Shame, Democracy, and the Id of the People

There are two kinds of deniers of morality. – ‘To deny morality’ – this can mean, first: to deny that the moral motives which men claim have inspired their actions really have done so – it is thus the assertion that morality consists of words and is among the coarser or more subtle deceptions (especially self-deceptions) which men practise, and is perhaps so especially in precisely the case of those most famed for virtue. Then it can mean: to deny that moral judgements are based on truths. Here it is admitted that they really are motives of action, but that in this way it is errors which, as the basis of all moral judgment, impel men to their moral actions. This is my point of view: though I should be the last to deny that in very many cases there is some ground for suspicion that the other point of view – that is to say, the point of view of La Rochefoucauld and others who think like him – may also be justified and in any event of great general application. Thus I deny morality as I deny alchemy, that is, I deny their premises: but I do not deny that there have been alchemists who believed in these premises and acted in accordance with them – I also deny immorality: not that countless people feel themselves to be immoral, but that there is any true reason so to feel. It goes without saying that I do not deny – unless I am a fool – that many actions called immoral ought to be avoided and resisted, or that many called moral ought to be done and encouraged – but I think that the one should be encouraged and the other avoided for other reasons than hitherto. We have to learn to think differently – in order at last, perhaps very late on, to attain even more: to feel differently. – Nietzsche, Daybreak

“The question whether all as individuals should share in deliberating and deciding on political matters of general concern is a question that arises from the separation of the political state and civil society.” – Marx

I am not now nor have I ever been a populist.  I am a descriptive Marxist:  equality as some vague notion or as some formal abstract “right” has never appealed to me.  It never delivers on its promises in all sectors.  Once, about every generation, some new identity is given some limited formal right as a recognition of their “humanity.” The circle is expanded, but then it also contracts in ways that are more subtle.  Like the ancient Athenians, they may let a person formally ostracized back in, or give a subservient community a few citizens who can vote, but the entire thing doesn’t work without slavery.

This brings to me a lot of things on my mind:  I am far more cynical about democracy than most people. Not because I think autocracy or some kind of single party leadership is “better.”  It is because representative democratic systems have a kluge nature that leads to all kinds of “perverse incentives.”  It makes it easier to predict elections than it should be, and the predictions are smoother if you, actually, just disregard people’s ideological commitments.  It’s not that they don’t matter, but they are but one tiny fragment of what matters at the margins.  Watching American friends and Canadian panic when demographic trends don’t save their preferred electoral candidates when statistical predictions said that they wouldn’t factor much was funny. Liberals turned on Nate Silver who, it turned out, was actually a little underestimating the GOP wins. (Al my liberal friends were being self-deluded about the last U.S. Congressional election and called me unfair–well my prediction track record is dead on) and in the UK, I called the Tory victory, but with less certainty because of the weirdness of the party coalition politics and the voting districts in the UK. The thing about this, if you use non-ideological prediction rubrics, you see that ideas, in democracy, don’t matter as much as people think. A lot of people seem Ill-equipped to deal with that. I treat it like watching and speculating on natural events. No reason to delude myself, even when I do feel for people who will suffer the results.

At current, without a massive social shift prior, direct democracy would probably be worse.  I was listening to Jon Ronson on Geek’s Guide to Galaxy about the twitter outrage and shame tactic.  In a week when Joss Whedon left twitter because of its toxic environment, Jacobin magazine finally started to critique “privilege politics,” and a few months after Briarpatch started talking about the toxicity of call culture, the left seems to behind Jon Ronson on the effectiveness of these tactics, but they are getting there.  Still there is an element of this that few people want to admit:  giving voice to the voiceless doesn’t mean that everyone will have a voice.  Ronson admits this, although in the interview when he waxes poetic about early twitter, he seems to not be willing to admit the key factor: early twitter was functional because it was not a huge representative swath of “western” culture. Twitter is that now, and the Puritanical impulses dominate.

