Category Archives: Psychology

Occupy the state

From X-Ray Magazine # 36...

In the two months since Occupy Wall Street began its experiment in direct, democratic dissent, “democracy” of the liberal kind has revealed its bankruptcy to the whole world.

In the last sixty days the neo-liberal, let’s call it the “post-democratic” state, its various organs cooperating across jurisdictions and across national borders, launched a coordinated attack upon our rights to freely assemble, associate and speak.

In Oakland as at UC Davis, the radical violence of the cops was inflicted upon hundreds of the innocent and unarmed, and in Toronto and New York the radical violence of the law proved that under post-democracy, flimsy legal reasoning can be a powerful tool of oppression only so long as we continue to respect liberal, post-democratic legalisms.

We have seen two elected national governments, Greek and Italian, close up shop, transferring business to a new proprietor—the so-called “Troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank.

The abortive decision, quickly reversed, to hold a Greek referendum on the savage austerity measures being imposed upon Greek workers and Greek democracy was a disaster—for the markets.

A military coup was being prepared to prevent it if necessary. But it was not. Greek liberals and social democrats combined to carry out a coup against themselves. No sooner had Papandreou fired the commanding officers of the Greek Army, Navy and Air Force, he himself ran away.

The new Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, named an entire Cabinet with not a single elected representative in it. Bankers, business owners and technocrats were simply parachuted into the government of a “democracy.”

No elections were held to make these two transfers of state power legitimate. In a very real sense, the Italian and Greek states are now under the direct control of central bankers, the people be damned.

But these “technocratic governments” are not a novelty. They merely formalize and bring out into the light of day the longstanding relationships of power. Now we can really see who calls the shots.

In the United States the powers of the US Congress have been devolved to a “Super-Congress” of twelve people with deep connections to the US corporate establishment.

We are witnessing something unprecedented.

Both the 1% and the 99% are realizing that liberal “democracy” holds nothing more for them. They are reaching the same conclusion, albeit based upon two entirely opposite political perspectives, and conflicting sets of interests.

For the 1%, even the largely pantomime rituals of our “democratic” elections, with all their stage-management and scripting are too risky to their continued accumulation of super-profits to be allowed to continue.

They have come to rely on a guaranteed and ever-increasing flow of wealth into their own pockets, from us, to them. Since neoliberal, structural adjustment “reforms” were imposed upon the world in the 1970s, at the insistence of the corporations, the wages and benefits accruing to the 99% have stopped growing, and the 1% have monopolized the financial wealth and income generated by a growing economy.

The crisis for both the 1% and the rest of us arises in part, from the fact that the economy can no longer continue to grow in absolute size on a finite planet featuring a shrinking common stock of natural capital.

Growth cannot continue on a planet where there is no place left unexploited and nowhere that is not already full of our waste, or full of us. The ongoing orgy of financial speculation—of trillions of dollars of bets on essentially phony “assets” – was the last-ditch attempt of the 1% to both delay the onset of the final crisis, and to transform “crisis into opportunity.”

To accommodate an ever more predatory capitalism, liberal “democracy” first had to be structurally adjusted, along with the economy. Then it had to be abandoned altogether. Elections had to be rigged, political parties hijacked. False flag terror attacks had to be staged, the predetermined victims blamed.

Nations had to be invaded on false pretexts, the bodies buried. Inalienable civil rights had to be made alienable. Millions had to die. A vomitous river of lies had to be told, and sold. All to keep the capitalist balls in the air, all to keep the system limping along.

The capitalism system should have collapsed in 2008. Its life was extended by means of a central bank trick: the creation of an immense amount of new fictitious “wealth” in the form of bank created credit.

But this only made the inevitable reckoning that much more catastrophic. Instead of being used to facilitate production, which would have made the credit economically useful, this credit was used to backstop the insolvent speculators and their derivative bets.

As of 2011 and 2012 the mask is falling away.

If the 1% are abandoning liberal democracy because it no longer provides iron-clad guarantees of free profits from their debt slaves, the 99% are looking for new, more participatory democracy because the old, “liberal” kind can no longer protect them from the rapacious greed of the 1%.

It is a very difficult conclusion for many people in liberal “democracies.” It is often a conclusion reached only with extreme reluctance. Rarely is it embraced. But it is no less true for that.

We, especially those of us in the English-speaking world, have been educated our whole lives to equate the existing constitutional set-up with democracy.

We have been taught – wrongly – that a system of preference elections, political parties (with a combined membership of less than 2% of the population) and professional politicians is tantamount to democracy.

We are taught – wrongly – that our constitution, our courts of law guarantee our freedoms. In fact, only our disobedience of the law, of what Erich Fromm called “irrational authority”, guarantees our freedom.

As the former US President once put it, a constitution is nothing but “a goddamned piece of paper” – at least when those entrusted with enforcing it no longer hold its fundamental principles dear.

We are living in that time, when our own governments have created the apparatus of a police state to maintain their political control. Liberal “democracy” is a sham.

It’s not just me.

That’s what Ronald Regan’s former Assistant Treasury Secretary calls it. Paul Craig Roberts writes:

“Every day that passes adds to the fraudulent image of Western Democracy…  it turns out that ‘we have freedom and democracy’ is not supposed to be taken literally. It is merely a propagandistic slogan behind which people are ruled through back-room deals decided by powerful private interests.” He’s right.

The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont declares: “democracy itself is failing.” He’s right.

Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks declares liberal democracy kaput when lobbyists can openly buy American laws they want drafted. He’s right too.

Linda McQuaig notes: “democracy has become a hollow shell.” She’s right.

Glen Greenwald, commenting on the brutal police attack on peaceful passively resisting student protestors at UC Davis, as well as the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning, describes American “democracy” as “a police state in pure form.” He’s right, and his insight is worthy of further scrutiny:

“The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed—or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet—many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant—to refrain from exercising their rights—out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.”

It reminds me of Fromm’s insight that freedom to think and speak only has meaning if one actually has original, self-generated thoughts of one’s own to speak. Freedom to merely repeat the received nostrums of authority, what Fromm calls “heteronomous obedience” is the freedom of a slave to love his chains. Real freedom means the capacity to disobey irrational, external authority.

But the debt slaves are beginning not to fear. Some of us are taking our freedom. The violent, illogical response of the authorities reveals their illegitimacy.

With the occupation camps mostly dismantled, the question arises as to what next. This is where it gets interesting, and where the limitations of the reformists and of liberal democracy to contain the hopes and dreams of Occupy become clear.

The Toronto Star recently ran an opinion piece by the seasoned journalist Olivia Ward with the title, “Will Occupy movement find a place in history?” She offers several potential routes toward such a place.

We can “educate, build a social network, co-opt authority (fat chance of that!), speak to power, agitate for proportional representation (too little too late) and spread the message.” But to what end?

Though her article begins with a story about the beginning of the revolution in Serbia, nowhere does she admit to the possibility that a revolution is what we require here in liberal “democracies.” Nor could she be reasonably expected to openly voice such sentiments in The Star.

But a complete revolution, a complete takeover and dismantling of the Canadian state, and of every other liberal “democracy”, is exactly what we require. We need to have a real democratic revolution.

The democratic revolution is not going to be confined to nation states. It’s going to be both global, and local. The revolution is global because it speaks to the universal need of humanity for freedom, autonomy and independence. It will be local as those universal values find their expression in each community, in its own way.

