Contemporary Dilemmas in Democracy

An addendum to section 11 of Democracy STRUGGLES! It’s probably accurate, but perhaps irrelevant, to assert that today’s true conservatives are those sneeringly called “liberals”.  Or perhaps they’re called “progressives” “pinkos”, or “lefties”.  Or maybe that’s what they call themselves.  At this point in history though, it might be valid to say even those with substantial questions regarding the legitimacy and viability of capitalism are actually more conservative than radical. Any differences between Liberalism and Conservatism of their “Classic” varieties are now largely beside the point. But the original distinction concerned the relative emphasis placed on “freedom” (Classical Liberals) v. institutional and traditional “authority”.  What’s called modern (or “Movement”) Conservatism today ostensibly prioritizes “freedom”, but the most charitable evaluation of its intents (and actual impacts) is that it’s quite radical.  (An uncharitable, but not unfounded, evaluation would argue the label has been totally hijacked by ungrounded opportunists, and the “ideology” has descended into self-centered incoherence, if not self-destructive madness, with a disturbing affinity towards some soul crushing 21st century manifestation of fascism). Classical Conservatism and Classical Liberalism both largely predate capitalism (and modern approximations of democracy).  But capitalism has been the primary shaping (and sometimes distorting) force for both outlooks.  As early as the Progressive Era in the US and the rise of Democratic Socialism in Europe, the primary effect of reformism has been to preserve the fundamentals of capitalism.  This is despite any stated intentions, genuine or not. The conservative bent of 20th century progressive reformism is nothing to be ashamed of.  The chaos and terror of the 1789 French Revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune are stark examples of the need for caution.  The brutality of the never ending pogroms to suppress the US Labor movement and the degrading misery of the worldwide Great Depression have left scars that tear and burn, still dimly glowing in the skin of our collective psyche.  The revanchist ferocity capitalists are able to marshal when threatened gave humanity The Holocaust, a nuclear world war, and continues to wreak terror and torture against the defenseless peoples of the world. But neither fear nor respect for eveready violence completely explains the need for cautious conservatism in efforts to mitigate the injustices and lethalities of capitalism.  The collective imagination of our species is limited. This is despite (or probably because of) our capacity to adapt to all types of harsh environments whether they be the climatic extremes of the tropics and the poles - or the cultural impositions of chattel slavery, wage slavery, peonage, poverty, or work camps. (US History curricula euphemistically refer to the slave labor camps in the Antebellum American South as “plantations”, but the instruments of terror and torture are still extant and available for anyone’s tender minded inspection.) In the 19th century, wage labor was a shocking and degrading descent in status and dignity for (mostly white) self-employed farmers left with no other resort.  This harsh change of circumstances continued as farmers were displaced from their lands all through the 20th century.  But it isn’t entirely unreasonable to argue that this was (and is) “a price of progress”.  More importantly, waged or salaried employment, especially for Westerners in the post-World War II “sweet spot” was an exhilarating step up in both material conditions and opportunities for advancement.  Who can blame “snowflakes” for wanting to preserve some semblance of stability and hope even as they grapple haplessly with global forces that increasingly link their prospects with those of workers in almost every corner of the planet? Sadly, the immense pressures on middle class westerners are prompting some to drop all semblances of decency as they gird themselves to defend their “positions” of relative status. But all they can do is whip themselves up into atavistic frenzies that forebode no quarter for anyone. And there is no reason to doubt this trend will accelerate, creating greater fears and divisions, as more of us become aware of our increasing vulnerability to (and superfluousness) for the dominant economic system.  But others, as always, determinedly flail at mobilizing resources to pry fibers of hope from the fraying juggernaut of capitalism.  And this continues while most of us sleepwalk zombie-like through the ever unfolding nightmare of history. It’s important to reemphasize that, as a system of oppression and exploitation, capitalism was surely a step above previous systems based on peonage and slavery - at least in the global North.  And it’s not impossible some new moderation may be imposed and accepted before there are even more cataclysmic developments (whether political, economic, or environmental).  If the conservative wisdom of progressive reformers manages to accomplish this without sacrificing the safety and dignity of people in the global South, they will have earned laurels ever green.  They will also have proved a model of liberalism, New Dealism, and Social Democracy to be built upon by future generations with more stomach for democracy. But there are other possible futures.

Joe Panzica


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