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Editorial
Last Updated: 05/26/2003
Democracy Plutocracy Kleptocracy: Are we going backwards?
Simon Stander

Simon StanderHistorically, the installation of democratic institutions and the development of genuine democratic societies have not come easily. Indeed, democracy is new and fragile everywhere in the world where it is said to exist. Even at the most fundamental level, one person, one vote in the context of representative democracy can only be traced back to the twentieth century. Go back farther and we find that the richer and more developed countries have histories in which development was initially dependent on so-called primitive accumulation. That means, basically, that the technicians of violence were able to steal the major source of wealth, land (and everything that goes with it like minerals, vegetation, grazing, water and so on). Later these groups of men legitimised their possessions and called it property, which was then protected by a series of laws that was invented by the owners of property. The rule of law, the respect for property rights and the growing respect for human rights have now become the main elements that have been incorporated into modern democracies and underpin the growth of material well-being, high educational standards, and greater longevity.

However, more recently and especially with the discussion of US and UK motivations for the war in Iraq, the workings of democratic governments in the more developed countries have become suspect with many anxious commentators throwing words around such as plutocracy (or crony capitalism) and, even, kleptocracy. (The ever helpful Microsoft dictionary does not yet recognise the word kleptocracy and suggests that plutocracy be substituted. Make of that what you will).

There is a large body of literature that has taken up the question: does democracy cause peace? The answer to this question in academic circles is not unequivocal. On the other hand, the balance of opinion is that, if you can export the genuine components of democratic society (not merely democratic institutions) to undemocratic countries, you may be also spreading peace. However, if we are to take seriously the critics who claim that the very countries claiming to be democratic are increasingly taking on the characteristics of plutocracies, and even kleptocracies, what hope is there for lesser developed countries yet to progress beyond their weak or non-existent democratic development?

In many parts of the world we observe notable contradictions that exist between simultaneous respect for private property and disregard for it. For instance in such countries as Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, DR Congo we observe that corporations based in the US, UK, France, Italy, Canada, Belgium and elsewhere where they are protected by the law that governs the owners of property, are doing business with governments that clearly disregard property owners in their own countries in the interests of accumulating wealth for tiny ruling elites. Increasingly, primitive accumulation occurs side by side with modern enterprise. The results are far from peaceful. In the DR Congo, the war has been raging for four years and two million people have died while disease and starvation are due to kill many thousands more, even when the fighting stops. The war in the Sudan, similarly, has lasted thirty years and killed millions.

If we want peace in the world (and greater equity) the people of the wealthier nations need to act to prevent their democracies slipping back to the times and methods of primitive accumulation. While spreading democracy may well spread peace, spreading kleptocracy does not.

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