Individuals have agency in response to things they can not control–but for this to matter, one must be hyper-valid and training of one’s will.  Groups do not have that ability unless they are organized and even then I am unsure if they can actually self-overcome. Yet, individuals alone are not particularly powerful–you do support and mass support at times.  The question is how can you get mass support to change society without also changing–no, demanding change–from those in that society?   How can you pretend that systemic limitations don’t effect everyone self-identity and “consciousness”, not just the “oppressors, ” negatively.

This is the paradox of thinking democratically. Voting tends to reflect the culture of the time. It does change, but slowly. That may be why most social change in the US–conservative or liberal or something else–has come from the courts, not the legislature. It is not that ideas don’t matter–they do, but I don’t think we can know how or when. It’s not that giving voice to the voiceless will always lead to shaming and oppression and be counter-productive, but one must be both ruthless and consistent as an individual, and not delude yourself into thinking that groups are some more rational than individuals.  Prediction markets, for example, were seen as an answer for this half-decade ago until people started noticing that prediction markets broke down on issues of moralistic passion and shared bias.

D

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34 thoughts on “Shame, Democracy, and the Id of the People

  1. I would make two points.

    First, of non-democratic systems that I’m aware of, all have proven worse or else no better than democratic systems. The best democratic systems still remain superior in so many ways, so it seems to me.

    Depending on one’s perspective, that assessment could mean either high praise or damning with faint praise. I could go either way with it, as less worse is not a preferable option, even when it is a vast improvement of historical conditions.

    Still, even with imperfections in mind, I’d never choose to move to and become a citizen of a non-democratic country. The real-world alternatives are hardly inspiring.

    It is true that I could idealistically envision an even greater society than present democratic societies. There is nothing wrong with that. However, the point remains that such societies don’t exist, at least not yet.

    Second, I suspect arguing about populism is about as useful as arguing about free will. These are things of belief and rhetoric. They aren’t falsifiable hypotheses.

    That said, group behavior can be studied scientifically. It is possible to formulate falsifiable hypotheses, but this requires us to think more clearly about the relevant issues. In fact, this is a growing field of research, although of course quite young.

    It is still too early to have clear opinions about much of this.

    As I’ve pointed out before, many empires lasted much longer than the time having passed since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Some nations around right now are old. The British political order was only democratized fairly recently and it existed in non-democratic form for much longer, with some of those non-democratic institutions and traditions remaining in place to this day.

    What we have is mostly faux democracy, old systems of wealth and power with window dressing. We are in a transitional period. It is maybe not unlike the child pretending to be an adult, as a way of preparing for adulthood.

    Compared to the Enlightenment’s (too often partial and half-hearted) experiments with democracy, the social science study of group behavior is even more recent. It is less than a century old. Actually, it has only been the past few decades where these studies have became more scientifically serious, beyond the stage of speculations.

    Nonetheless, the findings are intriguing. We are learning about what makes groups more well functioning, under different conditions and for different purposes. Some of these insights are brand spanking new, which no political philosopher ever could have guessed at. A deeper understanding of human nature, individual and collective, is emerging right now.

    My basic conclusion is that I doubt anyone could accurately predict the results of this. What comes next won’t be dependent on what we have so far believed is or isn’t possible. It is a time of open-minded inquiry, the questioning of old assumptions and the doubting of old worldviews.

    I’m not claiming to know. I’m just arguing that no one else knows either. That will bother some people more than others, such a state of uncertainty.

    Whatever the future will bring, it most likely will be far different from both the past and the present. It may be recognizable as some form of democracy or it may not. If there is democracy in the coming centuries, I suspect it will be as different from Enlightenment ideas of democracy as they were from Athenian ideas of democracy. Or maybe change will be so dramatic that present political ideologies and terminology will no longer be applicable.

    • “First, of non-democratic systems that I’m aware of, all have proven worse or else no better than democratic systems. The best democratic systems still remain superior in so many ways, so it seems to me.”

      whenever someone uses a comparative without a reference, they are generally trying to sneak an argument in by ignoring the argument and doing directly to the assertion. You have to throw in vague superlatives which posit forms which you cannot argue for. The best for what? For whom?

