A Dereliction of Democracy

by zeph

Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst (centre and centre left) with other suffragettes outside Holloway prison, probably celebrating a release.

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Winston Churchill.

When feminism begins to distance itself from politics, as it does periodically, I believe it loses both its direction and its source of power which come largely from a democratic political system. I hear people say why should I invest in politics, politicians lie! All people lie! All people are self serving; we have to have the presence of mind to see that an investment in a political system that gives some representation to all people is in all our long term interests. Turning our backs on the amazing political achievements that have been made over the last few centuries, at enormous cost to our forbears, is a retreat into perfectionism.

I could list the revolutions that were fought, I could highlight the harsh existence of the 80% of the population that made up the working classes in previous centuries, but it all seems so long ago to people around today. There is an intrinsic problem with progress, that is, that people born after any improvement in social conditions, take those conditions for granted.


Suffragette being attacked by the police.

The recent riots on the streets of London were, in part, an inarticulate scream from young people without a political language who do not know how to express themselves, and attacked their own communities instead of lobbying against the authorities that suppress them. Working people in the nineties were encouraged to trade the political education and camaraderie of the unions, for an unvaried diet of football and beer. It has left them extremely vulnerable to corporate manipulation and unfocused civil action.
I heard a politician say recently that people don’t want parties with political ideologies, they want administrators! Administrators are an amorphous lump of humanity and therefore completely indistinguishable from each other, which effectively removes the power of the vote from the people because no one stands for any distinct set of principles.
The minds of the populations of many Western nations have  wandered, we were prepared to be silenced, we voted for political labels instead of overseeing their substance. We need to watch our politicians relentlessly, we also need to back them hard when they stand for social equality and civil rights; walking into seats of political power is like walking into pressure chambers, if the people don’t back you, the corporate lobbies will crush you.

Two apparently insignificant events have  recently caught my eye, the first was a documentary  shown on the BBC about the child labour of the industrial revolution, which both documented it (a good thing) and  yet subtly trivialised the horror of it, as if to say, was it so bad? The second was a news item shown on the BBC where a Chinese financial expert was asked by the reporter, whether he considered that democracy was causing our economic problems, and if he thought, we would be better off without it! This is serious, I have never seen such an interview in my life before. Our government and our broadcasters are becoming corporate mouth pieces. Gulag Britannia is creeping up on us again after  over a century of liberation, and the bodies of our freedom fighting ancestors are turning in their graves.

Christabel Pankhurst, exercising her hard won vote.

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24 Comments to “A Dereliction of Democracy”

  1. Democracy is a messy, miserable, business. It also exposes a lot of corruption, not because it causes more corruption, but because in more oppressive systems, nobody is allowed to say anything, so there’s nothing to see. When you have a system that exposes so much dirty laundry, it’s really easy to become cynical, to forget that this is transparency, that this is a part of freedom. I think that people become overwhelmed and they think, this is just awful, the system is broken, I don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. In the US at least, most politicians prefer not to have an engaged citizenry, so nothing is ever done to show people that they really do have a voice.

    I wish we could teach kids about their rights and responsibilities in a democracy. We hardly even teach them civics. I think watching Iron Jawed Angels and learning why women risked their lives for the right to vote can be a real eye opener. Also it’s a shame we don’t honor and value older people, especially immigrants, because they have some amazing (and horrifying) stories to tell about why they came here and what they went through to get here. History is another really critical piece. I get so aggravated with many of the inadequate US history classes we teach. Somehow we often manage to sterilize the whole story down to a few wars and historical dates without any of the substance that really makes history important.

  2. Oh, I adore that Churchill quotation! Despite the impotence of democracy, it IS much better than the alternatives. I was ranting about the inefficiencies of the system just yesterday, then had to resign myself to the REALITY that its better than nothing (and better than both vigilante justice or a military state).

    The minds of the populations of many Western nations have wandered, we were prepared to be silenced, we voted for political labels instead of overseeing their substance.

