Volatility

March 4, 2012

Is “Democracy” Worth Fighting For?

>

It’s daunting how the most basic terms of politics have been debased and corrupted by the propaganda flunkeys of the 1%. Part of their goal is to corrupt language and communication to the point that we despair of ever being able to meaningfully communicate. The situation seems especially dire to we who are striving to propagate terms and ideas directly against the system’s will.
 
If we despair this way, we basically give up the fight completely. We go silent, or regress to nihilistic word games. This was a favorite pursuit of latter-20th century intellectuals, the positivists and deconstructionists and promulgators of “theory” and so on. It was part of the abdication of thought and expression which helped clear the way for the corporate onslaught. By now there’s no “public intellectuals” or “men of letters” anywhere who meaningfully confront and oppose corporatism. 
 
So it is wherever we’re told that is a word has been corrupted, it must be considered permanently lost. It’s like how we’re supposed to give up on saving a piece of land for any purpose once vandals have damaged it in any way. So it is in general – the criminals simply vandalize something, which is supposed to then be an accomplished fact which permanently quashes all dissent.
 
But if we’re not going to fight for the term democracy then it seems there’s no term worth fighting for. In that case, the only thing necessary to send us running would be any attempt to co-opt any term – organic, sustainable, local, etc. We might as well throw in the towel on language itself. Humpty Dumpty has won once and for all, forever.
 
Fortunately for my own ability to continue with a can-do mindset, I don’t think things are that far gone. I think we can redeem the term democracy, and I’m certainly going to try.
 
Democracy is, it’s true, a word loaded with all sorts of potential connotations. But the same is true of any term which tries to describe political and economic phenomena. “Capitalism” and the “free market” are similarly contested terms. Are we to let the criminals get away with their word games here, calling their rigged markets and command economies “capitalist” while attacking all alternative ideas and practices as affronts to pure textbook “capitalism”? No, we fight for a true conceptualization of it and a true use of that term. (Meaning, the capitalism of the textbooks is the most utopian ivory tower fantasy ever spewed, while the rigged and government-propped “markets” of reality are the real capitalism, the only one that’s ever existed, the only one that ever will exist.) Similarly, I propose to fight for the true concept and terms freedom, liberty, democracy.
 
If language is eternally a bone of contention, it’s self-evident we should fight for it. The only alternative to this is a deterministic, “regressive” ideology which is the reverse of “progressivism” – that language is doomed to become ever more corrupt and terminally the weapon of organized crime, never the tool of the people.
 
“Democracy” is not in the eye of the beholder. The meaning of the democratic movement throughout history is clear. It means the struggle of the people to exercise in reality their rightful economic and political sovereignty. An example of a movement achievement was the near-universal triumph (at least in the West) of this idea in the 18th century.
 
Since then hierarchy’s main project has been to hijack the idea, to exercise its stolen power under some democratic disguise. Like the ancient Greeks already knew, democracy and tyranny are at one conceptual pole together (overt, self-confident aristocracy is at the opposite pole), with the latter masquerading as the former and claiming to derive its legitimacy from it. Since the 18th century democracy has struggled against every form of tyranny claiming to act as the executor of the general will, from representative pseudo-democracy to classical fascism to neoliberal corporate fascism.
 
But democracy itself fights for the people to directly exercise sovereignty. The core characteristics of democracy are direct action and self-management, economically by those who work, politically by the entire community.
 
This is democracy. Those who use the term in that sense are, to put it bluntly, right. Those who use it for corrupt, tyrannically usurping forms are not just wrong, but are collaborating, wittingly or unwittingly. The point of fighting to redeem the term is to end the unwitting misuse of the term, and the misconception of what democracy is.
 
That’s true of every important term. To want to abandon any contested term, however pivotal, is to call for a complete end to communication, since there will never be a broadly understandable and appealing term which won’t be vulnerable to the corruption you describe. If we can’t even fight for important terms, how can we expect to fight for anything?

>
>

Advertisements

13 Comments

  1. I fully understand your position. The problem remains that the word “democracy” eclipses everything else you say. And democracy does not require direct action, self-management or relocalization as you describe those things. All democracy means, in its simplest terms, is majority rule. Democracy says nothing about the individual’s role within the collective, only how the actions of the collective are determined. Your goals, however, primarily relate to the individual’s role within the collective and how each of us can become acquainted with the concept of the common good.

    It all boils down to this: Many who would actually agree with everything you want to do will never know what you want to do because they will stop listening to you once they hear the d-word, shaking their heads in disagreement. And many who would actually disagree with most of what you want to do will never know what you want to do because they will stop listening to you once they hear the d-word. nodding their heads in agreement.