The democratic revolution has the potential to become the fulfillment of the promise of the Western Enlightenment; the creation of a rational, self-directed society of independent producer-citizens in free association, and a return, ad fontes, towards the ancient sources of participatory democracy. There are encouraging signs that this is happening.

In Greece and Italy and Egypt, in New York, Toronto, and in all of the Occupy protest camps, the direct democracy of the Assembly was put into practice to make decisions. Rule of a simple majority – or of minority parties claiming to represent a majority – was rejected as anti-democratic.

In essence, these assemblies are an open rejection of the fundamental premise of representative, liberal “democracy.”

It’s a dual premise: that assembly democracy is not practical, and that it is not desirable because the people are not fit to rule the state. The Enlightenment critique of classical democracy is where the ruling class mythology of “the mob” arises. The Occupy experience, and the experience of months of revolution in Egypt, have put paid to that lie.

The liberal state was designed in an age just emerging from domination by the landed gentry. Most people were still illiterate when our representative institutions were created. But today we enjoy universal literacy and widespread higher education.

As Jefferson put it, “we might as well require a man to wear the suit of clothes which fitted him as a boy, than society to remain under the regimen of its barbarous ancestors.”  We have grown up. Our system of government remains a spoiled child.

In Iceland, that other great democratic device, of selection of political offices not by election, but by lottery has produced a new constitution. In 2009, one thousand Icelanders were randomly selected from the voter’s list and met in an assembly called the Thjodfundur, the National Assembly.

The Assembly drafted an outline of the guiding principles of a new constitution. The following year a constitutional committee was elected from candidates nominated by the citizens to draft the new constitution. Citizen participation was encouraged through the Internet, where the constitution was essentially crowd sourced.

The participatory nature of Iceland’s renewed democracy is a step in the right direction. The citizen body is taking on the role of legislator.

While not a revolution by itself, the Icelandic constitution is certainly a giant step away from the 18th century liberalism of the US Founders and of the conservatism of Edmund Burke, the two schools of thought to whom Anglo-Saxon “democratic” institutions owe their current forms.

Those forms have reached the end of their useful existence, for both rulers and ruled. A democratic revolution is coming. Participate! (X)

democratic fallacies part 1

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

The assumption that “we live in a democracy” is the ground upon which western socialists, liberals and reactionaries stand. It’s taken to be axiomatic, that is it’s a premise automatically accepted without recourse to proof. But what would happen if we tried to prove it?

To some the question will seem absurd; to others, offensive. For some, the democratic nature of the liberal state must not be questioned. Its rituals have acquired the status of holy offices, its constitutions, that of holy writ, its idea of “democracy” revealed truth.

I am questioning this received idea in all of my work, including my film work.

What if one could prove, through the examination of the historical development of our idea of democracy that in point of fact, we do not live in a democracy as that term has been understood for 95% of its existence, and that we never have, and that contentions to the contrary – that we do – are most often supported by the most basic logical fallacies, and little supporting evidence?

What if one could show that the accepted notion of democracy has been completely altered over the course of the last 120 years, and that what we now take for “democracy” was in fact taken for its opposite until very recently? What if ancient notions of democracy could be shown to have new relevance today, when our supposedly “democratic” societies are monopolized by a tiny caste of wealthy men who are attacking our rights? Does this attack not make such a reexamination urgent?

If this point could be proven, and our argument here is that it can be, then a radical reexamination of the idea of democracy would be as much in order as it would be timely. The implications would be revolutionary; that we are called upon to establish a true democracy where we have had heretofore only an imaginary one.

In this essay, Part 1, we will take up the history of our notion of democracy in its development, and examine three societies which today claim to be democracies; Canada, the United States and Great Britain to determine if any of these societies can be proven to be a democracy. In Part II we will examine in detail how the notion of democracy evolved from 1789 to the present day, and why. In Part III we will consider possible alternatives.

DEMOCRACY – WHAT IS IT?

Let us examine the accepted definition of the Cambridge English Dictionary, which defines democracy as

“the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves, a country in which power is held by elected representatives”

The first part of the definition is surprising. Democracy is here defined not as a material relation between people, but merely a “belief” in such a relation, or a government founded upon such a belief. It’s weak.

Webster’s Dictionary definition is stronger, describing democracy rather as an existing material relation between people:

government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

b) a political unit that has a democratic government

c) the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority

d) the absence of hereditary or arbitrary distinctions or privileges

The term democracy has evolved in meaning over time. It did not always mean “a government with periodic free elections” or that the common people were merely “the source” of political authority, with power wielded by representatives. In fact, if we examine how this word has been used in the last 2500 years, we shall find that its meaning has been radically altered only in the last hundred years or so. In the 2400 years previous, it meant something altogether different than what it has come to mean today.

Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, attacked the technical ability of ordinary people to manage a democracy directly. For Lippmann there were insiders, the technical managers, and outsiders, everybody else. “Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently better, but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome.” (1) Lippmann’s thought is the culmination of a reactionary attack on classical notions of democracy which oddly enough mirrors the classical anti-democratic arguments of Socrates and Plato: that government is work for trained specialists.

But as F.I. Finley points out, Lippmann’s, and Plato’s attack assumes an equivalency between technical and political problems. Behind the assumption of technical competence by specialists there is a great deal of room to disguise anti-democratic ends, cloaked by means we accept because we believe that the technical specialists are acting in our best interests. This is a process by which decisions taken by the few are legitimized, but is it democracy?

This so-called “elite theory” of democracy as elaborated by Schumpeter and his school, by Seymour Martin Lipset and others is the “democracy” that we know today. The role of the citizen is now merely to choose between a small group of leader – specialists placed before the public by political parties. In this respect, the people are removed from their previous role as the political authority to a secondary role as its source.  It’s a curious notion, that the source of authority could be more powerful than the authority itself. But it’s one we’ve come to accept without question. Political authority, and hence coercive power, is thus delegated to specialists. We take the means by which this power is delegated, preference elections, to be the acid test of democracy.

Thus the idea and practice of democracy has been transformed into something completely unrecognizable to previous generations. In his Funeral Oration, the Athenian statesman Pericles famously remarked that anyone who did not participate in politics, the ideotes (from this word we derive our own term ‘idiot’) was “useless.” Our system encourages such political passivity. Ours is an idiocy generating machine.

**

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, the first in the English language, defined democracy as “sovereign power lodged in the collective body of the people.” In Johnson’s definition, the common people were the authority.

In the middle of the 18th century, when Johnson wrote there were no states claiming to be democracies. Democracy was not even considered a desirable form of government. Johnson had as his basis only his understanding of classical Athenian democracy, based on ancient Greek sources.

Democracy is derived from two ancient Greek words, demos, meaning the people, and kratos, meaning power, or might. So democracy might translate as “people power.” Its etymological meaning is seldom referred to, in fact has been erased.

We might turn to Aristotle for help in broadening our idea of people power, or democracy. Since Aristotle lived in a culture which had known democracy for 180 years, whereas western states have barely known democracy for 90 years, and arguably far fewer if recent gains for women and racial minorities are taken into full account, perhaps his ideas are worthy of review. They are especially so in light of the fact that the founders of western liberalism, the framers of the US Constitution and the 19th and early 20th century formulators of elite democracy, addressed themselves directly to Aristotle’s thought on this subject.

