Thursday 14 April 2022

Trusting Ourselves To Do The Right Thing.

Democracy 1.0  Athenian democracy was mostly a reaction to bad government, not an experiment in good government. The freemen of the army and navy who defended the independence of the city-state, reacting against the misrule of tyrants (strong men) and oligarchs (rich men) came up with the last ditch idea of entrusting the government of the city to themselves.

IN THE END, the question comes down to this: can human-beings be trusted to do the right thing? If you think they can, then you are a democrat and, probably, a socialist. If people can be trusted, what possible objection could you have to not trusting them? All of them. All of the time. With everything.

The problem with trusting all of the people, all of the time: that is to say, with democratic socialism; is that most of us don’t trust them. Not all of the people. Not all of the time. Most of us work on the principle that there are some people who cannot, and should not, be trusted.

Some people are simply too stupid to be trusted. Others are too venal – too greedy. Still more are dishonest and manipulative. And, finally, a certain irreducible percentage of any given population are just too damned evil to be trusted – with anything.

But, once you admit that only some of the people can, or should, be trusted, then your journey away from democracy and socialism has already begun. The moment our common humanity ceases to be a sufficient qualification for determining society’s course, then it becomes necessary to establish some other criterion for participating in the decision-making process.

Immediately, this presents us with a new problem. Who gets to set the criteria for participation? Should it be the wisest? The richest? The strongest? The most cunning? It’s a question that has perplexed the thinkers of every age, from Plato to Peter Thiel.

History’s answer is unequivocal: decision-making in practically every society there has ever been settles eventually upon the shoulders of the richest and the strongest. (Although the most cunning usually contrive to also have a say in the running of things!)

What about Ancient Athens? The world’s first democracy? Well, for a start, Ancient Athens was a far cry from a system of government that trusted all of the people, all of the time. If you were a woman, or a slave, your participation in decision-making was expressly forbidden. The same applied to “foreigners”, no matter how long they had lived in the city. Only free Athenian males could vote or hold office.

What’s more, Athenian democracy was mostly a reaction to bad government, not an experiment in good government. The freemen of the army and navy who defended the independence of the city-state, reacting against the misrule of tyrants (strong men) and oligarchs (rich men) came up with the last ditch idea of entrusting the government of the city to themselves.

What the freemen of Athens never overcame, however, were the political effects of the unequal distribution of talent and guile. Some men were good talkers. Others were superb schemers. Democracies throughout history have proved to be extremely vulnerable to such individuals.

The other great paradox of democracy is that it tends to be undermined by its own success. Democratic Athens became extremely wealthy and could not resist the temptation to use its riches to overpower its weaker and poorer neighbours.

Unfortunately, the building of empires renders democracy increasingly fragile. Those made wealthy by imperialism – always a minority – all-too-often use their ill-gotten riches to corrupt the democratic process. The resulting progression toward oligarchy and plutocracy can only then be stopped by the intervention of a demagogue who, if successful, soon assumes the role of tyrant.

Rich men, or strong men. It is not an appealing choice.

But, surely, these ancient precedents do not apply to us? In the Twenty-First Century just about every member-state of the United Nations boasts universal suffrage. Democracy, of a sort, has become the norm. All of the people: regardless of their race, colour, sex or creed; get to decide. Maybe not all the time, but certainly every few years – at the ballot box. So, aren’t we all democrats now?

Democrats, maybe. But certainly not socialists. The most important thing to note about the governing arrangements of the last 200 years is the way in which political power has been separated from economic power. In a nutshell, more and more people have been given a say over less and less.

The truth of this observation becomes obvious the moment the ordinary citizen gives a moment’s thought to how much power they get to wield every day in the place they spend most of their waking hours – the workplace. The contemporary capitalist enterprise (think Amazon) is not in the least bit democratic. Subtract the hours spent travelling to and from the workplace, and the hours spent sleeping, and most of the lives of most human-beings are lived in a world where tyranny is the norm.

Nothing is more fiercely resisted in the capitalist enterprise than workers attempting to democratise the employment relationship. (Once again, think Amazon.) The greatest political struggles of the past 200 years have been sparked by the attempts of working men and women to wrest some measure of control over their economic circumstances from the capitalists whose enterprises have come to dominate more and more of their lives.

Social-democracy cannot be countenanced by capitalism, precisely because it seeks to merge politics and economics into a single argument and a single movement. In order to fight social-democracy effectively, capitalist intellectuals, after many false starts and diversions, arrived at the startling conclusion that no human-beings can ever be trusted to do the right thing. That people are, indeed, too stupid, too venal, too greedy, too dishonest, too manipulative, and, ultimately, too damned evil, to be entrusted with decision-making power over anything.

The truly innovative aspect of this radically anti-democratic and anti-socialist doctrine is that the capitalist intellectuals include themselves among the human-beings who can’t be trusted. They do this because they are convinced that a mechanism exists, vastly superior to the human brain, which can be relied upon to produce optimal outcomes in every conceivable set of circumstances.