    Democracy is a not a “contested term” at all. Everybody has the same understanding of it: his own.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — March 4, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    • democracy does not require direct action, self-management or relocalization as you describe those things.

      On the contrary, direct participatory politics and economic action is the essence of democracy. What can democracy possibly mean other than human self-actualization in the political and economic realms?

      That’s what Aristotle meant when he called humanity a “political animal”, whose human aspiration is to directly assert himself in the political realm, to be “seen, heard, recognized, recorded, rewarded”. This clearly goes far beyond mere voting, the way you want to reduce things.

      Similarly, Aristotle gave the best description of the true economy as oikonomia (from which the term “economy” is derived), “management of the household”, a concept which extends to the community. Commodification and “markets” (that is, usurpation of economic power by elites), by contrast, were rightfully only an appendage of this, only at most a supplement to it.

      To reduce democracy to kettled “voting” in kangaroo “elections” is simply to seek to destroy this rich heritage, connotation, and possible future, by wiping out the very ability to think of it, express it, and consider it possible to achieve it.

      And yet you claim the term isn’t contested. You seem unaware of the fact that you’re very aggressively contesting it here, and not on the side of the people:

      All democracy means, in its simplest terms, is majority rule. Democracy says nothing about the individual’s role within the collective, only how the actions of the collective are determined.

      Neoliberals do indeed contest the term that way.

      Your goals, however, primarily relate to the individual’s role within the collective and how each of us can become acquainted with the concept of the common good.

      What’s the point of the collective other than to provide the best space for the happiness and fulfillment of this political animal? I.e., to exist as the democratic space. Otherwise we really should go back to a hunting-gathering existence, which was physically healthier than agricultural labor within a hierarchy.

      Post energy descent, those are the three options available.

      It all boils down to this: Many who would actually agree with everything you want to do will never know what you want to do because they will stop listening to you once they hear the d-word, shaking their heads in disagreement. And many who would actually disagree with most of what you want to do will never know what you want to do because they will stop listening to you once they hear the d-word. nodding their heads in agreement.

      Judging by your earlier term “spin”, it sounds like you regard me as far more cynical than I actually am. I deeply believe in everything I say here, all the ideas I express. First and foremost I’m going to express myself on my core beliefs without being concerned about authoritarians or hipster rabble who may “disagree” with a term like democracy. (I’m not sure who else you might mean.)

      Actually, I find it hard to believe that anyone could read more than a few sentences of what I write and not get right away that my concept of democracy is very different from the neoliberal pseudo- version. However that may be, I can’t censor myself in order to cater to your hypothetical superficial readers. The ROI on trying to educate such isn’t very high anyway.

      One thing I learned long ago is that hobbling oneself in order not to “turn off” shallow fence-sitters is a game for losers. I’ll leave that to the “progressives”.

      Democracy is a not a “contested term” at all. Everybody has the same understanding of it: his own.

      If I believed that, I wouldn’t be doing any of this. I’d have sold out long ago. I’m not proposing to martyr myself for nothing, if the ship really already left me.

      But like I said, I don’t believe humanity is a lost cause yet.

      And like I said, this entire argument demonstrates part of the contest over the term. It’s ironic that part of your contesting this term is to deny it’s contested at all, while to the Greeks a core part of democracy was precisely agon, “the contest”.

      Comment by Russ — March 5, 2012 @ 3:51 am

      • Judging by your earlier term “spin”, it sounds like you regard me as far more cynical than I actually am. I deeply believe in everything I say here, all the ideas I express. First and foremost I’m going to express myself on my core beliefs without being concerned about authoritarians or hipster rabble who may “disagree” with a term like democracy. (I’m not sure who else you might mean.)

        I view you as an idealist, the opposite of a cynic.

        One thing I learned long ago is that hobbling oneself in order not to “turn off” shallow fence-sitters is a game for losers. I’ll leave that to the “progressives”.

        You completely missed my point. Nowhere do I propose that you hobble yourself so as to not turn off shallow fence-sitters. I’m simply saying that you need to be absolutely clear about what you are proposing to avoid both false negatives and false positives (i.e., those who either choose or refuse to join you for the wrong reasons) that arise from people’s cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are not limited to those shallow of character or intellect, and iconic words trigger cognitive biases all the time.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — March 5, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

      • In the words quoted there I was wondering if there’s such a thing as a false negative for what I’m saying. If you agree that hypothetical fence-sitters who might not be lured over don’t comprise a false negative, then I’m still not sure who those people may be. I’m trying to think of an example of a potential worthwhile ally who could read anything I write, misunderstand me on account of the term “democracy”, and depart as a “false negative”. Even if I don’t always render explicit what I mean by the term, it’s hard to see how anyone could mistake my basic decentralization, anti-corporate/government, anti-hierarchy, “anarchist” thrust.

