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31 May 2004updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

That was the vote. Now for the real election

In India, the world's largest democracy, democracy has been prohibited. The owners of property have

By George Monbiot

Democracy in India lasted for five days, two hours and eight minutes. Between the resignation of Atal Behari Vajpayee and the resignation of Sonia Gandhi, the state belonged to the people. Then the lost property was returned to its owners.

It’s not that Sonia Gandhi was a woman of the people. She was the heir to a corrupt dynasty whose domination of Indian politics owes everything to sentiment and nothing to sense. She stood, it seems, simply to keep the family name in play, in order to permit her children to inherit the ancestral title. But the people chose her for what she was not. She was not Vajpayee, the prime minister who had used religious conflict to disguise his wider war against the poor. She was not the government whose officials had boasted of India’s new “five-star culture”, who had told the people that India was “shining” but forgot to mention that it was shining only on the elite. She was chosen to govern because she had promised, in her patrician way, “to do something for the poor”.

But the voters who chose her were in turn voted down by a more powerful electorate. She might have pulled out anyway, but she had little choice when the financial markets announced that she was unfit to rule. They appointed the former finance minister Manmohan Singh to take her place. When he was nominated, “the Bombay exchange rapidly recovered from its fright”, the Economist magazine reported. “And well it might. Whereas the BJP [Vajpayee’s party] were always reluctant reformers, Mr Singh is the genuine article, a man who understands better than any other leading Indian politician the scope of what still needs to be done. This needs to include plenty more privatisation.”

In the world’s largest democracy, democracy has been prohibited. The same can now be said of almost every nation on earth. The owners of property have reasserted their right to rule.

Take the US. Martin Kettle in the Guardian praised John Kerry’s “softly, softly” campaign to win the presidency. “Militant” opinion in the US might want him “to tear into Bush not just on Iraq but on the Middle East, on civil liberties, on inequality, on the environment and on the spiralling government deficit”, wrote Kettle, “but Kerry is proving smarter than all these people think”. His “wily” strategy is to win the election by sitting back and waiting for George Bush to fall into the traps he has set for himself.

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It may well be true that Kerry can win by these means. But this raises a question that Kettle neither asks nor answers: what, then, is the point of John Kerry? What use is an opposition that refuses to oppose and will not even discuss the issues on which the election is supposed to be fought? The obvious answer is that the point of Kerry is to get rid of Bush. Which suggests that the only point of the election after that will be to get rid of Kerry.

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The real reason why Kerry won’t discuss the issues Kettle lists – or, for that matter, any issues at all – is that the powers behind the powers in the US forbid both meaningful discussion of policy in public places and meaningful dissent in private places. Which is why the Democratic nominee is Kerry, rather than someone who represents those among the electorate who are not married to an heiress and did not learn their politics at Yale’s Skull and Bones club. He could have offered the citizens of America free healthcare, but only if he had been prepared to lose the support of the medical companies that will help fund his re-election. He could have voted against the decision to attack Iraq, but only if he had been prepared for Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and every other major media outlet to ensure that he never again dared show his face in public. Kerry is the product of a system that has reduced democracy to a spectator sport. Democracy is the means by which the elite resolves its trifling differences while the rest of us look on.

You may ask how it came to this, but that would be the wrong question. Democracy is one of those things, like science and shipping, that the west wrongly claims for itself. I have seen, among the indigenous peoples of West Papua, the Amazon and East Africa, more sophisticated democratic systems than our own, or those of ancient Greece. They have always been there. Until, as Rousseau had it, civil society was founded by the man who first enclosed a piece of land, announced that it was his and found people simple enough to believe him, the unenclosed peoples are likely to have made their decisions collectively and, we can assume, more or less equally.

The systems that we now call “democracies” were constructed by the propertied classes of civil society to keep the lower orders out. The Greeks denied the vote to women and slaves. Even Rousseau was determined to exclude women. Mary Wollstonecraft wanted to bring women in but kick the servant class back out. James Madison, as Noam Chomsky has shown, urged that to prevent the poor from voting for a redistribution of wealth, the state should “select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number, and firmness, might seasonably interpose against impetuous councils”. The US Senate, he argued, must be composed of men whose purpose was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. It is hard to think of a better description of the upper house in 2004.

In Britain, we suffer from the worst of two eras. We have a pre-democratic body of law designed to uphold the property rights of a feudal landed class (some protesters I know were recently charged under the Justices of the Peace Act 1361), augmented by the post-democratic demands of global capital. In 1997, the Conservatives were left wondering why Rupert Murdoch had backed Tony Blair when they were prepared to offer him everything he wanted. Murdoch understood that the Tories were already in the bag and would stay there. If he supported them, he might own the government, but not the opposition. By backing Labour, he would keep the entire political system in his pocket.

From time to time, a genuinely popular government, such as Nelson Mandela’s ANC or Lula da Silva’s Partido dos Trabalhadores in Brazil, will win the popular vote and stay in office. But it will retain power on one condition: that it compromise with capital (Mandela’s failure to pursue a coercive land reform programme; Lula’s capitulation to the IMF) until it differs from a government of the propertied class only by being a passive rather than an active partner in exploitation. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall (and for quite a while before that), the triumphalists of the west have insisted that democracy is impossible without capitalism. It should surely be fairly obvious by now that democracy is impossible in the presence of capitalism or, for that matter, any system that permits the concentration of wealth.

Quite where this leaves the people of civil societies, I am not quite sure. As someone who has spent much of his life arguing for an extension of democracy within and beyond those societies, it leaves me feeling profoundly depressed. It suggests that all the stories we have told ourselves about our system of government and the outcomes it is meant to deliver are false.

George Monbiot’s book The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order is now published in paperback.