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HOW PHILOSOPHY COULD SAVE THE WORLD Cultural and Economic Diaspora, Self-sufficiency, Person-hood

A Brief History of Democracy

By the early 1800’s, there are a sufficient number of English merchants permanently settled on the island to support an unskilled labour force.

Thus begins the Irish immigration to Newfoundland.

The Irish pour in by the thousands. Five times as many as are needed are recruited, which creates a healthy atmosphere of competition among the workers and discourages the Irish from demanding higher wages than the honest English can afford to pay.

Wayne Johnston

As the 3rd Millennium gets underway, grave problems underscore the need to rethink the ways individuals, communities and governments interact. In the following I propose a ‘diagnostic assistant’ based upon reasonable assumptions about early human life. During the 150,000 years Homo sapiens lived as hunters and gatherers, rude democracy prevailed. Individuals voted for or against projects and priorities in ways that had nothing to do with ballot boxes. People traded participation for benefit. If they did not approve of what was going on, they avoided the consequences of group failure and relinquished claims upon achievements.

Every development since, whatever improvements of creature comfort and technological advantage are involved, can also be characterized in terms of retaining or relinquishing this democratic birthright.

This is not to suggest that primordial circumstances left nothing to be desired. They were, however, good enough that there are now more than 6 billion human beings.   (If we continue to prosper, this figure will reach 11 billion by 2030.)

What was life like without the cultural, technological resources or institutions we take for granted? This is as far beyond us as comprehending what it would be like to be an eagle – although, according to anthropologists and ‘deep ecologists’ – the subjectivity of buzzards and rats might seem familiar to us.

Even so,  a few reconstructions can be attempted. During this long period – something like 95% of mankind’s time in the world – our ancestors lived nomadically. We know that they traveled in small groups and formed ad hoc alliances as threats or opportunities occurred. They made the best of their often short and always perilous lives.

This was also anarchism’s finest hour – life without rulers, although not without rules; a distinction lost upon those confusing anarchism with mob rule and violence. Community life proceeded according to the will of individuals, with episodic consensus defining who would be leader and which behaviors would be sanctioned. Anarchistic governance grew out of on the fly wishes and priorities.

There is another reason early human beings trod lightly upon the earth. Without urbanization or specialization, ‘consumers’ produced everything personally or locally, and consumed it more or less immediately. Nothing much was stored, transported, counted, defended or transacted.

At the same time, it is not difficult to understand the attraction of changes that would culminate in a world wherein virtually everyone is a leader or a follower – often both at different times of the day. Prototypical hierarchical arrangements occurred within families, clans and communities. “Many hands make light work” has always been true; and leader/follower arrangements allowed the young to learn from adults – an advantage singularly available to human beings.

It is also interesting to imagine the difficulties early leaders experienced. Since leader/follower relationships define the modern world, a glimpse of their ‘birthing circumstances’ could prove useful. Difficulties of co-ordination and problems of unruliness would certainly have troubled primal leaders, probably more than today. And, just like today, a proportion of leaders would have been greedy, self-serving and incompetent.

At the same time, the majority must have been good at convening fruitful activities.

This suggests an ironic possibility. Self-serving, corrupt or vicious leaders depend upon a healthy proportion of leaders convening wholesome projects. Had most, or even a substantial percentage, of leaders proven avaricious and untrustworthy, ‘primal democracy’ would have remained a prominent feature of communities. Without excellent leaders for reassurance, human beings would not have embraced hierarchical economies and institutions. This also means that, without excellent leaders, we would not now be harvesting wars, rumors of wars, terrorism, bigotry and environmental degradation. (On March 28, 2007, 80% of India’s 1.1 billion people were reported to be living on $2.00 a day.) These are the unbidden results of good men doing good deeds. A familiar proverb advises: “The road to hell paved with good intentions”; but it was the accomplishments of beneficent leaders that prepared a path for Hitler, Stalin, and Hussein …

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When anarchy remained the principal condition of human beings, leaders faced the unenviable task of herding cats whenever they wanted something accomplished. This ‘indigenous intractability’ prevented improvident or malevolent projects  from taking too much advantage. Accordingly, a proposition we might consider involves the constraints upon corruption and hubris inherent in anarchism. Individuals did not need to think about such matters, much less organize bi-cameral governments in the hope that balancing powers would allow modest measures of freedom and equity to remain part of the usual person’s circumstance. This is both ominous and auspicious. It is ominous because it implies that we have no instinctive appreciation for the importance of autonomy or anarchy. These states were the natural condition of early human life. It is auspicious because it implies that it may be yet be possible to replicate these circumstances and regain survivable equilibriums.

