Democracy in Chains

Nearly on a weekly basis during the Trump years we heard pundits proclaim something along the lines of "who saw it coming?!" While the specifics were not predictable, the trend was clear. One of those for whom the writing was on the wall was historian and public policy expert Nancy MacLean, who published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, in 2017. The book is contested, not surprisingly given its claims and highly political nature. For readers, approaching any book as being biased (by its topic, framing, research questions, etc) and engaging it critically is important. A few notes:

"In his first big gift to Buchanan's program, Charles Koch signaled his desire for the work he funded to be conducted behind the backs of the majority. "Since we are greatly outnumbered," Koch conceded to the assembled team, the movement could not win simply by persuasion. Instead, the cause's insiders had to use their knowledge of "the rules of the game"—that game being how modern democratic governance works—"to create winning strategies." A brilliant engineer with three degrees from MIT, Koch warned, "The failure to use our superior technology ensures failure." Translation: the American people would not support their plans, so to win they had to work behind the scenes, using a covert strategy instead of open declaration of what they really wanted." (p. xxii)

"The goal of the cause, Buchanan announced to his associates, should no longer be to influence who makes the rules, to vest hopes in one party or candidate. The focus must shift from who rules to changing the rules." (p. xxvii)

"Their cause, they say, is liberty. But by that they mean the insulation of private property rights from the reach of government, and the takeover of what was long public (schools, prisons, western lands, and much more) by corporations, a system that would radically reduce the freedom of the many. In a nutshell, they aim to hollow out democratic resistance. And by its own lights, the cause is nearing success." (p. xxx)

"...back in the county where Barbara Rose Johns first organized for fair treatment, and where officials continued to insist that they would abandon public education entirely rather than submit to "dictation" by federal courts, the Board of Supervisors voted a few weeks later to close the schools. That September, they padlocked every public school and opened new private schools for the white children while leaving some eighteen hundred black children with no formal education whatsoever. "It's the nation's first county," reported the Wall Street Journal, "to go completely out of the public school business." Local black youth remained schoolless from 1959 to 1964, when a federal court intervened to stop the abuse." (p. 72)

"Buchanan's experiences at UCLA left a far deeper legacy, one that ultimately explains why, in our time, governors and state legislators under the influence of the capitalist radical right have been moving aggressively to transform public higher education in states where they are in control. After 2010, as the Koch-funded project moved forward in the states, its representatives sought to slash their states' public university budgets while simultaneously raising tuition, ending need-based scholarships, limiting or curtailing tenure protections, reducing faculty governance, and undermining support for the liberal arts curriculum (particularly those parts of it most known for dissent)." (p. 103)

"In the view of the libertarian economist [Buchanan], Jesus was mistaken. Conscripting the Good Samaritan story, Buchanan made his case that "modern man [had] 'gone soft'": he lacked the "strategic courage" needed to restore the market to its proper ordering. By this logic, what seemed to be the ethical thing to do—help someone in need—was not, after all, the correct thing to do, because the assistance would encourage the recipient to "exploit" the giver rather than to solve his own problems." (p. 143)

"...it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet's team in how to arrange things so that even when the country finally returned to representative institutions, its capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power. The first stage was the imposition of radical structural transformation influenced by Buchanan's ideas; the second stage, to lock the transformation in place, was the kind of constitutional revolution Buchanan had come to advocate. Whereas the US Constitution famously enshrined "checks and balances" to prevent majorities from abusing their power over minorities, this one, a Chilean critic later complained, bound democracy with "locks and bolts"." (p. 155)

"Many liberals then and since have tended to miss this strategic use of privatization to enchain democracy, at worst seeing the proposals as coming simply from dogma that preferred the private sector to the public. Those driving the train know otherwise. Privatization was a key element of the crab walk to the final, albeit gradual, revolution—the ends justify-the-means approach that allowed for using disingenuous claims to take terrain that would make the ultimate project possible." (p. 182) 

  71 Hits
71 Hits

The Green Book - Gaddafi

The former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi explained his political philosophy in The Green Book. The Green Book is a short work (the English translation is 92 pages) presented in short chapters on a wide range of topics, organized into three parts. The first part is a critique of Western forms of democracy and a proposal for democracy rooted in people's self governance. The second part is about socialism and the third part about the social relations in society. A copy is available here. Some notes from the book:

"Parliaments are the backbone of that conventional democracy prevailing in the world today. Parliament is a misrepresentation of the people, and parliamentary systems are a false solution to the problem of democracy. A parliament is originally founded to represent the people, but this in itself is undemocratic as democracy means the authority of the people and not an authority acting on their behalf." (p. 10)