    Yes, I find this to be a growing problem. Identities and labels, even words themselves, are meaningless when we fail to question their use and application. Statements like “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a liberal” (identities) mean nothing without reference to specific political issues and interests. I prefer to talk about VALUES than political affiliation.

  3. “I think that people become overwhelmed and they think, this is just awful, the system is broken, I don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore.”

    Yes, sadly, they have no clear view of the alternatives which are neatly covered over by history.

    “Yes, I find this to be a growing problem. Identities and labels, even words themselves, are meaningless when we fail to question their use and application.”

    Very true, UP
    No one talks politics anymore, issues and politics have become separated. I think a lot of this happened because of our urgent need to address environmental problems back in the early eighties, and we had no parties which would champion them. The socialists supported working mens reproductive right to force their wives wombs into overdrive, and simply refused to address overpopulation; saying such concerns were a classist plot, and the earth had endless capacity if only we distributed resources more equally. Many women gave up politics and turned to charities to save the environment, leaving politics available for corporate colonisation. Though once again, the idea that women’s right to say I have two children and don’t want six more might be pivotal to environmental health, was ignored. Sadly charities are no match for politics when it comes to really accomplishing concrete change, and tend themselves to have a corrupt ‘jobs for the boys’ attitude.

    I think that socialism needs to embrace environmentalism. But the only way this can be achieved is through the feminist principles of female reproductive choice, and that in turn, can only be accomplished by global female governmental inclusion in equal numbers to men.

  4. Hm, I’m afraid I don’t share the “democracy is the least worse system” idea. Democracy is a pure male invention, inherent to the state system, child of the monarchy and dictatorship, a mass male-centered system of organisation of the distribution, appropriation and exploitation of women, animals and the environment for men. There will always be a majority of losers at the benefit of a tiny minority of winners. I see the democracy as a joke invented by the elite to keep the people quiet and deluded into thinking they have any power over the system they live in. It’s a pure product of capitalism that names everything the contrary it is: dictatorship vs democracy; terror vs. liberalism; pornography vs. free speech, etc etc.

    Any amount of power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many will always, inherently, be an exploitative, unfair, patriarchal system, based on dominance and submission as the rule governing human relationships.
    Sorry, maybe I’m cynical, counter-productive. I just don’t believe in this system one single minute.

    What would happen when 50% of women will be represented eveywhere? That won’t stop relationships to be exploitative and based on dominance/hierarchy, for one, and is no guarantee that men and women won’t reproduce masculine domination in culture, society, etc.

  5. Great post, Zeph. I love the revolutionary suffragettes. Thanks for the pictures. 🙂

    Our government and our broadcasters are becoming corporate mouth pieces.

    It’s true that everything is so awfully driven by capitalism these days. I agree it is important to remain involved in politics, write to MP’s and such… I certainly would never vote for male politicians though. I only vote for womyn, and I can see there is a need for many more females in parliaments and congress…

  6. Democracy is a female principle, though men, as they do with everything, claim to have invented it. But children, especially girls, display democracy in their everyday play. They will listen to everyones views and tend to go with the consensus, boys will more readily follow the strongest individual which is hierarchical. I agree with you about capitalism, as it exists today, it is basically a system that robs the energies of the majority of people for the excessive benefit of the few, such a system can only be maintained through violence, and is patriarchal. Without democracy holding capitalism in check we will return to the extreme public violence of previous centuries. When people who were literally starving could be disembowelled, hung or burnt on the Tyburn tree, for stealing a few pence. In Halifax they had a guillotine called “The Halifax Gibbet” and all the poor people would be made to pull the release rope, to force them into complicity in the deaths of their peers and make them all to aware of their own fate, should they object to the system.

    “I see the democracy as a joke invented by the elite to keep the people quiet and deluded into thinking they have any power over the system they live in.”

    Witchwind, this is exactly what the capitalists want you to think! Let go of the one powerful mitigating factor we have, (millions died in civil wars to get it) and they can really get stuck into exploiting us. We will become de-facto slaves again, swinging on public gallows for stealing a loaf of bread.

    Thanks Maggie, we definitely need more women in parliament.