The irony involves the anarchism-depleting role of excellent leaders. This excellence has meant that incremental governance has seemed acceptable, or at least tolerable, every step of the way. The employment and consuming opportunities spawned by the Industrial Revolution underscored the general belief that, on balance, leaders could be trusted. Indeed, we are so convinced that the Great Wars of the 20th century (170 million direct and indirect casualties), the apparently inexhaustible supply of corrupt, malevolent leaders, the gathering crises of violence, pollution and poverty … are still regarded as rule-proving exceptions.

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More ominously still, populations are organizing into nations, corporations and institutions as never before. Filled with faith that leader/follower relationships are beneficial on balance(after subtracting the costs of evil men), it rarely crosses our minds that governance issues now have more to do with institutionalized fascism than leaders’ merits. Urbanized lifestyles, economic realities and ideological pressures increasingly define all our options. Even so, we continue to believe that ‘better choices’ are possible whenever a next election occurs. This ingenuousness overlooks the trivial outcomes democratic changes of governments typically achieve.

Revolutions are scarcely more inspiring. The Russian Revolution spawned the Gulag Archipelago, the Cold War and the eventual collapse of the USSR. The USA enjoyed two remarkable centuries after the American Revolution; an outpouring of energy and creativity that propelled the nation to technological and military dominance. However, Americans are now struggling with global trade, public and private debt burdens, and irresponsible, relentless consumerism guaranteed by specialization and urbanization. Western nations congratulate themselves on their economic and human rights achievements, but such boasts are increasingly hollow. If the only choice is the status quo papered over with name changes, democracy collapses into a more or less bloodless way of changing bellies at the trough.

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We should have seen this coming. For at least three thousand years, human beings have lived under the heels of increasingly powerful leaders. While such hegemonic relationships might have been expected to deepen incrementally until the need to balance sustainability with hubris throttled back ‘development and progress’, we instead rushed into circumstances wherein leaders’ beneficence or malignance is irrelevant. Corporations, institutions and nations control more and more of what is going on. Citizens of democratic nations are proud that we have the vote. We admire slates of candidates as proof that democracy is alive and well – overlooking that all or almost all candidates are drawn from the ranks of the wealthy. If not, they have been financially anointed for reasons we prefer to not think about, and ‘ruling classes’ prefer to not discuss.

This is why we must now ask whether even robust democracies are to be trusted  to defend ordinary well-being.  A more realistic prospect is that candidates will continue to compete, but that less and less will turn upon which succeeds. With voters distracted by poll-driven antics, corporations and institutions will continue pursuing power and wealth harvesting stratagems, each ‘achievement’ the backdrop against which further set pieces play out. The difficulties American President Obama is experiencing as he struggles to leverage his popularity, charisma and mandate into beneficial change demonstrate how little can be accomplished when corporations control the ambitions, anxieties and prospects of voters.

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How did this unexpected state of affairs come to pass? The answer is that the processes diminishing anarchism occurred incrementally over something like 6000 generations. This slow pace was, in part, due to human beings’ dislike of subordination. Other factors included small, nomadic populations and the lack of industrial and cultural prerequisites for corporations and nations. The question is why a healthy proportion of anarchism – the one method of organizing human affairs with a proven record of sustainability – was not retained as a central feature in whatever form of governance human beings imagined into existence?

Part of the answer is that leader/follower relationships are not merely fruitful in pragmatic terms; they have a compelling precedent. Every individual experiences himself or herself as a child, an adult, and finally as a parent. These experiences of helplessness, of being nurtured and growing into adult responsibilities and prerogatives, lend a patina of trustworthiness to leader/follower relationships.

Unfortunately, there is a difference between public and familial relationships. Public relationships are not constrained by desires to nurture and protect. They do not cycle through childhood and adulthood, nor do they terminate when adults die. Adults sorted into leaders and followers rarely experience role reversals. The rich keep getting richer, the poor poorer. Children pick up where their parents left off.

Another reason for the globalization of hegemonic relations is that anarchism is the ‘factory setting’ relationship of individuals, communities and the world.  That is,  since anarchism is rarely the fruit of conscious events, there has been little recognition that it needs defending. As hierarchical organizations, institutions and formalized procedures incrementally co-opt individual and community responsibilities, their increasing presence has always felt like an innocuous backdrop against which increasingly complicated affairs play out.