      Even on human rights, democracies have terrible track records, and have more of a history of slavery, etc, not less. I don’t favor monarchies, but it is simply a myth that there have not been staple and relatively “progressive” monarchies against more dictatorial but democratically elected governments.

    • “whenever someone uses a comparative without a reference, they are generally trying to sneak an argument in by ignoring the argument and doing directly to the assertion. You have to throw in vague superlatives which posit forms which you cannot argue for. The best for what? For whom?”

      There was a reference. And I stand by my comparison. Every reasonably informed person knows which countries are relatively more democratic than others. I didn’t have to list my references because they are so well known. Some of the least democratic countries in the world are also well known.

      I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. We can only speak of of averages. Take blacks in the US. As the country has increasingly become democratized, conditions for blacks have improved, and that is considering that the US isn’t even all that democratic. Mere slight improvements along these lines have significant effects.

      There are always people who fall through the cracks, in every society. Making comparisons requires us to speak of averages, but average improvements of course don’t comfort below the average. Even so, the worse off African-Americans won’t likely choose to go back to slavery. Democratic advances like ending slavery are quite significant, even as many other non-democratic and anti-democratic influences persist.

      “Even on human rights, democracies have terrible track records, and have more of a history of slavery, etc, not less. I don’t favor monarchies, but it is simply a myth that there have not been staple and relatively “progressive” monarchies against more dictatorial but democratically elected governments.”

      Part of the problem is we lack the language to speak with nuance.

      There are no democratic countries in the world nor have there ever been, if we mean countries that have more democratic aspects than non-democratic aspects. Democracy isn’t the defining feature of any present or past government.

      Still, we can refer to countries that, relatively speaking, have more and better integrated democratic aspects than other countries. Take “progressive” monarchies as an example. They are “progressive” only to the degree that they have more democratic aspects than other monarchies. The UK technically is still a monarchy and maintains its old forms of aristocracy and such that are rooted in its monarchical tradition, but over time has incorporated certain democratic features.

      My argument still stands. But my argument only makes sense to the degree we are able to get past the ideological rhetoric of democracy and other systems. It isn’t democratic rhetoric that makes a society democratic. It isn’t even voting that will necessarily make a society democratic. What matters most is the ability of more people to have greater influence on their communities and governments, however that is achieved. This is why democracy is still so rare and, where existing, so partial and limited.

      The better argument to be had isn’t whether democracy is better but if democracy is possible. But that is an argument of speculation.

  2. As you know, I’m in favor of experimentation. This includes experimentation in all aspects, from scientific to economic, from social to political, from democratic to alternatives.

    I don’t think democracy has been given a fair shake. Neither have ‘free’ markets, libertarianism, Marxism, and many other things as well. Enlightenment and post-Enllightenment ideologies, when implemented, were built on old systems of wealth and power, old traditions and institutions.

    So-called modern democracies have more old non-democratic aspect than they have newer democratic aspects. It would be more fair to call them, at best, non-democratic systems with some democratic elements. We simply don’t know how well a democracy, representative or direct, would function if it were ever tried.

    There is no democratic government that has ever existed that was built democratically from the ground up. The same could be said for other modern forms of ideological governance. These would be interesting experiments to try sometime.

    • That is franky because idea of a democratic state is incoherent. State involves legitimatizing coercion and exchange. To be a state, one must have a monopoly on those things.

    • “That is franky because idea of a democratic state is incoherent. State involves legitimatizing coercion and exchange.”

      I would argue that all ideologies when applied are incoherent. It has less to do with ideologies themselves and more to do with human nature. Even non-democratic governments use rhetoric and propaganda that doesn’t correspond to reality.

      “To be a state, one must have a monopoly on those things.”

      That is because a state is, by definition, having a monopoly on those things. The question is whether that is a useful definition. In reality, no government has a monopoly because there are many states in competition. If any state had a monpoly, there would be no wars, no civil wars, no revolutions, no negotiations, etc.

