Democracy holds more emotion in its wake than any other political theory. It has stimulated a considerable amount of discussion and hyperbole from the earliest philosophical writers to the present day. But the burning question is whether democracy can work, and, can it work for the majority of society or is it a pleasant guise for control by an elite?
Certainly, the thought of democracy has wetted the thinking of many writers considered among our best intellects over the centuries:
Plato: was not a fan as he condemned it “… followed citizens’ impulses.” rather than the common good.
Nietzsche: was not enamoured either, he wanted to be, “… beyond the lowlands of the herd conscience.”
Machiavelli: likewise; as the intellects would be the prisoner of the “whims of the people”.
Charles Maurras: believed we should accept that we have, “natural hierarchies”.
JS Mill: was concerned by, “…the moral coercion of public opinion” that the individual was sovereign and bemoaned the ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Without being disparaging these were yesterday’s men with yesterday’s prejudices, when the very concept of democracy held a fear of control by the ‘herd’. Mill’s focus on the individual is little more than a scream of a narcissist. Along with the others mentioned their fear was brought on by the prospect of the uneducated rabble who survived in vermin infested hovels having jurisdiction over them.
They saw no potential in the hoi polloi. They simply looked at the uneducated mass and contrasted that with their own highly educated self and, were blinded by that fear and blatant snobbery.
Would a look at a more modern picture reveal a more sympathetic view?
Robert Michels: opined “… that democracy is a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite…” He suggested that democracy naturally slides into an oligarchy. He himself moved from being a socialist to become a fascist. Can we see a trend?
Rabbi Elazar Shach: had no doubts, “Democracy is a machinery of lies, false notions, pursuit of narrow interests and deceit.” His preference was to follow the teachings of the Torah.
Not much succour there for believers so let’s come right up to date:
A study carried out by Martin Gilens & Benjamin Page (2014) concluded that the majority of the American public had little influence on U.S. government policy. I have encountered that view several times and have raised it on previous posts.
A more damning assault on the weakness of democracy comes from ex U.S. president Jimmy Carter (2015) who is reputed to have said that the USA is now “… an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.” Wow! Don’t mince your words Jimmy. Again, it is a slight that has its own choir of substance.
We have come across the term oligarchy a few times and can now add other nouns such as plutocracy and fascism.
- Fascism – strict rule by a leader & a small group of supporters.
- Oligarchy – government by a small group.
- Plutocracy – government by the wealthy.
Political scientists and sociologists will no doubt condemn me but the terms come across as much of a muchness. Or to put it more informally – money talks!
The political class will scream and bring forward an array of quotes from notables to try to establish that they don’t fit into any of the categories above. The social democrats in particular will holler their disapproval of any such characterization. In response I would suggest that they look in the mirror and learn the true insightfulness of reflection. They have ruled, especially in Europe for the last few decades, so anything that has gone wrong has done so under their watch, e.g. the rise of fascism and far-right groups.
“…extremism flourishes in an environment in which respectable voices offer no solutions as the population suffers.” Paul Krugman (p19) End This Depression NOW!
We’ve had ex-president Jimmy Carter, Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, so let’s hear from political philosopher Noam Chomsky. “It’s getting so that when I hear the word ‘democracy’ uttered by a politician or government official I automatically reach for my BS detector.” Chomsky – Language and Responsibility There are a whole, whole lot of people do exactly the same as Chomsky.
So nobody likes democracy from the educated of the past to the educated of the present. What shall we do? Dump it in the rubbish can or just leave it to rot. For me, sitting on the next to bottom rung of the ladder of power (big ladder), I say keep it. As it has not yet completed its cycle.
There are weaknesses but there are in all political philosophies. There are also solid strengths as experienced in 2016 with the march of ordinary joe who shocked the political establishment with their voting power.
The body blow to the political class in UK, USA and Italy is a very hopeful sign, though a move to the right it was not a bridge to far. A thoughtful and inclusive campaign can swing things around.
A further strength of democracy is the ability to remove poor governments and the dirtbags whose back pocket is weighing them down. The system while open to abuse is also open to voices of descent and those who aspire to a good society. It’s just unfortunate that the latter voices cannot sing in harmony and as a choir.