The danger is clear.  No matter their benefits, leader/follower relationships always represent a diminution of freedom for everyone involved. Neither leaders nor followers are able to respond to events as autonomous individuals.  This is not a movement from a state of freedom towards fascism. Human beings are always in the grip of circumstances. When not under the sway of others, we are in the thrall of natural events. In either circumstance we are more likely to prosper if there is no ‘free stuff’ going on. You can test this apparently outlandish notion the next time you cross an intersection. See how you feel about crossing without looking! The point is simply that the need to consult what others are getting up to cannot be a constraint upon freedom! Paying attention is a condition of survival – and survival is the sine qua non of freedom! The issue is not some arcane notion of freedom but the degree of autonomy individuals enjoy. Autonomy does not mean freedom to do anything at all, it means a healthy capacity to have ones behaviour reflect internal dispositions and resolutions.

What is at issue is the ratio between elements of governance.  Anarchism is any form of governance that makes use of economies of scale and co-operation, but remains within the control of individuals. The optimum proportion of internal, world and leader/follower elements is difficult to achieve, and hard to recognize when it does occur. There is plenty of evidence, however, that we have overshot the target; that, in the post 9/11 world, the level of leader-driven governance is increasing with alarming rapidity.

Only a brave person would guess at the present ratio, but only a fool would dispute that far too few now have far too much to say.

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Every sorting of human beings into leaders and followers contains the seeds of still steeper hierarchical arrangements. In these proceedings, leaders appear to be the active elements, followers the ‘acted upons’. However, followers can as easily be understood as spawning leaders, which they ‘steer from the rear’. This is a chicken or egg first question. For at least three thousand years, the process spawning leaders and followers has been gaining ground, an engine driving events that now gives every indication of being out of human control. Governments and corporations are increasing in power and scope, and seem certain to continue doing so.

To ask how anarchism was defeated in favour of this state of affairs is to ask how the technological and cultural project got underway. At the vanguard of these proceedings, leaders have always been handsomely compensated. Indeed, we continue to learn that leaders will demand astronomical rewards as soon as they get a say in their terms of engagement. Of course, it helps greatly that followers now depend upon institutions for everything – employment, goods and services, feelings of identity, worth and entertainment.

What is less obvious is why this makes sense so much of the time. Most young people go through a period of rebelliousness before settling into ‘responsible adulthood’. These episodes can be thought of as recapitulating mankind’s anarchistic/governance experience. The delights of freedom (where the idea of being either a leader or a follower is repugnant) are abandoned in favour of a position somewhere in the authoritarian tent. A few become surrogate parents or leaders, the rest settle for perpetual adolescence. David Riesman observed this in North America, and described his findings in The Lonely Crowd . A period of ‘inner-directedness’ characterized the settlers and frontiersmen of the 18th and 19th century. This was not a ‘considered choice’ but a reluctant accommodation made by immigrants to the absence of institutional and industrial infrastructure and leaders. This period, still celebrated by cowboy truckers, media aficionados and entrepreneurs, gave way to ‘other-directedness’ as soon as leaders, institutions and corporations became available. By the early part of the 20th century, most North Americans were assimilating values and directives from advertisers, athletes and media personalities. In this compressed version of the original sorting out that had taken Homo sapiens thousands of years, individuals who retained rebelliousness the longest acquired enough momentum to ‘head up’ those who did not. In such ways, perhaps ten per cent came close to replicating anarchism. They get to choose not only their own lives, but the fates of dozens, thousands, occasionally millions of followers.

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Transforming anarchists into individuals content with fascist governments was a remarkable development. Human beings are generalists, with a remarkable capacity for self-reliance.  We take pleasure in self-sufficiency and are capable of coordinating complex undertakings with nary a leader in sight. Moreover, at least until recently, every community has the ability to reproduce itself. A Statistics Canada report released March 13, 2007 gave Canada’s population as 31 million. Although Canada’s population is still growing, with a birth rate of 1.5 children per woman (well below the 2.1 required for replacement purposes), Canadians are not giving birth fast enough to replace those who are dying. In the USA, the birth rate of 1.87 children per mother is 25% higher than Canada’s, but still not at replacement levels. The usual explanation is that in wealthy nations smaller families occur because adults’ security needs are being met with pension schemes and social safety nets.

