The Fight for Democracy Goes On

How right Professor Eric Hobsbawn is to express the wish that “progressive policy needs a return to the conviction that economic growth and the affluence it brings is a means and not an end”. Put politics in command of economics.

By Imran Khan (ISSUES)

Published: Thu 16 Apr 2009, 10:39 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:44 AM

Put human needs above the exigencies of the economic system; any economic system. It is the prime human ambition that the world and its resources can be organised and nurtured to meet all human requirements and maybe this, still new(ish) century, will see the fulfilment of this ambition. Hobsbawm settles on the drastic failure of Stalinist “socialism” and the current tremors of global finance as parallel lessons about the weakness of pure versions of economic management when it comes to their effects on human lives taken as a whole. (If I were a freebooting billionaire, however, I might be inclined to point out that the social cost of these two “collapses” is rather different.

Give me the current mischief every time. It is yet to spawn any death camps.) In fact, we have not seen out the present economic dramas, but any analogy with the collapse of “already existing socialism” as eastern European bureaucrats dubbed their regimes, does look weak. Perhaps we should review the professor’s starting point? Since the enlightenment period and certainly since the French revolution, the endeavour to create societies that meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of the peoples of the earth has been on our agenda. Naturally, since then, those benefiting from the status quo have, from time to time, thrown everything they have at those who fought to answer that most pertinent (and still unresolved) question. It has been a tremendous struggle. At various times it has taken political, social, economic and even cultural forms.

Right at the heart of the matter has been a democratic thread — still the best way yet discovered to express the will of the majority. And while that democratic effort has always been shut out of the “mysterious” or “autonomous” or “expert” or now “globalised” realm of the economy — to the extent now that democracy, as freedom’s goal, is being drastically undermined — it has had and it still has its triumphs against all the odds. It triumphed in the West after the bitter battle for universal franchise, the last and most difficult stage led by the women’s movement. In South Africa it brought down apartheid. In the US it has given the world its first black leader of a superpower.

Women have fought everywhere across the globe for their liberation. The children of slaves launched a great wave of opposition to the society they found themselves in. In all cases, without a single exception, the status quo fought, whip and gun in hand, every inch of the way. The Russian revolution tore away the blind despotism and medieval misery of millions of Russians. A dozen western armies opposed it. The Chinese revolution destroyed the stranglehold of the warlords and their colonial masters and set human progress going again for one fifth of the world’s population. It was threatened with nuclear annihilation. These were not disasters. They were beacons of hope. They were signal parts of the human endeavour to place themselves and their lives before the inevitable rule of the aristocracy, the unchangeable superiority of the governing classes, the supreme logic of economics, producing poverty and death.

The watchword of the rich, the powerful, the despot and the tyrant, that “there is no alternative” has, over and over again been challenged by the most momentous waves of human struggle and sacrifice. And the question underlining it all has still not yet been answered.

The experiments in human freedom, democracy, equality and mutual support have not yet succeeded. There have been partial, temporary successes and some catastrophic failures. Even the gains that have been made are constantly attacked, eroded, questioned, undermined. But putting politics in command of economics, meeting human needs, as the goal of social and economic activity remains the key redoubt still to be breached. The first efforts, in Russia, in China, were crude, underdeveloped and under the pressure of the rest of the world quickly became machines for the production of more enslavement and privilege. But thefight goes on.

The 20th century was not like the 19th. The 21st will be different to those before it. But can anyone imagine that global poverty, war, nuclear weapons or climate change can be solved without a vast expansion of human democracy into the social and the economic spheres of life? It remains the unfinished business of and for us all.

Imran Khan is former cricket captain of Pakistan

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