Democracy is Dead. Long live Democracy.
Canada killed the Democracy star
It's either Canada or Ukraine in the discourse today, and I feel that the events of Canada are more immediately important for the people reading this. So, let's talk about "democracy".
I've written an extensive primer on democracy, titling it "The False God." I recommend starting there. In that piece, I made the argument that democracy is not real due to the nature of who controls information and the general socialization process. Today we're talking about the same issues from a slightly different lens: directly focused on *material* Power/coercion.
Question: What is Democracy?
You would assume that this would be an easy answer but it isn't. Merriam-Webster describes democracy as "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people," without engaging in any analysis of what "supreme power" is or how it might operate. Brittanica refers to power resting with the people and being exercised by them directly or through "freely elected" representatives. What counts as "free" is its own rabbit hole. Of course, the more pressing issue here is this claim of "supreme power": how was power actually vested with the people?....was it vested with the people at all, beyond some ideological claim? Of course it wasn't. Democracy may rely on everyone in the polity having roughly equal power, but democracy itself did not give everyone equal power.
Answer: Democracy is...
I want to present a three-pronged thesis:
Democracy as typically understood is nothing more than laundered oligarchy. In other words, it hides the oligarchical nature of Power behind an ideological facade: "Sovereignty rests with the People!"
The energizing spirit of Democracy & Popular Sovereignty, the moral belief that provides the background for these ideologies, is that every person deserves to have a meaningful say in one's life and the community one lives in.
If we were to take seriously the nature of Sovereignty and Democracy as "having a meaningful say in one's life and the community one lives in," we would need to significantly modify our political and economic systems to bring power back towards individuals, families, and towns rather than states and countries.
Part 1: Democracy, typically understood, is nothing more than laundered oligarchy
As discussed in my earlier piece on Democracy:
What if the “facts” you are given about the situation do not correspond with the reality of the situation? What if you’ve been lied to? Could you know? Maybe if someone told you “there are potholes on my road!” and you drive on the road every day and know damn well it’s perfectly paved then you could tell that person they’re full of shit. But can you tell me what is going on halfway around the world? Do you *know*? Or must you trust in some other person or institution to give you information?
Must of us engage in the later. We pick institutions worthy of trust and assume that the information they have given us is at least largely correct. There is nothing inherently wrong with this (hell, one might argue it is entirely necessary in today’s world), but it is important to understand how this undermines the myth of democracy further.
No institution is, itself, democratic. The dominant institutions are small in number and the themselves are each dominated by a small cadre of elites at the top. Power laws, power laws everywhere:
We place our trust in different institutions. And these institutions are, by and large, asymmetric: the institution is smaller than its audience. And if the audience believes the institution, then a large number of people will make decisions based on information that a small number of people give to them.
Furthermore, there is every incentive for Elites to capture and then use these institutions. How else am I to convince the people that my interests are legitimate (perhaps, *more* legitimate than their own)?
“Democracy”, properly understood, is nothing more than Laundered Oligarchy.
Media and Tech elites are so adamant about defending this "democracy" because it is the system in which they can manipulate the people to support elite interests and legitimize those interests with "the will of the people" through voting.
The ability to shape the minds of others via control of information (and the socialization process) is immensely powerful. To the extent people make decisions based on the information they are given, shifting that information is effectively shifting people's decisions. We know that supporters of a political party change their political views "immediately and substantially" after that party switches its position on an issue (as anyone who remembers the March-April 2020 COVID media whiplash should know).
I eat stuff 👁️ @NWrunningman@kerpen Turns out you don't have to pack the Supreme Court; just get them to watch CNN
But beyond information, we tend to live materially at the mercy of more powerful actors:
“Freedom” is not about having a particular set of formal rights. It requires a particular distribution of material power.
If my rights exist at the mercy of an entity more powerful than me, of what use are those rights?
Events in Canada have made this exceptionally clear, both with the GoFundMe debacle and the recent seizure of bank accounts associated with protestors. What kind of "sovereignty" do I have if I can be deplatformed for the wrong opinion, have my business shut down for wrongthink, or have my bank account seized (and my dog put down and kids taken away) for exercising my lawful (and natural) right to protest a tyrannical imposition on my life?
