Writing in the Guardian, Peter Preston discusses Professor John Dunn's new book, Setting the People Free - and its subject matter, the problems of democracy. Democracy has spread around the globe since the end of the Cold War, and yet just when it seems to be succeeding on an international level, it is failing on a national one. Democracy has failed to satisfy the people of East Germany (who felt better off living in Stasiland, where one person in eight was an informer). Declining voter turnout is a constant problem in the west, as there is less of importance to vote about; the market consensus and economic globalisation have tied democracy's hands so tightly that it hardly seems worthwhile. At the same time, democracy seems unable to deal with the big problems of our age - global warming, world poverty, the power of multinational corporations. Faced with this, it seems we just have to haul out the tired Churchill quote:
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
In other words, this is as good as it gets, and so we might as well stick with it.
At the same time, there's also a strong argument (made by George Monbiot in The Age of Consent) that the reason democracy seems helpless in the face of global problems is because we haven't got enough of it. While we've spread democracy globally, we haven't globalised democracy. We have an incipient global governance structure - a hodgepodge of international organisations such as the WTO, IMF, and UN - and we clearly need it - but this system represents national governments, not people. It is therefore easily captured, and in practice works in the interests of the powerful rather than of the majority. This has to change. If globalisation is to continue (and it seems unstoppable), then the international system has to grow stronger. But if that system is to have any legitimacy whatsoever, then it must be democratised, and its officials regularly held to account by the people whose interests they purport to be working in.
On a national scale, we get the democracy we deserve. If we don't take an interest in our government, and raise holy hell whenever it does something indefensible (or when it gives away our power in ways we don't like), then we only have ourselves to blame for the consequences. If we want our governments to start paying attention to the problems that concern us (rather than those concerning international investors), then we need to let them know - and by utterly ruthless application of accountability mechanisms if necessary.
This may not be enough. But as Preston says, democracy is "a beginning, not an end". It is one of the few systems that contains the potential for its own improvement. If we remain committed to that improvement, we might manage to get by.