Another factor is that life styles and educational requirements are expensive. Now that subsistence activities no longer occur, everything must be purchased.

The response has been to import goods; along with enough well-educated, affluent immigrants to replenish populations and fund ‘pay as you go’ Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plans. The fact that this ‘brain and wealth drain’ stratagem perpetuates starvation wages in 3rd and 4th world nations is a rarely talked about fringe benefit of Western immigration policies.  The fact that this stratagem spawns ethnic enclaves of well-educated, frustrated immigrants is, as far as I am aware, never discussed.  A reasonable suspicion is that these policies are nurturing terrorism both in the nations of origin of well-educated immigrants and in host nations where there have been recent episodes of ‘home grown terrorism’ in the United States, Britain and Canada.  First world nations would do well to replenish their populations with poor and poorly educated immigrants – the same sort of immigrants that constituted their founding populations!  Such immigrants could undertake menial jobs as well as the well-educated, and would be far more likely to assimilate.

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Another factor in the decline of anarchistic governance has been technological and industrial development. One might have thought that new knowledge, methods and materials would increase individuals’ and communities’ capacity to be autonomous, but the results have been just the opposite. Specialized, sophisticated, urbanized … populations are the most hapless and dependent the world has seen.

This toxic state of affairs has been increasing in lock step with cultural resources, progress and development. Just as with excellent leaders, this danger lurks behind impressive benefits. Cultural resources allow children to start out more or less where their parents left of. Recognizing education’s hierarchy-authenticating potential – and its inherent risk to hegemonic relationships! – leaders lost little time in assuming control of information passing among communities and across generations. Things could have gone differently. Had human beings harnessed technological achievements to projects achieving individual and community independence the resulting enhanced personal and community autonomy would have balanced the self-perpetrating tendencies of hegemonic institutions.

Unfortunately, quick-witted and strong leaders had little trouble heading off this challenge. They became official dispensers of homilies and strategies.  They wrested responsibilities from parents and communities until families became little more than incubators and funding sources for institutions, corporations and governments.

With ‘cultural custodian’ added to resumes, leaders were well positioned to guide further hegemonies into harbour. The trick is to pace encroachments so that habituation works its magic. Human beings adapt to changing circumstances if the rate of change is slow enough. In this way, institutions and formal proceedings acquire patinas of naturalness and wholesomeness, while independence and self-reliance (which just happen to be the sine qua non of democracy!) were set aside.

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Commercial undertakings, folkways, cultural events … define nations. Within nations, value adding activities cause buildings, devices, roadways, tools and artifacts to come into existence. Some of these assets are ‘reinvested’ and the pace of ‘progress and development’ quickens.  Since we are well down this road, change now seems to be happening before our eyes. Occasionally this prompts futurists to worry about exploding populations and runaway technologies. What is not considered is how these issues are tied to failures to retain anarchistic elements in governance. Long before Toffler, Suzuki and Chomsky … began propounding their excellent observations and urgent truths, preferential access to cultural and natural resources, stratagems and artifacts had been sorting populations into rich-poor relationships both with contemporaries and future generations.

The wholesome connection between youngsters and adults – in the natural world a temporary state of affairs – has been reproduced in the guise of institutionalized leader-follower relationships. Populations of followers the world over regard leaders in much the way children regard parents.  However, in parent-child relationships, the well-being of next generations is secured by the instinctual concern of adults, especially mothers, for youngsters. No such guarantee operates in the public domain.

Instead, the abuses that occur are seized upon as evidence that further surveillance, policing and authoritarian incursions are necessary.

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These proceedings quickened when the connection between sexuality and reproduction was recognized. Putative fathers, newly anxious and anxiously proud, began channeling as much wealth as they could lay hold of into families, hoping to shore up their chances and claims of paternity.   These resources were obtained, if possible, by exploiting those nearby or by inventing machines or raiding remote communities.

One marker of anarchism’s depleted state is how completely cultural resources have come under institutional control. Another is the complete absence of information informing the young of the treatment they should expect at the hands of leaders and institutions.  To be sure, literature, poetry and (rap) music allude to such matters, but nothing much seems to come of their consciousness-raising efforts.

What are lacking are timely alerts regarding threats, and specific suggestions about self-defense. To take a simple example, market place shenanigans could be countered if consumers organized into groups and leveraged collective buying into discounts and political influence.

