Government should govern, business should mind the counter and the people should stand guard.

Democracy is a simple concept, one that is fundamental to the workings of our society, but one many of us rarely stop to consider.

The first system of government recognisable as a democracy was that of Athens. Athenian citizens took part in a direct democracy. Those that qualified, in essence all native born adult free-men who had done their military service, could attend the assembly to debate and vote on legislation.

Our democracy is a representative democracy. Rather than have thirty million adults try to take part directly in the law-making process we elect representatives to ensure our views are reflected in any legislation.

But the essence of democracy has changed little in the intervening two and a half millennia. The Greek word ‘demos’ means people and ‘kratos’ power. As a slogan “Power to the People” may hark back to the Che T-shirted, beret wearing leftists of the early seventies, but that is what democracy is.

In a democracy each of us has an equal portion of power and we choose to lend that power to our elected representatives for a limited period of time. At the end of that period they return that portion of power to us and we once again choose to whom to lend it.

Democracy is, or should be, a great leveller. Everyone over eighteen, barring bankrupts, convicts and the insane, has a vote. We are all equal in the polling booth; home-makers, city high-flyers, the retired, doctors, the unemployed, company directors, soldiers, farmers, poets, police officers and comedians.

Putting power in the hands of the people in this way ensures that we all have a share in the government of our society and the ability, from time to time, to change that government. When it is not in the hands of the people, power is in the care of the legislature as its custodian or guardian but most certainly not its owner.

But as the academic Alex Carey observes the apparent recent spread of democracy has been accompanied by a shift of power away from democratic institutions; “The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

In our society money conveys power in a way that is profoundly undemocratic. One could make a reasonable case that the sole purpose of amassing large quantities of money is to buy power. Past a certain level wealth doesn’t improve one’s quality of life significantly. There’s a law of diminishing returns. A third BMW or an extra bedroom on one’s house may be nice but if you already have ten bedrooms and eleventh is hardly a life changing addition while one can only drive one car at a time. The only life changing thing that obscene amounts of money can buy that merely large amounts of money cannot is power. A newspaper mogul may argue that he merely has influence, not power, but that is disingenuous. He has the power of sanction. The famous headline in Britain’s best selling newspaper following the defeat of Labour in the 1992 general election; ‘It was The Sun wot won it’ was both grandiose and inaccurate, but The Sun did contribute towards the defeat of Labour, a party whose election the paper vehemently opposed. That is more than influence. Financiers, bankers, speculators and hedge fund managers, though their lustre be much diminished in recent weeks, can also punish through the markets.

This runs absolutely counter to the notion that in a democracy we all wield the same amount of power.

There needs to be a clear understanding that government governs for the people, not for business or capital. In so far as business provides the jobs, goods and services the people want and need then government should tend to the wellbeing of business, and to the extent that capital provides the lubrication that makes the wheels of business run smooth it should mind capital’s yard too. But the extent to which government should bow to either should be predicated purely on the benefit the both bring to the citizen at large.

In this context we can allow that business and capital can have influence. They may have the ear of government, just as pensioners’ representatives, unions, artists, patients’ organisations can have influence and the ear of government. But power they should have none.

Our goal in the twenty first century should be to build true democracy, a liberal environment that is respectful of all yet beholden to no individual or interest group. The separation between government and business has become blurred. It is time to make it absolutely clear once again.

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Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia, University of NSW Press, 1995


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