W for We Think Lack of Democracy Is the Problem

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Warning: details of V for Vendetta are revealed below.

Yet if the whole process happens in an "orderly fashion" these excesses can be avoided. Men whose civilian valour finds its supreme expression in pulling a lever behind a protective curtain will not have the courage to rebel, and concentration camps (actually a "healthy sign" because they denote resistance) will not exist.

~ Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality

I finally got around to seeing one of this spring’s great movies, V for Vendetta, after having read the graphic novel. I would recommend this for anyone skeptical of government, regardless of whether one’s position is anarchist or not. The modern omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient government and its proponents would not like V for Vendetta, but that’s a very good reason to go and see it.

I had been warned about considerable differences between the graphic novel and the movie, but the similarities were greater than these warnings had given me an expectation of.

In the graphic novel the parliamentary estate is what is first blown up. In the novel it is clearly stated that the parliamentary estate has long since been abandoned, and Parliament’s power is long gone. The loss of parliamentary power and whether the estate had been abandoned in the movie was not so clear to me. Moreover, V’s funeral at the end, when he is sent with a tube train under Downing Street in the novel, turns into a funeral under the Palace of Westminster in the movie. Perhaps this suggests that Parliament is the problem, not the executive office.

We see the Palace of Westminster blow up. St. Stephen’s Tower — housing the bell by the name of Big Ben — is no longer to be a landmark. It is the "Mother of Parliaments" that is blasted off the face of the Earth. It is the claimant to being mother of parliamentary democracy all over the world that is being demolished. This is the very Parliament, with its Glorious Revolution in 1688, that partly served as model for the American Republic, which eventually turned into a not so pretty democracy. It is the foremost symbol of democracy in the world that is being demolished. The end of movie hence has great positive symbolism.

However, I would not second any blowing up of the Houses of Parliament. I know people who have had and do have their work in that estate. And this illustrates a significant part of the problem. It is not "they" and "we." It is not "they" who rule "us." It is all "we." There is basically no distinction between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers and the ruled are basically mixed in a mush.

As the movie starts with the execution of Guido Fawkes, and V always walks around in the novel and the movie with a Fawkes mask, we should look into the question of whether the failed Gunpowder Plot is relevant today.

Americans generally celebrate the Boston Tea Party, referred to in the movie, and the following American War of Independence. These are obviously considered to be legitimate acts. However, to overthrow the current American federal government is generally not considered legitimate, nor is overthrowing the British government of our time.

People have a tendency to think that in pre-democratic times it must have been in order to overthrow governments, because there was no channel for peacefully replacing the government. However, in 1605 — the year of the failed Gunpowder Plot — Parliament in England did not meet regularly. Parliament was far from being the far-reaching body it is today. Government was far from being of the reach and size it is today. Yet, people tend to have sympathy for those who revolted in pre-democratic times, but not for those who revolt in democratic times. Nowadays, we are supposed to replace governments with our votes. That tiny part that the individual has in the electorate is supposed to protect him. Dare he who even suggests that this protection is at best little more than no protection at all.

The Gunpowder Plot took place in the midst of the heat between Catholicism and Protestantism. A lot of the princes of Europe had taken Protestantism to their hearts. There is little doubt that this was done to a large extent to make the Church subject to the State. The princes wanted to be their own "popes." Regardless of which confession one considers to be right, such abuse must be considered to be a grave misfortune.

The abuse of faith in supporting oppression and the extension of the reach and size of government is not only clearly expressed in the movie. It also haunts us in real life to this day.

Ibsen’s Brand is considered to be an attack on the Norwegian State Church of the time. Christopher Bruun met with Ibsen before Brand was published. Bruun is said to be a model of the character Brand. He was openly a critic of the State-Church relationship. Bruun was a priest in the Church of Norway in 1905. When Bruun refused to take part in the Church being used as support of the parliamentary usurpation of 1905, the police shut him off.

On Norway’s Constitution Day, May 17, church services are held. Support of the growth in parliamentary power can be heard in priests’ speeches in churches on this day. Last year a priest gave a speech where the "improvements" of the Constitution since its birth in 1814 were praised. This year a priest gave a speech where he talked about justice or equity. And this concept of justice or equity was about those involved making decisions, and so this concept was what won through with the Constitution, parliamentarism, and the events of the union dissolution of 1905.

The graphic novel is said to be an attack on the Thatcher regime, but it certainly also mentions the following Labour Government’s catastrophic economic policies. It has been claimed that the anti-gay part of the movie’s Sutler regime is concerned with the concept of not letting gays have their "marriages." Perhaps so. What is certain, however, is that the graphic novel also portrays an anti-gay regime, and hardly anyone had heard of gay "marriages" at the time the novel was written. As for the ban on the Koran, from how things are looking right now it seems more likely that the Bible will be the banned — or at least the most frowned upon — book of the future.

Adam Sutler is the "conservative" High Chancellor of the movie. Someone suggested that you could not get closer to a name like "Adolf Hitler." It seems he was appointed after an election. It is made clear in the movie that he was appointed. In the graphic novel the current regime has taken over after a vacuum period of no government.

Both the novel and the movie have references to the monarchy, such as a painting of the Queen, "Her Majesty’s Government," "the United Kingdom." However, it is not clear whether the monarchy is still there. What is striking, though, given that the monarchy is intact, is that Adam Sutler is not stopped by the Sovereign. If the monarch is not to intervene to prevent such a regime, one can certainly wonder what the point would be with a monarchy.

Whenever there is oppression, we tend to jump to the conclusion that lack of democracy is the problem. Americans often look at foreign lack of liberty and say "it cannot happen here." Britons act in a similar way. After all, Great Britain has a long tradition with a stable democracy, which has evolved steadily since the days of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Some even draw the story back to 1215 and the Magna Charta, demonstrating confusion of thought as to the difference between asserting one’s rights facing the King and transferring power from a monarch to a representative assembly.

For a lot of Britons the problem with the European Union is that it is unaccountable to British voters. Restore power to Westminster, and all will be well, the theory goes. You can often hear from British EU skeptics that the most important right is the right to vote. If only the people have their right to vote and there is an opposition that can debate issues, there will be near to paradise on Earth. Of course, democracy contributes in preventing the unpopular. Some abuses may be avoided through being unpopular, but it is often far from enough.

The tendencies in democracies to allow more and more to be handled by the government due to democratic legitimacy through elections and referenda is overlooked or underrated at our peril. People who watch V for Vendetta or read the novel could easily conclude that here democracy is gone, and if democracy were not gone, or if it returned, the oppressive regime would also be gone. I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I wouldn’t be too sure.

Democratic legitimacy does perhaps reduce government’s fear of their people to such an extent that V’s motto becomes extra relevant:

People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Most people react to the regime in the movie V for Vendetta. Installing such a regime tomorrow would not work well, fortunately. Most people 200 years ago would be frightened by today’s modern democracies. They would never accept being subject to such regimes. This illustrates the validity of what Edmund Burke said:

The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts.

It is more likely that society will continue to evolve bit by bit with less liberty. We already have elements found in V for Vendetta. No concentration camps will be needed. In a sense it is frightening that concentration camps are not needed to support the omnipotent and omnipresent governments of today.

Jørn K. Baltzersen [send him mail] is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.

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