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There is Something Rotten in the State of Democracy

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On a recent visit to Athens I chanced upon the supposed tomb of Socrates near the Acropolis. Socrates chose to remain in the city after being found guilty on trumped up charges of corrupting youth. For this he was handed the ultimate sanction of a death sentence, to be self-inflicted with hemlock. By receiving his punishment he was making a statement to posterity to the effect that the Rule of Law was of greater importance than the individual injustice being inflicted on him. The operation of the law would just have to improve, the alternative being anarchic barbarity.

Nearby, somewhat hidden and a tad derelict is perhaps the most historically-significant structure in Athens, the birthplace and site of Athenian democracy, and thus the birthplace of democracy itself, where the impassioned speeches of the great orator Pericles (died c. 450 BCE) set the small polity on the destructive course of the Peloponnesian War.

More recently, Randy Newman’s song about America,‘In Defense of Our Country’ from Harps and Angels (2008) expresses a cautious, pre-Trumpian optimism that the political leaders of a decade ago were ‘hardly the worst / This poor world has seen.’ But presciently he references Caligula, the emperor which President Donald Trump best resembles at the fag end of American empire. But Trump actually democratically won the Presidential election, at least the electoral college, just as Hitler achieved power through elections, before dismantling the Rule of Law.

I have expressed reservations in the past about democracy, and I despise demagoguery. But let me construct a few words in its defence.

I – ‘Benevolent Authoritarianism’

A comment often attributed to Churchill is that democracy is the least worst form of government, which I consider trite, and perhaps untrue. The enlightened despot may prove more effective, as the great Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed.

Similarly, David Runciman in How Democracy Ends (Profile Books, 2018) endorses the concept of benevolent authoritarianism. Such is the luck of the draw, however, that a benevolent oligarchy almost invariably leads to despotism of the Right or Left, and utter disaster.

Let us nonetheless lay out the positives of what Pericles effectively pioneered. First, in the immaculate expression of honest Abraham Lincoln ‘the rail splitter’ in his Gettysburg Address of 1863 it is governance by the people. On the scene of the Civil War battlefield that would eventually end slavery he resolved:

these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

So it is that “we the people” are sovereign, as opposed to governance by faceless corporations, multi-national banks and nefarious corporate law firms, purchasing our political class.

We also find governance by the people for the people in the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776), the first modern constitutional statement of democracy.

At least in theory. The problem is our public representatives are beholden to the crypto-fascist advocates of neo-liberalism. The Irish state, for example, is effectively run by Goldman Sachs, corporate law firms, Vulture Funds and banks for their own enrichment. The people are irrelevant, and many among the judiciary, mired in debt, seem to be in on the act.

The people are drip-fed justifications by the establishment media for austerity, on behalf of these global parasites, and conditioned to accept inflated house prices, robber baron banks, besides substandard and ludicrously expensive rental accommodation. The abolition of pensions, and death on a hospital corridor are the new reality.

Our Brave New World of the Internet is incubating a dangerously compliant and accepting population, reflected in Trump’s ability to win over the American people, who he persuaded to consent to their own demise. This, what Timothy Snyder called ‘anticipatory obedience’ (Snyder, 2017)  involves going with the flow of home seizures and deportation of untermenschen migrants, until at last they come for you, at which point there is no one left to protect you. As Pastor Neimoller put it under the Nazis:

First they came for the socialist and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.

So stand up and be counted. Hopefully it won’t require you to walk out in front of a tank, but be prepared.

II – A Final Solution

At the Wannasee Conference of 1942 the Nazis under Reynard Heydrich decided on the Final Solution, or genocide, of the Jewish people. The transcript is available, and captured on celluloid in Kenneth Branagh’s film Conspiracy (2001).

A modern incarnation of this is the secretive and monastic meetings of the Bilderberg Group – once chaired by our own late unlamented Peter Sutherland – where the spoils of an utterly unsustainable and unequal economic system are divided.

The modern Wanasee meetings are no doubt attended by a phalanx of pseudo-experts, or even genuine experts, working out what to do with the troublesome poor of the Earth.

I suspect their plan is to to undermine democracy on behalf of the world’s corporate elite. People are commodified by banks and financial institutions: there are far too many of them, and their number needs to be reduced. Liquidation can occur by degrees: beginning with withdrawal of social support and evictions, which leads to suicide, addiction, health collapse and early death. In the Third World it will be far worse for those in coastal regions when the storms hit. Meanwhile, the good ol’ boys of Steve Bannon et al will continue to reap the harvest.

People are often ill-informed and vote stupidly. Trump was elected on a ballyhoo of promising the disenfranchised working and middle class social protection, and job creation, after stoking fears about a foreign Other. What happened both with the election and since is the most nefarious soap job since the Nuremberg rallies.

Trump appointed to his cabinet three Goldman Sachs officials, who were responsible for much of the mess that people find themselves in the first place. He has also appointed mad dog generals, and cosies up to vile dictators. The spectre is truly frightening.

Trump immediately set about dismantling Obamacare and tore up the Paris Climate Change Agreement. With two strokes of the pen much of the Obama legacy was lost. The smooth-talking Obama is now a political eunuch.

The elite are intent on making ‘difficult’ decisions, which will reduce the population of the world. This will require ‘strong’ government and the maintenance of ‘public order’ when disobedience appears.

Neo-liberal policies will certainly not be in the interest of the people who voted Trump in. As the former Greek finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put it, ‘And the weak suffer what they must.’

The democratic problem is that ‘we the people’ did vote for neo-liberals in Ireland and for a long time in the U.S. Even Viktor Orban in Hungary has a democratic mandate, and Brazilians have voted for a New Age conquistador in Jair Bolsonaro. Meanwhile the National Front are on the threshold of power in France. Democracy is electing fascists.