Note what Charles Handy (p89) writes, “In a democratic culture, if it is not to degenerate into a battle between interest groups, it is particularly crucial that we find a common cause.” Handy – Empty Raincoat
To this end the social democrats and the general left of the British political scene probably thought they had found a ‘common cause’ with their promotion of political correctness (PCism). They were very wrong. It may have been perceived as a positive step forward towards a good society but it was clumsily introduced and implemented as tactfully as a bulldozer at a F1 race.
One can’t condemn fascism and communism as totalitarian regimes then seek to impose a political agenda, even if that agenda may be construed as for the common good. But to then lacerate opponents and doubters with vile accusations and, invoke the law to enforce its acceptance is hypocritical. It is not equality at work.
Any political agenda which is imposed may be considered as totalitarian. “What is a totalitarian regime but one in which variety of opinion is suppressed and conformity to a particular ideology is enforced.” Catherine Rowett, www.academia.edu/1766239/A_dangerous_opponent_of_democracy
A more moderate view of PCism comes from Graham Good – University of British Columbia: “… it catches a certain kind of self-righteous and judgmental tone in some and a pervasive anxiety in others…” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness
It may be shrouded in Karl Popper’s term ‘piecemeal social engineering’. Others may liken it to B.F. Skinner’s (1904-1990) view that society should develop ways to condition people to behave in a more appropriate way. Book: Walden Two 1948
Some will associate it with George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (p241 (Appendix)) and his version of Newspeak, which was devised, “…to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.” The sole purpose of Newspeak was to, “…to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
Nonetheless, many right-wing activists believe that PCism is ‘indoctrination’ an attempt at ‘brainwashing’. Can the left in politics answer this view without being curt, inflammatory and dismissive? Dialogue is our only way forward in a positive vein.
Moreover, PCism was introduced throughout the western world. This would suggest a concerted and determined plan to impose it by the social democrat political elite. However, their haste was their undoing because they never took the time to talk it through with the electorate which suggests a contempt for ordinary joe. This fervent flurry to have it implemented and cemented before the likelihood of political change may have forced their hand to try to secure it with the weight of the law.
The law may remain in force, even after political change and, will stop people from openly voicing an opinion but will not change their mental attitude. The use of the law will foster resentment and that resentment will fester. The cost will be high.
There is a considerable loss of trust between the people and their elected representatives, admittedly, not solely due to PCism but it is a serious nail in the democratic coffin. Other costs include:
- A decided move to the right in politics.
- The rise of fascist parties in Europe.
- People ‘feel’ the contempt of the political class.
- Division in society.
- A set back in the quest for a good society.
Of serious concern is that once people move to the extreme right in politics they very rarely move back to the centre ground. They become entrenched.
A chasm has opened between those in favour and those against PCism. A vehement opposition has emerged. In some parts of America it has reached fever pitch, with radio talk show hosts lambasting PCism at every opportunity and shows like South Park taking the mickey. It has given the right in politics a ready-made platform from which to pillory the left.
Jokes about PCism may not be heard much on television in the UK but are common in local pubs and clubs. And every time a silly case gains media attention it reinforces the held view and encourages others to join in.
Such a rallying of opposing loud hailers may appear as a positive thing for a healthy democracy but it is not. Entrenchment on either side makes it nigh impossible to find common ground, and a ‘common cause’. Thus the advocates of political correctness may have set back the very principle of equality because they failed to make it inclusive.
Call me a cynical conspiracy theorist but could the failure have been deliberate. In order to maintain the alliance of the political class and business interests and the windfall that comes from corruption.
Without doubt democracy has many challenges but still has room for development. In my opinion PCism is an exemplary example of the dangers inherent in democracy; it was too one sided and the brain child of a cabal of thinkers. The result is that we have factions of right and left at loggerheads or at worse entrenched and bitter.
The weaknesses of democracy are apparent if we re-examine the views expressed earlier. We can dismiss the fear of the ‘intellects’ of the past as their vision of despair did not materialize. On the other hand there is a degree of truth in the more modern analyses.
Michels view that democracy is a ‘façade’ for rule by an elite is insightful. If we think in terms of the political class and the present feeling of alienation by the people, that gives credence to Michels’ observation. However, we do have opposition parties and organizations; perhaps not as strong as they should be but that could have as much to do with our lack of involvement as their whispered voice.
We can add to the voice of Michels the study of Gilens and Page and their conclusion that the electorate of America have ‘little influence’ on government policy. The obvious point being made is that the public are simply ignored. That being the case gives credence to Michels other contention that democracy slides into oligarchy.
