Democracy At Work

EDITORIAL, 8 Mar 2010

#103 | Johan Galtung

This weekend has given us two cases, Iceland and Iraq.

In Iceland the referendum, by an overwhelming majority of 90-95%, rejected the idea that Iceland, meaning tax-payers, shall compensate the English and Dutch governments for compensating the losses of US$ 5.3 billion suffered by 300,000 citizens due to the abusive banking by Icesave that collapsed in October 2008.   The No is a clear No to “socialization of private debt”.  There is some ambiguity: does No mean no payment at all, or a better deal, already negotiated?  Probably both, there are traffic rules.

But this raises the basic question: who shall pay when catastrophe hits and it cannot possibly, like an earthquake, a tsunami, be seen as an “act of god”, meaning nature?  For environmental damage “the polluter pays”, for medical malpractice the physician pays, so better have a solid (re-)insurance policy.   Like Icesave should have had, but better not with AIG.

For catastrophic banking the knee-jerk reaction, however, has been the bailout, under the mantra “too big to fail”, and even without any significant regulation to ensure a non-repetition.  Much class solidarity is needed for that response, and that is of course what class is about: who lunches with, listens to, whom?  As class persists so do catastrophes: Goldman Sachs and other banks had intransparent derivative like CDSs–abusive, even fraudulent–transactions with Greece and other countries, betting on a Greek, even euro, collapse, waiting for considerable profit.  Money is about more than money: politics, power, world hegemony.

Some put a root cause in Iceland on 3 young US-trained MBAs.  Why not sue business schools for teaching abusive, fraudulent practices? Did they warn?  A code of conduct?  Were the three MBAs to blame?  Or, also the 300,000?  Or, all of the above?

How about the economists concocting the theories underlying these practices, some of them rewarded with a fraudulent Nobel Prize, actually from the Swedish national bank?  But all over Europe the “crisis” is given national labels.  The ground zero, the epicenter, Wall Street with its many tributaries, of which US economic theory and business practices are of key importance, get off with impunity.  So far.  That equilibrium is hardly stable.

Turning to Iraq, no doubt the national elections are embraced by a population braving the attempts by the resistance to disrupt the process.  It also looks like the 10 million or so voters choosing between 6,200 candidates vying for 325 parliament seats will actually indirectly decide the composition of the government, not the US military after the 2003 invasion.  Great steps.

Forward?  Let us see.  Democracy means rule with the consent of the ruled. Consent is in debate-voting democracy identified as the majority.  But that may run against two rather basic problems: the population may be divided by such fault-lines as nation and class, giving one nation or class an automatic majority.  And even more so if the outvoted minority stands for non-negotiables like national identity, demanding that their territory is governed by their own kind.  Or begging for survival, not dying from misery.  Criss-crossing parties, federalism, human rights are remedies.

But given the schism Arabs vs Kurds over disputed territory, oil fueling the fault-line, and Kurds being 16%, a majority is a poor guide. Is dialogue-consensus democracy a good guide?  Has been tried, but works badly over non-negotiables.  The way out is rather high level autonomy for the Kurds, with disputed territory and oil rights.  That road is usually paved with violence, unless the Arabs should see it in their own interest.  Both Kurdistan and Arab unity are calling.  Iraq may hang together, but only loosely.

Numbers matter.  The Israeli brutal and violent strategy against Palestinians, East Jerusalem, Gaza and West Bank, is painfully obvious: make life so horrible for them that they opt for the “silent transfer” into some Palestinian Diaspora.  But what kind of Israel is left, numbers are working there too?  The majority of first grade elementary school children in Israel have Palestinian or Orthodox parents.  Of the former 72% of the mothers do not work outside the home, and of the latter 78% of the fathers work only religiously.  Is that kind of Israel viable, given the increase of both groups lower down in society, inside the country?

Fortunately gender is divided close to half-half, avoiding an automatic majority, if women [a] have the right to vote, and [b] use that right.  There are sources of hope here.  Eric Linklater, in his beautiful Private Angelo, has a woman put it this way:

I must speak for myself because no one else will.  Women are less fortunate than soldiers.  The poets and historians of the world are always at hand to argue that solders are justified in their horrid trade of destroying life, but if a woman is guilty of creating life she can find no advocate but herself.

How do women, then, do as soldiers?  In the UN very well, it seems.  Doreen Carvajal in “They earn their salute”(1)  reports: “When female soldiers are present, the situation is closer to real life, and as a result the men tend to behave”.  Only 6% of the UN peace keeping forces–a goal has been set at 20–but growing.

Numbers matter on this day, the 100th International Women’s Day.  The percentage since 1980 of women 15-64 with jobs in the formal economy grows in most countries–not Sweden where it was already above 70, nor in the USA where it stays around 65.  And the number of births per woman decreases far below reproduction at 2.1 for Germany, Italy and Japan, being above only for the USA.(2)   Does the Second World War still have an impact psychologically?

Giant changes.  Numbers matter,  Like democracy.  And women.


(1) International Herald Tribune, 6-7 March 2010.

(2)  International Herald Tribune, 18 January 2010.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Mar 2010.

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