Our Opinion: Democracy -- is this all we've got?


In case you haven't had a chance to read Thomas Piketty's 700-page tome, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," here's the basic summary: Wealth grows faster than economic input. Other than the period of middle-class expansion that occurred in the mid-20th century, maintains Piketty, when global wars and the Depression disrupted the growth of wealth, "patrimonial capitalism" is the hallmark of global economics.

"The entire recent history of the twentieth century ... can be read as a recuperation of capitalist hegemony through the return of the figure of the bourgeois," writes Mario Tronti, in "Towards a Critique of Political Democracy."

In other words, we've been handed a bill of goods -- while the promises of our consumer society have been dangled in front of our noses, economic elites have reasserted their control over our lives, all the while espousing the joys of democracy.

But in "An Anarchist Critique of Democracy," Moxie Marlinspike and Windy Hart write that it makes no difference whether we transfer control of our lives to an elected representative or to an elusive majority.

"The point is that it's no longer your own. The conditions of our existence are not under our control ... when we lose our connection with the desires and passions that drive us forward, it is impossible to wrest back control of our lives and we are left to linger in a condition of passivity."

Some philosophers, such as Luciano Canfora, argue the manipulation of the mass media, the collapse of political opinions into the "policy bundles" of a two-party system and the gerrymandering that reinforces the system are the natural results of this thing we call democracy.

"We have to consider the possibility that the current state of American politics, with its bizarre combination of poisoned, polarized and artificially overheated debate along with total paralysis on every substantive issue and widespread apathy and discontent, is what we get after 200-odd years," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "In the ancient world, Plato understood democracy as a destructive force that led to demagoguery, mob rule, cultural mediocrity and pointless nationalistic warfare, and based on the evidence of 21st-century America, it's tough to dismiss that altogether."

"Democracy today is not the power of the majority. It is, as we were trying to suggest through the categories of identity and of the homogeneous people, the power of all. Democracy is precisely the process of the homogenization, of the massification of thoughts, feelings, tastes (and) behaviors ..." writes Tronti.

He argues that there is no saving democracy because this is its organic end result.

"This theoretical-practical knot that is democracy," he writes, "can now be judged by its results (and) should not be read as a ‘false' democracy in the face of which there is or should be a ‘true' democracy, but as the coming-true of the ideal, or conceptual, form of democracy."

Marlinspike and Hart reach the same conclusion, and believe the only solution is not a refinement of our current state of governance, but its abolition altogether.

"By providing the illusion of participation for everyone, democracy allows majorities to justify their actions, no matter how oppressive," they write. "All forms of democracy fall prey to demagogues eager to seize any opportunity to advance their own aims by manufacturing consent from the momentary fear, hope, anger, and confusion of the general public."

But the demagogues themselves aren't really in control; they are merely the surrogates of the economic elites and special interest groups.

In "Testing Theories of American Politics," Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page conclude that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests "have substantial independent impacts on U.S.government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy."

Piketty calls for a global tax that would prohibit economic elites from amassing wealth and the power that comes along with it. While we might believe that's the solution to patrimonial capitalism, it has a zero possibility of actually being instituted.

"This is what democracy looks like: Grotesque inequality, delusional Tea Party obstructionism, a vast secret national-security state, overseas wars we're never even told about and a total inability to address the global climate crisis, a failure for which our descendants will never forgive us, and never should," writes O'Hehir.

But if we are to scrap democracy, where would we turn for governance?

"Anarchists believe in unmediated relations between free individuals, the absence of any coercive or alienating forces in societies, and an unquestionable, universal right to self-determination," write Marlinspike and Hart.

As founding father James Madison noted, "If men were angels, we wouldn't need government in the first place."

Anarchy and its kid brother, libertarianism, would eventually devolve into might means right -- despite our attempts at convincing ourselves we are altruistic at heart, the strong always emerge to dominate the weak. Those who believe that is the natural order of things are all too willing to scrap government in exchange for anarchy or libertarianism.

Or, perhaps we need to just muddle through. As Winston Churchill noted, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." But then we would be remiss if we did not note that Churchill also said "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."


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