  7. Yes it frightens me that we are steadily losing what people fought so hard for. The current British government is illegitimate, in my opinion, because of the misogyny of Cameron (with his anti-abortion agenda) and Clegg (with his pro-sex industry agenda). It does NOT, in fact, represent the people, it represents the minority: men, who are 48% of the population.
    A real democracy would look entirely different. No there is not yet a democracy in either Europe or the U.S.

    What also frightens me is the fact that many corporations are now more rich and powerful than many nation states, and governments obey their wishes when it comes to policies about the environment or capitalist excesses. Multinational conglomerates are most certainly NOT democratic, they were not elected, and they don’t even pretend to have the peoples’ best interest at heart, and yet they are the ones in control right now.

  8. “Yes it frightens me that we are steadily losing what people fought so hard for. The current British government is illegitimate, in my opinion, because of the misogyny of Cameron (with his anti-abortion agenda) and Clegg (with his pro-sex industry agenda). It does NOT, in fact, represent the people, it represents the minority: men, who are 48% of the population.”

    Yes, Cherry, it is frightening that we are letting it go, almost by default. The one bright spot is, that corporations need people to run them; I heard recently that people are beginning to return to the unions and if unions start to gain power in places like China and India, it would help to rain in the corporations.

    Can I just add in response to a comment only fit for spam, that the majority of suffragettes were working class women, and Emmeline herself died broke. This meme that feminism was a sort of wealthy women’s parade, instead of the hard headed freedom fighting force it really was, belittles the bravery of the suffragettes and mocks their dead. Typical of the attitude of airhead MRAs.

  9. I’m in local politics – town councillor (Labour), and also a member of the Labour Women’s Network. Often women in CLPs are silenced and those with the most aggressive approach will be listened too – always men. They also hate the rule that every other year a woman from the CLP must attend the annual conference, but if it wasn’t in place, women wouldn’t get to attend. They also don’t like a feminist approach – even some women shy away from this for fear of being seen as a militant. But I won’t be silenced, I don’t take a ‘militant’ approach, I’m inclusive and listen. I enjoy this aspect of my life very much and appreciate this excellent article.

  10. Go you Maggie. This is an interesting subject and an area where it would be good to see more women getting involved, They have been achieving some innovative things environmentally in Totnes, recently. I saw a programme about it the other day.

    Have you thought of writing a post about how you became involved, and what it entails? Something to generally provide information and encouragement for other women. You could try submitting it to “The Hub” perhaps.

  11. The pictures themselves are just amazing. Suffrage is the battle we don’t want to forget, and that included the women of the 19th century who put everything on the line for this. If men had done this, we’d still be having thousands of hours of TV and movie special about the hunger strikes and marches.

  12. Why thanks Zeph. I will, when I get the spare time, write out that post and submit it. I would love to encourage women to join and take part.

    I love those pictures too. I would love a TV programme on the suffragette movement instead of, say, Downton Abbey, or in direct opposition to it.

    • Thanks Sheila and Maggie for loving the pictures, I think they are so cool: herstory fizzing in sepia tint.

      “I would love a TV programme on the suffragette movement instead of, say, Downton Abbey, or in direct opposition to it.”

      Oh so would I, and what about the movie: the moment (Women’s Sunday, 1908) when the Pankhurst’s and their suffragettes brought out the biggest crowds ever, (up till that time) onto the streets of London, to protest. Thousands of women, young, old and to sick to stand, came out for freedom. We forget, the suffragettes were the rock stars of their day; rock stars but with gravitas, fighting and dyeing, running and outwitting the law; they brought figures like Lloyd George, Churchill and Asquith to their knees.

      Nothing written about them by men is written without spin, this is so for all history; women are vanished or diminished under the pens of men. Which raises the question, that since misogyny is not rational but emotional; are men able to approach any subject about women rationally? If they are not, then are they fit to be considered academics when half of all things that constitute life are female?

