The truth is that governments in rich capitalist countries are not responsible to their populations simply because they hold periodic elections which are by and large ‘free and fair’. Governments in the US or Canada, in Britain or in Germany, are responsible to their citizens because they exist within a dense matrix of law governed institutions and practices which ensure that the state protects most of its citizens, most of the time, from arbitrary acts of violence and injustice at the hands of public officials, criminals, local businessmen, power-brokers, or incipient or emergent oligarchs of various kinds.
This kind of democracy rests upon a strong civil society of trade unions, employers’ organisations, professional associations, think tanks, pressure groups, political parties, neighbourhood organisations, and clubs and societies of all kinds; it exists in the context of a widely practised freedom of speech, of publication, of assembly, and of organization. It is these freedoms, which restrict the inevitable tendency of public officials to act arbitrarily and even corruptly. It is these freedoms that make it much less likely that policemen will brutalise or kill prisoners or citizens with impunity. Indeed, it is the exercise of these freedoms, which perpetually constrict the, perhaps inevitable tendency, of a culture of impunity to arise among people and institutions capable of exercising power over us.
These freedoms and practices are the bedrock upon which free and fair elections take place and in which governments, ministers, and public officials are held to account in the law courts, in tribunals of inquiry, in the newspapers, in the broadcast media, and on the Internet.
It appears to be the case that capitalism, the full development of capitalism, is a necessary condition for the development of democracy. Evidently, capitalism is not a sufficient condition, but it is glaringly obvious, that this kind of dense matrix of law-governed institutions and freedoms, surmounted, or crowned, by elected governments, have only developed within the context of highly developed capitalist economies.
Consequently, there is something irretrievably absurd about the angst expressed by the NATO powers about fraudulent elections in Afghanistan. In the absence of law-governed institutions, in the absence of a vibrant civil society, there cannot be ‘free and fair elections’. Public officials cannot be held to account in a society in which power is wielded by patriarchal cliques, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and region by region. There can be no protection for individual citizens if access to ‘justice’ is handed out on the basis of gender, clan, ethnicity, or merely personal connections. In such a situation elections are merely a cosmetic exercise in which intrinsically corrupt and anti-democratic practices are ratified by the powers that be.
Consequently, it is only the building of effective institutions, it is only the construction of a state whose writ runs throughout the country, it is only the creation of law courts who act without fear or favour, it is only the development of citizens capable of fighting for their rights, and of sustaining them when they’ve won them, that will pave the way for real elections. This means that building roads, airports, power stations and schools must take precedence over everything else. Without breaking up the isolation and ignorance of the citizens – without breaking up their dependence on the power of parochial patriarchs and local potentates – democracy cannot be built. Free and fair elections will not take place in Afghanistan unless the NATO powers make the material development of the country, the development of its infrastructure, and the development of its institutions their principal war aim.