Aristotle in the Politics makes several attempts to define what democracy is. His was the first systematic examination of political science. He based his analysis on an empirical study of the constitutions and ways of life in Greek city states, and collected their constitutional documents.

He notes that “democracy exists wherever the free-born are sovereign, and that oligarchy exists wherever the rich are sovereign,” (1290a30) and “There is democracy wherever the free-born and poor control the government, being at the same time a majority, and similarly there is oligarchy when the rich and better-born control the government, being at the same time a minority.” (1290b7)

The Greeks knew few elections, which are merely one means (of several) to the end, (democracy) not the end in itself. The aspect common to both ancient and modern notions of democracy seems to be a certain type of “class rule” that is rule by “the common people.” How that rule is exercised may vary.

The critical question is this: do the means we use today – preference elections –produce the end –“people power” or rule by the majority, by “the common people” or by the poor?

Moderns have chosen preference voting in contested elections. Or rather we’ve agreed to be included in this means to the  democratic end, which was originally a means to a far different end. The Athenians had a different means to the end, ruling themselves in person in the Eklessia, the famous Assembly, and also in the choice of representatives by lottery, as we still choose our jurors today.

Aristotle considered preference voting a feature of oligarchical forms of government, not of a democracy. He wrote, “in the appointment of magistrates, the use of the lot is regarded as democratic, and the use of the vote as oligarchical. Again, it is considered democratic that a property qualification should not be required, and oligarchical that it should be.” (1294a30)

The words which follow more accurately describe the kind of “democracy” we know today. “The method appropriate to an aristocracy or a ‘constitutional government’ is to take one element from one form of constitution and another from the other – that is to say, to take from oligarchy the practice of choosing office-holders by voting, and from democracy the practice of requiring no property qualification.” (1294a30)

Modern liberal democratic states also feature “free elections” and no formal property qualifications, although in many countries the act of running for office requires monetary resources only available to the very wealthy. Is this not an informal, but very significant property qualification in our system?

Aristotle was not a great advocate of democracy, where the poor control the government. He writes, “it seems impossible that there should be good government in a city which is ruled by the poorer sort,” (1294a1) and on the other hand that “of all the perversions from a true constitution… democracy is the most moderate, and so the least bad.” (1289a38)

The ancient elites, and most of their philosophers both feared and hated democracy. Plato and Socrates were sworn anti-democrats who thought the common people did not possess the wisdom to govern themselves or others. In contrast, the “Sophists” (the aristocrat’s term of abuse which has come down to us uncritically) such as Protagoras asserted that every man possesses politike techne, the ability to form political judgments about his best interests. If we believe in democracy today, we would have to agree with Protagoras, and not with Plato that every human being has the innate capacity for political judgment.  This is a curious thing, because our “democratic” system is based on Lippmann’s Neo-Platonic absolute denial of the proposition that the ordinary person is fit to govern herself. Whereas our system encourages mass political passivity, on the philosophical ground that the ordinary person is inexpert, the Athenian system trained citizens for political participation from an early age, and so they developed political skills to a greater or lesser degree. To borrow a common Athenian metaphor, just as an athlete develops not only his body but also his inner physical capacity, his endurance and strength, through the active and consciously directed exercise of those capacities in training, so too may humans develop and strengthen their capacity for political judgment by means of a conscious practice. Use it, or loose it. We have sadly lost it. We have been led into this debilitated condition by an elite misreading of Aristotle.

**

In Aristotle’s system of thought, democracy was a perverted form of constitution, not something desirable, if it could be avoided.

Aristotle classifies three “right forms” of political system, or constitution.

Monarchy is the rule of one man or a king. Aristocracy is the rule of the best people in society, or the aristoi. By “best” Aristotle means the most virtuous and also the most skilled, but he also recognizes that this term will be perverted so that “the best” become equal with the wealthy, as in an oligarchy. (We shall return to this point.) The third type he calls polity, or “constitutional government”, which is a mix or balance between Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy.

In fact, this is the very type of mixed constitution – polity – which all modern liberal “democracies” now possess. We do not live in a democracy in any sense in which that word may be correctly understood.

The United States famously claims for itself a “constitutional” government, featuring a separation of powers between an indirectly elected President (monarchy), a bicameral legislative branch featuring the House of Representatives (democracy) and the Senate (aristocracy). This is how the Founders of the American republic thought of their second Constitution (we often forget there was a first one), and argued explicitly for and against it in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers based on classical political thought. According to Lippmann, it was Jefferson who first conflated the mixed, republican system of the United States with democracy, though as we shall see the two were conflated earlier and by others such as Edmund Burke. The conflation serves elite interests.

The English government viewed, and still continues to view its constitution as a mixed one. Judge Blackstone, in his massive work On the Laws of England which is still cited by jurists today, describes the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons as embodying the ideal mix between the three “right forms” of government, citing Aristotle, Cicero and Tacitus to back him up. (2)

The 18th century elite view of democracy can be clearly seen in the following cartoon. Here the mixed constitution of Great Britain sails the stormy seas betwixt the rock of democracy, represented by the Phrygian Cap (another ancient symbol from the classical world) of the French Revolution, and the whirlpool of tyranny.

Blackstone would have been horrified, as would have been James Madison, Benjamin Disraeli and others to imagine that we have confused this system with “democracy.”

They would have been quite a bit less horrified once they had appreciated that this very confusion has perpetuated the mixed constitutions and the hidden rule of the rich that they defended. Lord Jack Russell, who in 1832 first granted voting rights to English 10 pound householders declared that his reform “would not one jot advance democracy.” (3) Did he know something we have forgotten? We will fully explore this history in future posts.

It seems that the contradiction between modern and ancient notions of democracy revolves around the means by which it might be organized, around the method by which “magistrates” or in our case “representatives” are chosen. We recognize that the Greek role of “magistrate” and the modern “representative” are not co-equal, as the Athenians had no representatives per se, but represented themselves, and moderns elect representatives from whom magistrates (executive offices in the state which in our system are divided between professional bureaucrats and elected officials) are chosen. The ancient meaning and the modern one both include rule by the common people. Thus we must take as the acid test of democracy whether or not the common people hold real, substantive political power in a given society. The means by which that power is obtained is secondary. The means exist to further the end. If the end is absent, the means are no use.

The modern citizen assumes that because a society holds “free and fair elections” that it’s a democracy. The idea has become axiomatic since the early 20th century. An axiom is a proposition that is taken for granted, and which is not required to be proven. This may be a mistake in this case, for it involves a conflation of the means by which the “power is vested in the people” with the end itself, the just exercise of that power to create the good society. The axiomatic reasoning also can lead into attributing the qualities of a part to the whole. Just because a society holds elections doesn’t mean it’s a democracy. Such is obviously the case in Haiti, where “free and fair elections” have been held, but without the Lavallas Party which represents 90% of the population. The fallacy that attributes the quality of the part to that of the whole serves to confuse the issue.

It’s a mistake that Enlightenment thinkers clearly identified. Thomas Paine, in his Rights of Man, which inspired the beginning of the struggle for a reformed English Parliament and the right to vote, was very clear. His book is a defense of the French Revolution and its radical democracy, against Edmund Burke’s attack on that revolution. In it Paine accuses Burke that he “confounds representation and democracy together.” Paine’s other critics at the time also acknowledged that a system of political representation is not concomitant with democracy. In an attack on Paine’s writings presented to the members of his book club, a Royalist gentleman (who wished to remain anonymous to history) wondered at Paine’s admiration for “the new representative system which has become engrafted upon democracy.” (4) Here our Royalist gets it wrong. When we examine the case further, we shall see that in point of fact, it is rather that a representative system has since been engrafted upon a mixed constitution to give it more of a democratic appearance.