Why? Well genuine democracy requires mass literacy and proper education, which is diminishing, as is access to accurate information. Bannon and Cambridge Analytica have used artificial intelligence to influence voting patterns, and warp the human mind. We are witnessing the dissemination of disinformation, and what Zizek calls ‘Ideological Misindentification’. People are buying the bullshit, even though, at heart, they know it is untrue.

Nonetheless, declining adult literacy and the use of sophisticated triggers have conditioned people into buying advertising as argument and substituting soundbites for subtlety and nuance. Hysteria, semi-baked nonsense and shrillness is replacing rational discourse.

In the Post-Truth zeitgeist appeals to emotion have replaced the importance of facts, and fascists have always enjoyed rituals and symbols. Whenever anyone talks of nationalism or the national interest I am reminded of the adage that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’

The Left are nostalgic and see opportunity in Austerity but, lest we forget, after the Wall Street Crash the Weimar Republic did not witness a Populist socialist insurgency but Nazism. Our present economic collapse is ineluctably leading towards a new form of corporate fascism.

If the Left is to salvage democracy it must borrow the approach of Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Communist Party of Italy in the 1920s, which is to construct a cultural hegemony with a receptive middle class (especially now as the distinction between working and middle class is being obliterated). This will involve an expansion of state institutions and husbandry of natural resources to bring an electable and progressive broad social democratic front to power.

I do not think this is impossible, ‘Hope springs eternal in the human heart’ as Alexander Pope put it, but democracy needs leadership of a kind that is not apparent at this juncture.

III – A Lost Leader

On my plane journey to Athens I read an extract from a speech by Mr Obama about visiting the same birthplace of Periclean democracy I had visited. He expresses himself beautifully: precise, as is his want; erudite (something he is given too little credit for); and with pristine socially-democratic-convictions. But he is now disempowered, and his legacy is being dismantled by Trump.

This brings us back to Roosevelt, and one major problem with U.S. democracy, at least. Obama was prevented from seeking a third term by rules introduced in the wake of Roosevelt’s becoming electorally unassailable, primarily because he was obviously acting in the interests of the people. If the rules had not been changed the American public would not have had to face the unenviable choice of Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump, with the former the lesser of two evils.

We need a new Obama, or better still a new Roosevelt, a leader with vision and with purpose. We may need many of them, but few are apparent. Direct democracy and referenda by the people are also required.

Further, we need to steel ourselves for civil disobedience to aid in the vitalisation of our democracy.  Instead we have a spectator democracy, or passive democracy, controlled by vested interests. When the institutions of state and the state itself act criminally the obligation for citizens is to fight back in proportion to the force they are confronted with.

We also need proper information, and since it is not coming through mainstream media, which has been bullied into submission, the new radical press is the only drip feed available for the vitalization of the body politic, alongside similarly-motivated NGOs.

The truth is indeed in some respects the only weapon as Havel put it while imprisoned under another dictatorship: ‘If the main pillar of the system is living a lie then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living in truth (Havel, 1991).’

IV – A False Dawn

Ethical decisions are indeed complex: the suppression of fearless criticism is a negation of ethics. The obligation of professional ethics should be fearless truth-telling. Standing up to the power.

Democracy dies when it denies the legitimacy of the opposition, when the Rule of Law is set aside, and when authoritarian politicians act subversively, and in a concerted fashion, to undermine civil liberties and human rights by criminalising and prosecuting dissent or opposition.

Using the excuse of such shibboleths as national security, public order and the common good, rogue state institutions classify their enemies as criminals and subversives.

Other characteristics of failing democracy include a breakdown in forbearance and the utilisation of constitutional hardball, such as Trump stacking and weaponizing the Supreme Court.

Democracy is dying  because  our elected leaders rather than distancing themselves from extremists are embracing them. In fact they are the extremists. Let us be clear about this: we are seeing state fascism.

There are insidious forms of subversion: a coup can really be governance by the grey, for the grey, where small but influential think tanks and special interests pull the strings.

If it inconveniences these elites, the democratic will of the people is ignored, as in Greece, where Alexei Tsipras twice received a mandate to counter austerity but was ignored.

Greeks must honour their debts even if they were induced into them by Goldman Sachs and its acolytes. The banal refrain is that Greeks do not pay their debts, but the same could be said for all the banks that have had their debts written off.

While the Greek electorate recognised where their true interest lay, by electing a radical socialist, in most countries passivity has created a consumer model of democracy that has lost any bite.

The real source of a failing democracy is found in vacuous digital communication, and the passivity wrought by blanket advertising. The false dawn of online democracy through social media is proving to be a chimera. The sharing of inconsequential thoughts in organisations that purport to be democratic, produce sound chambers that operate like cults as David Eggers splendid fictional book The Circle (Eggers, 2013) documents.

A cult of mindless belonging to nothing is manifest, and it is not the only mindless cult around. We also have scientology, our esteemed religious traditions, and of course the neo-liberal cult itself.

I fear that humans are becoming increasingly robotic, technical machines. Altruism, compassion and a concern for the plight of others is being eliminated.

So leadership is what is needed but the Leader must like Churchill have ‘nothing to offer you but blood, sweat and Tears.’ And yet I retain faith that we will fight back against the fascism which Madeleine Albright, no less, believes has returned (Albright,2018).

We are drifting towards this precipice incrementally, led by a coalition of interests inculcating robotic consumerism, passivity, environmental destruction and widening inequality. The democratic order has been subverted by rogue states and the corporatocracy.

The Barbarian hordes are at the gates and a new Roosevelt must emerge to save democracy.

References

Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning. Collins, New York, 2018.
Dave Eggers, The Circle, Knopf, New York, 2013.
Vaclav Havel Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990, Faber and Faber 1991.
Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2017.

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