I would lump together Rabbi Shach’s view on ‘deceit’ with Jimmy Carter’s condemnation of ‘bribery’. They both contend that corruption is rife in the political hierarchy. We should all be aware that corruption plagues our political system. It’s as widespread as trees in a woodland. There is not a country in the world which you could say was squeaky clean. Daunting, isn’t it?
In America, supposedly the great democracy corruption is second nature to the politicians. It is given the name ‘clientelism’ which simply means; you scratch – I scratch and both our backs are covered because the money given to my campaign is just a donation. And my vote for particular legislation is that I support it. A whole lot of $millions is involved.
The problem is so embedded in India that the government has recently changed its currency; new notes for old in an attempt to flush out corruption. As the Indian government has recognised corruption harms the economy. Good luck. However, we should take our hat off to them for such a bold move. Good to see some politicians with a large degree of bottle.
Another positive story comes from South Korea where the president Park Geun-hye has been impeached on bribery charges. The head of Samsung has also been questioned (for 22 hrs) about donations totalling around $25.5 million. The authorities are now trying to secure an arrest warrant for the head of Samsung. President Park’s future will be decided by their constitutional court.
China has only recently set up a new agency to investigate the agency they initially established to counter the growth in corruption. It makes me think it’s a lot like a dog trying to catch its own tail.
A more recent example comes from a report in the Daily Mail January 11 2017. The story outlined that a businessman flew $500,000 in a private jet to Liberia, Africa to bribe two officials in order to have the law changed to suit his mining company.
One more case to hit the headlines is that of Rolls Royce the engine manufacturer. Several areas of the media have given it some prominence with its fine of £641m or around $810m for bribing foreign officials to secure contracts. Daily Mail 2017/01/17
The Guardian claims that along with the BBC they exposed the scandal in October 2016. However, the investigation had been on-going since 2012 with the cooperation of the company. The good thing is that it was exposed. Let’s have a monthly column on corruption in all media.
These are but a few examples and as already alluded to there are few clean bums in the political world. On a serious note we should listen to J. Stiglitz (p165) “Corruption undermines faith in our democracy.” The Price of Inequality
What should we do next? It seems like an impossible task to rid the system of the pirates. It’s especially difficult in that we need the existing politicians to implement a programme of corruption busting. Progress is being made based on the evidence above. Fighting corruption is a big job which requires a considerable amount of mental strength and the belief that ending corruption is essential work.
I’ve illustrated with the examples of India and South Korea that it is possible and that there are good guys out there. I’m also of the opinion that there is considerable mileage for politicians to pick up the cudgel against corruption.
Can democracy be saved?? Will the Fantastic Four come to its rescue? The Guardians of the Universe! James Bond, even? Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the fantasy world to help us.
Though I’m reminded of an old movie I watched on TV; it was Michael Douglas playing the role of the American President, Andrew Shepard. He’s addressing the assembled press and uses a one liner which struck me as apt: “Democracy isn’t easy” and goes on to attack his republican opponent Bob somebody.
And that’s the reality, democracy isn’t easy. I wish I had a blueprint, all the answers but I come up against the pure logic of Karl Popper The Open Society. He argues, correctly, that there can’t be a blueprint that we cannot lay down a set path that people will follow because we want them to. If we can agree on something, then let’s have a go, see if it works, if not change it. It’s a slow process but eventually we get to where we hope is a good society. That should be our common cause.
I’m encouraged by the electoral votes of 2016 and hope that the movement continues into 2017 in both France and Germany. I just hope that the political elite can hear the alarm go off.
I was struck by the speech that British Prime Minister Theresa May gave at the UN in September 2016 when she reminded the assembled that:
“We must never forget that we stand here, at this United Nations, as servants of the men and women that we represent back home.”
Colour me surprised but intrigued by her reference to representation, which was positive. But the bit that got my real attention was the use of the word ‘servants’. Was this purposeful as a means to curry favour back home, an ideological slip or a clear understanding of what democracy should look like. Of course, as a believer I hope it was the latter and like me she is a true disciple. Arrrh! My cynical personality is coming out!!!!
Nonetheless, we know in which direction we need to go, for our sakes, for our children and our grandchildren. Let’s keep our common cause in mind every time we vote or want to voice an opinion. Our motto: we know where we’re going. If politicians or businessmen don’t want to come along – stuff them. A good society is too important to be side tracked by the merchants of greed.
We must also be aware that we can’t get everything we want. Let’s walk and talk and see where it leads us.