If we could distill Lippmann’s and Schumpeter’s idea of democracy, we might describe it as “the rule of the expert, for the common people, for their own good.” This may also be called polyarchy, a term of modern social theorists.

If we could distill Aristotle’s thoughts on democracy and oligarchy then we could derive an alternative axiom which might help us see our own situation more clearly; that democracy is the rule of the poor, and oligarchy of the rich. He said exactly this, so no distillation is really needed. This type of oligarchy has also been referred to as plutocracy.

Using these terms of reference above, we can ask the following questions about three countries which claim to be democracies:

  1. In whose interests do “political experts” rule in practice, as opposed to in theory?
  2. How have experts protected democratic rights?
  3. Are the rich or the poor in control of the state and of the economy?
  4. Do the common people experience rule by experts as beneficial, or would they prefer participatory democratic reforms?

Further, if we take the common terms between the Cambridge and Webster definitions, that of “majority rule” and either a “belief in” or a really existing “freedom and equality between people” and the notion of “free elections” we could ask these additional questions:

  1. Does the ruling group represent a majority of voters and of citizens in each country?
  2. Does the ruling group uphold freedom and equality between people?
  3. Are elections free or rigged?
  4. Can voters radically change the direction of their country by means of the election of a different political party or leader, or do political parties represent merely the appearance of choice?

Unfortunately when we examine the evidence, we can find a great deal to support the notion that in fact so-called “democracies” are really disguised oligarchies where the few rule the many, for the benefit of a few, under the disguise of the mixed constitution.

In the next installments, we shall examine Canada, the USA, and the UK in detail against the questions above. In future posts we shall explore how these three countries developed their mixed constitutional systems under the false label “democracy” and how the people came to accept this state of affairs. Stay tuned.

Notes:

(1)  Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, pg 140

(2)  Blackstone, On the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter 2.

(3) Lord “Finality” Jack Russell. Hansard. British House of Commons, March 22nd, 1831.

(4)  A Protest Against Paine’s “Rights of Man” Addressed to the Members of a Book Society” T. Longman, Paternoster Row, London, 1792/

AGAINST PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION – PART 1

“The ideas of freedom and democracy deteriorate into nothing but irrational faith once they are not based upon the productive experience of each individual but are presented to him by parties or states which force him to believe in these ideas.”

Erich Fromm

The Canadian progressive social critic Murray Dobbin, author of several books and associate editor of rabble.ca recently published an online appeal calling for the institution of a proportional representation system as a cure for what he identifies as a “crisis of democracy.”

I cannot agree with his diagnosis or his prescription. We do not have a crisis of democracy per se, though our polity is certainly sick. Instituting proportional representation will only treat the symptoms of the disease, while leaving the underlying causes untreated and festering.

In this essay I offer a friendly refutation of Dobbin’s recommendations for proportional representation, which I use only as a starting point to suggest a better treatment for the disease of our mortally wounded polity. Because of the length of the piece, I have split it up into two parts. Part I discusses the political pathology of western liberal “democratic” states, and the system of proportional representation often proposed as a cure. Part II discusses a practical democratic alternative which eliminates all elections, all politicians and all political parties, grounded in a critical reading of classical history.

***

Mr. Dobbin is like millions of other Canadians who are yearning for a true democracy where their voices count for something. I stand with him. He identifies four “symptoms” of the disease of mainstream Canadian politics.

I quote the first three items in Mr. Dobbin’s diagnosis at length:

“First, we have a government so contemptuous of democracy that it is utterly unapologetic in trying to impose on the country an agenda opposed by probably 75 per cent of the population — treating its minority status not as a mandate to work with other parties but as an irritating impediment to re-engineering the country along the lines defined by the U.S. Christian right.


Second, we are amongst a tiny handful of countries still saddled with the absurdly anachronistic voting system that allows for government by executive dictatorship by any party that can get 40 per cent of the vote.


Third, Canada is witnessing a continuing catastrophic decrease in voter turn out with just 59 per cent voting in the October 2008 election — a result which put us 16th out of 17 peer nations. This aspect of the crisis is largely the result of the first two: a deliberate plan by the political right to downsize democracy through relentless partisanship and people’s frustration at seeing their votes count for nothing.”

One could not agree more that the three phenomena he cites are symptomatic of a political system in deep crisis. The Harper Conservatives are as loathsome a crew as ever ran this country. Do they despise “democracy”? I doubt they even know what the word means, but certainly they hate the majority of the working people and the few “democratic” aspects of our political system. They certainly hold the procedural constraints of the parliamentary system within which they must operate in contempt, and do not hesitate to mock Parliament by warping and twisting the rules of Parliament to suit themselves and their agenda. Their refusal to cooperate with the Parliamentary Committee on Afghanistan is a case in point. They’ve suspended our Parliament twice. Their actions are likely unconstitutional.

True, the first past the post electoral system produces anti-democratic results.

And yes, many people have stopped participating in politics altogether, and many more have stopped participating very deeply. An absolutist kind of power personified of late in the Harper government has taken up residence in the empty space vacated by the public.

Dobbin’s other “symptom” is the collapse of the Liberal party as a national party, as “a vehicle for nation building.” However, there is no national party capable of forming a majority in Parliament any longer. It’s not just the Liberals. Canadian politics has split along regional, class and entho-nationalist lines, an investigation of which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Mr. Dobbin seems to think that a Liberal coalition government with the NDP is going to usher in an era of progressive social change and reform, including the adoption of proportional representation.

He writes, “We can either take our chances with a coalition with the Liberals or sit on the sidelines and let it continue on its current path: competing with Harper for the centre-right vote and guaranteeing the continued deadlock. If the right-wing of the Liberal party prevails then it will, along with Harper, drag the country ever-further to the right and eliminate any hope of progressive policies down the road. The Liberals are still, inexplicably in my view, blocking a coalition. Ignatieff’s rejection of the coalition in 2009 was the biggest mistake the party could have made.”

Why is this coalition our only option to fight the right? Why would a Liberal NDP coalition be immune to the drift to the right that characterizes the entire mainstream political spectrum in Canada, and notably also the NDP in provincial government?

The Liberal blocking of a coalition with the NDP makes perfect sense. The two parties have mass bases with irreconcilable social interests. The Liberals are a party of capital, while the NDP maintains its base in the workers movement through the trade unions. In politics this combination of interests is oil and water, and always will be.

At the level of policy, the differing interests of the workers and the owners have become impossible to tell from one another. The Liberal Party has recently called for the Harper government to extend Canada’s criminal occupation of Afghanistan in the name of the liberal “humanitarian” interventionism championed by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in his rather tedious books. The NDP policy is for Canada to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011 as promised (which is officially the Conservative position!) and also for peace talks with the resistance. There is no independent voice for peace and solidarity with the Afghan resistance in Parliament, only the endless dance of negotiations, where principles are exchanged for favours. (One only has to imagine Jack Layton – the author’s MP – calling for the victory of the Afghan national resistance over our criminal occupation to understand how far away is the NDP from a party which represents the real, material interests of workers.)

