August 14, 2002
War and the Powerlessness of the Majority
By Stephen Gowans
While the point may, at first glance, seem too obvious to make, the implications are often never considered, so it is worthwhile to recall that what fundamentally distinguishes the vast majority of the population from the tiny elite that makes decisions of consequence, is power. Most people have no power, in any legal, formal sense, to affect decisions of great consequence in all but the tiniest domains of their private lives. They have little or no control over fundamental decisions in the workplace, and no legal, formal means of directly influencing economic, social or foreign policy.
In representative democracies, it is true that universal suffrage extends to the population the power to choose among competing elites in elections, but the extent to which this confers any real control over policy is, at best, minimal. The majority, for example, has no formal legal mechanism by which it can exert control over whether the country's armed forces are pressed into service, and indeed, no mechanism either by which it can specify the conditions and limits under which armed force is used. Governments can order the wholesale slaughter of other people, and draft a nation's sons and daughters into the service of this barbarity, with the majority having no legal means of veto, its only recourse being whatever pressure it can bring to bear on its elected representatives. But even that pressure is outside any prescribed, formal means of political participation. The majority can pressure representatives, but it can't make legislators vote in desired ways, if indeed questions of war and the use of the military are even within the purview of legislatures. Some legislatures, as in the United States recently, have effectively ceded authority to the executive branch, while in other instances, the executive branch has arrogated decisions of war and the use of armed force onto itself. In these instances, the majority must appeal directly to the executive, much as a subject people appeals to a monarch.
It should, however, be noted, that in recent times, the centralization of war making authority has been willingly acceded to, if not demanded, by legislatures, and by a good deal of the population they nominally represent. The impetus has been the horrific events of Sept. 11, and the widespread perception, most acutely felt in the United States, of insecurity and physical danger. Dictatorship, and forms of centralized authority that border on dictatorship, have often been gladly accepted, even demanded, by people who perceive themselves to be subject to clear and present dangers from without and within. And elites seeking to enlarge their authority have often actively and deliberately acted to intensify popular angst, if not to engineer events that foster a widespread sense of insecurity and impending danger.
The dispossession of the majority's power to control policy is widely acknowledged and understood, and among a certain part of the majority -- and certainly among the elite -- is regarded as desirable. For others, it is neither desirable nor undesirable, but a fact of life, with which they do their best to live.
The apprehension of formal powerlessness is, in addition to the multitude of distractions at the disposal of the majority, a potent basis of political inertia. To put it in simple terms, those who know what's going on (and more do than is often supposed) don't concern themselves overly much with affairs of the state, having no formal avenue through which to directly influence these affairs, and having no idea how they might make any change otherwise, and having pressing daily demands to meet that keep them from expressing opposition, or pressing demands, in any vigorous way, if at all.
Which isn't to say that large numbers of people, don't, at times, step outside the very limited formal bounds of influence representative democracies allow, to press demands in non-formal ways, by participating, for example, in mass demonstrations or campaigns of civil disobedience. But these demands are almost always reactive, occasioned by opposition to a repellent policy, rather than demand for a policy that promotes the majority's interest. In the United States, there have been large scale campaigns to stop the Vietnam War, or to undermine policies that propped up apartheid in South Africa, or to stop the encroachment of IMF and WTO policies, but not a campaign of civil disobedience for universal health care, for example. This bias to oppose, rather than promote, has been used by critics to denounce activists as "knowing what they're against, but not what they're for." And it is almost always the case that the degree to which large sections of the majority participate in the pressing of their demands is proportional to the extent to which they are directly affected by the policy they seek to veto.
