Updated: May 24
(an addendum to Section 2 of Democracy STRUGGLES!)
If all that was meant by the word “democracy” were “rule by the people” or “people power”, there’d be no compelling reason to discuss it. We’ve always have had the power to rule ourselves and always will - at least until we are totally assimilated by some strange robot apocalypse, an invasion of space aliens, or one of many long-anticipated extinction events finally bequeaths our planet to the slime mold and the scorpions.
It might be we’ve simply never realized our power, and still haven’t. In that case the mighty task of democratic leadership would be the raising of consciousness and the creation of environments for nurturing certain necessary skills. That would be daunting enough. But it still would underestimate the challenges.
It’s remains an immense luxury (I won’t call it a ‘privilege”) to debate or contemplate how far human society has developed viable practices of formal democracy - and how far we must go. Who but useless idlers and malcontents would simply catalog the authentic remaining obstructions, snares, and pitfalls for democracy as a set of meaningful practices? And is it more effete or more subversive to anticipate likely sources of potential ambush or treachery - and whether there exists any ultimate and invincible nemesis to the democracy project in human culture? There’s just so much we don’t know about democracy and what it means, but shouldn’t we at least be starting, once again, to raise legitimate questions and worries?
Perhaps it’s mere foolishness to consider possibilities far beyond any individual or collective ken? For instance: will it ever be possible to know if human perversity (our tendency for orneriness and contrarianism) is a primary characteristic which is, at a certain limit, simply irreducible?
And then there’s the expression, “Man is Wolf to Man”. Aside from being a crude slur against wild canines, could it also be unfair to our own species? How profoundly are we defined by atavistic tendencies to predation and domination? There’s no conclusive evidence either way, and consequent predispositions for wariness or trust seem widely distributed across a broad range of possible combinations. And this makes sense because survival may be hinge variously on either trust or wariness depending on changing circumstances. But, then again, so many of our human circumstances, whether at the level of individuals or civilizations are largely self-created.
Futile or not, the case for trust must be made. Interdependence is our necessity. We cannot survive without it.
Unfortunately, survival can take many forms, some much less ideal than others. Furthermore, species survival could, under certain circumstances, impel the sacrifice of many individuals. Certain modes of survival would clearly be preferable to others. And though some individual humans would opt for survival under any circumstance, most of those would still poignantly regret the forced choice of a future where trust is even more a liability than it is now. But if trust and mutuality were to objectively become lethal luxuries, wouldn’t something in “human nature” work to compel some survivors to strive for change?
Presently the case for paranoiac wariness remains quite strong. We simply do not know the extent of our capacity for predation against each other. We know even less about how altering our cultural environments might mitigate our rapaciousness. The same goes for fostering “the better angels of our nature” - if we even agree on what those are.
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Is there any way for us to overcome ourselves?
Is it even possible?
* * * *
Conspiracy theorists have ample precedent to fear technologically contrived solutions. Never mind panopticonic surveillance capitalism and “Screen New Deals.” What’s that crop duster spraying us with? Is it good old-fashioned DDT, LSD, or an aerosol version of Zoloft? If they can put fluoride in the water supply, why not some newfangled happy juice? And even if “the gubmint” isn’t spiking the air and water with special pharmaceuticals or biological agents, how can we know they won’t start tomorrow? Isn’t there some version of a “deep (corporate) state” with a vested interest in developing and using capacities to alter the moods of large groups of people? Sometimes they might want us more pliant and, other times, more bloodthirsty. What if “we” could selectively induce some groups to be paralyzed with fear or overcome with joyful elation? How much would it be worth to “help” people soldier on through discomfort, doubt, or boredom so their time “on the clock” would be spent more productively? Are “they” (still) experimenting even now on military recruits, convicts - or us? And what are “they” doing to us (or are “we” doing to ourselves) on social media? The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, but the tool of tyranny is universal distrust.
Still, a question hovers, looming.
Is freely given trust among humans merely the most intimate of follies? Is it the most exquisite luxury even when secretly shared among the blessed select? Or is it an aspirational and elusive pinnacle of human achievement, hard earned but easily toppled?
Is collective trust even possible? Could it be the same as “God”? Is it “the future”; that very “long run” in which all of us are eventually dead? Isn’t it ultimately a question about ourselves and our unknowable “nature” where perhaps our species is only some uncertain Nietzschean rope, a questioning series of living links, twisting and changing over an abyss gaping between beastly angles of imposture?
