Democratic duplicity

PIC Cuba and the NeighboursCuba and the Neighbours: Democracy in Motion
Arnold August
2013, Zed Books
267 pages, paperback


RECENT general elections in the UK, home of the self-styled “mother of parliaments”, yielded results that offer a stark reminder of why the term “democracy” is so problematic.

The polls handed the Conservative Party, with 11,334,726 votes (36.9% of votes cast), a whopping 331 legislative seats; while the Labour Party, with 9,347,324 votes (30.4%) gained 232 seats – nearly 100 fewer seats for a percentage difference of just 6.5.

As if this was not perverse enough and a stark reminder of distortions in representation within a country that claims so loudly and globally to be “democratic”, the rightwing upstart UKIP party won a staggering 3,881,064 votes (12.6% of votes cast) – yet just one single member of parliament.

By any standards the UK’s “democratic” outcomes are bizarre, and by many standards they are simply, well, undemocratic, and fail comprehensively to represent literally millions of voters in an equitable or even remotely reasonable way. Marx, of course, would call this simply bourgeois democracy, an illusion of representation aimed at keeping the class structure intact.

Yet for generations, British foreign policy posturing has made endless rhetorical and moral capital from the country’s “democratic” credentials and the ostensibly representative nature of its political process.

Such balderdash goes to the very heart of Arnold August’s excellent study of democracy in Cuba, which is built on the question of what makes a political system democratic and hence the questionable claims of the UK’s Anglo-Saxon cousin across the pond.

August provides a refreshing basis for comparisons between Cuba – long derided as undemocratic in the dominant Anglo-Saxon narrative – and the US itself. He does not romanticise the Cuban political process, which he places under scrutiny, but nor does he accept uncritically lofty US assumptions about the supremacy of its definition of democracy.

His book is timely because, as Washington finally begins to change its foreign policy approach towards Havana, this question of what is, or is not, democratic, becomes far more pertinent if the countries are to engage on the basis of anything like equality of status.

He writes: “It does not help our understanding to uncritically accept the US model of democracy, nor simply to reject it as a ‘bourgeois democracy’ or as a ‘fraudulent’ one. By the same token, it cannot be idealized as the epitome of democracy.” [p 5]

Based on extensive fieldwork, Arnold explores Cuba’s unique form of democracy in a detailed and balanced analysis that is ever mindful of the problem of the massive distortions that result from external prejudice towards the island’s political system after a generation of US hostility and siege.

He compares Cuba’s electoral process and the activity of the state between polls with practices in the US, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador and demonstrates, above all, that people’s participation in politics and society is not limited to a singular, US-centric understanding of the term democracy.

One of the principal sources of conflict in the Americas during the 20th century has derived from the firm, almost fanatical, US conviction that its understanding of democracy is indisputable, and hence there are no alternatives.

But as August establishes from the outset, US-centric notions of democracy – derived from a more longstanding Eurocentrism – are based on questionable socio-economic foundations because they exclude large masses of people from participating fully in the political process due to the primacy within it of an absolute right to unlimited accumulation of private property.

The author writes: “Democracy literally means ‘power of the people’ from the Greek … In a capitalist country such as the US, however, a small minority has all the economic power, while the overwhelming majority does not possess, or profit from, this economic wealth. Thus where does political ‘power’ of the ‘people’ appear? There is a contradiction between the increasing demands for democracy at the grass-roots level and the political system controlled by the wealthy elites.” [p 2]

Democracy as an abstraction, says the author, tends to be fixed in time, restrained by predetermined structures and often without any socio-economic content. For this reason, democracy without democratization becomes a concept stripped of value.

August turns his attention to participatory democracy and expressions of it in all the countries he examines – including the US – in a frank and honest effort to explore the groundswell of interest and support for this interpretation of people’s power.

He writes: “Only participatory democracy – the people’s ongoing, daily involvement in the political and economic affairs of the country – assures democracy.” [p 4]

In Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, he says, participatory democracy has been on their respective agendas since the inception of their transformation which, in the case of Cuba, was the revolution of 1959. The process of democratization has been continually in motion.

“In Cuba, even after so much time since the 1959 Revolution, the issue of effective people’s participation and control is on the agenda more than ever.” [p 5]