Even if somehow it was possible to stitch together these two bankrupt parties, the resulting chimera would veer suddenly and sharply to the right, where both parties are now drifting, not to the left, where Dobbin seems to wish it would. The NDP’s recent bashing of one its most able members, Libby Davies for speaking out of turn (and correctly) on the criminal Israeli occupation of Palestine, an indecent act against which Dobbin has admirably spoken out, is one sign among many of the NDP drift rightward. A coalition with the Liberals would only speed up the gutting of the socialist heart of the NDP.

The biggest losers from a Liberal / NDP marriage would be the working class, who would loose the last vestiges of their once semi-independent political voice in parliament, all for the sake of giving some NDP MPs cabinet seats. No doubt that some in the NDP see that as a small sacrifice to make.

Was Ignatieff’s rejection of the coalition the “biggest mistake the (liberal) party could have made”? It depends on who one means by “the party.” Perhaps there are left-liberal supporters who still yearn for a coalition with the NDP. But they do so in vain. The party machine and its base in the business community were perfectly consistent with self-interest in rejecting the coalition. In that respect Mr. Harper’s caucus expressed the mainstream business view far more clearly than could the Ignatieff wing of the Liberal party, which had to rely on diplomatic double talk to disguise the truth. That truth was and remains this: a coalition of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc was and is tantamount to “treason” , as it would constitute a marriage between a capitalist party and the mortal enemies of big capital, workers and Quebec nationalists.

The greatest hope for democracy in this country would be the existence of a mass party that dared to openly avow treason! But it is not to be.

The only “treason” which is allowed in Canada is the murder of democracy to save big capital and its political structures. So the Liberal party mounted an internal coup de main to remove the last leader of the Liberal “left”, Stephane Dion. The abrupt change of leadership violated the Liberal Party’s own constitution. The Liberal Party was “saved” from the taint of admixture with workers and Quebec nationalists by committing treason against itself. And this party organization is going to save us from the right?

They are part of the right.

If this is so, why should workers wish to save the Liberal party? We should instead be working for its destruction. We should be urging it on to make bigger and more costly mistakes!

We need to ask whether the four phenomena Dobbin describes are merely the symptoms of a deeper malady, as opposed to the disease itself. If the premise is false, so must the conclusion be.

Would replacing the Harper government with another selected from the elite crop of lawyers and professional politicians who make up nearly all the candidates of Canada’s incorporated political parties really change anything? The track record of NDP provincial governments in Canada suggests it would not. These have talked from the left in opposition, and governed from the right while in power.

The fact is that the entire political class has interests that are adverse to the vast majority, and this is only becoming too evident to many people, some of whom respond (sensibly in my view) by consciously abstaining from a voting process and an official political system that is a sham.

To quote Robert Michels,

“The victorious bourgeoisie of the Droits de I’Homme did, indeed, realize the republic, but not the democracy. The words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité may be read to this day over the portals of all French prisons. The Commune was the first attempt, crowned by a transient success, at a proletarian-socialist government; and despite its communistic principles, and under the pressure of extreme financial stringency, the Commune respected the Bank of France as faithfully as could have done any syndicate of inexorable capitalists. There have been revolutions, but the world has never witnessed the establishment of logical democracy.

In other words, even changes that seem radical – as proportional representation seems to some – are only cosmetic if the underlying problem is unaddressed. The underlying problem is the domination of capital over society, its complete control over the political and the electoral system, and its operation around whatever party we might elect to office. The political part of the problem is that our constitutional set up perpetuates this domination by legitimizing the inequitable system with periodic “democratic” elections.

Even if we elected Green Party leader Elizabeth May as our Prime Minister nothing fundamental would change in Canadian politics. May and her party, with its many well intentioned but naive members would be rapidly co-opted by the capitalist system that Mr. Dobbin has critiqued in his other writings. Many Green Party hacks are already co-opted by “green” big business, and happily so.

Is the first past the post system of voting the deepest thing wrong with our political system, and would changing it really solve our problems, or would it constitute the ultimate distraction from the real problems we face? Can anyone demonstrate that countries with proportional systems are better able to adopt progressive reforms in the face of international pressure from capital in the form of the IMF, World Bank and foreign investor and local banker interests? Greece has a proportional representation system. It’s not helping Greece, where the government has launched massive austerity measures aimed against Greek working people. It’s not helping Latvia, which has a PR electoral system, and which is also under similar attack by capital. Would an increase in voter participation in a bankrupt system really make life more democratic, if proportional representation is indeed just a giant distraction from the real problem of a deeper, systemic political bankruptcy?

I contend that the “crisis of democracy” is not a crisis of democracy at all, but rather a crisis of oligarchy. Semantics? No. For despite appearances, we do not have and have never had a democracy in this country but rather an elective oligarchy. We have rule of the oligoi or the few over the many, as opposed to rule by the demos, the people. “People power” is another good translation for the ancient Greek term demokratia. We don’t have democracy or people power, despite the fact that the democratic label is affixed to any act the political leaders of western states want the public to mutely accept.

To once again quote Robert Michels,

“A conservative candidate who should present himself to his electors by declaring to them that he did not regard them as capable of playing an active part in influencing the destinies of the country, and should tell them that for this reason they ought to be deprived of the suffrage, would be a man of incomparable sincerity, but politically insane. If he is to find his way into parliament he can do so by one method only. With democratic mien he must descend into the electoral arena, must hail the farmers and agricultural laborers as professional colleagues, and must seek to convince them that their economic and social interests are identical with his own. Thus the aristocrat is constrained to secure his election in virtue of a principle which he does not himself accept, and which in his soul he abhors. His whole being demands authority, the maintenance of a restricted suffrage, the suppression of universal suffrage wherever it exists, since it touches his traditional privileges. Nevertheless, since he recognizes that in the democratic epoch by which he has been overwhelmed he stands alone with this political principle, and that by its open advocacy he could never hope to maintain a political party, he dissembles his true thoughts, and howls with the democratic wolves in order to secure the coveted majority.[i]

We have an elective oligarchy disguised as a democracy. It’s a sham. We need to get rid of it and establish democracy for the first time. Then we can perhaps have a crisis of democracy.

I contend that it is the entire established world of “representative” electoral party politics that is the political disease from which we suffer, a confusion of oligarchy for democracy with deep historical roots. This is the disease to which reformists and revolutionaries must address themselves, for the political form of electoral oligarchy renders society unable to remove the capitalist parasite from the body of society. Unfortunately most reformers and revolutionaries operate within the confines of party, representative and electoral politics, and so are of little or no help.

In relation to the symptom’s Dobbin identifies, I would add the following analysis that addresses itself to the disease of elective oligarchy.

Electoral party politics attracts the corrupt, the self-seeking, the power hungry, the psychopathological and the sadistic to political office. [ii] This is true in both first past the post and proportional electoral systems. The incentives are the same in both. This is true of every sort of political party and of every tendency from reactionary to revolutionary. [iii]

The people who are inclined to seek office are the very persons which the demos, the people should forever bar from office.

Every inducement that the electoral, representative, party system offers to those seeking office repels the moral, ethical individual with a strong sense of her or his unique self, and attracts what the psychologist Erich Fromm would have termed the “authoritarian” character. [iv] People with an authoritarian character structure crave power over others or else submission to another who has power over them. Our politics is a world polarized between “moral sadists” and “moral masochists.” Because our elected offices are full of these characters, in every party regardless of political orientation on left or right, changing to a proportional representation will merely change the method by which we select which elite gangsters and psychopaths will administer a system of misrule.