The campaign in the United States to end the Vietnam War, no matter how much it was said to have been inspired by the majority recognizing the immorality of US aggression, could rely on the participation, and at the very least, the sympathy, of large parts of the US population, because the war exacted an extraordinary personal cost for many Americans. The issue of millions upon millions of Southeast Asians being destroyed, while a motivating force for the most ardent activists, was of little moment for the majority against the loss of friends and family. To this day, oceans of tears are, every now and then, cried for the 55,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam, but, in the United States and throughout the Western world, not a moment's recognition is given to the vastly greater number of mostly civilian Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians who were killed, for having the misfortune to live upon real estate the United States sought to dominate. In other words, the many can be galvanized to act to the extent their personal interests are directly threatened, but only then, and only where the cost is high. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, slaughtered abroad, while engendering campaigns of protest by a minority of activists, will be ignored by the majority. That the Nazi Holocaust happened, with little protest at the time, is, no matter how much Zionists would like to regard the event as inimitable and uniquely related to anti-Semitism, but a single (though particularly horrific) instance of a larger phenomenon: the majority impotently accepting massive injustice committed elsewhere with a shrug of the shoulders and the question: "What can I do about it?"
This shouldn't, however, be taken to mean that the prospect for a significant reduction in injustice, barbarity and military adventurism, and its enormous toll in lost and destroyed lives, is unrelievedly bleak. For while the majority is unprepared to pay a high cost to press its demands vigorously where its interests are not directly threatened, it seems vastly more likely that issues of justice, morality and law would inform the decisions of the majority if it had formal, legal mechanisms for exerting control over foreign policy, and in particular, the use of the armed forces.
Of course, there is no way of proving this, unless it is tried, but it is significant that an extraordinary amount of public persuasion must be exercised by the elite to make the majority acquiesce in the commission of large scale injustices. Most people don't lust for armed aggression, for example; there's little in it for them, and much to recommend against it. Wars, at their root, are almost always driven by the desire of those who start them to aggrandize their own interests, or those of people like them. The majority, which supplies the personnel, are the vectors -- patsies, in more colorful language -- through which the perpetrators of wars achieve their goals. And the scepticism of the majority, until it's actively worked on and whittled down, seems more the order of the day, than bellicosity. Even where a chauvinistic willingness to back war is inflamed, it's rare that the majority remains belligerent for long.
There is, for example, little mass support for all out war on Iraq throughout much of the world. According to a recent poll, two-thirds of adults in Britain oppose Britain's involvement in an attack, a finding, to underscore the majority's powerlessness, that has spurred the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to announce he'll step up efforts to bring the public onside, rather than acceding to public opinion. This is emblematic of elites planning wars, and then working to build support, or, at the very least, to secure the public's acquiescence. It is rare, if not unheard of, for the majority, of its own initiative, to demand of an elite that it be led into war
Moreover, that part of the majority paying attention, seems to recognize that the reasons for waging all out war against Iraq are transparently contrived; indeed, it is an open secret that the US administration is looking for a casus belli, which should, but hasn't, invited an inquiry into the real reasons for the impending attack, apart from the pseudo-psychological explanation of George W. Bush wanting to "finish the job his daddy started." Accordingly, it would be difficult to make the case that, if left in the hands of the majority, the decision to wage war would be taken.
Significantly, neither formal mechanisms of popular control, or a political education respecting non-formal means to influence policy, are granted. By the elite's reckoning, too much popular participation and agitation leads to an intolerable situation: ungovernability, or, more to the point, the attenuation of its power. Democracy, much as it's lauded by elites, is, in full flower, the utmost threat to those in charge, and to be tolerated in only its most rudimentary, and limited, form.
Hence, the received wisdom holds that matters of state are best left in the hands of a small number of representatives, their appointees, and coteries of "experts," while education steers clear of promoting the idea that citizens should actively participate in the formulation of policy or the pressing of demands beyond the largely inconsequential act of casting a ballot for a representative every few years. Anything beyond this is regarded as a mildly disreputable activity to be engaged in by cranks and the constitutionally disaffected.
Yet, it is the efflorecense of robust democracy that holds out the greatest hope of severely attenuating the barbarity that has left at least one hundred million dead in the last century. "The stench of blood rises from the pages of history," remarked Joseph de Maistre. And until the majority takes control of the policy making elites claim as their exclusive domain, history will continue to be written in the blood of the powerless -- and acquiescent -- majority.
This article may be re-posted, providing the text is not altered.
Join our e-mail list. To subscribe, send an e-mail to What's Left, and write "subscribe" in the subject line.