      A more accurate definition might be that, to be a state, one must seek to have a monopoly on those things. Still, I’m sure even that definition could be contested. But that is neither here nor there.

      “If such a state could be imagined, it would be a polis–not more than a few thousand people.”

      I’ve often argued that democracy may only be possible on the small scale. This relates to why I don’t fundamentally see any country in the world as primarily democratic, even as some countries are relatively more democratic (or at least relatively less anti-democratic).

      • “In reality, no government has a monopoly because there are many states in competition. If any state had a monpoly, there would be no wars, no civil wars, no revolutions, no negotiations, etc. ”

        That is because they have a monopoly in specific region–and no, the monopoly is never total, because that is why there is “crime” and other states, but the idea of the state doesn’t work if it doesn’t have control over both currency and violence legitimatization, which it does. objectively, everywhere there is a stage. A failed state does not have to ability to do those two things.

        “I’ve often argued that democracy may only be possible on the small scale. This relates to why I don’t fundamentally see any country in the world as primarily democratic, even as some countries are relatively more democratic (or at least relatively less anti-democratic).”

        I don’t think democracy is a good. I don’t see it as a set of abstract moral values that guides us. Nor do I think it is possible once society starts getting complicated enough for division of labor.

        However, democratic systems seem neither good nor bad in themselves, but their track record historically is frankly not particularly great even in systems more relatively democratic than the Representative Republics.

      • “I don’t think democracy is a good. I don’t see it as a set of abstract moral values that guides us. Nor do I think it is possible once society starts getting complicated enough for division of labor.”

        I’m not even sure what you mean by “a good”. Anyway, I also don’t see democracy as a set of abstract moral values, but the reason is because I don’t see all values as moral abstractions. As for what is possible, that brings us back to speculation. We obviously would offer different speculations.

        “However, democratic systems seem neither good nor bad in themselves, but their track record historically is frankly not particularly great even in systems more relatively democratic than the Representative Republics.”

        The track record of every form of government ever instituted is frankly not particularly great. Still, some are less worse than others. Less worse isn’t inspiring, but it’s still better than more worse.

  3. Thinking about “progressive” monarchies, I was reminded of a related example.

    I think it is Finland that until about a decade ago still had an official aristocracy that was tied to the government. The aristorcracy had weakened over the centuries, as the Finnish government was democratized, but the aristocracy was able to last so long because apparently they played well with democracy.

    The difference is that is a high trust culture. That is important to keepin mind. High trust cultures will have the most effective states. That would be true no matter what kind of government (democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, fascism, etc). It was because Germany had a high trust culture that made the Nazis possible. High trust culture makes large-scale cooperation more likely, whatever end it is used toward.

    If a fully functioning democracy is ever achieved, it probably would have to in a society that is both a high trust culture and a smaller population.

    • “The difference is that is a high trust culture. That is important to keepin mind. High trust cultures will have the most effective states. ”

      How causes high trust cultures? They are all small states, ethnically homogenous for the most part, and relatively rich. See also Japan and South Korea. This does not have good explanation.

      Also, culture is a description of human habits, not an explanation. You have often told me seek to be scientific, “culture” is not a scientific term since almost no one agrees about what is operational definition.

    • “How causes high trust cultures? They are all small states, ethnically homogenous for the most part, and relatively rich. See also Japan and South Korea. This does not have good explanation.”

      Not all high trust cultures are small states, ethnically homogenous, and relatively rich. They are disproportionately that way, but not entirely. The US is way above average on the measures of trust. The US is also above average in having democratic aspects to its government.

      “Also, culture is a description of human habits, not an explanation. You have often told me seek to be scientific, “culture” is not a scientific term since almost no one agrees about what is operational definition.”

      I didn’t say it was necessarily an explanation. It is just info to be considered. We have to begin with what we know, but obviously we don’t yet know enough. That is my whole point. Making generalizations and denying vagueness is unhelpful when the evidence itself is vague at present.

      Culture is a term that can be operationalized for research purposes. It will be defined differently for different purposes. There is disagreement about what it means, but there is also disagreement about what democracy means.

