Updated: May 24
The distinction between political and economic democracy was a crucial development of the modern era. It is one of the major achievements and characteristics of liberalism. However obscured by reactionary claims equating liberals and left progressives with communism, the congenital liberal hostility to economic democracy (socialism, anarchism, etc.) is a matter of empirical historical record.
The liberal firewall between economics and politics (including whatever passes for democracy) was probably an historical necessity, and perhaps remains so. The threat posed by democracy towards concentrated wealth was as well recognized by Enlightenment figures as Madison and Hamilton as it was by classical philosophers. The bifurcation of “public” v. “private” in terms of national wealth supports salubrious constraints on governmental prerogatives even as it disperses institutional power. And limited government protects privately held concentrated wealth from the grasping of democratic majorities as much as from the avarice of insatiable monarchs.
Surplus concentrated wealth, above and beyond the subsistence needs of workers and the replacement needs of an ongoing economy, is practically essential for economic growth and development. Leave aside which is more wasteful: the corruption and self-dealing of a “command” economy or the corruption and self-dealing of an economy dominated by the demands of an unaccountable plutocratic elite. There is basically no track record of a large population democratically directing the development strategies of any viable nation state.
There is always the fear that we are probably not ready for economic democracy, and perhaps never will be.
An argument for this line of thinking might have been made by the Socialist leader Eugene V Debs when he said to those who would be his followers:
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists who use your heads and your hands.
The shortcomings of existing forms democracy cannot be simplistically explained and blaming them on “human” nature or frailty is really no explanation at all. The limitations and possibilities imposed by our humanity will never be completely enumerated much less completely understood if only because, with some apparent exceptions, the nature of any species includes much variation and generally inclines toward change.
It can be credibly argued that natural variation tends to impel some humans to be leaders and others to be followers however much the relationship between the two “classes” may be institutionally regulated or modified. But this actually says nothing about either democracy or its ability to both survive and expand. It’s an undeniable fact that in most societies some of the gulf between leaders and the led is maintained and reproduced by various mixtures of primitive repression and sophisticated systems of deprivation, misdirection, and ideology; but this does not provide any firm ground for definitive claims about human nature.
The year 2017 has much potential to be another pivotal year for democracy and its uncertain march.
The electorization of trimp and ensuing assault on the selective social safety net (so preciously mislabeled “white privilege”) could fuel a fierce populist backlash that decisively dispenses with expendable fripperies as “due process” and “checks and balances”, exchanging them for the trumpeting captivations of domination, humiliation, punishment, and revenge - as the dogs of war yelp and snarl from every ditch and mountaintop.
The current healthcare debacle could also set the stage for a populist upswell grounded in more humane and inclusive imaginings.
Franz Kafka can, of course, be characterized as “the high priest of realism” for his claim,
“There is [infinite] hope. But not for us.”
But. But. But . . . calling the quoted a “high priest” is a welcome “tell.” No one has any ultimate standing to define reality, no matter how incisively their apt criticisms pierce ruling ideologies to highlight the atrocious grimness underlying so much of civilization’s “relentless progress.” There is just so much we do not know; more than can be dreamt of in our philosophies.
We don’t know the extent to which humans prefer the safety and the comfort of a stable place in society to freedom, justice, and creativity. We don’t know the extent to which creativity is essential to our being. We can only make faint scratches in the soft surface of our planet while troubling its delicate biosphere, onion skin thin between the folding fabric of space and the rumblings of a solid mantle goaded by a molten center hotter than our sun.
We can be sure all humans have some inclination to indulge in fantasy, to seek diversion, and to be immersed (at least occasionally) in a sensation we are part of something transcending our infinite failings and limitations. These fantasies need not be atavistic. And we can place ourselves in a pleasant trance or even attain what some call a “peak flow experience” in the most mundane and repetitive activities (including breathing) as much as we can experience the same transcendence in exhilaration and challenge.
We also know that high priests, charismatic warlords, or the Mad Men of the PR industry can engineer or dreams and longings. Some of us suspect we can be our own high priests and everyone, perhaps, can to some extent choose what dreams seduce us. Or we can believe we can. The other option is just too grim; inhuman, perhaps.