SEARCH finds Backlander-themed arguments, news and articles. Ask any question!

Why Democracy Springs Eternal

The paradox confronting anyone advising the disenfranchised to do whatever it takes to achieve democracy?  The need for ballot boxes, voter registration and elections means that real or natural democracy has vanished and that accommodations are necessary to render this state of affairs tolerable. This is another way of saying that individual and community self-reliance has vanished under the pressures of urbanization, specialization and globalization.  The need for palatable - or at least survivable  - alternatives has become  the premise from which thinking about politics begins.

In other words, democracy advocates have been reduced to talking about representative democracy. This is well and good, but we should not forget that natural democracy continues to simmer below the surface of political and economic events, and continues to be their final arbiter.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that every creature enjoys natural democracy.  Democracy is the primal condition of  man and amoeba alike.  Every response taken or avoided is a vote determining what will happen next.

Forgetting this, democracy ideologues overlook that even non-democratic  nations - dictatorships, monarchies, totalitarian governments - depend upon the consent of governed populations.  How could it be otherwise?  The few cannot control the many - unless the many wish it so ... perhaps because they suffer from arrested development and find subordination preferable to adult responsibilities.

Whatever the explanation, the existence of this strata of provisional sanction is a matter of cultural and public record.  Historians  spend a good deal of time cataloging the activities of populations whose collections of 'pet rulers' have gotten unruly and must be replaced.

This is the significance of the literal and virtual be-headings of Royals and aristocrats that continue today - especially if such worthies as Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch are counted.  To take a more traditional example, two revolutions occurred in Russia during the last century.  In the period between 1905 and 1917, the first uprising replaced the Tsarist Autocracy with the thinly-veiled totalitarianism known as the USSR. When this arrangement became intolerable, a second revolution replaced Communism with what looks like Mafia-style capitalism.

Without doubt, further natural democracy changes are brewing in Russia and elsewhere and will soon make themselves known. Thus, the rebellions known as the Arab Spring began on December 8, 2010, following Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation protesting police corruption and brutality.  This zeitgeist quickly spread to Egypt, Libya and nearby nations, toppling governments and prompting leaders to offer to stand down in return for a graceful exit.

In more civilized climes, a group of wealthy people (including Warren Buffet) petitioned the American government  in 2011 to raise taxes upon those making more than one million dollars a year.  This may be out of empathy, a sense of justice -  or perhaps a desperate hope that spreading the tax burden constitutes an excellent apple cart investment.

In 2011, Bill Gates regained his position as America's wealthiest - and the world's second wealthiest -  man, even though he and other philanthropists, including Warren Buffet, have been giving money away with both hands.

On a related front, Darwinian evolution and economic 'progress and development' can be understood as processes sorting populations into winners and losers.  The 'elections' involved occur on battlefields, in sports arenas or, most importantly, by brandishing wallets and voting for this or that future. The world economy resulting from all this campaigning and voting resembles interlocking  Ponzi schemes.  Populations everywhere are handing control of their lives to 'elected representatives' ... most of whom do not consider themselves politicians!  Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Brangelina Pitt, Sidney Crosby ... come to mind, along with hybrids like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger - twice-anointed into leadership roles.

The culturally and legislatively-enshrined results of all this voting is now automatically transferring  wealth from the many to the few.  In this sophisticated world, neither voters or voted fors have to pay attention, make phone calls or pass laws for the rich to get richer and for the rest of us to imbibe whatever it is that makes the trade-off seem worth while.   This does not mean that more legislation is not in the pipeline, although it is hard to see why more is needed.  In 2011, one per cent of Americans had as much wealth as the remaining ninety-nine per cent.  At the same time, roughly one per cent of Americans were serving in the military - putting themselves in harms way to defend an increasingly inequitable status quo.


How did this state of affairs come to pass?  A hundred thousand years ago, human beings began to glimpse the benefits of organizing into communities - even if communities were nomadic and thin on the ground.  This was the beginning that would eventually be formalized by the Greeks and Romans into notions of enfranchisement, due process and, in the Greek model, referendums - every interested person voting on every issue.

Clearly the Greeks came closest to the immediacy and personal involvement characterizing natural democracy, but the Roman model is what democracy advocates have in mind today.  The talk is about constituents, elected representatives and due process. No one seems to be worried about the fact that representative democracy is a significant diminution of both natural and referendum-based democracy.

This may seem an obscure quibble, since there is scarcely any way to conceive of a crowded, complex world where representative democracy is not the best of a bad set of choices.   The reason it is worth remarking is to underscore what real democracy consists of,  and diminish the fantasy that representative democracy is perfect in principle, and perfectible in practice.

In the grip of just this confusion, western populations agree that they enjoy the best possible form of governance - although  incumbents always seem to leave much to be desired.  Indeed, we are so confident of  the excellence of our institutions that we are willing to enfranchise a new and alien form of life. On Jan 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated campaign finance restrictions for corporations, on the premise that they had the same rights as natural persons.  The vote was 5-4.  Speaking for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated: "Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy -- it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people -- political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence."

John Paul Stevens, one of the dissenting Justices, objected that "The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons … is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case."

Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer  went further.  He called the decision a "disaster for the American people and a dark day for the Supreme Court."

The Supreme Court majority has acted recklessly to free up corporations to use their immense, aggregate corporate wealth to flood federal elections and buy government influence. The Fortune 100 companies alone had combined revenues of $13 trillion and profits of $605 billion during the last election cycle,"

The argument that corporations enjoy ‘legal person’ status seems to be a giant step down a slippery slope.  Would the same argument not provide corporations with the right to actually vote?  We need to remind ourselves that corporations are comprised of and constituted by persons, each with their own right to speak freely, support political parties and vote ... .  Does this not preclude corporations’ rights claims?  Any other conclusion means that executives and boards of directors get two kicks at the electoral can!

