The (Dis)Enchantments of Democracy

(an addendum to Section 3 of Democracy STRUGGLES!)


Even with a strong sense of history, it can be difficult for someone of the rationalist bent to justify any distinction between political democracy and economic democracy. Yet rationalism, like any other enchantment, is hard to sustain.

Rationalism propels the construction of ever more complex and diverting entertainments. Yet rationalism is also corrosive to all sustained fantasy and any fragile artifact of fiction. Setting ever higher standards for the willing suspension of disbelief, it devours its most tender creations.

Democracy, like any civilized human endeavor, requires rationality to guide, support, and evoke its development. But as with all human aspiration, democracy is sustained by irrational wellsprings that generate the very being of humanity. Democracy’s best hope may well be that the irrational forces animating it are more powerful than the countervailing impulses constantly confounding our ability to coexist in peace and justice - even in small groups.

To think of democracy as an enchantment is not to denigrate it any more than it would be to call it an unfulfilled goal - or an ideal never to be fully realized in the ongoing fracas of human affairs. Our humanity probably requires us to insist on enchantment as we seek entertainment or fulfillment in as many aspects of our daily lives as possible. But our humanity may also compel us to try being selectively cautious about what enchants us - and how.

The rational mechanics of a living political democracy are the constitutional limitations on government and majority power. These limits require their complex systems of rights, separations, checks, balances and due process. They require a pluralist dispersion of power centers and multiple procedural avenues for protecting the rights and dignity of each individual. And they are always vulnerable.

Democracy centers on supporting popular control over government policies. But democracy is ultimately about protecting individuals, minorities, and even the majority from human predation. This, I think, is also protection for all of us against our own worst instincts. Still, exploitation will always be a sordid temptation and human ingenuity will always seek opportunities for it, stretching any loophole that can be detected.

The necessary liberal limitations on government power and its emphasis on individual rights have, by design, protected private freedom to exploit the vulnerable. As capitalism developed, jurisprudence, perhaps especially in the United States, has continually extended the definition of individual "personhood" to cover corporations even as political struggle was extending it to more of the human population in certain jurisdictions.

The liberal distinction between "public" and "private" has been a double-edged sword for democracy. But it's hard to doubt this was not a necessary historical compromise. The Federalist Papers and transcripts from the US Constitutional Convention of 1787 provide a frank illumination this.

Centuries later, it remains to be seen the extent to which current strains on political democracy in the West can be blamed on immigration, the poor, and insouciant political classes. Concentrated wealth justly does not escape some share of blame for these and related issues. Yet, with the collusion of its corporately owned media, concentrated wealth deftly manages to foist undue responsibility onto more visible "usual suspects" who still also include Jews and other vulnerable minorities with longstanding residence in the more “stable” democracies.

The concentrated wealth of a tiny majority is certainly a major driver of the ongoing global economic integration sold to the public under the brand name "Free Trade". And their clout focuses the loyalties of politicians in the advanced economies while spurring on forces wresting control of resources away from the reach of native populations in less developed nations. These forces include repression and violence wielded by autocratic regimes propped up by Western economic and military power. And these forces erode the value of human dignity everywhere even if the brunt of this is suffered in regions that remain obscure until they explode into the global consciousness.

If enough people refuse to be divided on the basis of class, religion, color, or national origin, there is a chance for popular pressure to influence how global economic integration proceeds. And that affords the chance that the proceedings will be guided by more just and humane principles. Otherwise populist resentment may continue to roil politics in ways that empower dangerous demagogues with simplistic explanations and solutions. This possibility could pierce the flimsy integrity of democratic institutions in ways that set democracy back for generations if, indeed, it is able to ever recover.

A civil society that respects and defends the institutions of political democracy requires deep rooted rational understanding of the complexities essential for protecting valid rights and freedoms. But more is required as well. The dark reactionary forces that so often commandeer populist protest and resentment understand this viscerally. The more sober guardians of the mores of liberal political democracy do not.

What is required is enchantment, the kind that arises from the solidarity of large or tightly knit groups - and the kind that arises from a rich symbolic, ritualistic system of images and ideals. Religion has always known this. Proponents of economic democracy (whether they call it anarchy, communism, or socialism) are also somewhat aware of this requirement. But, in the West, such types are unable to influence the mass media and spheres of shared experience anywhere near the extent possible for the corporate elite.

The liberal intelligentsia, with its rationalist bent, is reasonably leery about the power of enchantment in public life. But the need to understand the individual and collective motivations of humanity must force them to rationally explore its sources and power. This may actually be essential for understanding so much of modern politics and economics. It may also be the only way of building the type of civil society that can uphold the rational institutions of political democracy.

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