  13. Yes, men are too emotional to be taken seriously in academia or any other kind of serious thought. They prioritiee emotion over facts in almost every field they enter. How else can the exclusion of women’s significant political role from history be explained? They simply cannot put their hatred and contempt of women aside for the sake of professionalism. Cordelia Fine, in her book “Delusions of Gender” hilariously mocks men’s “science” experiements over the centuries as they tried desperately to prove women had inferior brains–to no avail. All they managed to do was paint a clear picture of their own inferiority complexes 🙂

    Regarding the spam comment, even if it *were* a middle class movement, is the commenter seriously suggesting certain groups of women don’t bleed? THat they don’t feel pain when a policeman’s truncheon is beating them?

  14. Yes, yes, we need a mass market blockbuster movie with Pankhurst as the hero. This is a real hero. The lack of fiction looking at suffragism, the obliteration of this movement from the history books, has to be remedied!

    vlietfeministpoetry.blogspot.com

  15. In the U.S. there is the idea that somehow the “founding fathers” crafted the ideas in the constitution that were democracy. They absorbed many of these ideas from Native Americans, particularly the Iroquois. http://www.iroquoisdemocracy.pdx.edu/

    “In the Iroquois community, women were the keepers of culture. They were responsible for defining the political, social, spiritual and economic norms of the tribe. Iroquois society was matrilineal, meaning descent was traced through the mother rather than through the father, as it was in Colonial society. While Iroquois sachems (chiefs-leaders) were men, women nominated them for their leadership positions and made sure they fulfilled their responsibilities. . . . Iroquois women enjoyed social equality and respect that was not shared by colonial women.”

    http://www.iroquoisdemocracy.pdx.edu/html/iroquoiswoman.htm

    Obviously the “founding fathers” got it wrong, and left out the social equality and respect for women. Women need to be the guiding force for democracy to work, like the women choosing leaders and monitoring them.

    I love the pictures!

  16. Cherry, most, but not all, of the leading group were middle class, though the famous Annie Kenny was a factory girl. But the working classes in those days made up far more of the population than they do now, and they provided the numbers for the movement.

    Male archaeologists and historians are the worst types of irrational academics when it comes to women, but doctors can be dodgy and journalist go without saying. We really cannot believe a word they say about us.

    Thanks Katie, for the piece on the founding fathers, the Greeks normally claim to have invented democracy’ which is a huge joke because you don’t even understand the concept if you are prepared to disqualify 50% of the population.

    Glad you liked the pics too.

    Vleit I have just been over and read some of your poetry, I enjoyed the tension and intensity of it. I left a comment but it spat it out, apparently I had put the wrong name, then it ate the comment. I have given up for now but will try again next time I am over.

    We need a good screen writer to write the script, and if its good maybe they could get it made. It would have to be at least as good as “The Iron Jawed Angels” and that is a wonderful film.

  17. Thanks, Zeph, for looking in on my poems; the newer ones owe a great deal to the Radfem Hub.

    The photos here are very moving.

  18. The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy. There’s an important distinction between the two. In a democracy, the majority rules. There are no limits. Whatever the majority says, goes, regardless of the issue. A republic goes by the majority rule as well, but with limits. The majority can rule, as long as they don’t interfere with the rights of individuals and minority groups. IOWs, a republic safeguards individuals and minorities from the majority.

    In the case of women and minorities, we can see why this is such an important distinction. The majority did not want to give women the right to vote. The majority did not want to abolish slavery. Under a democracy, the majority could very well take away women’s suffrage and institute slavery once again. A republic safeguards that from happening.

    I think it’s very important that we make this distinction and continue to call ourselves republics instead of democracies. As we can see, democracies and an unlimited majority rule can be a very dangerous thing, which the powers-that-be would be all too happy to exploit.

  19. Well, your constitution varies from ours I think. In a democracy all adults vote, any system that existed prior to full enfranchisement for all adults, was only a partial democracy. We transitioned slowly from a monarchy to a democracy and it took a civil war to get it started. Any majority that is contingent on half the population being silenced, is a majority in name only and not representative of democracy. The UK is not a republic because we do not have an elected head of state, unlike France and America.

  20. I have always been very ambivilant about the notion of Democracy. As a womon I have felt even though we have the vote we are still majorly excluded from the process of governance that rules in favour of the Patriarchy…as are our Laws.

