The “democratic” dictatorship of the powerful

Xoyep Mural

By: Raúl Zibechi

We’re lacking ideas. The mind doesn’t think with information but rather with ideas, as Fritjof Capra emphasizes in La trama de la vida (The web of life). In this tremendous transition/storm that we experience, we need lucidity and organization to comprehend what’s happening and to construct the exits. When reality becomes more complex and perception is muddied, a characteristic of the systemic storms, clarifying the gaze is an ineludible and vital step.

Thus they stuff us with junk information, because it contributes to increasing the confusion. It is in this sense that the media play a systemic role that consists of diverting attention, making important and decisive things have the same treatment as more superficial things (a highway accident has more coverage than climate chaos) and they treat serious themes as if they were a soccer game.

As we know, there are those who think that there are no major changes, and that the systemic storm is a passing crisis after which everything will continue it’s normal course. But those below need to sharpen our senses, detect sounds and imperceptible movements, because our lives are at risk and any misstep can have disastrous consequences. We don’t have life insurance or private guards, like those above have.

The French historian Emmanuel Todd reflects on the elections in his country, with a very interesting analysis. The first thing is that camps of stable social forces have existed for several decades, which permits him to assure that society is divided into two halves, and that this division remains almost unaltered (

Secondly, he asks why in the last quarter of a century the rejection of the neoliberal model has not increased (in Europe), despite the increase in unemployment and the failure of the euro. He analyzes the population, a structural fact that analysts tend to minimize. In France, the population got six years older since 1992 and, in fact, the elderly “have lost the right to vote,” because an exit from the euro would lower their pensions.

The second question he contemplates is the educational stratification. He concludes that: “the people with higher education produced a mass oligarchy” and that that elite went from 12 percent of the population in 1992 to 25 percent in just 25 years. The conclusion is upsetting: an aging population coupled with a mayor “oligarchic mass” leads to a growing conformism of half the population, while the other half from below has deteriorated notably since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

When Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, the relation between those below and those above was nine to one. There were no pensions for the elderly and the university was reserved for the elites. It was an unstable system, where 90 percent had an interest in overthrowing it.

The two changes Todd mentioned (demography and higher education) represent profound mutations for those of us who aspire to transform the world. Even in 1960 university students like Che were abundant, disposed to utilizing their knowledge together with the oppressed. The system knew how to comprehend that it had a weak point among university youth and took measures.

Teachers at that level now earn fortunes up to 30 times the minimum wage in several countries. The students have fellowships that permit them to extend their postgraduate studies until they reach the age of 40 and then aspire to enter into the university elite. In the collective imaginary social advancement passes through higher education to which is given a good part of one’s life.

Three decades ago, Immanuel Wallerstein maintained (in Marx and under-development) that under capitalism the upper class went from 1 percent to 20 percent of the world population. The number can now approach the 25 percent that Todd surmises for the “mass oligarchy.” In Latin America the numbers might be a shade less, but we’re getting there.

It’s possible that we are bordering on the “perfect domination:” societies divided into almost equal parts, between those that need to smash the system and those that fear any change. One half conformist and the other half crushed by the fourth world war. Above both, the 1 percent controls state power, material power and the electoral democracies.

“To the extent that the dimensions of the group at the top expands, to the extent that we are making members of the group at the top more equal all the time among each other in their political rights, it becomes possible to extract more from those below,” Wallerstein writes in After liberalism (page 168). And he adds that: “a country half free and half slave can indeed last a long Time.”

The consequences of these changes must lead us to draw some “strategic” conclusions.

First, democracy is felt in that sector that doesn’t want to destabilize the system, while the other half doesn’t feel represented. The half above feels it has electoral democracy, but it’s a prison for those below.

Two, for the disinherited half of the population, the current design of capitalism is an oppressive reality, since the focused social policies tend to neutralize and divide those who need to rise up against the system.

The center-left parties collect the aspirations, and the fears, of that half of the population that only wants cosmetic changes and whose exclusive political exercise is voting every five or six years and attending meetings to applaud their political bosses.

The half below cannot trust in a political system that functions as a “democratic dictatorship.” “A political structure with total freedom for the half above can be the most oppressive form imaginable for the half below,” Wallerstein continues.

Those who live in the zone of non-being, in Fanon’s words, are those who resist and construct other worlds, because of the mere necessity to survive. But they are bombarded by the fantasy that they can change their destiny without breaking the system.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Friday, May 12, 2017

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee




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