      That simply suggests when need to develop better terminology, knowledge, and understanding. We can’t assume we know what we are talking about. My entire argument is not making assumptions when confronted with so much uncertainty, vagueness, and confusion.

  4. As I was saying, there is no society, past or present, that is primarily defined by democracy and that has a majority of democratic elements. This is why making fair and useful comparisons is so difficult. What exactly are we or should we be comparing?

    One way of comparison is what I was originally suggesting. With that method, the comparison would be between governments that are relatively the most democratic and governments that are relatively least democratic. That is a decent comparison to do and not that hard.

    Some of the most democratic societies are in Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia. Some of the least democratic societies are diverse, some even being powerful and wealthy. Saudi Arabia, for example, is a highly functioning society, both a regional and global power. Still, I’d rather live in a less wealthy and powerful Scandinavian country.

    Another kind of comparison that can be made is between specific parts of societies, since no society is entirely democratic. So, a comparison can be made between education systems that are operated more democratically and less democratically. The tricky part is we have to more seriously and in more detail think about what democracy means in practice.

    In Finland, local teachers have more control to tailor their teaching to their students and communities. Is that democratic? If so, what would be a non-democratic comparison? I suppose the standardized methods of US education would be a non-democratic system, at least as compared to that one aspect of Finnish education. Or is that even a good comparison?

    Another way to compare is entirely internal. Take a single country. Then analyze which aspects of its governance are the most and least democratic and which aspects are the most and least well functioning. This would require defining what are the indicators of both democracy and well functioning.

    In the US, local governments are the most democratic part of our society. The least democratic parts of our society are the military and alphabet soup agencies. I’d also add corporations and the highly corporatist aspects of federal government as part of the non-democratic category. How would we compare these aspects to see how well they function in terms of serving the public, including how well they serve minority groups? In relation to which parts of society, does the average and below average American feel the most empowered?

    I don’t know the answers to all of those questions. But those are the questions that need to be asked and typically aren’t asked.

    • A confusing factor is that democracy is first and foremost an ideology of values. Historical examples have proven that democracy isn’t necessarily defined by methods and practices.

      Consider voting. Is voting inherently democratic? I’d say no. A banana republic has voting and could even have universal suffrage. But if the voting system is a shame or simply so constrained as to disallow useful choices, then it is democracy in name only.

      So, how do we determine that something is or isn’t democracy in practice, not just rhetoric? Before we can make a comparison, we have to first precisely know what we want to compare.

      • “A confusing factor is that democracy is first and foremost an ideology of values. ”

        One) Democracy isn’t an ideology. It is a set of related formal discourses

        Two) You make this more nebulous so it can’t be critiqued, you should question yourself about why you using vaguer and vaguer terms here to maintain the category.

        C) ” how do we determine that something is or isn’t democracy in practice, not just rhetoric? Before we can make a comparison, we have to first precisely know what we want to compare.”

        Your first intellectual move gives you no way to do that because it is vague. You are saving a category by hollowing it out with ever vaguer moral jargon. These kinds of questions cannot by definition produce answers.

        Instead of trying to save an abstraction from its own historical practice, why don’t you lay out exactly what elements of priorly existing democracies you want to save and see why you want to save them.

      • “One) Democracy isn’t an ideology. It is a set of related formal discourses”

        I do see democracy as an ideology, both in the broader and narrower understanding. In the basic sense, it is a set of ideas and ideals, a constellation of values and expectations. In the larger sense, it is a worldview grounded in Enlightenment beliefs of human nature and society. So, yes, it is an ideology.

        “Two) You make this more nebulous so it can’t be critiqued, you should question yourself about why you using vaguer and vaguer terms here to maintain the category.”

        What you call vague, I call nuanced. I already told you that the uncertainty would bother some people. Still, it is what it is.

        My point is that your use of democracy, as it is used by most people, is rather confused. I don’t claim to have democracy figured out. I’m just pointing out that the confused and confusing portrayal of democracy that dominates debate is less than useful. Between vaguely accurate and confusedly inaccurate, I’ll always go with the former.

