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Madrid and democracy on the first anniversary

By J.K. Baltzersen
web February 28, 2005

Railway workers remove debris from the wreckage of a bombed public train as a second destroyed train is pulled out of Atocha train station in Madrid on March 12, 2004Next week we mark the first anniversary of the tragic bomb explosions in Madrid just before a Spanish parliamentary election. Moreover, it was on the day two and a half years after the even more tragic events in those United States on September 11, 2001.

We are told that representative democracy is the form of government where those who govern are held accountable to the governed. This is a modified truth at best. In a representative democracy the people rule, at least in theory. However, it is the majority that rules. Moreover, in practice, it is mostly the representatives who rule. The representatives, at least to some extent, are held accountable to the electorate. The electorate, however, is held accountable to no one. Or perhaps not?

Neither the legal nor the political system provides accountability for the voters, who do their acts in total anonymity. However, consequences of their representatives' acts and hence their own collective choices, must be taken collectively, as the choices are made collectively. Sometimes the consequences must be faced in the total arbitrariness and in the most gruesome way. I am not saying that this is morally right; I am just saying that that is the way it is.

Ward Churchill has been fiercely attacked -- and rightly so -- for stating that the victims in the World Trade Center were not innocent. If one accepts the ideology of democracy -- that the people are the government, it makes sense to hold every individual accountable for the actions of the government. However, the ideology of democracy is flawed.

It is quite obvious that the Madrid bombings were strategically placed in time before an election to bring about a wanted result. Everyone up-to-date on popular Spanish opinion knew the popular position on Spanish involvement in the Middle East. However, this involvement was not a deciding issue in the election campaign before that fateful Thursday morning. Of course, anyone uninterested in this pre-election situation would like to see the agenda change to their advantage. This happens all the time. Incumbent politicians try to manipulate the agenda all the time, and they often succeed. Political challengers also often try manipulating the agenda. In Britain, the party in cabinet office tries timing the next election so it is most beneficial to the ruling party.

The principle of democracy demands that the electorate makes the decisions, however uninformed, misinformed, or manipulated the electorate may be. Of course, this principle will stand no critical test. However, if one accepts the principle, one must also accept what it stands for.

Now, the terrorists want the West to get out of the Middle East. They succeeded in getting the Spaniards out. In a way this incident shows that terrorism pays, and that the result it gave will probably cause more terrorism. However, we have luckily seen no obvious result thus far. Had the Spanish government said that this incident would not change anything, however, that had probably not stopped terrorism. Manipulating the sentiment of the electorate, however macabre or gruesome the means for it, will be around as long as we have mass democracy.

When coup makers not long after Franco's death tried taking over the Spanish government, King Juan Carlos told the coup makers to go home. The Spanish government was not to be run at gunpoint. If the guns are pointed at the representatives in a representative democracy, this is contrary to the principle of democracy. In a democracy, the people -- or rather the popular majority -- rule, not the guns. However, if the guns are pointed at the electorate, this is not contrary to the principle of democracy. The majority rules.

Whatever may be behind its decisions is irrelevant for the principle of democracy. This holds whether you are against or for the turn the Spanish government seems to be making. I am not making a case either for or against Zapatero's stand. I am just stating the obvious; that democracy is about who rules, not how it is ruled.

We hear demands that innocent civilians should be left alone. This is a highly reasonable demand. The problem is that in a democracy the population collectively has the final say in who holds office. The divide between those who govern and the governed has almost been erased. There is very little left of this divide. The principle of democracy tells us that the people are the government. In light of this, is it surprising that an enemy would target randomly selected individuals? Is this not natural in this age of collectivism?

Populations are easily swayed. They seldom make decisions based on sound principles. One day they are in a good mood. The other day they are in a bad mood. One day they can believe that the family should be responsible for its own well-being. The next day they criticize the government for not providing enough health care for a sick kid. One moment they can believe in liberty. The next moment they let a "PATRIOT Act" and a "Department of Homeland Security" pass practically without batting an eye. Democracy provides no stability. It is a shortsighted form of government, as Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe has noted, and it nurtures shortsightedness in society. The incident in Madrid about one year ago showed us that a party in power certain of staying in power due to popular satisfaction with the economy suddenly found itself soon to be out of cabinet office due to the loss of about 200 lives and the sudden shift of the agenda from the national economy to the war in Iraq. This is a general problem. People seldom make decisions on what to vote for from the complete picture. More often than not they make these decisions based on issues that are not necessarily representative for the complete picture.

Why should a voter invest a lot of time in making a very informed decision? The probability of one voter having influence on the end result is minimal. The consequences of the collective decision of the masses may be quite severe. However, the responsibility of the individual voter is practically zero.

J.K. Baltzersen is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Iraq and Spain: Two battlegrounds in the War on Terror by Jackson Murphy (March 15, 2004)
    The terrorist attacks last week in Spain, writes Jackson Murphy, tragically proved that the War on Terror is just that, a war and the field of battle is worldwide
  • Spain decides to run away by Alan Caruba (March 15, 2004)
    Alan Caruba says that the Spanish election results send a clear message: When it comes to the War on Terror, Spain is no longer a member of the Coalition of the Willing
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