Closer to angle calculating billiard players than to angelic agents of divine design, we are condemned to try to govern ourselves even if our constant collisions, combinations, and divergences are more quantumly inexplicable than they are geometrically determinable. And for this reason, we devise institutions that, by dispensing with some of our need for trust on a face-to-face basis, make it (perhaps) more likely on a collective scale.
Elections and ostracisms. Checks and balances. Divisions of power. Ambitions countering ambitions. Democracy-like concoctions able to survive longer than a generation or two were planned for by cold eyed designers who kept their idealism firmly in check. It’s a truism that the framers of the American Constitution did not trust themselves any more than they did “the people”. James Madison was more than merely aware that the most enduring source of faction was the divisions between the rich and the poor. He knew that any governmental system with a chance to survive must recognize and attempt to balance such divisions. He also knew which side had more power (at least in the short run) just as he knew which side of the available bread slice his butter was slathered on.
Today, implements of surveillance are forming a bigger bulge in the toolkit of the checks that balance our society. But since controls on this panoptic capacity are not equally distributed, it is inevitably a force for domination – at least in the short run.
* * * *
In the brief history of our “civilization”, we may well have achieved major advancements in democracy and justice which are, by more decent definitions, attempts to minimize human tendencies for mutual predation. But who can convincingly claim the incremental and contingent nature of these advances has altered our fundamental natures in any significant way? Do conservatives who tend to emphasize the depths of our own depravity do so out of genuine secular despair - or is it to justify (sanctify?) the predation and dominance currently practiced? Do “progressives” who tend to direct our earthly ambitions toward developing our more attractive facets do so to encourage us to assiduously strive for truly human improvement - or is it merely to divert our attention from the malevolent and true obstacles to justice?
It’s interesting to think about “predation” as a stark description of what is more euphemistically referred to as the “consumption” of one life form (or its products) by another. Putting aside protests from vegetarians, this requires a recognition that predation is essential for the survival of all higher life forms lacking recourse to photosynthesis. Reassuring or not, many forms of predation involve a degree of mutuality - if only at the level of natural selection. The domestication of crops and “livestock” is generally an induced process of genetic engineering that ultimately makes “the prey” as dependent on the predator as the other way around. One might not wish to contemplate conditions in even the most hygienic and humane slaughter houses when considering how the checks and balances involved in “the rule of law” may actually be a set of mechanisms for breeding most of us to be dependent on the well placed few.
It’s sad to become fixedly aware that neither “mutuality” nor “cooperation” exclude “dominance”, “control”, or “exploitation”. It’s not inspiring to imagine that the best we might hope for in terms of a “commonwealth of mutuality” is some balanced form of exploitation where most brutish forms of predatory dominance are (in the main) prevented. But this is the baseline for constitutional democracy as we know it - even if it is not the preferred beacon for guiding us toward some future form of self-governance. Pathetic or not, this is the actual kind of “trust” some of us may be most actually inclined to invest any faith in.
We, of course, value (and hopefully don’t merely imagine) other forms of mutuality and trust. These (whether “real” or “imagined”) may reside more deeply in us than the types of thinking intertwined with the kinds of language capable of drafting viable laws and constitutions. Some of the most intriguing theories about the deep origins of human language posit that it emerged from music and song. And music, the synchronous merging of voices and percussions (of flesh on flesh, or flesh on instrument, or handheld object on object) is probably inseparable from dance. Does it seem impossible that music and dance predate drugs and alcohol as social lubricants and bonding mechanisms?
Music and dance (along with concomitant employment of intoxicants) might be the essential components of cult. And “cult” may be the best descriptor for the earliest forms of what we now rely upon as “culture” and practice as “religion”. In this (very speculative) sense “cult” predates both language and myth. And the word “cult” with its association with “myth” puts us in touch with a very generative form of irrationality associated with humans - especially in terms of our use of language.
What if language, as an extension of music and dance (with its links to mating and social “rituals” in “lower” species) was selected for on the basis of its relative efficiency in coordinating human activity? After all, everyday speech burns magnitudes less energy than song and dance. On the other hand, using language to string together any lengthy series of complex thoughts in any near coherent expository way again requires a considerable expenditure of energy and was probably never a socially viable activity until the invention of writing (if then.) If language does serve as a “scaffold” for thought (and especially complex arrangements of thoughts), it’s intriguing (to me, anyway) to consider the multiple meanings associated with the word “scaffold” as they sometimes apply to critics of established authority.
