A major crack in the basic political and economic foundation of our lives

Warning to the reader: NO FUN!  No whales.  No ravens.  No jokes about Arizona.  This blog is an attempt at thinking about our ‘times’.  Just an attempt, mind you.  No claims of achievement.  But NO apologies, this time.  Read at your own risk if you have some time to waste. 

So, is there a problem with populism in politics for you?  Really?  Isn’t populism really popular politics or, to be more precise, just another name for Democracy?  Put another way: isn’t democracy just a popularity contest?  People get elected depending on how much money they spend on marketing, branding and celebrity?  

Thirty or so years ago, it was touted by Francis Fukuyama that the democracy model had triumphed — clearly it was the winner over all other forms of governing.  Furthermore, a better form of government was inconceivable (to FF, anyway).  And yet we are witnessing the ascendancy of autocracy and the miserable failure of Democracy in all it’s comb-over majesty south of the border.  But it is not just how the US is failing Democracy or, perhaps, how Democracy is failing the US.  Tyrannical governments in China, Brazil, North Korea, Iran, Hungary, Turkey and our old favourite, Russia, are all doing rather well, it seems.

And democratic norms and institutions are also under assault. Nobody trusts ’em anymore.  The hoi poloi are being subjected to extreme views from criminals, politicians, dictators and demagogues everywhere on all manner of alt-theories and through bad (but weirdly celebrated) behaviour.  The common citizenry find themselves drowning in a toxic avalanche of symbols, icons, models, misinformation, lies and untruths.

Two questions: Is Democracy as dead as truth?  Was Democracy ever truth?

To answer:  SADLY, NO!  Democracy was never based on truth.  Modern democracy has, at best, a peculiar and tenuous relationship with truth.  It seems that Democracy and truth are not in the least synonymous.  Democracies are based on the faith of the collective belief (propaganda) rather than empirical truth (facts).  It is the dominance of (often manipulated) consensus over facts.  Democracy, at best, is people speaking ‘something popular’ to whatever the establishment power is saying.

More commonly, democracy is just the well-coiffed celebrity leading the muggle-sheep.

Tyrants and elites and aristocracies and monarchies and religious cults don’t operate like that.  They don’t listen to the people NOR do they talk to them.  They think they know better.  They exclude the people and their opinions and their so-called collective common wisdom from the governing process.  Maybe they rule based on empirical input or maybe they rule based on personal ego…who knows?  Military and police support is also very much required. 

But it ain’t by way of consensus building or charm.   

Democracies share information (by way of the media and institutions) with the people and the people, in turn, vote with their social cooperation and taxes as well as – eventually – getting universal suffrage.  Advocates of democracy believe that free speech, common wisdom, education and laws will result in a common wisdom and will make for better government, economies and societies.  Failing all that, good looks, promises of free stuff and charisma is a good bet.

But based on facts?  Not necessarily.

And, to some extent, that ‘ideal’ may have actually happened – at some point.  Maybe we are all a bit better off…….?  But with growing inequality and the erosion/corruption of our institutions, Democracy has been greatly undermined.  We are definitely not COMPARABLY better off!  The institutions, it seems, also let us down. See banking debacle of 07/08.  See policing.  See politicians going to jail.  See poor education.  See fake news.  See the rich getting richer.  Lately, it has all failed us to the tipping point.  Now, in a collective knee-jerk reaction, we elect alternative-to-the-establishment, void-filling, con-man clowns to power.

But it ain’t the conman’s fault.  He is doing what con men have always done: looked for and found the greater gullible to exploit for personal gain.  The fault is the system that creates so many fools.  And that disappointing, overall, systemic rot started long ago with the elitist party system in politics, the privilege of the institutional and educated class and, of course, the amoral nature of Capitalism.

Make no mistake: Capitalism and Democracy are siblings, maybe conjoined twins, one of them sociopathic, the other weak in the head.