    The other issue is Right wing womon who work tirelessly on behalf of the Patriarch to undermine the few gains womon have made over eons….and discredit Feminism ( of any type) while themselves benefiting themselves at the Patriarchs table at our expense….

    Come the revolution what are we to do with the traitor womon?????? Re=programme them?????

  21. Hi ybawife. I think the biggest barrier to women having full benefit from the democratic process, (apart from men) is women’s ambivalence. Most right wing women believe in a mothers right of custody to their children, many left wing men do not. In order for women to ensure their rights we need, at least, an equal proportion of women to men in our parliaments. So women must vote for women as much as possible; because on the rock face of patriarchy where issues of women’s reproductive freedom are fought out, women of all political persuasions have a common cause. A few right wing women betray that common cause but their numbers are small. The numbers of people ambivalent about the political process on the other hand are so vast, they threaten to undermine it.

    I agree that it is not all we need, I think we require a social restructuring which encourages women to live in self- protecting groups. But even after a revolution you would still require a democratic process, not, hopefully, the man moulded model we have today! But in it’s way, a 50/50 power sharing government between the sexes is revolutionary.

  22. Good post, Zeph, thanks for the very important discussion. One of the biggest problems all of us are facing with our democracies is the scale we’re dealing with. It may be fine for any small group to say that everyone will get a say in the group’s governance when all the issues that are faced are relatively straight-forward. Terribly, horribly difficult on a large, complex scale where the issues faced by the group (nation, whatever) are as complicated as what we face now. Just the issue of food is the perfect illustration. And just one element of it: Deciding whether the state should subsidize agricultural production — as large businesses or small cooperatives or something else — and to what degree, is full of conflicting issues and interests. There are precious few people who have all the knowledge, background, status, etc. they would need to even tackle the issue, let alone solve it to meet most (let alone all) the competing needs. The people we elect to represent us appear to mostly be ideologues, not braniacs, so there’s one part of the problem. And the other is that most people don’t even have time, let alone the knowledge, immersion, experience, or what-have-you, to help make these decisions. We act like it’s perfectly natural for humans to operate on this scale when it most obviously is not something we’re equipped for. We make decisions piecemeal and in the moment and with our own best interests (and those of our few closest personal allies) foremost in mind. That we lurch from one man-made disaster to another isn’t surprising.

  23. Hi Noan,

    Yes, there are many difficulties but we have to work through them because ” Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Corruption is endemic in all societies it is the levels that have to be kept workable and this can only be achieved if the people have a say in who represents them. No one can be an expert on everything and experts are available to politicians. Sadly I don’t think modern politicians are ideologues, which is a pity because an ideology is something that can be represented clearly to the people; it provides a course of intent, and allows us to hold our representatives responsible when they diverge from it. Our labour party has not yet presented a clear set of policies and we are supposed to vote on the absurd basis of the characteristics of individual leaders, which are completely spun anyway.

    I think we do have time, people could give up one evening at the gym a fortnight and gather in groups for political discussion. The poor in the UK need to miss the odd football match and focus on building up some political power and knowhow. Short term self interest involves immediate gratification, long term self interest involves investment in our future prospects, and that will always involve the wider community.

    It is no mistake that politics is not taught in British schools, only advantaged children who will take A levels and degrees are encouraged to understand the system, those kids who will leave school at sixteen are easier to exploit if they remain ignorant. “No taxation without representation” is a saying that originated during the 1750s, and yet it is still not in place for British teenagers who start work at sixteen and are not eligible to vote until eighteen.

    We need to meet and talk politics again, we may even need to build new parties and new ways of selecting party members. We might consider forming a women’s party, to collect disillusioned women’s votes and form a powerful pressure group.

    But most of all, the alternative to democracy is tyranny, which will rapidly return us to the dreadful conditions of previous centuries. Conditions that presently exist in other parts of the world; where workers are chained into their sweat shops and made to work for almost nothing.

    As you so rightly say Noan, these are very important issues, people need to be discussing them in groups, in IRL.

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