        “C) ” how do we determine that something is or isn’t democracy in practice, not just rhetoric? Before we can make a comparison, we have to first precisely know what we want to compare.”

        “Your first intellectual move gives you no way to do that because it is vague. You are saving a category by hollowing it out with ever vaguer moral jargon. These kinds of questions cannot by definition produce answers.”

        I haven’t hollowed it out. My first intellectual move is intellectual humility. I won’t claim to know more than I know. We have to first get to both first principles and real world evidence. That means removing all that is false and unhelpful. I wouldn’t call that hollowing out.

        In your post, you offer no clear understanding of democracy. That is problematic, to my mind. I was responding to that vagueness and I was making it explicit. I was saying that, starting with such vagueness, how do we move toward greater clarity.

        Instead of trying to save an abstraction from its own historical practice, why don’t you lay out exactly what elements of priorly existing democracies you want to save and see why you want to save them.

      • “Instead of trying to save an abstraction from its own historical practice, why don’t you lay out exactly what elements of priorly existing democracies you want to save and see why you want to save them.”

        I’m not trying to save priorly existing democracies. I’m trying to understand what democracy even means. It is obvious from this discussion that there is no fundamental understanding of democracy. So, we have no way of even understanding priorly existing democracies, in order to save them, assuming that is what we wanted to do.

    • “As I was saying, there is no society, past or present, that is primarily defined by democracy and that has a majority of democratic elements.”

      No True Scottsman fallacy. You don’t except anywhere else.

      “In the US, local governments are the most democratic part of our society.”

      And often actually the most oppressive part of our society. You know about the Southern history, you know about police forces. I don’t know why could can’t the contradiction here with what you have been saving about structures and systems and were the ground level oppression is and the idea that democracy will be helpful.

      “. How would we compare these aspects to see how well they function in terms of serving the public, including how well they serve minority groups?”

      MInority groups are more disadvantaged in a representational OR direct democratic system.

      • “No True Scottsman fallacy. You don’t except anywhere else.”

        You are making a false allegation. I don’t appreciate that. Read my comment again. I never made a True Scotsman argument. I merely made an observation, based on historical evidence.

        I made a claim. You could attempt to disprove my claim. Give me one example of a society that is “primarily defined by democracy and that has a majority of democratic elements.”

        I could point to societies that are primarily defined by other ideological systems and that have a majority of elements of that ideological system. Why wouldn’t we hold democracy to the same standard?

        “And often actually the most oppressive part of our society.”

        Sometimes that is true and sometimes it isn’t. It requires nuanced thought. Even at the local level, some governments are more democratic and others less so. New England town hall democracy is an example of the former. Here is an example of the latter:

        http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/whos-charge-here-ferguson-and-st-louis-county-police-not-elected-officials

        “Thanks to the way most cities like Ferguson are structured, the chief executives and city councils of most St. Louis-area cities can’t directly make changes to police departments. That’s the responsibility of either a city manager or, in the case the St. Louis County Police Department, a commission appointed by a county executive.

        “This arrangement came about as a way of keeping politics out of the administration of government. And as a result, many local governments here were organized to make elected representatives of local cities and towns fairly weak – and give unelected administrators more power.”

        To continue with your comment…

        “You know about the Southern history, you know about police forces. I don’t know why could can’t the contradiction here with what you have been saving about structures and systems and were the ground level oppression is and the idea that democracy will be helpful.”

        That is another good example. The South had weaker traditions of democracy. That is an important piece of knowledge in making comparisons.

        “MInority groups are more disadvantaged in a representational OR direct democratic system.”

        That is an unfounded claim, generalized to such an extent. It would sometimes be true and sometimes not. A minority in a larger society that was a majority in a particular community would be empowered and benefited by a well functioning direct democracy with high rates of voter participation. That is common sense.

        I’m specifically arguing against such generalizations as that. It’s because of generalizations that discussion can go no where. We need nuance, but you dismiss it as vague. Well, fundamentalists aren’t vague, but their dogmatic beliefs aren’t overly useful. Lack of vagueness is hardly a virtue.

