Thursday, August 9, 2012

The basis of power

Yet another post from my frequent source, Britské listy, this time about the nature of political power and revolution. The author is a lawyer who teaches at Masaryk University in Brno, the principal city of Moravia (the eastern part of the Czech Republic).

The general problems of unaccountability that Valach points to seem real enough to me, based on my observations during my recent year there. The specific issue that's really roiling the waters here is church restitution. Communist governments throughout the region took property from churches. They all have the task of figuring out what's a fair compensation: what properties can or should be returned, whether there should be financial compensation and how much.

In the Czech Republic, the government's proposal is to return some property, give financial compensation for the rest, and turn back to churches the job of paying clerics. I'm not sufficiently familiar with the proposal or the critiques of it to have a view of it. But it does seem like the government seems hell-bent, as it were, on getting this law through parliament, rather than having a referendum. And in the "alternative" press like Britské listy I've seen references to strong public opposition, but it's hard to find that discussed in more "mainstream" sources, such as Finančni noviny or Lidové noviny. You can find articles about how the Communist Party leader's speech against restitution is reminiscent of the 1950s (scroll down a bit). Or an article about how the Catholic church is comparing the opposition's campaign to the Third Reich (at the end they quote the opposition leader's claim that 80% of the public opposes the law). Or how a number of artists and public figures have signed a petition in favor (at the end they mention a couple of other public figures who are opposed). Overall, it does seem like coverage is being colored in favor of the proposed law.

At the same time, Vlach describes the legal system itself as a tool for controlling the thoughts of the public. When you get to that point, I'm not sure how you separate it from a view that, "The public doesn't think what I think they should be thinking--somebody must be controlling their thoughts."

The government and the representatives of the governing coalition dominate this country. If they decide to accomplish something, it happens, even if the majority of the citizens don't agree with it. For example, a massive majority of citizens doesn't agree with so-called church restitution in the law's current form, and the government itself has the confidence of only 16% of citizens, while the representative assembly has even less support. Representative democracy is functioning in a paradoxical way. Although it's supposed to be a democracy, to a great extent citizens don't perceive it as a democracy, and even though it's termed "representative," a majority of citizens don't trust their representatives and don't feel like they are represented by them. 

