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Sunday, January 23, 2005


Removing the shackles on democracy

David Aaronovitch, writing in the Observer today, quotes admiringly from an interview with Paul Wolfowitz, in which the Deputy Secretary of Defense speaks of ‘removing the shackles on democracy’. This, to me, betrays the fact that the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) holds a conception of democracy of startling poverty.

Democracy cannot be simply unshackled. It is not a state of government that is held down by tyrants and will spring, as a force of nature, from the ashes of a dictatorship. Democracy is not simply synonymous with a vote in a society relatively unbound by laws. These are negative visions of democracy, that chime with the negative vision of freedom held to by the right. These visions of democracy are incompatible with the idea that democracy is the highest form of government. If this is to be the case, then, as with anything else of beauty that is the result of human production, there must be constant labour to preserve this state of affairs.

Democracy is the participation of people in their government. An electoral system is the first step, but other requirements include such factors are the relatively equitable distribution of economic and cultural power across the nation and within society. When this is not the case, the agenda upon which the electorate cast their votes is at the mercy of those without the power. In this case, the vote does not produce democracy, but only a brake on oligarchy.

The maintenance of this balance of power within society is not produced by unshackling, but by conscious, directed efforts to build and defend the social machinery that allows this state of affairs to exists. Unshackling simply hands government to those with crude powers, and whether these are derived from violent, wealth or aristocratic mechanism, is merely a diversion from the point, that being, these governments are less democratic than might be the case.

Democracy is not simply human freedom, extended to its negative extremes. Democracy imposes a duty on all citizens, as each person who does not participate in their government, who does not take an active, informed part in the debates that shape electoral agendas, reduces the democratic legitimacy of the government produced. This is not just a cost to them, but one borne by the rest of society as democracy is allowed to erode. Of course, democracy can be damaged by more than simple negligence on the part of the citizens, as both the machinery of persuasion and debate and the powers of wealth are gathered together into fewer and fewer hands, each alike in interests and outlook. Secrets and lies, much the same thing, alongside misleading and disingenuous argument, damage democracy by damaging the debate. Simply removing the shackles on people does not produce democracy, despite the boost such an action gives to a hypothetical index of negative freedom.

Wolfowitz, and PNAC, know this. But their agenda has never been about spreading democracy, except in a conception stripped of all positive meaning. Rather, it is about the spreading of economic liberalism, a model of societal organisation positively damaging to government by the people, as it restricts any attempt to distribute power in the service of democracy as being against freedom. When Bush, in his inauguration speech, warned ‘governments of control’ that he aimed to force change upon them, this was not aimed at dictatorships, who had been comprehensively swept from the face of the planet by this point of the speech. No, rather, this was aimed at governments who seek to manage economies and regulate media, despite the necessity of these restrictions on absolute freedom in the task of producing democracy that is worthy of the label.

Democracy, for PNAC, is a handy cover, a legitimising label for economically liberal governments. Supporting men like Pinochet no longer cuts it, no matter how successful such brutal men have been in making the nations they rule ‘good places to do business’. Such men are easy to argue against, and their legitimacy can be torn away by arguments that are brief, both communicable and understandable by those without significant power or education. Torture and murder are wrong, and these are the actions of government under Pinochet. Rather, in promoting the idea that democracy involves the removing of shackles without describing the painstaking erection of positive structures of democracy, PNAC propagate a vision of democracy stripped of power and emptied of participation. With this, PNAC can give a legitimacy to government by, in effect, capital and those who control it. This legitimacy that is difficult to challenge in the soundbite political and media culture of slick advertisements, rather than manifestos, analyses and treatises, that plays no small part in corrupting the state of democracy the world around. Borrowing the phrase of PNAC member Francis Fukuyama, I believe that the neo-liberal project seeks the ‘end of history’, the unchallengeable rule of capital keeping all the levers of power at its disposal.

it is you that offers a surprisingly negative view of Democracy. it seems to be your contention that voting is not enough, it is necessary to strip the right to property from the people. you wish to re-distribute wealth, both monetary and land, in some way that makes you happy. you view the purpose of a "democratic" government as robbing from the rich to give to the poor. so long as they get to vote first. this is not democracy. it is institutionalized piracy, and those who hold the land and the money would be well advised to shoot anyone who tries to rob them. you confuse equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. what exactly is "distribution of cultural power across the nation?" does this mean that careful accounting has to be made of the particular racial makeup of those who voice their opinion or is "one Person, one Vote" good enough for you? is this a backhanded way of praising the US presidential system of the Electoral College, and the legislative system of a bicameral legislature, or did you have something else in mind?

glad to see you are back

could you check my last comment on "Credit where it’s due – but let us learn the right lesson" and get back to me? at least an answer to the particular question about "transferable voting."

I suppose you would find any comments I made on the left wing politics in the UK as entertaining as I am finding your comments on US politics. I really have a very low opinion of Mr Wolfowitz for a number of reasons but I think you should give him some credit for being sincerely wrong. Anyway not to put words into his mouth.