Certainly appealing to ‘important people’ to ‘cease and desist’ exploiting workers and consumers is unlikely to accomplish much; and doing so authenticates the institutional and corporate status quo.

This theme of flawed self-defense has a more important aspect.   For at least two thousand years, human beings have been facing more ominous dangers than anything experienced in prehistory. Weapons, standing armies, wars and rumors of wars … demonstrate our willingness to take up the business of exterminating one another. Until the last century leaders could often be found in the thick of battle, or at least on dangerously nearby hills. Presumably this proximity to death and destruction deterred their interest in convening dangerous encounters. During the 20th century however, leaders became much more adept at keeping out of harms way. Hitler had to take his own life. A large contingent of dictators and despots has been strutting around the world, often for decades, while their followers assiduously murder one another. Modern rules of military engagement preclude targeting the leaders of opposing forces, even though, logistically and morally, this would make sense. The same rules discourage targeting civilians. On this construal, the only legitimate military targets are enemy soldiers.  Yet soldiers are the only innocents in military events. They are under chains of command leading back to governments and then to the populations constituting and sanctioning these governments.
No matter how onerous prehistorical circumstances may have been, life has never been more terrifying.

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The precedent starting Homo sapiens down this unfortunate road was the apparently innocuous and certainly important parent-child relationship. Parents are wealthier than children in terms of possessions, power and experience. Other inequity precedents are equally commonplace. Not every person is tall, strong, clever or beautiful. These realities set the stage for Bill Gates, Nelson Rockefeller and Warren Buffet, not to mention Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and anyone you wish to nominate as scoundrel of the year.

What is important is not nurturing relationships or exceptional individuals but the growing divide between rich and poor. The most auspicious achievement of the Industrial Revolution was middle class populations in 1st world nations. For the first time, human beings could consider ways of living that were not focused upon acquiring wealth or avoiding poverty. 1st world populations could have seized this opportunity and invested in personal and community self-sufficiency.

Had this been done, anarchy would have been resurrected as a litmus test of corporate and national probity – and countervail to hegemonic machinations!

Unfortunately, this has not been taken up. As a consequence, the middle class started to decline during the 1970s – a clear signal it represented little more than a short-lived departure from the primal rich/poor model.

From the beginning, the precedent and modus operandi of parent-child relationships has been at work. Naturally occurring differences in ambition and energy combined with instinctive interest in subordinated (other-directed) experiences and spawned authoritarian organizations.

It did not have to be this way. For thousands of generations, human beings retained sufficiently obstinate relationships with leaders and nascent institutions that they enjoyed meaningfully autonomous lives. Initially, the struggle was between leaders and recalcitrant individuals. Now that individuals have been herded into cities and educated into dependent specializations, the agenda is to wrestle control of domesticated populations from one idealism (or bigotry) to another. Even this may be too optimistic a reading. The value of most human beings is no longer understood in terms of what leaders and followers can accomplish for their mutual benefit, but by calculating how much profit can be generated and retained by farming people – a circumstance wonderfully depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The first step down this road involved organizing families and clans into leader/follower relationships. This involved formalizing naturally occurring relationships and endowment differences into enduring cultural proceedings. The resulting institutions, practices, folkways, rites and investitures . . . spawned increasingly pervasive hegemonies. The rewards available to followers in terms of their value-adding contributions increased according to the size of institutions and the pervasiveness of governance. Promises of creature comfort, technological leverage, a sense of identity, place and purpose meant that leaders had an inexhaustible supply of followers. Delivering on these promises – and a good deal of this has been occurring – made made acquiescence, subordination, capitulation . . . seem like sensible alternatives to the difficult business of anarchy and self-reliance.

Such observations suggest that ‘progress and development’ has a dark side. Access to creature comforts and security discouraged followers from acting out (or even having) priorities of their own, even as it provided leaders with additional prospects to explore. Until a few thousand years ago, human life was described by Thomas Hobbes as “nasty, brutish and short’. Even so, even though we repudiate the prospect of such experiences (beyond occasional camping trips), it is also true that our ancestors enjoyed experiences we cannot imagine.

However, like the young upon whom “youth is wasted”, our ancestors did not value the experiences and circumstances they were accustomed to. They only considered what might be gained entering into political and economic arrangements that required trading away self-sufficiency. Oldsters often regret not having made better use of youthful opportunities but nothing comparable occurs in those selling their souls for a mess of pottage – even though the examples are joined at the hip.

