Is Democracy a Lost Cause?


Fighting force with force: The Late Nelson Mandela, former President
of the African National Congress and the first democratically elected
President of the republic of South Africa

“Democracy is a lost cause,” said a young correspondent of mine from the UK. It saddened me to hear such despondency from one so young. Hardly the voice of one with world-changing fire in the belly. I came away reflecting that if this is the spirit of the next generation then perhaps democracy is indeed a lost cause. I think I understand something of my friend’s frustration, but I am certain that he had missed the big picture…

Emmeline-PankhurstEmily Davison

Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison – who in the early 1900s both endured prison
and gave their lives (the latter literally) in order that women’s votes should be represented in the government of Great Britain

My grandparents’ lifetimes saw democracy extended in Britain for the first time to include women. In my parents’ lifetime democracy was introduced in India, and a whole swathe of countries on the African subcontinent.

Mahatma Ghandi – prophet of passive resistance in the 1940s
– an inspiration to the struggles for democracy in the USA and South Africa
– the “Father of Indian Independence”

In my own lifetime I have seen democracy extended in Poland, brought to the Africans of South Africa, and enforced by the U.S. supreme court so as to include the votes of African Americans.

dr kingLech Walesa

(above top) Martin Luther King Jr prophet of African-American enfranchisment in the 1960s and (above) Lech Walesa whose service of the working people of Poland in the 1980s took him from prison to presidency

The big picture is unmistakeably that the tide for one-person-one-vote democracy has been steadily on the rise. Perhaps my young friend’s skepticism about the value of enfranchisement is the natural consequence of growing up in a society ruled by policies seemingly founded on the basis of one-dollar-one-vote; in a country in which transitions of government are peaceful, arguably:

i) because men and women in the street do not really feel themselves to be stakeholders in one or another outcome and

ii) because the most powerful economic interests feel largely unthreatened by the transfer of office from one party to another, confident that they can negotiate policy perks whichever party gains the right to govern.

FDR.jpegNye Bevan

Franklin Roosevelt (above top) in the 1930s and Nye Bevan (above) in the 1950s – men of different colors but whose respective governments labored against the drivers of economic depression and social exclusion.
In the 20th century there was an open and sustained struggle to bring the interests of working people into the political process. That is what the labour movement was all about – the foundation of the unions to represent the interest of workers in the workplace, and then the foundation of the labour parties to represent the interests of a country’s workers in parliament. In such a world it was easy for those educated people engaged with the realities of workers lives, to identify a cause which merited a lifetime – indeed a century of struggle.

Today in the West the lie of the land is quite altered by that century. The working classes as they existed and as they were known no longer exist. At the bottom of the pile today we find an underclass – the children and grandchildren of men and women who have either never known employment or who – even with two or three “McJobs” have no hope of ever escaping the need for government support, or of owning their own home, supporting their family and making their way in the world. 

Further up the economic scale we find a massively casualized workforce; a class of people with income but no security. For instance I have a neighbour who works as a superintendent of a division of one of Australia’s major civil engineering corporations. He oversees a staff of 30 and is responsible for hiring, firing and administrating the payroll. He is employed as a casual. No rights. No holiday entitlement. No sick leave. No security.

waiting for a job.jpg

In Great Britain in 2017 over one million workers are employed on zero hour contracts. Their employers guarantee no hours of work, while the worker is bound to accept whatever hours the employer or agency offers, since being a contracted worker disqualifies them for any welfare safety net. It is the less visible version of workers lining up at the dock to see if there will be any work to today.

Things are not always much more secure for more highly skilled or educated workers. Corporations which in the past would have provided a diligent worker with a career for life now engage double-graduate management-level staff on contracts of no more than three months at a time.


A high standard of living often masks the underlying stresses, debt and insecurity
that characterize life for many among today’s “middle” classes

So while the struggle for the worker may look like a twentieth century issue, there is a sense in which today’s Western middle classes are the new Western working class – and that the common good still needs to be rescued from the greed of the few. For all these reasons it is possible that my young despondent friend may have been quite unaware that the whole point of the democratization we have witnessed over the last three generations emerged precisely to redistribute power in society so that things might be ordered for the good of all rather than the profit of the already rich and powerful. More immediate to his thoughts would be today’s reality.

In a one-dollar-one-vote system, disparities of economic interest would have been significant enough. In 1970  in the USA the comparison of pay between a shop-floor worker and a CEO stood at a ratio of 1:35. However by 1985 that ratio had shifted to an average of 1:1000. In today’s reality the ratio would be difficult even to begin to calculate. In one well-known US corporation the current quotient is 1:50,000. 47% of Walmart employees are paid so poorly that they need to live on benefits and food stamps. Incidentally Walmart is owned by the wealthiest family in the world.

The inequalities of society may differ from age to age but fundamental drivers remain – namely that the few with privilege, wealth and power (be they Kings, media moguls or oil barons) naturally will wish to keep it and not share it.

It is not always easy to determine what a movement for greater democratization of wealth and power should look like when the “enemies” of democracy are so various and difficult to identify. No one wants to give a century to tilting at windmills. Butthe fact that the ballot has not been enough should only spur us to pursue additional means by which to serve the common good and to ensure that our natural resources and our labour are harnessed for the good of all and not just the good of the few. (The movement of some companies from free trade to fair trade would be one example.)

Fair trade quinoa farmers in Ecuador

Today’s struggles for inclusion and  representation will take different forms and oppose different behemoths – some more subtle than others. At a fundamental level every generation has to fight the same struggles for justice and inclusion. The New Testament teaches that these struggles are against “elemental spirits” or “principalities and powers” which are basically anti-human forces. So we should be unsurprised if there is a similarity in these social struggles from age to age. So it is that on one front or another, for the sake of loving our neighbour as ourselves, it behooves every generation to contend for democracy in its day. Democracy is not, then, a lost cause but a perpetual cause.

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.
The late Rosa Parkes, a social activist whose brave refusal in 1957
to give up her seat in a Montgomery bus triggered the Civil Rights movement
which ended the USA’s policies of segregating and disfranchizing African-Americans
– policies embedded in centuries of legalised racism