  5. It’s not simply a matter of whether or not democracy itself is incoherent. As I see it, there is more than enough incoherency to go around. Yes, most of the defenders of democracy are incoherent. As far as that goes, most of the critics of democracy are incoherent as well.

    It’s hard not to be incoherent under these circumstances. It’s hard to know what we are even debating. Democracy is a label that describes a wide variety of ideological/political ideas, values, systems, methodologies, policies, etc. Maybe the problem is that too much is getting grouped under a single label.

    If we only apply superficial analysis, then why isn’t a banana republic democracy? But if we do call a banana republic a democracy, then has democracy lost all useful meaning? In that case, the entire debate is meaningless.

    • I’m just asking you to not shoot the messenger. I’m not arguing for incoherency and vagueness. I’m pointing out that such is the state of present debate.

      Democracy appears incoherent because nearly everyone talking about democracy is incoherent. But that leaves us with knowing little about democracy itself, whether coherent or incoherent. Before we can know which side might be right, we have to have enough coherency to even know what we are talking about.

      As far as we know, all sides might be wrong. The confusion is so great that is far beyond merely talking past one another. Maybe we don’t have enough distance from democracy or at least from the rhetoric of democracy, especially for people like you and I who were born and raised in it.

    • I should clarify something.

      I’m definitely not arguing that I’m the only one who isn’t vague, incoherent, and confused. I’m part of the same society and so part of the same debate. I’m stuck in the same historical context and general paradigm.

      I can’t see outside of the situation better than you can. But what I do want to acknowledge is that the debate is stuck and not going anywhere.

      I’m not happy with this state of affairs. I’m definitely not content with my own limitations of understanding. Yet it is where we find ourselves. It is our starting point, like it or not.

      What I was trying to do with my initial comments is to dig deeper. To do so, means to dig into the muck and mess of it all. To inquiry deeply isn’t going to initially clarify matters. First, assumptions and biases have to be dug up and brought to the light. After looking at them, then we can possibly identify what we are dealing with.

      Do you disagree with this? Do you honestly think we have enough clarity already to form a meaningful debate of substance? If you do, our disagreement goes much further than democracy itself. My complaint is about most political and social debates happen in our society. I’m wondering how we get past the assertions and speculations.

      If we were going to scientifically study democracy, how would we operationalize the term so that a falsifiable hypothesis could be formulated and tested? Is there a general set of conditions that are required for all varieties of democracy? If so, what are they? Also, what are the conditions that demonstrate a system isn’t democratic?

      To be specific, what makes the US democratic or not?

      • Do we have enough clarity? No.

        But if you want a politics that is positive and not merely a critique, clarity is exactly what we must demand of ourselves.

    • “It’s hard not to be incoherent under these circumstances. ”

      Completely and totally true. But it is also the reason why you must strive to be coherent.

      • Well, I do strive. But I’m sure I also fail, like so many others.

        The incoherency isn’t limited to individual persons or even individual systems, democracy or otherwise. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of the incoherency, beyond the basic issues of human nature with its cognitive biases and such. It’s not as if this incoherency is a new invention of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers and political actors.

        It seems to me that democracy is only incoherent to the degree that it has been built on a preceding foundation and legacy of incoherency. Its failing (by way of the failing of its advocates) is, like every other system, the inability to transcend its historical context and the dominant paradigm of the era. But it isn’t a unique feature of democracy.

        If any system and its advocates ever escaped this incoherency, they might very well be able to change the world. The fact that this hasn’t happened makes me think that the problem we are dealing with is much larger.

  6. I truly wonder how we discuss such things, not just democracy but any serious social and political issue, especially when it touches upon national propaganda and partisan rhetoric. It seems we need a way of discerning actual practices, at the deeper level.

    We need, for instance, to know how to distinguish between democratic voting and un-/anti-democratic voting. When the US was founded, only a few percentage of the population had rights to vote or run for political office. Is that democracy? Some have called the US system that we have now as a banana republic. How does one tell when one is in a banana republic, rather than a functioning democracy?