From the outset of our complex modern system – democratic/Capitalistic societies – and despite the cliched mantras and bromides repeated with brainwashing regularity, those systems created ONLY vast inequalities of power, wealth, status and knowledge.  They were not checked or balanced.  The truth sayers (the media, law, education, etc) lie.  They have always been corrupted by privilege, commercial and partisan motives.  And entry/tuition fees.  They have NOT been there FOR the greater good.

Real life is not one of equality, free speech, good education, free markets, rights and freedoms in dynamic balance for the common person.  Real life is profit seeking and getting ahead of the others.  Capitalism and Democracy have always played favourites.

Realpolitik is, and always has been, a battleground over the truth and the power of who is determining and wielding it.

And anyway, is the right answer the common man?  Who really knows the truth about all these things?  The average Joe?  Is Joe smart enough and does he have enough facts to make complicated, world-impacting decisions?  Does the Donald?  Hillary?  Justin?

Or should we rely on the myopic and increasingly technical, scientific nerd/academic/specialists who can’t remember to wear matching socks?  Or maybe their algorithms?

We just don’t know.  We are in a vast void of not knowing.  We know we are ignorant and we do not understand most of the too-complicated things. We told to have trust or have faith in the scientists or the promise givers.  But, we don’t.  Given the state of our unequal and divided world, we don’t have that trust anymore.  We are directionless and we are leaderless and we are lost in the darkness of our own ignorance.

……and surrounded by information…..

Most of us relied all of our lives on the mythical principle that truth was simple, self-evident and would unite us in evolution and harmony.  Eventually.  It needed only to be revealed (by the media or the school or the law or the great leader).  If some people couldn’t yet see the truth, that was only because they were stupid, deluded, or acting in bad faith. To early advocates of this faith in truth, the point of freedom of speech was not to encourage debate or confusion, but simply to allow the truth to somehow, mysteriously, break free from the bondage of ignorance and superstition.

And we also believed the truth would ultimately out.

The dilemma/conflict of this democratic belief in truth, as described above, is the tension between elite knowledge (science, facts, etc) and man-in-the-street, ordinary common sense and knowledge.  How far should our political decisions be based on the real-life, everyday understanding of life-with-Joe and how much with the more specialized, less easily-understood, sometimes unintelligible wisdom of legal, scientific or economic experts? How can we strike a workable balance between the two?  ESPECIALLY if there is such a thing as a single, basic, bottom-line, irrefutable truth?

Remember, too, that all systems are derived from their parents.  Democracies evolved in a bit of a leap from autocracies, of course, but they still reflected the esteemed hierarchy, the value of capital and social status that marked their heritage. The result: the first democracies limited the franchise, included senates and upper houses/chambers and included such aberrations as electoral colleges in their constitutions.

In other words: “Let us not trust the people TOO much!”

The crafters of democracies believed that nations should be led only by enlightened, propertied, elite-educated white men.  Or very rich people at the very least.  Over the ensuing centuries management and administration grew ever more complex, so that, ironically, their governing depended even more, not less, on specialization and professional elite expertise.  We increasingly relied on Joe’s nerdy lawyer/doctor cousin but we had less and less in common with her.

That dissonance has only got worse recently with the information explosion. With every new scientific and technological advance our societies need more and more experts of every kind who, in turn, generate more and more specialized and exclusive knowledge, and that inspires only more and more separation from the madding crowd. It fractures and separates us into the deplorables and a gazillion other subgroups.

That specialization has brought great benefits in public health, social welfare and economic vitality.  But it has also divided us.  It requires us to place ever greater faith in distant, opaque groups, systems and mechanisms. The problem is that Joe believes that too much technocracy and convoluted administration runs the risk of policy making that is bad, corrupt, or divorced from the concerns of ordinary people, which in turn destroys common-sense trust and creates an angry backlash.  And he is NOT alone in that fear – witness the growth of the alt-right. Forty percent of Americans think like Joe.

One of our great, rich, celebrated bankers bailed out by the people back in 2008 blamed much of the problem on Credit Default Swaps and Options.  When asked by government reviews what CDS and CDO’s (derivatives) were, he answered, “No one really understands them except our in-house math wonks.  Too confusing.” 