A similar confusion attaches to "right to free speech" claims - which invariably involves businesses right to advertise products and services. No one seems to have noticed that advertising costs are passed along to customers, along with every other cost of doing business.  This means corporations are enjoying two freedoms.  Not only are they ‘free to speak’, they are also free to pass along the costs of doing so to those spoken to!

You and I have to cough up something whenever we avail ourselves of this right – even if only inhaling and exhaling is involved.

In the case of advertising, the remedy is equally obvious and should be of interest to any political party with an interest of  environmental issues or bloated consumerism.  Remove advertising costs from the list of permitted charges against gross income.  This would force businesses to finance advertising activities out of their profits!

There is an equally straightforward solution to the political contribution issue.  Prohibit businesses from all forms of political activity.  In their private lives, business owners, employees, executives … can be as politically active and generous as they choose and as the law allows.  End of story.

The point is, hubris about the excellence of representative democracy is making us foolish.  Representative democracy can never be more than second best!  The fact that it is better than authoritarianism, fascism and other forms of 'top down' control, is not the issue. The best government is always the least government possible ... and the issue of whether this 'best least' is democratically achieved must not exhaust our interest.

Canada boasts a vigorous example of such an understanding. The philosopher and writer, George Woodcock, (1912- 1995) dreamed that anarchy -- the politics of minimal government, personal responsibility and mutual respect -- would one day prevail.

Unfortunately, this does not seem likely happen anytime soon ... and it will not happen at all unless future generations become better scrutineers.   This is why western nations' post-USSR arrogance is ironic. Nothing is more thought-provoking than the possibility that one might be living in a second rate political circumstance. As long as communism seemed economically and politically viable, democratic populations remained comparatively introspective.

These days, political triumphalism reigns supreme.

Accordingly, before we send observers abroad to inspect the democratic quotient of foreign elections, we should review our own practices.   The prospects of emerging nations would improve if western democracies transcended increasingly expensive, poll-driven parodies of presentation and debate. Canadians are not invited to supervise nascent democracies because we have successfully argued for some principle.  Democracy is exportable because it has a good track record.  If we are interested in global well-being, the best thing we can possibly do is attend to our own political and economic improvement.

In other words, there has never been a better time to respond to Mr. Woodcock's dictum: Anarchism is the sine qua non of democracy.  World-wide suffrage would mean nothing unless, for at least that magic moment in the voting booth, voters are without rulers.

Mr. Woodcock articulated an important truth: Human beings must live without rulers before they can meaningfully be said to develop and submit to rules. This insight has been underscored from an unexpected direction. In 1992, in The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that human beings are in an ideological cul de sac.  According to him,  political evolution culminated with the acceptance of representative democracy's "twin principles of liberty and equality."  All that remains are issues of probity and equity.  Mr. Fukuyama is ambivalent about this and worried about what will come next:

It becomes particularly difficult for democratic societies to take questions with real moral content seriously ….  Morality involves a distinction between better and worse, good and bad, which seems to violate the democratic principle of tolerance.

…In America today, we feel entitled to criticize another person's smoking habits but not his or her religious beliefs or moral behaviour.  For Americans, the health of their bodies ‑‑ what they eat and drink, the exercise they get, the shape they are in ‑‑ has become a far greater obsession than the moral questions that tormented their forebears. [1]

In short, the shallowness of our present understanding sets the stage for representative democracy's collapse into one or another totalitarian alternative.  We know from experience that, whenever possible, politicians behave like fascists, bromides about freedom and equality notwithstanding.

Certainly democracy's apologists need an increasingly supple neck to avoid noticing the growing percentage of wealth vested with a small tribe of human beings.

For their part, the wealthy have learned a great deal about the value of liberal democracy. With liberty and equality a universal goal, (if not yet a fait accompli!) they fancy themselves in the best of all possible worlds.  The liberty they value most is the liberty to become wealthy without having to worry about sedition or revolution.  They ask: "What could representative democracy be replaced with that would be an improvement?" - and go about their business reassured . Then, every so often, boiling up from underneath, something unsettling occurs.  Terrorists - sometimes domestically reared - attack the heartland of some  properly constituted democratic nation.  Or perhaps an Arab Spring comes along.  Suddenly an answer to the once reassuring question becomes clear:  Democracy! could replace representative democracy - however short-lived its tenure, however brutal its achievement, however dearly won by its revolutionary heroes.

Suddenly the capacity of even representative democracy to shield nations from insurrection and revolution seems less  certain.

What is to be done?  According to Fukuyama,  liberal democracy leaves nothing to strive for. The citizens of such nations risk becoming shallow, placid and amoral, capable of only convulsive efforts ... now that "life's greatest experience had ended with most of life still to be lived."

George Woodcock argues that this is nonsense; that we have lost sight of anarchism as representative democracy's sine qua non.  This understanding alone can prevent the fantasy that liberal democracy represents some sort of culmination. The safest, happiest and most peaceful course is to retain a healthy proportion of natural democracy in our political and economic lives.  This means as much economic independence for individuals and communities as possible - with the least possible overburden of 'representative democracy'.


All Rights Reserved.


[1]Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. (New York: The Free Press, 1992) p.  307.

Henry David Thoreau said everything necessary about the perils and responsibilities of representative democracy: