Thursday, August 6, 2015

Elections near but Basic Problems persist. . . .

Anyone who vaguely pays attention to politics understands that as a system of government, democracy is seriously struggling. The promises of democracy, promises that grew out of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have largely failed to materialize. Universal suffrage never led to anything like universal participation, and participation and trust in the system continues to decline almost everywhere that modern democracy is practiced. People have grown weary not only of corruption (a problem that necessarily occurs in any system), but they have simply begun to lose faith in the notion of representation; they don't believe that they are being represented in a meaningful way so they are (not) voting with their feet, so to speak. A frightening percentage of people have simply turned off. But cynicism and apathy are anathema to the very idea of democracy because it relies for its legitimacy on participation and trust. Democracy requires that people vote, or it will gradually have no legitimacy as a political model. But more than this, democracy requires that people be active citizens pursuing collective goals through participation and compromise. As this concept declines in the public psyche, democracy itself withers and, inevitably, society will grow weak and atomize, leading to social breakdown and, eventually, either chaos or fascism.

However, the more you look at our system of government and the more you think about its problems the more you realize that the decline of participation on which the legitimacy of our system relies is more of a symptom of a problem than a problem in and of itself. Below the cynicism and the apathy that is infecting our supposedly democratic nations lies a more fundamental, structural challenge that continues to plague us: the problem of imbalances of power.

Democracy suffers from a problem very similar to the one that plagues capitalism, and in both cases this problem leads to a breakdown in legitimacy. To sell capitalism, those who have believed in it and promoted it have always had to promote a concurrent idea: the idea that capitalism is, fundamentally, a meritocracy. Capitalists have historically had to persist in selling this idea that even when significant differences in opportunity persist (which they do quite dramatically everywhere that capitalism is practiced),  merit is still the great adjudicator for both individuals and ideas. If this idea of a meritocracy can't be sold, all capitalists are left with is a system that overwhelmingly favours the rich and powerful, a system in which the outcome are not necessarily the best, the most efficient, or even vaguely just, but are simply those which reflect more or less pre-established inequalities.  Now, I can't write an extended essay here on why I believe that, generally speaking, capitalism promotes mediocracy rather than meritocracy, but I believe that this fact should be self-evident to anyone who is culturally aware. Even without a long and detailed conceptual argument about why the idea of capitalism is not a meritocracy, some of the facts are fairly straightforward and speak for themselves. Those with wealth and power are, despite notable exceptions, generally speaking also those born into wealth and power. This is a very simple fact that goes largely unrecognized by society's majority for the simple reason that most people are not personally acquainted with those who have wealth and power in the first place. A clearer and more easily relatable problem with the idea of a meritocracy is found in the issue of so-called race. If you take a society like the United States where racialized people continue to be over represented among the poor, the under-employed, and the among the prison population, one must come to two possible explanations for this imbalance, either you think that these individuals lack merit (a racist notion that even most republicans will deny) or you realize that the deck is stacked against them, in which case the very notion of a meritocracy falls apart before your eyes. Though one could write a whole book demonstrating this basic argument and the problems with the notion of a meritocracy, at a basic level it really is as simple as the above explanation shows.

Now, getting back to democracy, we have a surprisingly similar argument here. The legitimacy of a meaningful democracy relies on a notion very similar to a meritocracy - the notion of a level playing field. The idea of democracy relies not only on the principle that everyone will play by the rules (something which our current government has demonstrated again and again that it is incapable of doing), but that everyone has more or less equal access to the public ear and that various and often disparate ideas will have access to meaningful public debate. In other words for its legitimacy democracy relies on some notion of a balance of power in the public sphere  (or civil society to adopt a popular term). The problem is, of course, that this balance of power simply doesn't obtain. Political parties with more money have, a priori, more chance to set the terms of the debate, to lead the narrative, and to gain access to power. In other words, in modern democracies, those with more money are simply much more likely to have their interests pursued and represented by the government, period. But the problem of unbalanced power in democracy is even more dramatic because much of the debate, much of the public narrative, is set by the most powerful media outlets. Thus, the greater concentration of media, the greater the concentration of power. Just as capitalism is not a meritocracy, democracy is not a level playing field where political parties meaningfully vie for ideological supremacy in public opinion. This is a problem with which democracy has always struggled and things have been getting worse in recent years as the wealthy continue to gerrymander the system to create greater imbalances. I think it was Churchill who once claimed that democracy was the worst system of government, except for all the others. The problem is that until democracies start to face the very fundamental problems that are leading to power imbalances, democracy will be the very best system that ever declined and destroyed itself

I think this argument is clear and basically irrefutable. The problem is not whether democracy suffers from a fundamental problem in its imbalance of power, the problem is what can we do about it.