None of this is new.   Faith in popular wisdom and distrust and suspicion of experts goes back to the Industrial Revolution, maybe earlier.   See: Luddites.  The common man disdained science, specialized expertise, and lauded the wisdom of ordinary people and popular sages.  And with that growing distrust of our leaders came promises of simple, quick solutions to new complex issues from charlatans.   That has been the alt-logic of populist truth across the western world for at least the past three hundred years.  Our latest sage-of-the-simple is Donald Trump.   Reducing issues to black and white and then choosing one is much simpler than seeing five hundred shades of grey and picking the best dozen.

In case I have lost you in this meandering essay, I am saying that Democracy leans to simple, common sense consensus.  NOT truth.  It does NOT read or analyze facts or seek truth.  That is too much work for Joe and friends.  Too complicated for folks like me, the great unwashed.  Donald Trump is the perfect manifestation of that simple-mindedness.  He does not read either.  Nor listen.

To me, even understanding and maybe doing something won’t be enough. Why?  Because we still rely on Capitalism and it, too, is inherently flawed.  It grows til it is out of control.  It kills everything in it’s path in the name of profit.  It has created the current moral failure of our economic system:  It threatens the planet.  

Remember: the story of modern democracy is also the conjoined twins story with modern capitalism. The more we are divided by gross and growing inequality, the harder it becomes to find the common moral ground on which our politics and economy depends.

Democratic politics is still, of course, the politics of nation states.  And yet, all the biggest challenges of our time are transnational: war, mass migration, growing inequality, the onset of ecological obliteration. The politics of the nation state are almost irrelevant to tackling such global challenges.  Can you imagine the significance of Canadian or BC politics in such a looming and dire situation?  Or even OUR national economy?

“So, Dave, what are you saying?”

Glibly put:  We founded our modern society on fundamentally wrong principles.  Fukuyama was wrong!  So, if you are not prepared to get vastly more popular and celebrated than Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump and step up and out in front and lead the world to a better place with something radically different, then you might want to get out.  I might even suggest that you GET OUT NOW!

24 thoughts on “A major crack in the basic political and economic foundation of our lives

  1. I agree with what you have said.
    My basic “gut feeling” if you will is…Capitalism corrupts ANY political system.
    “socialist” Dictatorship Venezuela has a leader reputed to has billions of the country’s oil money stashed away offshore.
    Former “democracy” Russia has a leader reputed to now be one of the worlds richest men with billions in oil money stashed away.
    Our democracies allow “big business” unfettered access to the election campaigns, and the govts of the people in power.
    ‘Leaders routinely walk directly from their govt positions into lucrative appointmants as VP’s , Consultants, etc.
    A complete conflict of interest.
    There should be a cooling off period OR they should have to relinquish their generous taxpayer funded pensions until they truely “retire”.
    This should also apply to the thousands of govt employees that retire to immediately join ranks with a company they just previously monitored as a “govt official”. Total conflict of interest.
    Lobbying and the money handed over for election campaigns for unnammed “favours” later….. should be banned.
    It has corrupted democracy from the very top to the very bottom.

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    • I agree with that. Money corrupts. And ‘money’ is a huge part of Capitalism these days. It is no longer just a medium of exchange. It (an inanimate representation of value) has power in and of itself. People sell their soul for money, sell their lives for money, sell their values for money. If it was done to survive, that may just be the ‘human animal’ but 99.9999% of that selling-out is for ‘extra bling’. What the hell is that about?

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      • Maybe. Seriously, of course you can. But as my family are so keen to tell me when I ask them whether they can clean up their rooms, they can, but will they? Big issues here, Dave. I need to think about them some more. Several years ago my doctor asked me what was making me so anxious. I told him the state of democracy. I don’t think he was expecting that answer, and unsurprisingly he didn’t offer any solutions. Sid told me about the poem, Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold. Maybe there is no answer to this long term existential conundrum. But gee, the weapons are bigger, deadlier, and we might not survive this latest crisis.