An article of faith of those not in the government in that rather nebulas group called neocons is that the twentieth century had three groups who self identified themselves as socialist, Soviet Socialist, Social Democratic, and National Socialist: and they can only had differences of degree not kind. The conflict between these groups being analogous to the fights which sometimes occur in religious groups over who are the true believers and who are the heretics. On a message board conversation I had someone pointed out that since he was not a socialist he should not comment on which of the three is the true socialism and which are the heretics. (Yes, I can provide good reasons to separate the National Socialists form the Social Democrats and the Soviet Socialists) Among the reasons they would provide to support these conclusions is all three have a profound dislike for “economically liberal governments,” favor “governments of control,” “conscious, directed efforts to build and defend the social machinery” no matter how good the intentions only produces tyranny. They will claim with long and sophisticated analysis that while the socialist story is beautiful in theory, and many of them were convinced in their youth, that without in any way defending capitalism, socialism causes economic failure, totalitarian states, and mass murder to a much more horfic degree than capatilism. They conclude that while 50 or 75 years ago one could have believed in Socialism as an untested theory, now any one who would follow it hasn’t looked at the evidence, is hopelessly myopic, or they think being part of a totalitarian oligarchy is fun idea.

I know this is to much to comment on in a short response in a comments section, but I would really like to hear a coherent response from some one on the left, and agree or disagree you do provide coherent explanations.
i find Hank's explanation to be a fairly good distillation of the basic arguement against socialism. since socialism builds the conditions necessary for Facism and Communism by empowering the state, it too should be opposed. that part is wholly aside from even the mildest socialist's desire to use government power to steal from the people.
"[Y]ou view the purpose of a "democratic" government as robbing from the rich to give to the poor."

Not at all. I view democracy as a means of giving each person power over the structure of society. This necessitates a level of equality, else power, whatever the one-man-one-vote constitution contends, remains, or is gathered evermore, in the hands of those who have been able to gather wealth. If the market is not able to deliver this, then extra-market options must be used. If they are not, then the choice is between free-markets and free-politics. America, in terms of foreign policy, has always chosen the former.

"[T]hose who hold the land and the money would be well advised to shoot anyone who tries to rob them."

Ah, yes. The old Pinochet option. Death squads for free trade and all that. A tried and tested method, whether we are discussing the murderous suppression of the Diggers in the English Civil War, the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, the muders of countless left-wingers in Central America during the 1970s an 1980s, or now, where trade union organisers face death across the Third World, from Colombia to the South-East Asia. Funnily enough, our contemporary killings for capitalism are centred around 'free zones', areas of a country protected by private armies, with security as tight as any totalitarian state, where speech and movement is restricted. But it's all good. These zones are run by capital, by companies making goods for export, and they own the place. So they make the rules.

No tax in these zones either.

And this is where I answer Hank's comment. No matter what evil you see in the words, 'social machinery', there is social machinery in every society. What I ask is how it functions, and what it produces. The 'corporation', for example, is a social machine. But does this social machine build democracy and expand freedoms. No. This machine is set up with the sole intention of gathering greater and greater amounts of the worlds resources to itself, and externalising as many of the costs as it can. Social machines exist, and we should be careful when we build them and how we build them. I would like to see more social machines like the National Health Service, comprehensive education systems, regulations of media ownership, and the like.

"[S]ocialism builds the conditions necessary for Facism and Communism by empowering the state"

Look at what I have written. Free markets don't empower individuals, but hand power to small groups of powerful people accountable only to the unconscious market. The market is not democracy*, democracy is the choice of the people through participatory debate. I advocate a system that attempt to keep power out of the hands of any one set of people, businessmen or professional politicians. In a democracy we all have to act as politicians, join the debate and share the power. And power is economic and cultural, as well as being measured in votes.

*Indeed, the only way it can function as a social good is to expect some people to behave in an anti-capitalist manner, for example by rewarding companies that do not externalise their costs in terms of pollution or in subsistence-wage labour. If people act, as good capitalists should, entirely on the basis of self-interest, why shoudln't I buy the products of sweated labour? Everyone else is, so I would only disadvantage myself by not doing so. Why should I buy from a 'green' company? All I would do is decrease my efficiency in the market-place. No, for free-markets to operate as a social good, some people must behave as if efficiency, wealth and their performance in the eyes of the market are not everything (and this is before we consider how we fit public servants, such as teachers, nurses and the police into a merket system). Now, if free-marketeers rely on such self-sacrifice, they deliberately endorse a system that aggregates power (for economic power gives you market power, and where democracy has been substituted with market choice, that is where the power lies) in the hands of the selfish at the expense of those with a less myopic view of social life, is well, good practice, when selfishness is the only virtue (cf. Ayn Rand). But if you hold that selfishness is the only virtue, then I hope you mock soldiers, teachers, nurses, policemen, and all other waged public servants, for their anti-capitalist sin of self-sacrifice. Either that, or laugh as the most selfish in society have duped them into this idea of sacrifice, in order to hold their hierarchical society together.

Thank you for clear response.

I know the people I was summarizing were overstating, and in some cases had a more than a little hyperbole for dramatic effect. I have found that when group A and B are in disagreement what A assumes is B’s means and motives and B assumes is A’s means and motives are usually wrong. Of course actually listening to what the other group actually is saying is so boring.

You do give a better explanation of the lefts position that the Neo-cons do. Without too much of a change of emphasis you would sound embarrassingly neo-con. The movement originally came from people of the left, and they would support your goals and much of the reasons for them, define democracy similar to you (with reservations) and say you have your means backwards.

But Andrew an unknowing neo-con, it will be a cold day it hell I think.

P.S. I followed the link to your Thesis topic, it sounds interesting, good luck and have fun.
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