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A constant theme in elite reaction to the Brexit referendum, expressed especially through the mainstream media, has been a visceral contempt for democracy. Ordinary working people are portrayed as stupid and reactionary, incapable of understanding how wonderful the European Union project is. Again and again, one hears the comment that the great unwashed should not be allowed to vote on issues which they are incapable of understanding. This reaction is not new: ruling classes for centuries have loathed democracy, which is seen as an existential threat to the wealth and privileges of the elite.
Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and Contempt for Democracy

Keep raising the issue of democracy

By Ulli Diemer

To: Cy Gonick and Jim Silver
Canadian Dimension

Dear Cy & Jim:

Thank you for sending me a draft copy of your editorial for the November-December issue of Dimension. I agree with the thrust of what you have written, and wouldn't suggest any substantive changes.

There is one important point in your editorial I'd like to comment on: the question of what contribution socialists can make to the broader movement.

It seems to me that one of the key themes which socialists should be hammering away at is that of democracy.
The issue of democracy, or the lack of it, connects, or has the potential to connect, many of the struggles and movements you refer to in the editorial. The perspective of a radical democratization of society could contribute to linking the concerns and demands of these separate movements, and also has the potential to help move them forward. I think that as socialists we should make it a priority to try to put the issue of democracy - and of the meaning of democracy - on the agenda of movements for change, and on the agenda of society as a whole.
The demand for democracy is intuitively attractive and reasonable to many Canadians, certainly including those already active in working for change. The idea of democracy is deeply rooted in our political culture. Governments and the media revel in telling us how democratic we are, and how the people of the Communist states are thirsting after the democracy we have here.

Why not take advantage of the generally accepted idea that democracy is a good thing, and raise the question of what democracy really is and why we actually have so little of it? What could be more subversive and radical than actually taking our society's democratic rhetoric seriously?

I think that we socialists could play an important role in making democracy a central theme in our social and environmental movements, and in making it a cutting edge of those movements as they challenge the status quo. Doing so could raise key questions of power and accountability and challenge the legitimacy of the existing power structures.

For example, in opposing the free trade deal, and the rest of the neo-conservative agenda, we should be opposing not only the actual measures, but challenging, again and again, the right of the government to take these measures. We should be taking every opportunity to question the right of the government to implement free trade when a majority of Canadians voted against it, as well as its right to introduce measures which it either didn't mention or promised not to take when it sought election.

On a wide range of economic and environmental issues, we could work to make an issue not only of what is being done, but of how decisions are made. Why should there be a class of owners entitled to take decisions which profoundly affect thousands of people and entire communities, while those whose health, livelihoods and future are at stake have no say? Why shouldn't economic decisions be made democratically, by those who actually do the work and need the goods and services?

What we socialists can offer, in other words, is a vision of a radically democratic socialist society, in which power is taken away from corporations, governments, bureaucracies, and experts, and dispersed widely. We can challenge the idea that politics is just about elections and elected office, presenting instead the goal of real democratic control of social and economic life, including workers' control in the workplace and community control in our towns and neighbourhoods.

To do this, we don't have to claim to have a blueprint for how a democratic society would look. We can acknowledge that there are important questions of how, for example, one balances majority rule and minority rights, of how individual freedoms can be safeguarded against potential abuse by a majority.

What we can strive to do is to put the issue of democracy high on the agenda, and to try to show how taking democracy seriously points toward a radically transformed, socialist, society.

Keep up the good work,

Ulli Diemer
October 10, 1989

See also: What Do We Do Now? Building a social movement in the aftermath of free trade.

Keywords: Democracy - Democratization - Power - Strategies for Social Change