The Mound of Sound said...

Kirby, Stiglitz in "The Price of Inequality" chronicles how modern inequality is neither merit-based nor market driven but is actually legislated. This is the manifestation of "political capture" that inevitably leads to illiberal democracy that is so obvious in America's "bought and paid for" Congress and is taking hold in Canada today. People still vote but it doesn't matter when enough of the political caste is in service to others than the electorate.

Why is Norway sitting on the world's largest sovereign wealth fund while Alberta has nothing to show from its petro-bounty? That's corporate capture of the political system.

Neoliberalism, anchored in market fundamentalism, which all of our mainstream parties with minor differences, is premised on some degree of surrender of sovereignty to foreign and corporate players.

Sure, Canada is not the United States, not yet. Most of that we owe to Pierre Trudeau's Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a Supreme Court courageous enough to apply it against governmental abuses and excesses. It is that Charter that establishes the balance of the rights of the individual against the powers of government and, without it, Harper would have wreaked utter havoc on Canada and our society.

Owen Gray said...

In the early 21st century, Kirby, both capitalism and democracy have been rigged. No one wants to play a game where the outcome is pre-ordained.

Anonymous said...

In 2000, the Liberal party received nearly $12 million in corporate donations. Today, corporations are not permitted to make donations. And people are capped on what they can give. Last year, the Liberal party raised over $15M from more than 77,000 people. That's a fundamental change.

I acknowledge that your "argument is clear and basically irrefutable", but isn't this a demonstrably more level playing-field?

We live in an era of ever-expanding mass communication. Twitter, facebook didn't exist fifteen years ago. Blogs were barely born. Since then the mainstream media has continued to lose market share. Media conglomerates do not set the public narrative, they react to a narrative that is increasingly nuanced and micro.

Perhaps we do have a more vibrant democracy than fifteen years ago.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous - Leaving aside the powerful vote suppression efforts that the right has instituted in the past 15 years or so in many Western Nations, I think that the only argument one can make to support your proposition is the existence of the Internet and Social media. These have done something to mitigate the power of the concentration of the media. However, the group that overwhelmingly votes (middle and upper-class people over the age of 35), continue to rely heavily on television and newspapers for their political news. Moreover, the neo-liberal agenda has permeated much or our society, including our education system etc. The power of a certain type of market ideology plays a hugh part in predetermining the political and economic narrative in such a way that people simply don't entertain possibilities that run counter to corporate interests.

Anonymous said...

There was a time, not too long ago, when cable-television was rare. Many people had access to one newspaper, one radio station, and three TV channels. New ideas spread slowly.

Today, there are a thousand television channels. Even remote communities have access to satellite or cable television and the internet. It is a time when the general population can completely reverse their acceptance of things like gay-marriage in a matter of a few years.

The gay marriage example is a good one. The overwhelming paradigm of the west - reinforced by countless systems, tropes, and mores - is of heteronormativity. This is more entrenched than 'neo-liberal thinking'. And yet, over a relatively short period of time, the majority of the general public was able to reverse its opinion on the matter of homosexuality generally and gay marriage specifically.

I think this goes to show that real change is possible within the current system.

Kirby Evans said...

@ Anonymous - I am certainly not excluding the possibility of change even within the current system. However, I believe your gay marriage example is poorly chosen. The reason for this is that gay marriage only threatens certain conservative, religiously based ideas, but it doesn't threaten the structure of economic power. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who so expertly refined the concept of hegemony contended that the flexibility of the capitalist state is essential to its long term survival and he, in a sense, redefined the notion of Hegemony to refer to the manner in which the powerful maintain control while gaining legitimacy through that exact notion of flexibility. This is how he would, for example, explain, say, the gradual legalization of trade unions, or the creation of the so-called welfare state. However, since the supremacy of Neo-LIberalism and its globalization, this flexibility (in regard to economic power) has declined significantly and I would argue that Western Capitalism has become (what marxist used to call) considerably more brittle in nature. This is not to say the structure of power can't change but this change requires a shift in the overall ideology of society in general.