"Under such systems, the people are the victims whose votes are vied for by exploitative competing factions who dupe the people into political circuses that are outwardly noisy and frantic, but inwardly powerless and irrelevant." (p. 11)

"The existence of many parties intensifies the struggle for power, and this results in the neglect of any achievements for the people and of any socially beneficial plans. Such actions are presented as a justification to undermine the position of the ruling party so that an opposing party can replace it. The parties very seldom resort to arms in their struggle but, rather, denounce and denigrate the actions of each other. This is a battle which is inevitably waged at the expense of the higher, vital interests of the society." (p. 14)

"...society alone supervises itself. It is dictatorial for any individual or group to claim the right of the supervision of the laws of the society, which is, democratically, the responsibility of the society as a whole. This can be arrived at through the democratic instrument of government that results from the organization of the society itself into Basic Popular Conferences, and through the government of these people through People's Committees..." (p. 29)

"In a socialist society, it should not be in the form of wages from any source or charity from any one. In this society, there are no wage-earners, but only partners. One's income is a private matter and should either be managed privately to meet one's needs or be a share from a production process of which one is an essential component. It should not be a wage in return for production." (p. 44)

"The new socialist society is but a dialectical outcome of the unjust relationships prevailing in the world today. The new socialist society will introduce the natural solution - privately-owned property to satisfy one's needs without exploitation, and collective property in which the producers are partners replacing private enterprise, which is based on the production of others without recognizing their right to a just share of the product." (p. 51)

"The possibility of a socialist revolution starts by producers taking over their share of the production. Consequently, the aims of the producers' strikes will change from demanding increases in wages to controlling their share in production." (p. 53)

"Freedom means that every human being gets proper education which qualifies him or her for the work which suits him or her. Dictatorship means that human beings are taught that which is not suitable for them, and are forced to do unsuitable work." (p. 82)

"Education, or learning, is not necessarily that routinized curriculum and those classified subjects in textbooks which youths are forced to learn during specified hours while sitting in rows of desks. This type of education now prevailing all over the world is directed against human freedom. State-controlled education, which governments boast of whenever they are able to force it on their youths, is a method of suppressing freedom. It is a compulsory obliteration of a human being's talent, as well as a coercive directing of a human being's choices. It is an act of dictatorship destructive of freedom because it deprives people of their free choice, creativity and brilliance. To force a human being to learn according to a set curriculum is a dictatorial act. To impose certain subjects upon people is also a dictatorial act." (p. 85)

"This does not mean that schools are to be closed and that people should turn their backs on education, as it may seem to superficial readers. On the contrary, it means. that society should provide all types of education, giving people the chance to choose freely any subjects they wish to learn. This requires a sufficient number of schools for all types of education." (p. 85-86) 

  76 Hits
76 Hits

The Art of the Impossible

I do not have a background in the arts or theatre, and have not done enough reading in my own time to know much of it, which is probably one of the reasons why I kept hearing of Vaclav Havel, but not knowing much of his works. Recently, I came across Havel as he has greatly influenced the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. I also crossed Havel re-listening to the TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson. While I have not read his plays, I did get a copy of "The Art of the Impossible" (1997), which is a collection of his speeches (largely translated by Paul Wilson). The translator of the book provided a Forward, which states "The pages of this book trace another journey, even more remarkable: the inner, personal journey of an artist and intellectual whose ideas germinated under totalitarianism, grew in the post-Stalinist thaw of the 1960s, toughened in the hard years after the Soviet invasion, matured during his four years in prison, and finally bore fruit in the Velvet Revolution of 1989." (p. xiii). Some quotes from throughout the book (in order, which is also chronological, as the speeches are organized in that way, as Havel did when gave collections of speeches away):

"… this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we got used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, and forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions." (p. 4)

"At the deepest core of this feeling there was, ultimately, a sensation of the absurd: what Sisyphus might have felt if one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on the hilltop, and failed to roll back down. It was the sensation of a Sisyphus mentally unprepared for the possibility that his efforts might succeed, a Sisyphus whose life had lost its old purpose and hadn't yet developed a new one." (p. 49)

"We were very good at being persecuted and at losing. That may be why we are so flustered by our victories and so disconcerted that no one is persecuting us. Now and then I even encounter indications of nostalgia for the time when life flowed between banks that, true, were very narrow, but that were unchanging and apparent to everyone. Today we don't know where the banks lie and are slightly shocked by it. We are like prisoners who have grown used to their prisons and, suddenly given their longed-for freedom, do not know what to do with it, and are made desperate by the constant need to think for themselves." (p. 52)