        I expect the same to apply to alleged false positives. Who could read me for long and mistake me? Now and then I’ve had die-hard progressives on the one hand, phony economic “libertarians” on the other, stray into here. None stayed for long unless they actually found what I was saying convincing. I.e., no “false positive” remained that way.

        But regardless I don’t see initial “false positives” as a problem. On the contrary, it’s a good thing to attract as many people as possible, as long as you never let anyone compromise core principles. That’s part of movement-building, to which I hope this blog can contribute in whatever way.

        Comment by Russ — March 6, 2012 @ 3:01 am

  2. Off topic, but I found this blog by way of Jesse’s Cafe Americain: http://www.psychopathiceconomics.com/DavosEconomicForum/

    The blogger seems to be another of the “capitalism was good but got hijacked” school (like Jesse, CHS, Karl Denninger, etc.), but he tends to come at things from a different angle . . .

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — March 4, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

  3. It means the struggle of the people to exercise in reality their rightful economic and political sovereignty. An example of a movement achievement was the near-universal triumph (at least in the West) of this idea in the 18th century.

    These “democracies” were built by and for bourgeois western european whites, at the height of their colonial and settler activites. They were founded on the basis of slavery, genocide, global empire, and class warfare. Theory is precisely what is needed in order to articulate a coherent alternative to the perversity of liberal-capitalist “democracy”. I don’t see how we can contest these kinds of ideas by making appeals to notions of liberal universality. Building alternative notions of democracy requires the construction of a genuinely new indigeneity that radically departs from white settler “democracy”.

    Comment by paper mac — March 5, 2012 @ 3:48 am

    • That’s what I’m trying to do. Quite frankly, I’m the only person I see trying to do it. I’m working with the tools at hand. If any of my critics has better tools to suggest, I’d love to hear about it.

      I can’t tell if you’re misunderstanding the quoted line or not. I thought I clearly referred to the idea of power reposing to the people, not any political structure which cited it. If I was unclear, sorry.

      Nor do I think the idea of community sovereignty is in any way synonymous with liberal universality. On the contrary, like all liberal ideas that one seeks to strip the people’s sovereignty and usurp power up hierarchies.

      As I said earlier, if we’re not going to try to revalue words and concepts, if we’re not going to draw a line in the sand and fight, then this fear of co-optation (by now starting to sound like “fear itself”) is going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we might as well pack it in.

      But getting to your objection to my expressions, tell me how and I’ll gladly chuck the idea that power rightly reposes only with the people.

      After all, the people are too stupid to understand that idea, right? Especially if one says something so exotic as that this is true democracy.

      I notice that I’m not hearing any objections about the moral and philosophical rightness and consistency of the ideas or their mode of expression, but only timidity about how the hoi polloi are going to respond to the expression.

      Comment by Russ — March 5, 2012 @ 4:12 am

      • Yeah, my problem is with the tools, to be honest. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t know how much can be usefully drawn from the western european democratic tradition in the short term. I’ve gotten hip-deep in Islamic jurisprudence and mysticism lately and it’s completely astonishing to me the way that there’s literally a completely construed alternative regime of reason, of definitions of things like “freedom” and “democracy”, all embedded within that tradition, inaccessible to and unassailable by liberalism. That’s the kind of base from which I can articulate a totally different way of interacting with others, with the natural world, and so on, without ever needing to engage hegemonic ideology at all. I’m starting to put some of that together with the School of the Tillers stuff, some of the neoconfucian synthesis, Scott’s agricultural/state space theory, Marxist class analysis, and so on. We have a lot of intellectual resources to draw from that make that “line in the sand”, but don’t require us to expend a lot of energy trying to overturn ideological hegemony. I hope to have that base of theory in place before I begin the practical work of getting the farm running. Maybe there will be something in there that interests you, I don’t know.