These processes have no natural culmination and so continue to grind away. As people embrace new rounds of co-operation, enculturation and education, the resulting institutions and practices condition next generations to embrace further abdications. Institutions, nations and corporations become ‘facts of life’ determining expectations and notions of possibility. Nations, churches and corporations . . . undermine individual and community independence just by existing. Institutional duties and corporate activities are defined by mandates, terms of reference and articles of incorporations. Many of these activities would not be necessary (or tolerated) if previous institutions had not already diminished individuals and communities. This decline challenges the lip-service paid to democratic values and efforts to democratize developing nations. Democracies rely upon decisions made by individuals. By definition, the citizens of developing nations have grown up in more demanding, and therefore freer, circumstances than the ones they are voting into existence. Just as in our own trajectory, it will always seem self-evident that individuals will have what it takes to manage the institutions and corporations they are sanctioning. What no one considers are the altered (i.e., diminished) capacities of generations growing up in new circumstances, and then making similar choices in turn.

Any circumstance imaginable can be arrived at in this way; with every voter able to honestly say that their choices seemed reasonable and beneficent.

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The term fascismo was first coined by the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It is derived from the Italian word fascio, which means “union” or “league”, and from the Latin word fasces. The fasces, which consisted of a bundle of rods tied around an axe, were an ancient Roman symbol of the authority of the civic magistrates, and the symbolism of the fasces suggested strength through unity: a single rod is easily broken, while the bundle is very difficult to break.

For at least 3000 years, governments have been sorting populations into leaders and followers. Until a few hundred years ago, these proceedings involved royalty and aristocracy passing wealth and power to sons and daughters. These families formed alliances with one another, with the comely and talented from the lower class, and with religious institutions. Notions of supernatural delights make exploitation and poverty more tolerable than would otherwise be the case. As well, Heaven and Hell are formidable prospects, whose attainment or avoidance requires not murdering one’s betters, or stealing their property or coveting their wives.

Religions also sanction hierarchical arrangements. These benedictions are sometimes tacit; sometimes blatant. In Muslim nations, there is often little separation of church and state. In avowedly secular nations, religions promote hierarchies on the “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” principle. Religious dictums and customs are so culturally integrated that they are scarcely noticed until some immigrant ethnic group complains about the Lord’s Prayer in schools and Christmas displays in shopping malls. In medieval England and Europe, when anarchism was alive and well, special attention was paid to discouraging unruly impulses. The doctrine of The Divine Right of Kings bridged secular and spiritual by anointing kings as splendid beings whose wishes manifested God’s intentions. In The City of God, Saint Augustine described kings as ruling the ‘City of Man’ for the benefit of souls who would eventually take up residence in the ‘City of God’.

The common element in all of this grinding away is the suppression of individual and community independence. This has nothing to do with some abstract notion of freedom but with systematically diminishing the usual persons’ capacity to conceive and achieve ambitions of their own.

In the latter part of the 20th century, 1st world nations began talking a great deal about enfranchising 3rd and 4th world nations. Unhappily, the ‘representative democracy’ they have in mind is now perilously close to an oxymoron. So much governing is now required that voting directly upon issues is not an option. Representative democracy is made to appear even more sensible now that specialized educations mean that the typical individuals has neither the knowledge nor the dispassionate standpoint needed to make ‘good decisions’.

In short, the world has become safe for democracy. Representative democracy provides leaders with all they could wish for – de facto fascism, the democratic imprimatur and a way to hand off responsibility for whatever has occurred every time an election occurs.

Other reasons democracy has become the flavour of the day include maximizing economic productivity and minimizing the risk of insurrection or revolution. No revolution has ever attempted to overthrow a democracy! As well:
• voting booths and political debate help voters feel relevant and respected;
• the existence of democratic machineries and procedures affirm that a few can represent the wishes and views of thousands;
• electing councils, parliaments or legislatures means citizens agree to shoulder responsibility for everything that happens.

Unfortunately, the hypocrisy of such claims is regularly demonstrated. Whenever political fortunes take a turn for the worse, leaders are replaced with someone party members hope will be more effective at winning elections. What does ‘winning elections’ have to do with representing citizens? If democracies were interested in doing the best possible job of assessing and articulating public priorities, charismatic leaders would be seen as subversive.