Part 2: Why we believe in Democracy
I am certain everyone has their own reasons, but I will focus on the overarching ideological reason I see:
People deserve to have a meaningful say in their own lives. So long as you are not harming others, you deserve to be free from their interference. No one should be forced to do something without their consent. We are each rational beings, capable of making our own decisions and judging our own circumstances. We do not need to listen to various authorities to tell us what to think; we are called to judge our own lives. "Man is the measure of all things" dissolved into "each man is the measure of his own things." Via private self-reflection and public conversation, we are able to progress both as individuals and as a society towards greater knowledge, moral perfection, happiness, and prosperity.
I believe that, at their core, every supporter of Democracy holds this to be true. Certainly there may be other background beliefs, and I am not claiming that this belief is inherently modern or pre-modern or Christian or secular or anything else; however, in my various engagements with people in the real world and in the Virtual one, this is the belief I inevitably reach when I ask someone "why" they support democracy. (If you have encountered, or believe in, different beliefs around democracy, please share them in the comments below)
The great tension of democratic politics, then, is trying to identify the balance between our responsibility to others and our moral demand to have a "meaningful say" in our own lives. As I've demonstrated before, "harm" is not a sufficient way to do this, nor is "consent." And yet, those tend to be the barometers most frequently referred to.
Perhaps that is why some argue that Democracy is associated with alienation and the dissolution of responsibility. The demand for a meaningful say in my own life trumps anything else. Ignore the fact, for now, that the people who champion this unrestrained "individualism" end up being nothing more than a shadow of a man:
The endpoint of Autonomy is, ironically, the abolition of our inner depths. In some ways, perhaps, an abolition of the Self. In its place, we witness the emergence of a terrible new order: collectivism without community, alienation without actualization.
Our society becomes little more than a shallow sea of nodes: each one thinking the same thoughts, desiring the same things, and consuming the same products. The freest man in the world is the NPC.
This question of finding balance between communal demands & responsibilities and individual desires will continue. But as I noted in the introduction, this piece is aimed more so at the material aspect of this debate: what material conditions would be necessary for people to truly have a say in their lives?
Part 3: What would taking Democracy seriously look like?
Democracy entails individuals having a meaningful say in their lives, which necessitates individuals and families having sufficient power to make their own choices and defend them. So, what would it take to return power to the people? Not some representatives acting on behalf of the abstract capital-P People, but the actual, physical, concrete, real people. The individuals and families and towns that comprise this country.
Democracy is Localist
As I noted earlier, the power to shape the minds of others is immense within a democracy. That power becomes significantly less serious when I can independently confirm the claims being made. If you lie to me about the state of the roads in my town, I can call you out on it. If you lie to me about the state of the roads in Los Angeles, I have no way of confirming or denying this independently.
Considering this, democracy is more potent on a local scale. We should endeavor to have as many decisions as possible be made at a local level.
Now, for these decisions to have material impact, they must be backed by power. Self-sufficiency, at least in terms of the necessities (housing, healthcare, food), should be as local as possible.
On the housing front, people should own the homes they live in. For a man to be free, he must have some control over the most important things in his life. A man who does not even own the home he sleeps in, that he raises his kids in, is a slave.
On the healthcare front, every town should have a doctor or two, a GP clinic, etc. Rural areas should not be seeing their hospitals disappear at a disturbing rate.
On the food front, local food production is ideal. And no, we do not need megacorp industrial agriculture to feed the world (or even just the West). More family farms and local small or medium farms is ideal.
I want to note something here: economic localism relies on the same principle as economic nationalism, simply scaled down. In the same way that economic nationalism argues that supply chain durability and national security are higher goods than unbridled economic efficiency, economic localism makes these claims at a different scale. How much of New York's politics is beholden to the oligarchy entrenched in New York City? Localism is required for people to have a say. Perhaps in a small country this is not as significant, as the scales of nationalism and localism are not so different. But if we hold to democracy, if we endorse the idea that people should have a meaningful say in their lives, and we understand that people can have the most meaningful say in their local communities as opposed to national ones, we must embrace localism (both economic and political).