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      • You know I agree….big threats…big issues…big questions…fears…anxieties…and that is why I write about them now and then. They stick to me like contact cement…everpresent…..occasionally it wears off only to be replaced with more fears and anxieties (cement) that are re-applied by the media and politicians all the time. So, in an effort to relieve that accursed sticky-bond, I tried avoiding the (media/government/cement) altogether. Had to – it was crazy-making. So, I eventually went OTG.
        Guess what? OTG partly works! That is why I advocate for it. Nature is hugely comforting on this scale. Diminished exposure to the omnipresent ugly is also an important aspect. I would say that 50% of the BIG stress is gone simply by avoidance and hiding in nature. Maybe more.
        But I am not stupid. Worse, I am curious and not just a little formed by the habit of reading. One cannot step off the world. I get more than enough of the BIG ugly despite no TV, no radio (for me) and no newspapers. I read and I look for it on the internet not unlike a junkie looks for a supplier…. habit and curiosity can kill the cat.
        OTG is NOT a solution, it is a strong half-measure of pain relief with a very pleasant NATURAL high as a side effect. I didn’t really expect that much…..

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  2. Nearly all political organizations claim democracy as a foundational political plank. As in the Democratic People’s Republic but the rub is depending on the circumstances democracy is defined in many ways. In some places the dog catcher is elected, or the group doing community based health care is elected. Some claims of being a democracy are discredited based on some other criteria defining a “true democracy. ‘’ depending upon the definition of ‘true.’

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    • I agree. It’s a mangled term. And maybe the words are critical. But, you know what I mean….’the democracy we (the people) are sold and saddled with…whatever subset of true democracy it might fall into’.
      Call it Fake Corporate-based Democracy’, ‘Rigged pre-selected and filtered binary Democracy’. ‘Corrupted and elitist Democracy’ or even more neutrally described, ‘Party-based’ or ‘Inherited Democracy’. It likely doesn’t matter what you call it, it is NOT the ideal model that we claim we want. We have a broken democracy and the fix for what ails us is not obvious save, perhaps, for eliminating parties and corporate funding as a start towards the ideal.
      And my boring 2000 word blog also asks the question: do we really want a REAL democracy given that the average Joe is ignorant of the issues and likely deplorable?

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      • I agree with you. The American democratic aspiration was to ‘work toward a more perfect union.’ I assume Hobbes’s observations about “…the condition of mankind is a condition of war man against man…” “…life outside society would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. So says Thomas Hobbes 1588 to 1679. Did this philosopher influence the drafters of the American Constitution? Have they achieved a more perfect union? Some persons have experienced the American ideal but in 1776 America for many persons life was still ‘ nasty, poor, short and brutish.’ Today for some persons this Hobbesian brutish existence endures. For some persons the fruits of the more privileged union prevailed. It seems that American democracy is defined by many as a merit based system that determined who gets what and why! In effect this system is now analyzed or characterized as a type of what is now called ‘Social Darwinism’ or for others those in need are doing penance because they have been ordained as unworthy to participate in the fruits of a ‘more perfect union. America is not democratic enough because it favours the wealthy over the poor and fosters inequality thought constant corrosive justifactions for the status quo.

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      • Are you suggesting a type of direct democracy? In the Spanish Civil war, the Anarchists voted on their next engagement ‘Shall we fight today?’ Majority rules in all things? Majority rules might be fraught with some issues. It leaves decision making open to various objections such as; I was not asked, I do not agree, I withdraw my consent, all leading possibly to a type of paralysis. The unanimous consent concept being offered by some as the only way forward. The Greeks suggested that democratic rulers be philosophers.

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  3. Democracy has two basic flaws. First is that Joe truly is not intelligent enough to deal with complicated issues, his vote can be easily bought by some cheap promise of some crooked politicians. Second is that all democratic society will eventually become partisan and divisive as evidenced south of the border. Seldom do we see a democratic nation that is united in it’s cause because money and power divide the population into subgroups and classes. Is there a better political system out there for governance, I don’t know. Keep good health, keep good relationships and be positive. We are here only for a short time, instead of worrying, be happy.