The system of misrule is the problem. It stands on three legs: the election system, the political party, and the professional politician, each of which must be hacked off. We need to figure out how to have a democracy without all three, and we can do it.

NO MORE ELECTIONS

The act of voting, the political campaign, the manipulative media messages which use highly refined versions of the same advertising techniques Joseph Goebbels used to sell Germans Hitlerism and which today sell sedentary Americans poisonous food – all of these degrade and debase the public, encouraging the very sense of passivity and receptiveness to manipulation which is most pathologically manifested in those who happily go off to vote, not those who consciously and actively abstain.

A vote for any of the political parties on offer today in Canada is the act of the naïve. It’s a vote for more of the same. It’s a vote for oppression disguised as its opposite. It’s the act of a faithful sheep that happily goes off to be fleeced and then slaughtered. Abstention from voting for the clowns that pass themselves off as our “representatives” is resistance, though of course it is not the entirety of resistance. Active resistance in the streets is what will create the conditions which will achieve a real democracy, but only so long as the people do not allow a party to act for them.  Acts of irrational faith in faithless “leaders” and their empty promises will be betrayed. The basic falsity which Robert Michels identified operates at the heart of the electoral system in liberal states. It matters not that the party professes revolutionary aims. Every party member is either a tyrant or an automaton waiting to be born.

Many of those who do not vote abstain for a good reason: because we see that the whole process is a sham. Granted, many people who abstain from voting do so because they’re too busy consuming garbage and have always been politically unconscious. These are the walking dead. Waking these people up will take a whole lot more than telling them that they have yet another vendor of political soft soap from which to make a choice they don’t even care to make. The record of previous attempts to impose a PR system in Canada proves it.

The Ontario Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform recommended a switch to a “mixed member proportional” electoral system. But Ontario voters rejected it in a 2007 referendum. Only 36% of the public voted in favour of the switch. A 60% plurality was required to adopt the measure. Many voters simply did not understand the complicated process recommended by the Assembly, which drew up its recommendations based upon the narrowly defined stock of acceptable political alternatives that circulate at the top levels of mainstream Canadian discourse. We need to question these ideas.

Yes, a PR system could in fact ensure that smaller political parties were represented in Parliament. But who cares? Is that really desirable? Would this not create the kind of crisis prone system we see in places like Italy and Israel? Would this not lead to unstable governments forever at the mercy of the smallest crackpot party that was willing to hold a government hostage to get its way? Would not this result in more backroom power brokering to keep these enfeebled governments together? Don’t we want to get away from all that?

OUT OF PROPORTION

Depending upon the type of PR systems chosen, and they are many, the representation of parties in parliament would simply be closer in proportion to the percentage of votes they receive.

But this is the only way in which such a system would be “proportional.” Who’s political Holy Grail is this? There’s no wine in it. It does not address the actually existing disproportionate representation in Parliament that needs to be made proportional to the community that our Parliament purports to represent.

What kind of people end up getting elected is far more important than how many people cast ballots. Even if voter participation was 99%, the following statistics would barely budge.

There is no guarantee that a system of PR would ensure a 50/50 split between women and men in Parliament, representing the actually existing division of society between the sexes. Only 22.4% of MPs in Canada’s 40th Parliament are women. [v] Election of women would need to more than double to address this imbalance.

Why do our western Parliaments seem to be full of Zionists, Jewish, Christian and secular, when the actual number of Zionists in society is so very small? [vi]

Why does Parliament not adequately reflect the changing ethnic mix of Canada? PR would do nothing about it. 93.2% of MPs in the 40th Parliament are white. [vii] Statistics on race are difficult to determine in Canada, as many non-white statistics Canada respondents list their ethnicity in the census as “Canadian” which is true because the word “Canadian” is not a racial descriptor. The response is thus a legitimate defence against racism, but it makes the racially disproportionate nature of the Canadian parliament difficult to exactly determine. However, the Canadian parliament is much more ethnically representative than it is on a political, professional or class basis. Racial minorities and gays happily serve in the Canadian Parliament – so long as they represent the interests of the ruling class.

Why is Parliament composed entirely of members of private political parties to which 99% of Canadians do not belong, and whose ideologies most Canadians do not truly share? Only 1 to 2 % of Canadians belong to a political party at any one time. [viii] A PR system would not address this at all. In fact it would make the problem far worse, as tiny minority parties would gain leverage out of all proportion to their actual base in society.

There is no guarantee that a PR system would deliver representation in Parliament of working people in proportion with owners and bosses as reflected in the wider society. 61.4% of Canadian MPs in the 40th Parliament come from business. Within this group 15% of the total, or 48 out of 308 MPs are lawyers. [ix]

According to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, there are 99,617 members of the combined provincial law societies, which would mean that approximately 0.003% of Canadians are lawyers, which make lawyers over represented in Canada’s Parliament by a staggering 5015%, by far the most over represented group in the country, far more so than political party members. [x] If the number of lawyers in Parliament reflected the number of lawyers in society, there would be a single lawyer in the House of Commons.

Under a PR system, parliament would remain the domain of specialized lawyers and managers, who would still be filtered through a system of elite schools and ideology based parties. So we need to ask ourselves, in respect of our system of government, proportional to what, representative of what and of whom? The only thing proportional or representative about the systems of “proportional representation” on offer is the label. Supporters of PR ask us to drink from an empty cup.

NO MORE PROFESSIONAL POLITICIANS. NO MORE PRIVATE POLITICAL PARTIES.

Those who cherish the fantasy that “anybody can be elected to office” in Canada need a serious reality check.

There remains an informal property qualification that functions as a barrier to political office in Canada, even after the last formal property qualification was abolished in 1948. [xi] The qualification takes two forms, one material, the other mental. Only the very wealthy or upper middle class can afford to send their children to Canada’s elite universities, where tuition fees have skyrocketed in the last twenty years while incomes have stagnated or declined in terms of purchasing power. This makes education once again the privilege of the wealthy, and bars the door to elective office on a class basis, all while keeping up democratic appearances.

The process of legal training or working one’s way to the top of a business corporation weeds out 99.9% of critical, independent or dissident thinkers. [xii] But advocates of PR systems often desire to elect more independent thinkers, dissidents with new ideas to Parliament. Successful lawyers and business people learn to project the dominant values of society, those supporting capital and state power, NOT the majority of Canadian working people who are exploited by capital, and oppressed by the state. Thus the means – PR – cannot effectively deliver the ends –progressive, democratic reforms – sought by PR proponents. The cup Dobbin passes us is not only empty, it has a hole in the bottom.

Within the educated elite, one must decide to cede one’s power of independent thought over to one of the established party ideologies to become a serious candidate for office.  But only 1% to 2% of Canadians belong as card carrying members of one of these parties. [xiii] The median age of party members is getting older, signifying a decline in youth participation. And even that membership is largely passive, leaving a very narrow section of people at the activist, elite core.