Not only is public well being and due process not an important democratic objective, leaders have always been gravely concerned about what majority rule would signify for minorities – and especially for the wealthy minority. In 1867, the Fathers of Confederation made sure the British North America Act included an unelected senate to scrutinize, and if necessary, veto imprudent decisions made in the House of Commons. Senate appointments could only be made if candidates owned real estate – a rule that still exists and occasionally trips up newly appointed senators.

A century and a half later, worries about what democracy might mean for leaders and their natural constituencies, no longer disturb leaders’ slumbers. Even before begging questions and evading answers became an art form, politicians knew citizens had

• abandoned the economic and spiritual self-sufficiency necessary to evaluate and, if need be, repudiate the status quo;
• multiplied the need for governance and corporate proceedings because individuals and communities had left so much on the table for governments and corporations to organize, supply and adjudicate.

In other words, the wealthy are now confident that democracy, representative or otherwise, is no longer a threat to hierarchical proceedings.

• The majority will continue being transfixed upon the production/consumption cycle, no matter what level of creature comfort achieved.

• The majority have no ambitions but to live as producers and consumers.
• The important harms of leader/follower relationships are too subtle to be captured by indictments or Royal Commissions.
• Finally, although the justice system is essential, it has the same ironic consequence as excellent leaders. By guaranteeing equality and justice, judicial proceedings render the collapse of individual and community independence intellectually and morally tolerable.

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Whenever elections deliver new governments, newly proud citizen-parents can count on having a further feature of representative democracy demonstrated. Within hours or days, they will be reminded that their new government has inherited obligations and constraints established by previous legislatures. Matters will always turn out to be far worse than suspected. Public debt will have been misstated; contractual obligations will surface unexpectedly; worrisome research findings will have been buried.

Within the month, it will be business as usual. Institutional momentum and legacy obligations provide politicians with credible reasons for attending to their real constituents – the wealthy ten per cent. Public debt issues and economic realpolitik . . . mean governments have no choice save to proceed along well-defined paths. To be sure, promises to the homeless, the handicapped, and the growing population of impoverished will continue to be made. Indeed, a few symptomatic repairs are a small price to pay for hierarchical well-being. After a brief honeymoon, disappointment with new governments settles in and hope fastens upon the next election.

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In 1st world nations, democratic proceedings have a professional, polished demeanor. Even if they were not required, governments would periodically call elections to remind voters of their responsibility for what is going on. Elections are as exciting as professional sports events. Incumbents and candidates rush about confessing one another’s sins. Pollsters and rainmakers find gainful employment. Unfortunately, when ‘depleted anarchy’ is the universal condition of voters, what does sound and fury accomplish? Elections pretend to involve citizens in the economic and social decisions that determine their nation’s future. Unfortunately, until voters enjoy a measure of economic autonomy, until they retrieve ways to not take out their wallet every time an article or service is needed, democracy is impossible and elections are subversive.

The solution is to retrieve personal and community self-sufficiency. These were the forms of life that allowed human beings to survive for thousands of generations, in ways that did not poison the world or human relationships. We assume that today’s military and environmental crises signify that there are too many of us, or that we have too much technological leverage for our own good.

We need to ask whether the problem involves the loss of anarchistic countervails to government and corporate hegemony.

None of this will be easy.  We have to abandon cargo-cult thinking.  Gods, charismatic leaders or extraterrestrials are not coming to save us.  Even more difficult to contemplate, each must learn to take responsibility for what we are doing – and for what is being done to us!

To qualify as a citizen of a democracy, we must become more robust than taking occasional trips to polling stations.  If elections substitute for daily engagement in economic and political proceedings, they are machinations licensing lifelong irresponsibility and the facile transferring of blame from leaders to followers.

Citizens who do not understand that what they get up to every day determines how the world works have no sense how well placed they are to repair problems.

Instead of conversations leading to resolutions that make a difference, political campaigns have become ghastly affairs wherein candidates confess one another’s sins, governments receive absolution and the rest of us repair to our couches.

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I read a lot of your essays today after I discovered your site for the first time. You are amazing. I am an anthropologist and live in rural Alberta.

    This comment on the essay here: there are a number of editing errors in this which are very unfortunate as they will discourage many people from reading this to its conclusion. I want people to read what you write and am recommending your work to many others. I hope you can give this essay another edit soon. best, Helga

  2. Helga, thanks for the kind words.

    I have gone over the essay and hope I have fixed most of the problems.

    Vernon


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