Almost 40% of them didn't take part in the last parliamentary elections for various reasons, to a significant extent also because none of the parties running for office had won their trust. The height of the absurdity of the current political system is the reality that the current government governs only thanks to the support of legislators from a party that didn't run in the elections, and nobody voted for it. These former legislators from the party VV took advantage of a contradiction in the constitution of the Czech Republic, they resigned from the party for which they had been elected and abandoned its platform. Thus the government governs only thanks to a fraud committed against the voters and from the perspective of basic democratic constitutional principles it is impossible to consider its decisions to be legitimate, that is, justified and binding for its successors.
This negation of democracy and our civic freedoms is possible because [of a contradiction in the constitution]. In its first section the constitution does recognize the basic principle of democracy, that the source of all power in the state is the people, which can exercise its power directly (the still unapproved law on referenda) or by means of its elected representatives. But in the next section it negates this basic principle by establishing the independence of the elected legislators from the voters and thus partially returns to the authoritative system of government by family aristocracy. It was the legislators themselves who voted for this article about their own independence from the voters once the elections are over. Thus they took the basic thesis about the the people as the source of all power and changed it into an empty phrase, and turned our democratic system into the mere appearance of democracy.
In a true democracy worthy of that name, the people live in the kind of country that they themselves create. There is in such a country no power above them, but only our collective power. A democratic state is a state where the interest of the majority is enforced, not the interest of a negligible minority of politicians and the business groups allied with them--or, more accurately, the business groups governing them.
The result of the fraudulent trick with the independence of the legislators is that the government isn't our government, but is rather a government above us. So where does it derive its power from?
The answer to this question can be very simple, or so complicated that its solution is still unknown to us. Here let us be satisfied with the simpler answer, which is entirely sufficient for the practical purposes of this text.
There are 200 representatives and 81 senators, but even if we were to include in the count all of the groups that are linked to them and that are preying on this state and its citizens, we will always come up with an insignificant minority, those (metaphorically speaking) "top ten thousand." If those more than 100,000 people demonstrating their dissatisfaction with this government in April of this year were to decide to physically remove the representatives from parliament, there wouldn't be a force that could prevent them from doing, and we'd have our early elections.
Of course you might object that we have the police here, and in a really tense situation there's the army as well. Yet we merely need to glance into history in order to grasp that even the police (or their historical analogs) and the army are made up of people who can stand up to the existing power. And it's not just that they can do this, they've also often done it in history.
The Russian tsar, the holder of absolute power, the head of the state and the church, was guarded by two regiments of his personal guard. One morning he woke up and the regiments were gone, the soldiers had dispersed. From the whole institution of tsarist power there remained only one confused, aging man, who no longer had any power.
All examples of revolutions, that is, changes of one social system into another, from the British, American, great French, Great October, and others, demonstrate that in the depths of every power, in its foundations, there is physical power, simple physical force, even if it is multiplied by weapons.
From this simple consideration it is clear that when the majority of citizens decides that it no longer wants the existing governing system, there isn't a force that can stand in their way.
And the opposite as well. The Nečas government has power because the majority of citizens recognizes it. As soon as the majority changes its view, the governments power will disolve. And it is well aware of that.
And it is just this that is the key to the solution of the problem. The majority must reach the conclusion that a change is better than the status quo. But that's not an easy journey.
Every governing power, all holders of power, have significnatly greater experience with the practical workings of political power. That creates their appreciable advantage over regular citizens, who are often in the grip of very naive notions about the true essence of the social system in which the live. And this is so above all because they have little or no practical experience with its functioning. So the holders of power are far more aware of what their power is based on than is the governed majority. It's not physical force, but the governence of poeple's thinking. As the classic quotation from a French minister has it, "You can do a thing or two with bayonets, but you can't sit on them." Therefore the Nečas government, and all governments and governing classes in history, have had power because they could rely on social consent with their power. In order for power to maintain itself, it must dominate people's thinking and "manufacture" the social consent of the governed with their dominance. Churches served this purpose in the past, which was expressed not only in the well known phrase about the wedding of the throne and the alter in the case of the Catholic church, but also, as Max Weber writes, in the pacification of potential resistance by protestant preachers--every strike is rebellion against God--who for their activity earned the designation in 19th-century Germany as the "black police."
Today, this desire for the domination of public thought has an entire gamut of tools, from direct dispersing and paralyzation of potential anti-government activities all the way from the insertion of "discussants and provacateurs" (for more, see "Disinformation tactics: methods used to maintain your lack of awareness") all the way through the sophisticated activities of means of communication owned by large corporations in the interest of large corporations, as Ľuboš Blaha quite effectively lays out in his last book, The matrix of capitalism. Are we approaching revolution? where he of course also points out a number of other tools for dominating people's thinking--churches, the legal system, etc.
From this then it follows that an unending battle is going on in society over the thinking of the public. On one side there is existing power, and against it those who are striving for its overthrow. In non-democratic systems this struggle ends in a confrontation of physical power, as we've seen most recently in Egypt, Lybia, and now in Syria.
In more democratic systems of course the use of armed force against citizens is illegal. The charter of basic rights and freedoms in Article 23 [of the Czech constitution?] goes so far as to establish the right of each citizen to oppose anyone who would eliminate the democratic order of basic human rights and freedoms. Members of the police or other armed forces who would obey an order to suppress democracy in this country would thus commit a criminal act which, after the unavoidable fall of the dictatorship, would also be judged as such. From both the inner democratic conviction of members of the power aparatus, and also from this consideration flows the small or entirely absent willingness of these "citizens in uniform" to carry out some such similar order.
The fundamental question here is whether the system in which we live is or isn't democratic. Those who answer in the affirmative will be willing to defend that system, while those who answer in the negative will strive, assuming they are democrats, for its democratic change.
And here again we have the meaning of the struggle for people's thinking, for the interpretation of reality, on the basis of which people decide to act one way or another.
The meaning of civic activities
As I've indicated, the essence of every power is physical force, but that force itself is used on the basis of people's ideological conviction. In a democratic society the direct use of physical force against citizens is quite limited both by applicable laws and by the conviction of citizens, including those in uniform, about the meaning and value of democracy. That's why the struggle for control of the thought of citizens acquires so much meaning. If the great majority strives for something, there's no way of preventing the attainment of their goals without the destruction of democracy itself. And that in itself would be possible only in a very exceptional situation, if at all.
Thus if a majority of citizens reach the conviction that the government is not worthy of governing and makes that sufficiently clear, the government will fall, as happened in Iceland, video here.
In normal situations it is therefore sufficient for citizens' opposition to cross a certain threshold, and in a country with an established democracy the government resigns, aware that it has nothing to put up in opposition to a strong citizen demand.

In most situations, however, protestors' demands are not shared by a large enough portion of the citizenry, or the protestors themselves don't have clear goals. So we see those demonstrations and strikes that don't succeed. Because the success of a civic movement requires on the one hand that a clear and concrete goal be articulated, and above all that they win a decisive part of the public over to that goal--they have to win the ideological battle over people's thinking. Politicians who see the growing support of the enunciated demands are then led by their own motive of political self-preservation to seek compromise with a movement like that, or even accede entirely to its demands. (Let us merely recall the success of green activists in their effort to change social attitudes.)

This is the ideological basis of powerful and often also international email campaigns which or organized by, for example, the Avaaz movement or the British movement 38 Degrees (which, by the way, is the steepness of a slope at which an avalanche can start).

An example from our country is the email campaign of letters to government-coalition representatives and senators demanding the calling of a referendum on church restitution under the slogan, "Don't vote for those who vote for church restitution." The sense of such campaigns is twofold. First, they mean to win the public over for the campaign's goal, and second, they are to show politicians by the number of signatures or sent emails the level of support the campaign has with the public.

Yet such a campaign has a third goal, perhaps the most important. Government propaganda and the media supporting the government try to convince the citizens that the campaign's demand is senseless and that therefore practically nobody identifies with it, and if some do, for the most part they are unsympathetic and untrustworthy individuals. This is exactly the tactit that ČT [Czech Television] used in its program "Our Czech character," and TV Nova as well when they did a broadcast about the opponents of church restitution. From that perspective then the number of signatures under the petitions raising citizen demands are convincing proof of the lie of government propaganda, but most of all they are a means for people to assure one another that they share that demand and that they aren't merely a small minority but on the contrary a large, potentially decisive majority. That's the basic precondition for taking people who are in isolation and cursing alone, convinced that there's no point in trying to accomplish anything, and turning them into a true democratic force of solidarity. And a force that is capable of determining the fate of this state, our common country. Only through this activity that is on a small scale but that has great meaning for the formation of civil society can we become aware of the true meaning of the fundamental principle of our Constitution: The people our the source of all power! And the people--that's us.

No comments:

Post a Comment