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Who Runs Your WorldListen to the BBC World Service
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Last Updated: Monday, 5 September 2005, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
It's your world but who's in charge?
Robin Lustig
By Robin Lustig
BBC News

Robin Lustig launches his five-part Looking for Democracy series, visiting five contrasting countries, as part of the BBC's Who Runs Your World? season.

An image of a Liberian election candidate on a supporter's back, August 2005
When the Martian knocks on our door and asks to be taken to our leader, where should we go? Who really runs our world?

Consider these words: democracy, freedom, reform. No politician's speech these days seems to be complete without them.

They are words that create a nice warm feeling inside, encompassing what are held to be universal aspirations that bind together the villager in Uganda with the peasant in Cambodia, the computer software designer in California with the coal-miner in Ukraine.

But do they mean any more than that? Is what we mean by democracy even close to what the citizen-scholars of ancient Greece meant when they first used the word?

They meant that every single citizen should take part in decision-making, not that fewer than half of them should turn out to choose representatives to do the job for them.

And what about "freedom"? Free from what, free to do what? Is freedom from hunger more important than freedom of expression?

And then, of course, there is that all-purpose notion of "reform". What is it, other than any change of which we approve?

Your reformist in Ukraine could be my fundamentalist in Saudi Arabia. Reform, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The 18th Century Franco-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously wrote: "Man is born free but everywhere is in chains."

The American founding fathers, in their Declaration of Independence in 1776, wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Exporting freedom

The passion for freedom, or liberty, underpins all modern political discourse. So how free are we in this complex, frightening 21st Century world? Are democracy and freedom the same thing?

An Iraqi woman's ink-stained finger after voting, January 2005
Is freedom exportable, like digital cameras and cheap cotton T-shirts?
Who is really in charge of the way we live - are we still in chains, or are we now freer than we have ever been to enjoy our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

If some of us enjoy more of these freedoms than others, if in some countries we have thrown off our chains, whereas in others they have not, then can the free help to unshackle the un-free?

In an era of globalisation, of free trade, is freedom exportable, like digital cameras and cheap cotton T-shirts?

"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," said US President George Bush.

In other words, the US will encourage democracy far beyond its borders - and the reason is self-interest.

"The survival of liberty in our land," said Mr Bush, "increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."

By and large, people yearn for the same things, wherever they are. They want a roof over their heads, food for their family and an education for their children.

And if they can have all that, they want that other, more intangible, thing that we know as freedom. But of course there is no such thing as absolute freedom.

If we live in a developed democracy, we are constrained by laws, enacted by lawmakers whom we have elected.

Those who live in a dictatorship are constrained by more restrictive laws, enacted by people they did not elect - who are themselves beyond the reach of any law.

New force

So who really runs this world of ours? Is it governments, or corporations, or powerful lobby groups, interested only in furthering their own interests?

Or is it a complex web of inter-locking players, who sometimes share power and sometimes struggle for it, leaving us, as citizens, feeling powerless to influence the decisions they take?

Is there a new democratic force developing with the emergence of new forms of mass communication such as the mobile phone, the internet and weblogs?

An internet cafe in Beijing
Are new forms of mass communication empowering more people?
Are they now more powerful determinants of our wealth and our prospects than our families, governments and religious leaders who think they control our destinies? Would the revolutions of Ukraine and Georgia have succeeded without them?

To President Bush, freedom and democracy march hand in hand. But, as the writer Fareed Zakaria points out in his book "The Future of Freedom" there is more to this democracy/freedom business than just elections.

"For people in the West," he writes, "democracy means liberal democracy: a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.

"But this bundle of freedoms has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy and the two have not always gone together, even in the West."

It may well be true, as Churchill observed back in 1947, that "democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

But when the Martian knocks on our door and asks to be taken to our leader, where should we go? Who really runs our world?

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