soon be gone.

But it’s worth looking more closely at the question of media freedom in Venezuela. John Pilger, in his award-winning documentary, The War on Democracy, makes the point that to arrive in Caracas and switch on television is to realise the absurdity of any notion that Venezuela is a country where free speech is denied. The privately owned TV channels are outspoken in their opposition to the government. Indeed, when Chavez was kidnapped by military renegades, in 2002, and briefly toppled by a coup d’etat, the new leader, a business executive called Pedro Carmona, boasted:

“Fortunately, we have a great weapon, which is the media. As you and the people saw today, neither the Army nor the Armed Forces fired a single shot. Our weapon was the media”.

Pilger’s film shows how the private channels whipped up anti-Chavez sentiment to fever pitch, including a montage depicting the president in Nazi uniform. The coup came after an anti-government demonstration was diverted away from its planned route, by shadowy provocateurs, into a clash with Chavez supporters.

At the same time, snipers armed with high-velocity rifles began picking off the anti-government marchers. However, the channels showed pictures of pro-Chavez demonstrators, using the cover of a building at the end of a city bridge to fire handguns, apparently at their opponents.

On-air commentators had no hesitation in blaming the President and his defenders for sixteen deaths, with hundreds more wounded – a version of events also “rubber-stamped”, Pilger pointed out, both by the White House and on US networks.

The film shows three key pictures which were not widely seen at the time, which give the lie to this version of events. One is of a sniper, silhouetted against an advertising hoarding far above the rival demonstrations. A second shows the Chavez supporters cowering on the bridge, trying to keep out of the line of fire, and the third is a ‘top shot’ of the scene which reveals that the road below the bridge, where they were aiming their pistols, was not, in fact, thronged with opposing marchers, but conspicuously empty. They could not have been responsible for the shootings that day, indeed it is clear, Pilger says, that “they were trying to defend themselves”.

The documentary also reveals the channels’ complicity in the coup plot. A bunch of army generals appears on screen, with one reading out a statement condemning the violence and calling on Chavez to resign. But Pilger also includes a clip of the local CNN correspondent, revealing how this mise-en-scene was actually recorded days earlier. The street clash was a put-up job, and the centrepiece of a conspiracy to get rid of the president.

One of the channels involved, RCTV, failed to get its broadcasting licence renewed, in 2007, a move that intensified criticisms of the Chavez administration from human rights monitors and the media. Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl called the action an attempt to silence opponents and more “proof” that Chávez is a “dictator”. Wrote Diehl, “Chávez has made clear that his problem with [RCTV
owner Marcel] Granier and RCTV is political”.

However, as the pressure group, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) pointed out in its magazine Extra!, “Were a similar event to happen in the US, and TV journalists and
executives were caught conspiring with coup plotters, it’s doubtful they would stay out of jail, let alone be allowed to continue to run television stations, as they have in Venezuela”.

When Chávez returned to power, the commercial stations refused to cover the news, airing instead entertainment programmes – in RCTV’s case, the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts movie, Pretty Woman. John Dinges, a former National Public Radio editor turned Columbia University professor, told the radio show, Marketplace:  

“What RCTV did simply can’t be justified under any stretch of journalistic principles… When a television channel simply fails to report, simply goes off the air during a period of national crisis, not because they’re forced to, but simply because they don’t agree with what’s happening, you’ve lost your ability to defend what you do on journalistic principles”.

When Patrick McElwee of the think-tank, Just Foreign Policy, interviewed representatives of Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists – all of which condemned Venezuela’s action – he found that none of the spokespersons thought broadcasters were automatically entitled to licence renewals, though none of them thought RCTV’s actions in support of the coup should have resulted in the station having its licence renewal denied. This led McElwee to wonder, FAIR noted, “Could it be that governments like Venezuela have the theoretical right to not to renew a broadcast licence, but that no responsible government would ever do it?”

The narrow point here is that TV channels make use of global commons – the airwaves, or the geo-stationary orbit – and for that privilege, they are regulated, just about everywhere. Regulation usually takes the form of licensing by the state, as in Venezuela, in exchange for certain undertakings – notably the adherence to what Professor Dinges called “journalistic principles”.

Attaining human rights

The larger point is that such distortions serve to obscure real issues of the attainment of human rights, and exercise of democracy, by ordinary people in everyday life. The referendum was the tenth time Chavez has faced a popular vote in ten years since taking office, and he has won nine of them, but the country is often written off as an ‘illiberal democracy’. Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria describes it as “rude democracy” and does not, as a journalist, scruple to label its president a “thug”.

But Chavez leads a rare government that is trying to extend the rights and protections available to people at work, not curtail them to oblige business lobbies. State inspectors hold seminars for factory workers, in company time, educating them about health and safety regulations. Trade union membership is increasing, not shrinking as in the US and UK – and Germany for that matter. Other scenes from The War on Democracy show shoppers in government-run supermarkets buying packs of rice with excerpts from the country’s constitution, guaranteeing the right to affordable food and therefore the real value of wages, printed on the back.

Measures to control the retail prices of staple goods represent one of many attempts the Chavez administration makes, both at home and abroad, to provide and sustain alternatives to the neo-liberal model of economic and social organization, which rolled back social democracy in the rich world, in the 1980s, and has since been rolled out across the developing world by international financial institutions and the power of business lobbies.

The World Millennium Summit, held at the UN in September 2000, is often seen as the point where human rights were placed at the centre of the world body’s agenda. Then Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his Millennium Report, wrote: “No shift in the way we think or act can be more critical than this: we must put people at the centre of everything we do… A new concept of security is evolving… a more human-centred approach to security as opposed to the traditional state-centred approach”.

Noam Chomsky drew a telling contrast, however, between this largely platitudinous talkfest, and the South Summit on Cuba, which took place a few months earlier. The difference is that leaders of the developing world, the G77 countries which first emerged at the UN Conference on Trade and Development in the 1970s, were clear-sighted about the forces inhibiting the attainment of real democracy and human rights for millions of their citizens.

The South Summit declaration called for the “reformulation of policies and options on globalisation from a development perspective”, and was, Chomsky says, “sharply critical of the specific forms of international integration that have been imposed by concentrated political and economic power – what is called ‘globalization’ in Western rhetoric”.

Of its call to “promote respect for all universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development”, Chomsky notes, “the first part is ritual incantation: the right to development [is one that] the US has forcefully rejected”. The South Summit called for international economic relations to be “based on justice and equity”. For that, better look to the Venezuelan model, in many respects, than to the rich countries of the world.

The veteran Australian Labor politician, Kim Beazley, retired in 2007, with a parliamentary speech explicitly connecting “democracy in the workplace” with the health of political democracy itself. And the veteran commentator, Alan Ramsey of the Sydney Morning Herald, used his column to reproduce large sections of Beazley’s remarks. “Understand this”, he said. “When you wish to assault democracy, first you attack the unions. When you wish to restore democracy, first you start with the unions… They are the heart and soul of what gives force and power to the democratic movement”. It’s a connection that is too seldom made, in the media and in official political discourse, here and elsewhere. It’s where the real issues of human rights often begin.

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