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.