This elite is refreshed mostly by ideologically driven students who join the various elite campus political clubs, cutting their teeth on student councils, then graduating to office internships and other sinecures within party organizations. (The confessional book by the former US Republican operative Allen Raymond, “How to Win/Rig an Election” is an excellent account of the activities of the dedicated party activist, albeit from a US perspective. Under the Harper Conservative government, US style campaign practices inspired by the GOP are increasingly being imported into Canada. [xiv] )

Previously drawn from successful posts in top law firms and away from the ownership of large business enterprises, an increasing number of new MPs and MPPs have no life experience other than as party activists. In the United States, more than 70% of Congressmen and Senators come to be elected after holding other high political offices, making US politicians an even more exclusive caste.

MPs thus are drawn from a tiny fraction of 1% of the population. And we call this democracy, rule by the people?

Canadian political parties are essentially private institutions with a tiny self-selected activist membership, from which almost all candidates for office are drawn. To be a serious “party man” one must display values like unquestioning obedience to “the leader” and be capable of internalizing the party ideology, especially when that ideology contradicts the reality of lived experience. This is the real test of the “party man” – to be able to mouth the party line at all times. It’s called “messaging” but it’s really a pathology. [xv] Professional politicians become skilled at repeating the talking points of the moment, but seem unable to respond to reality.  One can observe the phenomenon by watching interviews with politicos who keep stumbling back to their “talking points” out of all context to the questions they are being asked. Campaign slogans become like hypnotic mantras that short circuit rational thought.  Those skilled at self-hypnosis and self-deception using repeated buzzwords can then go on to the serious business of hypnotizing and deceiving others – the public.

Adding new political parties, forced to organize along the lines of a private not for profit corporation, and forced to appeal to the public in an electoral and media arena dominated by big capital and its bought and paid for parties is no solution at all to the problem of corrupt, empty party politics in Canada.

There are no new ideas worth pursuing inside the system.

Political parties in Canada currently obtain their ideas from a small group of elite, right wing think tanks such as the Fraser Institute or the C.D. Howe Institute, which dramatically limit the range of political ideas passing for polite and public discourse. The Canadian media, which is concentrated in the hands of a very few wealthy and very right wing persons, forms the other protective filter for polite discourse.

“Proportional representation” – which is neither proportional nor representative – is on the fringe of this polite discourse, admitted because it’s not a major threat to the real source of power in this country, which lies outside the electoral process and which short circuits the will of the voters and of Parliament at its pleasure. That power is the power of capitalist business corporations, whose elite think tank is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Having to co-opt a bunch of new fringe political parties that might obtain seats in Parliament under a PR system would be an inconvenience for Canadian big business, perhaps even a major one. It might cost a lot of money and take some time. But it would be done.

The elective system is supposed to select those with the best qualities for public service, but it only selects those with the most self-seeking ambition, the most potent desire to “get ahead.” Political office becomes a career, or else a stepping stone to a higher paying job at a top law firm or business. How are such people supposed to advocate for the majority?

That this system has failed in all liberal “democratic” western states can be attested to by the sheer number of corruption scandals before us. From Rahim Jaffer’s shady business dealings to the half forgotten “sponsorship scandal”, to the institution of congressional embezzlement and graft in the USA and the whole war in the Middle East, electoral politics has produced government by self-dealing dolts and determined profit seeking con men who will stop at nothing, because no moral or ethical force of their own stops them, and because no institutional check within our system is capable of stopping them. They can’t stop themselves, and neither can we, except perhaps after they’ve abused their office, or funneled money to a favoured contractor, etc. Witness the mass murderer Tony Blair, who has come out with a new tell all book, who parades himself before the world as a “peacemaker” with the same sincerity as a prostitute who says “I love you”, and who still flashes that killer smile at his victims. He has reason to smile; he’s earning millions of dollars a year.

The entire world is governed on the western liberal “democratic” model of electoral oligarchy that puts people like Tony Blair in power. Well, the entire world which has been created by this political system sucks.

Our so-called “democratic” states are captive to a tiny elite who own it and operate it privately, under the pretense of public management. The electoral system justifies this pretense.

Forty percent of global assets are held by just one percent of global population. This one percent controls the electoral and political party systems. We can’t solve the various problems faced by the world, from war, to pollution and human liberation, because the solutions we want, the solutions we know will work, are “politically impossible” under the current system of elective oligarchy. Making the pool of oligarchs a bit more diverse solves nothing, and it distracts us from the deeper change that’s required. The electoral and political party systems are their systems, not the people’s systems.

The solution is to start over again, and to establish a democracy that by its very structure makes government by self-selected psychopaths impossible, makes corruption impossible, and puts all power, not just some of it in the hands of ordinary working people, unmediated by parties, free of manipulative elections and untouched by the corrupting hand of capital and its inbred lawyers.

ELECTIONS + POLITICAL PARTIES = DEMOCRACY?

Our system is a mishmash of inherited custom and tradition from the past. Where Mr. Dobbin suggests we rid ourselves of one aspect of it, I’m for starting over. Our parliamentary system doesn’t work, and it can’t be fixed or made more democratic. It’s undemocratic by design. We worship the slavish traditions, the pomp and ceremony of Canadian parliamentarism at our peril and the peril of future generations.

We need to be very clear about what “democratic” means, and to do this we need to examine the history of democracy, as well as our own unquestioned assumption that we live in a democratic state just because we have periodic elections from amongst a narrow group of privately selected candidates. Nothing could be further from the truth, and an examination of the development of representative government in the west proves it.

Thomas Paine writes of the English reactionary Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution that “he confounds democracy and representation together.” [xvi] Likewise, James Madison affirmed in Federalist # 14 that “… in a democracy the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.”

Proponents of proportional representation, indeed most people have made the same mistake as Burke; we confound representative government and democracy, though they are not the same thing at all. It’s a mistake that’s encouraged by the state and capital, because it keeps us wandering about in the dark playing with useless “solutions” like proportional representation.

As the working class in America and Europe was rising in the 19th century, western liberals began to attach the “democratic” label to representative parliamentary systems, as the franchise was slowly extended to working class men, and as the appeal of communism and economic democracy grew. Liberalism held out the promise of  parliamentary “democracy” to counter the urge to direct democracy. The process was buttressed by historians who interpreted then contemporary political developments in the light of classical history. A primary theme of the bourgeois narrative of 19th and 20th century liberal political development became the “democratization” of Europe and America as the inheritors of classical Rome, despite the fact that bourgeois parliaments were never democratic by classical standards, and neither was Rome!

The confusion took hold, and so today we think of regular elections from among a group of candidates put forward by private political parties as “democracy.” But this is rather “representative government” and it’s a recent invention, drawing more on the practices of ancient oligarchies such as Rome and from the ancient English and German political traditions (however mythologized) than on the true democratic tradition of ancient Athens. The democratic impulse of the French Revolution as expressed in Thomas Paine’s writings was quickly snuffed out, but reared it’s head half a century later in the struggle of industrial workers for direct democracy on the shop floor.

We must turn to these most ancient democratic traditions for solutions to our modern problems.

I’m not going to propose that we run the country based on a giant national mass meeting or even one based on the internet, though that has been suggested by others in the past. This would mirror the Athenian practice of holding an assembly of all the citizens (who were all male and not slaves) on the Pnyx hill. This Assembly, the Eklessia, deliberated on all major decisions, and has been rightly praised as the essence of direct democracy. But it’s not the whole story of Athenian democracy.