        Comment by paper mac — March 5, 2012 @ 4:39 am

      • Here’s a passage from Sherman Jackson’s “Islam and the Blackamerican” which illustrates a bit of what I’m talking about in terms of intellectual tools:

        “As for Modernized Islam, it may be described as the classical Tradition of Muslim law, jurisprudence, and theology ostensibly calibrated to the realities of modern times. In contradistinction to Modern Islam, Modernized Islam is a true genetic descendent of the classical schools of thought, the so-called madhhabs.G5 Among the tools and characteristics it inherited from the latter are a highly sophisticated tradition of jurisprudence and hermeneutics and a thorough commitment to intrareligious pluralism. It was this jurisprudential and interpretive tradition that chaperoned the early spread of Islam into non-Muslim lands. By separating essentials from coincidentals, the early carriers of Islam were able to accommodate the “harmless customs and prejudices” of the various non-Muslim peoples. At the same time, classical Islam’s commitment to intrareligious pluralism prevented the commitment to “unity” from degenerating into a campaign to impose uniformity. Having established an independent theory of interpretation (the so-called usul al filth) upon which it conferred the authority to validate any view that could show integrity thereto, all views so validated were admitted, ceteris paribus, into the sanctum of “orthodoxy.” And, because this classical theory was equally accessible to all Muslims, there was rarely a period in premodern Islam during which religious authority did not transfer in a timely fashion.

        Classical Islam also avoided the trap of universalism into which Modern Islam has fallen by committing itself primarily to a legal rather than a theological/philosophical discourse. Legal discourses deal in concretes and are guided by the question “What should be done given a specific context and a specific set of facts?” Theological/philosophical discourses deal in abstract universals and are guided by the question “What is the universal and permanent truth of the matter?” Legal discourses can accommodate change and difference across space and time. Thus, jurists in Yemen or Timbuktu could openly recognize that what they sanctioned as legitimate might be legitimately proscribed by jurists in Cairo or Nishapur. Theological/philosophical discourses, meanwhile, can only accommodate change and difference by asserting the categorical incorrectness of the previous or competing view. Either quantum or Einsteinian physics, the philosophy of Derrida or that of Foucault, Process Theology or Traditional Christian Theology can be correct. All cannot be simultaneously correct. “

        Comment by paper mac — March 5, 2012 @ 4:53 am

      • I think that’s very interesting, and you’ve mentioned it before. Maybe it’s now my turn to think people won’t “get” something, but it seems obvious to me that our best shot at movement-building right here, right now, is to salvage and revalue the terms and ideas we already have, toward which people already positively respond.

        For example, I think it’s true that the American Revolutionary ideology (not necessarily how sincere any particular propagator was) is correct, positive, with great humanist potential. I think it’s true that US elites quickly betrayed these ideas.

        I wrote quite a bit on that in these posts.

        https://attempter.wordpress.com/series-on-federalism-and-the-constitution/

        So the question is whether this means we should try to reclaim the philosophy and this time be true to it, or does it mean we should jettison the whole shebang as corrupt beyond redemption, in favor of something totally different.

        By nature I’m always sympathetic toward arguments of the latter type, but in this case I think something can be redeemed.

        But I’ll certainly read whatever you write on the subject with interest.

        Yesterday I jotted some notes for a possible blog post touching on exactly this subject. I wasn’t sure if I’d go ahead and write it, but now I think I will, and we’ll see if it helps clarify this debate.

        Comment by Russ — March 5, 2012 @ 5:00 am

      • That kind of “legal” discourse, what sounds to me like a basically pragmatic one (pragmatic in a Jamesian/Nietzschean sense, not of course in the crackpot liberal/MSM sense), is just the kind of mindset and practice I envision for the relocalization of society.

        But I doubt we’re all going to become Muslims, so some other framework would be necessary. I don’t see why the idea of democracy can’t head in that direction. I believe it does head in that direction. In the posts I linked above I argue over and over that this pragmatic geographically dispersed pluralism is inherent in the concept.

        ***

        After procrastination, I finally ordered my seeds just now (from High Mowing). I think I’ll write a short post on what I’m planting and why.

        Comment by Russ — March 5, 2012 @ 5:07 am

  4. Symbols are always insufficient to describe reality and will always be problematic, but that’s no reason to forgo a consensus on their meaning. Why are you making such a fuss over this Tao? If you don’t want majority rule then won’t you have minority rule? Given that choice, I’ll take democracy.

    The main features I see in the term are equally distributed political power and consistent application of policy to all members (equal rights). Those are good fundamental constraints on the abuse of power. Voting by opinion for “leaders” seriously undermines these goals, so we need to stop that shit.

    Comment by Karl — March 5, 2012 @ 5:06 am

    • I like this phrase: Voting by opinion for “leaders”.

      It’s clear that for the 99% there’s no possible alternative basis for that kind of voting, just opinion, anything from a vague hunch to a personality cult.

      Unless you’re rich, there’s no ratiocination which could lead to any conclusion other than to reject all Leaders and their kangaroo elections.

      Here’s a great slogan I just came across yesterday:

      No matter who wins in November, the 99% lose. Two parties, 1%.

      http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/evict-us-we-multiply/

      Comment by Russ — March 5, 2012 @ 5:17 am


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: