Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Democracy's Failure

If you are 35 or older then you should have a pretty clear memory of the demise of the Soviet Union and the so-called failure of the ‘communist’ project. ‘Fair enough’, most leftists contend today, ‘the horrors of Stalinism that exercised its power through the dreaded Commintern certainly deserved to be condemned to the dustbin of history. ‘ Of course, the real tragedy, as many of us predicted, was to be the fact that the failure of communism on the model designed by Lenin and Stalin would significantly contribute to discrediting almost all parts of the socialist cause. This was certainly not difficult to predict because the forces of greed will obviously take every possible advantage to undermine any and all collectivist efforts. But putting aside, for the moment, the tragedy of the general abandonment of most elements of socialism, there is an interesting historical phenomenon that accompanies the demise of communism. While people of various political stripes, and capitalists in every corner, have been trumpeting the failure of communism as evidence of the impracticality and impossibility of any collectivist effort, people have uniformly, failed to cast an eye on the credibility of Western Democracy. If communism, in its 20th century guise, can be said to have failed, surely democracy as we presently practice and understand it, has also failed quite miserably. The simplest expression of democracy is found in the paradoxical principle that those who seek power are, in most cases, the very people who should never possess it. But we need not look to principles to see the failure of democracy because it is everywhere for us to see at a practical level. Among Western democracy’s most profound failures are, in no particular order:

- the increases in the concentration of wealth and dependence of the electoral politics on money which makes general participation in the process of democracy difficult and increasingly meaningless.

- the concentration of media control means that information is managed by a small group of rich and powerful people. This media control narrows and minimises public discourse and without public discourse is impossible.

- the globalization of the economy increasingly restricts the policies that nation-states are able to pursue.

- democratic mechanisms are designed not to reflect a general will but the will of a relatively small and powerful group.

- modern capitalism atomizes people to the point that healthy communities are difficult to form and is becomes harder for grassroots organizations to meaningfully advocate on behalf of average citizens.

- modern ideology reduces people to the status of ‘tax-payers’ and an active notion of citizenship is slowly being eliminated.

- all of the above create a situation in which modern democracy is not a meritocracy but a system of salesmanship.

As though to add insult to injury, Western governments since September 11th have increasingly attempted to chip away at the civil rights that the West has so longed boasted about. Anyone who is honest with themselves must surely know that Western Democracy is suffering from a profound legitimation crisis and demands significant and thoroughgoing reforms if it is to survive and thrive.

Of course the left has always had a certain distrust of democracy and I leave you with some comments by William Godwin , founding father of Anarchist thought, from his classic Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Godwin wrote:
“But there are certain disadvantages that may seem the necessary result of democratical equality. In political society, it is reasonable to suppose that the wise will be outnumbered by the unwise; and it will be inferred that the welfare of the whole will therefore be at the mercy of ignorance and folly. It is true that the ignorant will generally be sufficiently willing to listen to the judicious, but their very ignorance will incapacitate them from discerning the merit of their guides. The turbulent and crafty demagogue will often possess greater advantages for inveigling their judgement than the man who, with purer intentions, may possess a less brilliant talent. Add to this that the demagogue has a never failing recourse, in the ruling imperfection of human nature, that of preferring the specious present to the substantial future. This is what is usually termed playing upon the passions of mankind. Politics have hitherto presented an enigma that all the wit of man has been insufficient to solve. Is it to be supposed that the uninstructed multitude should always be able to resist the artful sophistry, and captivating eloquence, that may be employed to perplex the subject with still further obscurity? Will it not often happen that the schemes proposed by the ambitious disturber will posses a meretricious attraction which the severe and sober project of the discerning statesman shall be unable to compensate?”

A rather pessimistic (maybe even paternalistic) view of things presented by Mr Godwin. But one only has to look at the present state of things to be infected by the same pessimism.

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