While I think that direct democracy might have an application in local government as it certainly has in a democratic workplace, I’m going to set that aside for the purposes of this essay to address the question of representation in national politics. For to govern a large polity, it is going to be necessary to have a division of labour, with some citizens chosen in some manner for political offices, and most not. Athens was a small city, with perhaps thirty thousand citizens at its height. Canada covers a territory far larger than the empire of Alexander the Great.  Pure, direct democracy in a mass meeting is only practical on the most local, smallest scale, as political philosophers from Montesquieu onward have agreed.

Dobbin proposes a modified system for choosing our representatives. So do I, after a fashion. But I contend that no person who actively seeks political office should ever be allowed to hold it, and that the act of actively seeking political office in the state should instead be a serious crime, not something we reward with power and prestige.

**

I will describe a truly democratic system and its historical basis in Part II.


[i] Robert Michels, Political Parties, 1915, page 3

[ii] These terms should be understood in the full range of psychologically “sadistic” and “pathological” phenomena, as described by Erich Fromm and others. This is not to characterize all politicians as violent sadists or psychopaths, which would be obviously inaccurate, but to note the tendency in politicians towards a range of behaviours which are maladaptive along this part of the psychological continuum of behaviour.  Fromm characterized most “well adjusted” members of society has exhibiting some degree of morally sado-masochistic behaviour.

[iv] See Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom

[v] A Statistical Breakdown of Canada’s 40th Parliament, published by the Public Policy Forum, available at http://www.ppforum.ca/news-room/public-policy-forum-releases-research-canada%E2%80%99s-members-parliament

[vi] Stuart Littlewood, Jews are Eight Times Over- Represented in UK Parliament. http://www.redress.cc/global/slittlewood20100521

[vii] Canada’s 40th Parliament op cit

[viii] Cross and Young, Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity, in “Choices” a publication of The Institute for Research on Public Policy at www.irrp.org

[ix] Canada’s 40th Parliament, op cit

[x] See the website of the Federation of Canadian Law Societies at http://www.flsc.ca/en/lawSocieties/statisticsLinks.asp . My figures can be replicated using simple math and the latest World Bank figure for the Canadian population, (2008) of 33,311,400.

[xi] See Elections Canada’s History of the Vote in Canada at  http://www.elections.ca/content.asp?section=gen&dir=his&document=index&textonly=false (Reform of electoral politics has served as a “pressure relief valve” function, but as the capitalist economic system lurches from crisis to crisis, it is becoming more brittle, and the oligarchs in charge are less and less able to offer further democratic reform, even of the most trifling kind, such as PR.)

[xiii] Cross and Young, Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity, in “Choices” a publication of The Institute for Research on Public Policy at www.irrp.org

[xiv] Raymond, Allen with Spiegelman, Ian. How to Win Rig an Election, Confessions of a Republican Operative, Simon Schuster, 2008

[xv] World Socialist Website, July 21, 2010. Australian Election slogans spark wave of disgust, http://wsws.org/articles/2010/jul2010/pers-j21.shtml

[xvi] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Part the Second

Stephen Hawking – not so smart after all

The mighty seem to be falling all over the place, and all over themselves to prove the fact that the specialists who run our society are not as smart as they would have us believe.

Stephen Hawking is the latest “really smart guy” to put his foot in it.

Hawking, now a visiting professor at our very own University of Waterloo, has declared that humanity must flee the earth into space within the next 100 years if we are to survive. One hopes that the scholar’s first impressions of Kitchener Waterloo have not coloured his judgment.

We’ve heard similar claims before, but Hawking’s extraordinary reputation as the smartest cosmologist and theoretical physicist alive gild this wilted lily with a thick patina of street cred it does not deserve.

Let’s unpack it.

Space, the final frontier… home to all things that people need, such as clean, breathable air, the feel of grass under your naked feet, water, land spreadin’ out so far and wide, fruit… you get my point.

Though there may be a planet X out there composed of a rather flinty Chablis, and another made of cheese, it’s rather doubtful that humanity will ever be able to turn either into an appetizer, let alone devour yet another planet made of rock and dirt and covered with unsuspecting, innocent and rather tasty life forms. One will have to do.

Planet Earth – the one we’re not only “on” but the one of which we are an inextricable part – currently features both flinty Chablis and an infinite variety of cheese, not to mention all of the other conditions to which humanity is most perfectly suited. It also features limited supplies of oil, metals, arable farmland and fresh air.

What force could drive humanity into the most cold, inhospitable environment, full of hard cosmic radiation and not much else? The answer is our own capacity for destructiveness. We’re destroying our only home, the garden planet of which the human mind is the most sophisticated expression. Surely the biggest brains on earth can come up with a better idea than abandoning ship for the “wine dark sea” of space?

Rather than change ourselves, we’ll indulge in Mr. Hawking’s ill thought out fantasy flight to the stars, and bring our unresolved destructive tendencies to new worlds! Rather than change our social and economic system, we’ll intensify its contradictions and pack up the dregs of our withered humanity in a pressurized can, launching it into nothingness where the desiccated contents may find a foothold on an as yet to be discovered “earth like” planet some 50,000 years hence. But what if we find the aliens don’t want us around? Even if it were practical – which it is not – Mr. Hawking’s airless scheme could at best aspire to the kind of interplanetary colonialism spoofed by James Cameron in Avatar.  This freeze dried vision sounds like the ultimate “bad deal.” Mr. Hawking may be the greatest physicist alive, but he’s no Einstein.

Albert Einstein was not only the greatest physicist of his day, he was a humanist and a socialist. Einstein would never have suggested that humanity indulge in a frankly lunatic fantasy of escape; he would have challenged us to confront ourselves here and now, and to change ourselves. We can only judge by the record of his writing on the subject.

In his 1949 Monthly Review essay, “Why Socialism?” Einstein critiqued that society where “The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.” Though Einstein was speaking of medieval society, his description reminds us of the techno-faith pushed by the priests of science today in government, business and academia, which have become a complex of interlocking industrial and military interests.

Mr. Hawking’s proposed escape seems more grounded in this technophilic fantasy land of infinite growth and expansion and infinite technological progress that is the official state religion of the scientific establishment than in any kind of rational critique of existing social relations. His proposal reflects the values of the establishment, whose goal is the perfection of a system of technological slavery, with no regard to the inherent value of nature. Nothing is so unimaginably dreadful as the whole of humanity trapped on a spaceship for eons. We can’t even be civil to each other on long haul flights. Hawking’s prescription also contains the disturbing fatalism of religion; it echoes the apocalyptic fantasies of the most regressive social forces, and it defers any struggle for human happiness, peace or justice into the infinitely far future.

Hawking’s suggestion is actually an appeal to suicide disguised as one to save humanity. In space there is only death. Life, and the solutions to the problems Hawking identifies, are down here on earth.

In “Why Socialism?” Einstein also took aim at the “scientism” he saw developing in his time, and which is today almost fully realized. He wrote that “we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” The masses of humanity are  demanding justice here on earth, here and now. “Stuff me in a can and send me to Proxima Centuari” is pretty low on the list of demands.

Einstein wrote that the transformation of human social relations, from a capitalist society to a socialist one, is the solution to the problem of humanity though Einstein could not imagine a peaceful future without modern industry, which will not survive the collapse of fossil fueled industrial production, even if the workers are in charge.

Fantasies about escape to the stars are a distraction from the real task facing humanity: the building of a just, democratic, peaceful and long term sustainable world in the here and now.