On top of mating rutuals and ceremonies of social abandon, language provides humans with other mechanisms for getting under each other’s skins. A linguistic “earworm” in the form of an injunction, a warning, or an enticement from almost anybody can resound in a person’s mind for hours, days, or a lifetime. In conjunction with rhythm and melody, a linguistic “meme” can permeate an entire culture for generations. Who knows the extent to which the mutations and evolutionary pressures that provided humanity with the capacity for extended abstract thought were not inextricably entwined with abilities connected to music, language, drama, and graphic art? And can any of these media be separated from cultural modes of control: individual or collective?
Single words can sometimes carry incantatory powers, but this very idea includes the likelihood that that the potency of any word (or phrase) is a function of its association with other “experiences”. These “experiences” may or may not have been “artistically” contrived by other humans, but the degree of skill and the level of resources devoted to creating such “experiences” must tend to increase their potency. The most successfully evocative artifacts and galvanizing experiences often inspire many derivative (and some enhanced) creative expressions which can eventually pervade, if not “create”, a culture or a “nation” through their ability to provide a shared set of references that resonate both with survival needs and with ambitions to transcend the vicissitudes of subsistence. The reflections of the stars can sometimes be seen in dankest of muddy puddles.
It’s practically a given that all ancient (and modern) cultures were (and are) at least partially defined by a framework of mythology involving song, dance, icons, and stories which infuse certain words and images with special potency. Among the most celebrated aspects of “European centered civilization” are legacies of the ancient Hebrews and the Classical Greeks. The stories and symbols of the Hebrews remain so potent that framing them as “mythology” can still generate withering cultural reactions in certain parts of the “West” which may well now appear to be ‘backwaters” though they might just as well be considered as potential primordial soups for unthinkable generative organic “reactions”.
The best of the living Hebraic legacy is a moral framework for challenging unjust or unwise authority. In addition to epic literary and dramatic exemplars, Classical Greece still gives us models for rational inquiry and discourse we continue to use, adapt, and build upon. It also gives us the concept of democracy as it applies to complex and diverse polities. We are still struggling to adapt, use, and build democracy too. (Or, at least, we may be . . .)
* * * *
“Democracy” like any other word is only evocative and meaningful in the context of a larger web of words and concepts. The same goes for democracy as a set of practices. The word most associated with “democracy” is “freedom”. This would be appropriate if the connection between the two were clearer. It’s certainly viable to claim democracy might work to protect individual freedom from encroachments by other citizens or domestic institutions. As evidenced by the Peloponnesian Wars; however, it’s not so clear that democracy offers the best protection for collective freedom - as in the self determination of nation (or city) states.
It may well be that democracy is more dependent on freedom than the other way around. (That is if by “freedom” we actually mean “self control”. Any society that depends on mind “control” or any surreptitious influence over the processes that seem to afford us “self” determination cannot be considered democratic. Meaningful democratic participation must be “freely” voluntary. And “surreptitious influence” manifestly includes the propaganda (now called “public relations”) which effectively plays upon the evocative power of words and images as they relate to national mythologies.
Deplorable though it may be, American politics is (and probably always has been (if the 1787 convention is excluded) primarily a competition between (more or less) skillful manipulators of mythical words and symbols. Ideally this would not be surreptitious (and perhaps is not now) because the bulk of the citizenry would (and maybe already does?) possess the critical skills to prevent the manipulation of symbols from becoming a manipulation of “the people” as a collective. Under such conditions the manipulation of symbols might enhance rather than debase democracy just as it might invigorate rather than enervate the essential mythological underpinnings of nationhood.
It bears repeating that democracy cannot operate unless an overwhelming bulk of the citizenry freely submit themselves to operating within a complex network of reciprocities, obligations, rules, traditions, and institutions. When vibrant and vigorous, this network, varyingly characterized as “the rule of law” and “civil society” organically throbs, tenses, and develops to protect individuals and minorities against overbearing majorities, while also protecting individuals and majorities against usurping minorities.
The purpose, and only justification, for this cumbersome set of entanglements is its effectiveness in curbing human proclivities for intraspecies predation. Liberalism, the Western philosophy of freedom, has been fractured since at least the turn of the previous century by contradictions first documented by Sophocles. On one side is the responsibility to protect individuals from strangulation in (sometimes lacerating) legal/cultural thickets. On the other is the obligation to prevent the entire briar patch from being torched, dynamited, uprooted or herbicided by cunning foxes who frequently present themselves as liberal brethren. But democracy requires this bramble for without it, “freedom” is only a license for the mutual idiocies of human parasitism and predation.
To an unknown extent humanity will continue to create the environments in which we will thrive, stagnate, or become extinct. To an unknown extent our ability to enable each other to endure and support the challenges of formal democracy will help determine whether we have a future worth surviving for. Comforting or not, this may well be the true meaning of “People Power”.