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  4. A recent editorial in The Economist used the term “Chumocracy” to describe what seems to have happened with the upper middle class or the rich who seek power either through the electoral process or business.
    Even the high profile( rich) media pundits seem to be friends with the Leaders of business and politics.
    They go to the same events, rub shoulders, ….the corruption and cronyism is inevitable

    I remember a particularly nauseating “interview” on Global tv 6pm “news” one night when Chris Gailus was fawning all over Preem Christy Clark and her 16 year old son. The “interview” went on and on and on asking the most inane , vapid questions….it ended with Gailus saying, ” Talk to you later tonight Christy…..”

    Wuuuut did he just say?
    Social media lit up.
    They were going to a party put on b some local multi millionaire

    They protect their own.

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    • They do. But it is only natural. We do that for each other, too. We would probably keep our ‘chumminess’ to a minimum if there was even a hint of conflict of interest but we’d socialize with our friends and most people find their friends at work and the media and the politicians work at the ‘same propaganda’ business.
      I don’t despise them for that but it all should be declared and up front. I never once did a mediation or arbitration where I did NOT declare anything even remotely linked to the case. Never would.
      They do not do that. See Wallin and Duffy. THAT is absolutely scandalous – NOT the feeding at the trough so much as senators (which is beyond greed) but, rather, anyone offering them a seat in the senate in the first place AND those two accepting!!!! How could they? They may as well then confess, “All that news I reported on over the years that you believed was neutral and objective was really tainted by bias and in keeping with my deal with the politicians, you fools.”
      Same for Adrienne Clarkson. All corrupt. Totally disgusting.

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    • Every day. In the am and in the pm. BUT, but, but…more stuff is going to spam…don’t know why. If anyone ever writes and it deserves a response, I respond. It’s in my DNA.

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  5. Well, to be frank……a smidge boring. NOT wrong. NOT stupid. Probably right on but…like….well….my 2088 word essay on Democracy and Capitalism bored the hell out of people (most, anyway) and I know that. I can see the stats on it. I just had to write it out ’cause I thought of it…ya know…? But, like my own shallow squirrel and raven loving audience, I prefer these days to read about the shooting range or the fact that my right-leaning bro-in-law has asked me to get him a MAGA hat!

    I guess what I am saying is that I am as deplorable as most and I, too, like 90% light fun reading rather than heavy slogging. The Balkanization theory requires a bit of thinking and research….

    How ’bout this: there is a new series on Netflix. It’s called Sex Education. I looked at it (briefly) last night. Within a few minutes there were two naked, full-frontal young people screwing and changing positions. TV. Total porn. NOT soft, blurred, air-brushed quick-glimpse stuff but high def boobs a-bouncing for a long time. And it is a SERIES!

    I am OK with that. I guess. Not a fan, really, of other people’s bodily functions. Just not inclined, ya know? Sally was outraged. But, really? Is this what passes now for mainstream entertainment? This stuff would have locked people away a few decades ago.

    “Dave, lift your interests to Canadian politics!”

    OK. I will. I will think about it…but, geez….bouncing boobs in high def?

    Is it me?

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  6. Only in the land of the brave and the home of the free eh. In Canada such image viewing draws the porn police and seizure of one’s devices. USA, USA, USA!. Balkanization is a sources of much Canadian unhappiness and alienation.

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  7. This could be your next book line. Take the insanely crazy world of our North American and then the rest of the worlds politics, combine with a bit of dry humour to keep the reader and voila both endless material and a positive direction of your somewhat strong opinions. Best of all someone someday may take your teachings and create the better way!

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  8. Barrett Jackson auto auctions going on in Pheonix this weekend?
    Probably get a MAGA baseball hat there.
    Put it on and walk around……dare ya.

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    • As tempting as the challenge is, Non, I will, of course, decline. I am more inclined to yell ‘Alahau Akbar’ at an airport than debase myself to that humiliating extent. I’d even rather stand naked in front of a Gay Pride parade painted in cute little rainbows.

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