"In the subconscious of haters there slumbers a perverse feeling that they alone possess the truth, that they are some kind of superhuman or even god, and thus deserve the world's complete recognition, even its complete submissiveness and loyalty, if not its blind obedience. They want to be the centre of the world and are constantly frustrated and irritated because the world does not accept and recognize them as such: indeed, it may not pay any attention to them, and perhaps it even ridicules them." (p. 56)

"… the ability to generalize is a fragile gift that has to be handled with great care. A less perceptive soul can easily overlook the hidden seeds of injustice that may lie in the act of generalization. We have all made observations or expressed opinions of one kind or another about various peoples. We may say that the French, the English, or Russians are like this or that; we don't mean ill by it, we are only trying, through our generalizations, to see reality better. But there is a grave danger hidden in this kind of generalization. A group of people defined in a certain way in this case ethnically is, in a sense, subtly deprived of individual spirits and individual responsibilities, and we endow it with an abstract, collective sense of responsibility. Clearly, this is a wonderful starting point for collective hatred. Individuals become a priori bad or evil simply because of their origin. The evil of racism, one of the worst evils in the world today, depends among other things directly on this type of careless generalization." (p. 61)

"We are beginning, inadvertently but dangerously, to resemble in some ways our contemptible precursors. It bothers us, it upsets us, but we are discovering that we simply can't, or don't know how to, put a stop to it." (p. 71)

"For years I criticized practical politics as no more than a technique in the struggle for power, as a purely pragmatic activity whose aim was not to serve people selflessly and responsibly in harmony with one's conscience, but merely to win their favor through a variety of techniques, with a view to staying in power or gaining more." (p. 82)

"There was, in fact, something communistic in my patience to renew democracy. Or, in more general terms, something of a rationally enlightened nature. I wanted to nudge history forward in the way a child would when wishing to make a flower grow more quickly: by tugging at it. I think the art of waiting is something that has to be learned. We must patiently plant the seeds and water the grounds well, and give the plants exactly the amount of time they need to mature. Just as we cannot fool a plant, we cannot fool history." (p. 107)

"Democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of responsibility, which it ought to awaken and cultivate. Democracy and civil society are thus two sides of the same coin. Today, when our very planetary civilization is endangered by human irresponsibility, I see no other way to save it than through a general awakening and cultivation of the sense of responsibility people have for the affairs of the world." (p. 145)

"The main task of the present generation of politicians is not, I think, to ingratiate themselves with the public through the decisions they take or their smiles on television. It is not to go on winning elections and ensuring themselves a place in the sun till the end of their days. Their role is something quite different: to assume their share of responsibility for the long-­range prospects of our world and thus to set an example for the public in whose sight they work. Their responsibility is to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowd, to imbue their actions with a spiritual dimension (which of course is not the same thing as ostentatious attendance at religious services), to explain again and again ­ both to the public and to their colleagues ­– that politics must do far more than reflect the interests of particular groups or lobbies. After all, politics is a matter of servicing the community, which means that it is morality in practice, and how better to serve the community and practice morality than by seeking in the midst of the global (and globally threatened) civilization their own global political responsibility: that is, their responsibility for the very survival of the human race?" (p. 223)

  218 Hits
218 Hits

How Democracies Die

We tend to assume that democratic processes, norms and structures are 'sticky' and rarely 'die'. The cases we might think about are those that ended due to war and conflict, with the emergence of dictatorship in the form of fascism or military rule. In "How Democracies Die" (2018) Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a clear counter-narrative, and one seemingly much more relevant than the war and conflict narrative. In sum, that counter-narrative is: "Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chavez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box" (p. 5). It is democratic processes themselves being used to unravel themselves.

Many commentaries of late have focused on the power of the people, and their vote, as a way to ensure democratic processes reflect what people expect of them. Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that there is more to understanding why democratic governance has been sticky in the American context: political parties, and specifically the gatekeeping involved in those political parties that kept outsiders and radicals out. To be clear, these political party gatekeeping processes were not democratic: "candidates were chosen by a small group of power brokers who were not accountable to the party rank and file, much less to average citizens" (p. 38). Oddly, non-democratic (often elite run and non-transparent) processes are held up as a key source for democratic continuity.

The authors also point out a gradual change of norms: "Democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Two basic norms have preserved America's checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives" (p. 8-9). They continue, later in the book: "Some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy. And indeed, the historical experience of democracies in Western Europe shows us that norms can be sustained even when parties are separated by considerable ideological differences. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of antisystem groups that reject democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble." (p. 116)

  228 Hits
228 Hits
Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email