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!