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The fine line between democracy and dictatorship

November 12, 2011 4 comments

“The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.” – Charles Bukowski

There are fundamental differences between democracy and dictatorship. In a democracy, one has more freedom than in a dictatorship. Well, there is one fundamental difference. Other than that, there are numerous similarities, too.

Dictatorships crack down on their people for expressing themselves publicly. And we live in a free country, right? So it could not happen here. Well, has there ever been a G8 summit in your country? Let me guess: a few people out of tens of thousands of protesters broke some windows, and rows upon rows of riot police came in spraying, beating and arresting. In a series of acts of civil disobedience over the past two years to protest the imperial wars in which the US is engaged, some 1400 Americans have gone to jail. And now that the Occupy movements are covering the globe, we are seeing police brutality everywhere. Critical thinkers need to seriously reconsider the idea that we need police to keep us safe, and begin searching for alternatives. How could they be so brutal in free countries? Because, dictatorship or democracy alike, the police are there to serve the elites, not to protect the people.

Dictatorships have a habit of jailing huge numbers of people. When democratic governments are under pressure from companies that run prisons, they have an incentive to do the same. And locking people up is as easy as passing a law. If it is illegal to smoke pot, you can go to jail for it. Look at the millions of people in the US who have. The US locks up more people than any of the world’s dictatorships. (Canada is set to start doing something similar.) And people in jail are not free. Just ask Bradley Manning, or however many are still in Guantanamo and who, despite centuries of legal tradition, have no right to habeas corpus. If rights were the difference between democracy and dictatorship, does that mean democracy is dead?

Dictatorships run secret agencies that find and neutralise enemies of the state. Again, it could not possibly happen here, right? Well, think about it. Have there been any new anti-terrorism laws introduced in the past 10 years? Have you taken a good look at those laws? Most people will not become targets of them, true, but the same could be said of authoritarian regimes. Most people who keep their heads down will be spared. But what do the laws say? Could they be reading your emails and text messages? Could they be listening to your phone calls? Could it be forcing Google to take down embarrassing videos and give them your information? The answer is yes. For the first time in history, you now need police permission to demonstrate within 1100 yards of the British parliament. Naturally, if the police say no, you stay at home. The police can put innocent people (including children) into databases and track them without any reason. (The cliché that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear is a canard torn apart by the experts in this video. Clearly, we are no longer presumed innocent.) They can give you a full body search in public. And ten years after 9/11, Congress renewed the USA PATRIOT Act. As Peter Hitchens says, “this is more than a change in the law. It is part of a wide and deep change in the way we are governed, supposedly justified by the need to combat crime and disorder. While wrongdoers seem largely unaffected by all this, innocent citizens find that they are ruled by an increasingly officious and heavy hand.” Freedom slips quietly away, and the line between democracy and dictatorship slowly but surely fades.

One difference between democracies and dictatorships is that, because democracies tend to have more vibrant economies, they have more wealth. That wealth can be appropriated to fund militaries and war campaigns. Democracies are statistically more likely than dictatorships to invade and occupy foreign countries. It is, of course, staggeringly ironic that people who enjoy freedom would sanction the repression and killing of foreigners. But that irony is lost on most democrats who favour a strong military.

And now there is a danger that democracies will slide into dictatorship. With the possible collapse of currencies and governments in debt, what could happen is that many people, realising that the government is mostly to blame for their misfortune, will rise up against their masters. At the same time, there will be a group of people scared into submission, afraid to lose what they think is worth keeping. That means not just the elites who benefit from the status quo but people on the bottom who think that things could be worse. Those people would lend their support to stronger government, under the banner of “stability” and promises to “get the economy back on track”. The military has been trained to deal harshly with civic unrest if and when it occurs, and we do not have much chance against the military. With enough popular support, stronger government could take away more and more freedoms, put more and more people in jail, and pacify the masses. To guard against that possibility, we need to warn people of its possibility, and carefully explain the alternatives, the topic of the upcoming posts on this blog.

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