Into this mechanism are fed the billions of choices made by human-beings everyday over every aspect of their lives. From the cut and style of a suit, to the creaminess of an ice-cream, to the speed and efficiency of a motor vehicle: the market mechanism is wiser than any individual, more efficient than any government, and confers upon each participant in its processes the freedom that comes from relinquishing all responsibility for the lives of others. According to this doctrine, the dollar bills spent by ordinary citizens are a more effective determinant of the public good than any number of triennial ballot papers.

The only politics which these radical capitalists (whom some call Neoliberals) are prepared to tolerate, is the politics dedicated to protecting and extending the market mechanism. Theirs is a politics devoted to identifying the designs of the social-democrats, and devising the most effective means of defeating them. It is a politics dedicated to instilling in the ordinary person a level of faith in the market mechanism that is practically religious. A politics which paints every attempt to force the market to generate specified outcomes as the work of totalitarian socialists: arrogant politicians and bureaucrats, whose necessarily limited information cannot produce anything other than economic catastrophe and the extinction of personal liberty.

Their so far winning wager has been that those who decline to trust their fellow human-beings to do the right thing will, in very short order, cease to trust themselves.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 April 2022.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

One of the problems is of course, that in the marketplace of ideas social democracy or even the more moderate ideas of capitalism are losing out to the extreme right.

As Terry Pratchett once said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its trousers on." – Or something :).

Unfortunately extreme right populist propaganda is the sort of thing that garners clicks, while those refuting it tend to be earnest, but dull and less agile. Commonsense has gone out the window, right-wing parties are becoming more extreme, and less concerned with cooperating to govern the country on behalf of all the people. (Well, that's the theory they've never really done it.)

There are still millions of people in the US who believe in spite of the 60 court cases, lack of any evidence, and expert opinion that it would be impossible to cheat on the grand scale required – that Trump won the US election in 2020. These are people who can't be trusted even to think, and yet we – quite rightly – allow them to vote. We just have to hope that their numbers are relatively static. Because if they are increasing, we are buggered.

Although there is apparently hope – all we have to do is pay them to watch CNN instead of Fox. :) Probably cheaper in the long run and living in a fascist state.

Patricia said...

What is democracy? That is a big question. If it is giving some/all people a vote then the whole world is democratic. Most so called democratic nations, have, in my view, an elected dictatorship which is controlled by a group of oligarchs whose main concern is to keep the status quo . Or to diminish it in their favour. The media is controlled by them or is influenced by them. The only country I think that can claim to be democratic is Switzerland

Jens Meder said...

But is not a free market under a mixed capitalist, free voting Social Democracy more democratic and humane than a very rigid market as under a state monopoly capitalist "dictatorship of the proletariat" ?

sumsuch said...

Reason after 1984, for the most people, has been co-opted by (for, of) the elite (not in the Left obviously, but to no effect). Hence the reaction: Trumpism, religion, and other sillinesses, that are the nearest to a people's influence since then. Can't see how ignorance can't be entirely harvested for the rich via Fascism, unless... force for the people.

Aint it amusing how the new generation of neoliberal Labour are oblivious -- say a few social democratic things each election and carrion.

mikesh said...

The new religion is economics itself, and its god is money. Keynesianism, neoliberalism, monetarism, etc, are merely different denominations.

Odysseus said...

"Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbours', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment." Funeral oration given by Pericles, 5th century BC Athens.

I still find Pericles' description of democracy an inspiration, particularly in these increasingly dystopian times.

Anonymous said...

I think a certain amount of fatalism attends our present global situation. Fatalism with hope. The worst casualty of our "civilisation" is the disregard for the environment when we have enough knowledge to do better but the market rules. Let's see what happens in the French elections for an indicator of what happens in Europe.
Leadership is the magic ingredient for any outcome, good or bad. Leaders are born, not made, especially preferably not by the WEF and it's Young Global Leaders programme.

John Hurley said...

Before trust there must be a common people with common interests (at least to a degree).
Herman Daly pointed out that under globalism interests are regional.
You can see that with John Key who has teemed up with the Chow brothers.
I've watched a couple of video's. He is pro-immigration because migrants are such great people and he says (out of the side of his mouth) "there is a bit of density" (livability actually John).
I made this video as a comment on Race Relations Day. I included Waimate because it was described (in the 80's)as off the main routes and an "old town". The churches should give archeologists clues to it's culture (societies need common myths to bind them together) and because of Norm Kirk.

sumsuch said...

Democracy MATTERED in '45. From WW ll. It gave us 40 years for the people. Then it sailed away, beneath our legs, by the new 2nd generation Labour middle class leadership. Except for our giants, like you and Brian Easton and Sue Bradford and W.P. Reeves and the Alliance, and not Ian Frazer or Tom Scott or ... you can add to it.

Kim Hill pissing off the powerful when RNZ had more independence deserves a MBE or OBE.

Democracy, the rule of the people, needs a new switch-on. Ukraine is that. Let's not enter into the the nothingness of a multi-billionaire tyrant's mental processes. All tyrants are alike.

sumsuch said...

Hearing Robert Reich on the National Programme yesterday, I felt he said everything better than me -- deflated my balloon. But aint truth the best? He says it so calmly. And his 4 minute posts on utube, as an educational tool, are the biz. The only education ultimately is for democracies to deliver for the people. As per everyday here from 1935 til 1984.