IS DEMOCRACY still the guiding political doctrine of New Zealand society? In how many institutions do democratic principles still inform decision-making? Do those who wield power in our society even believe in democracy anymore? What does it mean that, over the course of the last 40 years, democratic principles have largely ceased to inspire the conduct of public affairs? When even our political parties no longer take democracy seriously, can we really call ourselves a democratic nation state?
One approach to these questions is to ask ourselves to what extent we are invited to practice democracy in our daily lives. If we are workers, do we get to participate in the decisions of the organisations that employ us? If we are students, do we have any say in the content and structure of our courses? If we are unemployed, or beneficiaries, do we have any rights at all that we are able to enforce? And, if the answer to all these questions is an emphatic “No!”, then, once again, are we truly entitled to characterise the institutions in which we spend most of our waking hours, and/or upon which we rely for our daily bread – democratic?
These are very modern questions. True, participatory, democracy has not been a feature of human existence since the species ceased to operate in small groups of hunter-gatherers and allowed itself to be caught up in the hierarchies of “civilisation” – the city-based cultures made possible by the surpluses of the agricultural revolution.
|Hunter-Gatherers - the first (and only true) democrats.
For most of the past 10,000 years the very idea of democracy – of everybody having a say in the running of things – would have been laughable. That was not the way the world worked. Slaves, peasant-farmers and women: the people who kept society going, had no say whatsoever. And even in those rare city-states where “freemen” managed to carve out a political role, democracy proved to be a fragile flower. For most of human history, tyrannies, monarchies and empires have been the norm.
The idea that all human-beings might have a role to play in the governing of a civilised society is only about 300 years old.
Ironically, democracy as a “modern” idea owes much to the encounters of European settlers with the indigenous hunter-gatherer and/or proto-agricultural peoples living in the lands they had “discovered”. The freedom enjoyed by the ordinary members of these societies contrasted sharply with the downtrodden condition of the ordinary people of Europe.
As the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) famously declared: “Man is born free, and everywhere [by which he meant Europe] he is in chains.” The Great Question was thus posed: Can human-beings be both “civilised” and “free”? Throughout the Nineteenth Century, the answer was a confident and optimistic “Yes.” The bloody Twentieth Century, however, vacillated crazily between “Yes” and “No”. So far, the Twenty-First Century’s response seems to be: “What do you mean by ‘civilised’?” and “What do you mean by ‘free’?”
We should not be deceived by this “post-modern” response to The Great Question. It is nothing more than ruling-class temporising. The infamous “One Percent” have already decided that freedom and civilisation are even less compatible today than in the past. They just don’t want to admit it to the Ninety-Nine Percent.
If you would see how free we are, go out into the streets and count the number of human-beings peering into tiny screens, ear-buds inserted, listening to their Master’s voice.
And what is their Master is saying? His message is a simple one: Look inwards for the truth. Trust only your own experience. Who you are cannot be defined by other people. Refuse to be distracted from the self you have made. There is nobody like you. Your morals and values are your own. You don’t owe anything to anyone. Solidarity is death. Hell is other people. (Hat-tip to Jean-Paul Sartre for that last one.)
Democracy contradicts every one of these propositions: it commands us to look outward; it demands our trust; it tells us what is expected of our humanity; it elevates the collective above the self; it celebrates the things we have in common; it defines our morals and values; it calculates what we owe one another; it discovers life in solidarity; and it finds heaven in, and with, other people.
Set forth in this fashion, the problems associated with democracy immediately become apparent. Who wants to be a democrat if it means giving up the self-absorbed existence which the material abundance of Twenty-First Century capitalism makes possible? And Leftists, don’t put too much faith in George Orwell’s plaintiff cry of: “If there is hope … it lies in the Proles”. They want the good life, too!
In a curious way, our self-centred, hyper-technologised, post-modern existence closes the circle on democracy. Originally, in our species’ hunter-gatherer mode, all discussion and debate was focused on the practicalities and purposes of survival. The business of being human was the business of staying alive for another day. Ten-thousand years later, it still is. The only difference, now, is that we believe we can do it on our own.
Democracy will flourish again only after we discover that we can’t.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 July 2022.