    There are Republican politicians at the local level that use rhetoric of libertarianism and free markets. But when you look at their actual policies, there is no principled consistency. Should rhetoric always trump substance when discussing ideological systems?

    I’m sure many politicians in China use communist rhetoric. In reality, what is the Chinese government? Is it still communist or is it capitalist? Does a government like China even care about any particular system at all or just whatever maintains social control?

    I just don’t find debates based on propaganda and rhetoric to be all that interesting. I want to know what a system actually is in how it functions. When looking at the results of US politics, researchers have found that the voting public has little influence over the federal government and certainly a lot less influence than monied interests. Most government officials aren’t elected and so it isn’t even much of a representative democracy.

    If corporatism is the defining feature of US politics, as it seems to me (and many others), why do we call it democracy? I realize that politicians and pundits have their reason for spouting propaganda and rhetoric. But what reason do we have to go along with their spin? Shouldn’t we name something according to how it actually functions? There is great power in naming something for what it is.

    I get the sense that you see less distinction between democratic rhetoric and democratic functioning. For you, democracy is inconsistent by nature, if I understand you correctly. But how do we know what democracy is? I read enough to know there is a lot of disagreement about such things. Whose definition or rhetoric should we privilege over all others? And why should we privilege one particular view?

    If we are to accept all democratic rhetoric as signifying actual democracy, then what is the common factor of representative democracy, direct democracy, social democracy, democratic socialism, anarchist democracy, corporatist ‘democracy’, banana republic ‘democracy’, etc? Is there anything that is common to all of those, besides similar rhetoric?

    • “If corporatism is the defining feature of US politics, as it seems to me (and many others), why do we call it democracy? ”

      Capitalist is a defining feature of all capitalist country politics. Corporatism is the stage of capitalism we are in. It is almost redundant to the use the term. (Also fascists meant something entirely different by the term and most liberal usage quoting that with fascists don’t realize they are refering to a corporate state as limited liability corporations like existed in the US then and everywhere now, we virtually non-existent in Europe outside of the UK, and still are in Germany. But Germany shares most of the marks of “corporatism” as we do)

      • I never claimed Germany lacked aspects of corporatism. Maybe corporatism is just a stage of capitalism, but historically speaking it seems also to be a stage of communism. Since both capitalist states and communist states have historically led to corporatism, what are we dealing with? We can’t see outside of the historical context we are in. We could speculate about many things, and yet the only evidence we have is what has happened, which doesn’t prove what could have happened and what had to happen.

  7. Ben, if there where no legally operating corporations and profit was collectivized i the state, how can that be corporatist? China isn’t a good example since it has abandoned most traits of socialism but what you are describing never happened in the Soviet Union. It may have been collectivized capitalism or state capitalism, but it could not have been corporatism and the word be meaningful.

    • You could say China abandoned most traits of socialism, but that doesn’t really explain anything. The US has abandoned many traits of democracy, such as with the 2000 Supreme Court intervention. In either case, it doesn’t explain why it happened or what it means. This process of abandoning could be seen as part of a larger process that was inherent to each system.

      As for the Soviet Union, Russia has moved toward strong capitalism, but it is built out of the same culture which formed strong communism. There is a connection between the two, just as there is a connection between democracy and its failure, between democracy in practice and its rhetorical pretense. The connection, however, is not entirely clear. I think this is what makes culture so attractive as an explanation, because it attempts to get at what remains the same as all else changes.

      To my mind, China is a great example. The fact that the transition from communism to capitalism could be so smooth says something extremely important about both systems. What it says probably wouldn’t make happy the advocates for either.

      Getting past rhetoric (democratic, communist, or whatever) is the tricky part. But how do we get past the rhetoric? If not culture, what is the more fundamental issue?

      • You need to look at what conditions of each were possible and why one couldn’t exist I light of the other. Culture is a descriptor, even more suspectible to the becoming circular when used as an explanation.

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