But we aren't going to have a bunch of independent, 100% self-sufficient small towns across the U.S.! It's highly likely that regions will be interconnected. These regions will likely be large, but smaller than most existing states. So, a utopian proposal, since so much of America simply cannot get along at this point:
National Divorce is a pipedream, but if we're going for a homerun, perhaps we should allow contiguous counties to either join neighboring states, or form their own state if their population is high enough. There would have to be some conditions (you can't form your own state and leave one county stranded alone on the other side of the rest of the Legacy State, maybe it's subject to a 2/3rds vote, etc.) I think thats a far more reasonable home run scenario than literally splitting off and forming a second country.
At a certain point I feel we will likely need to accept the death of the integrationist project and acknowledge that there is a difference between "We live here and we've lived here for 200 years and we don't want outsiders coming in" vs "We live here and we think the other people who live here don't belong so we're going to hurt them until they leave." The former does not bother me (or, really, anyone else, beyond the hysterics of media personalities). The latter is an actual threat to people. Freedom of Association =/= Freedom to purge undesirables from your midst. I don't think I need to go into the literature on trust, diversity, and social life to understand that maybe it would be easier to defeat poverty and improve people's lives if we weren't beholden to a counterproductive sacred cow.
Power must be visible for Democracy to be real
I want you all to understand that the appeal of apathy and irony today is normal. One of the most pernicious and difficult things to deal with in this world is the obscurity of power.
The greatest tragedy of our world is that, lost in the endless array of kafkaesque bureaucracies and narrative-forming entities, it isn’t even clear who to blame!
The proliferation of endless, useless bureaucracies must be stopped. Part of this will require simply breaking up bureaucratic institutions and devolving the power back to local levels, but not everything can be done locally. How do you fix the federal level?
First, power that sits outside formal channels must be brought to heel.
The NGO universe largely must be obliterated. It is a way for elites to launder money/evade taxes and shape public discourse. It is a way to capture government officials. Simple idea: apply the same kind of rule to charitable organizations as we apply to less-regulated financial institutions like REITs/BDCs. Each 501c3 must define its mission and clear beneficiaries and demonstrate that at least 90% of the revenues+donations it gets each year go directly to those beneficiaries. So less than 10% can go to salaries, paying for offices, and other administrative costs for the organization itself. It's clear these organizations waste massive amounts of money. That cannot be allowed to continue.
First, there must be an absolute ban on working for any company that you previously regulated or otherwise regularly engaged with. No conflicts of interest will be allowed.
Second: For former politicians, there should be a 50% special tax on all remaining income after paying all regular taxes. This special tax is irrespective of the source of income (wages, capital gains, etc.).
Second, the government itself must be reformed.
Shut down most of the 3-letter agencies. Reform the remainder.
The US federal government can act as a facilitator of the flow of capital without much bureaucracy. Audits can be automated. This will of course require running the federal government in such a way that employee performance actually matters. (Which is what most people mean when they say "run the government like a business"...they're not making some complicated philosophical argument)
Tyranny must be opposed in all areas - government is not the only undemocratic, coercive institutions
Let’s be honest here: our workplaces are tyrannies. They are. No one who genuinely holds freedom as a core value can defend the tyrannical nature of our jobs. We need to be able to have a say in our lives. In the same way that “No taxation without representation!” was a rallying cry during the revolution, we should apply the same principle to our workplaces.
Businesses are not allowed to simply do whatever they want under the claim "they're private companies!" There is no such thing as a private company. If we want to return power to the people, workplace democracy and worker ownership is critical to this.
Call me a communist all you want. Either you actually care about people having a say in your life or not. Capital-D Democracy is just laundered oligarchy. Capital-F Freedom is just mental children claiming that not being able to do exactly what they want, when they want to, is literally HURTING them. No, the contracts we sign when we join a firm do not count as "free." Maybe we should treat the fact that so many people are unsatisfied with their jobs more seriously. In the same way that we must refuse to suffer under the tyranny of kafkaesque bureaucracies in government, we also should refuse to suffer under them in the corporate world. If people are to have power in their lives, we must acknowledge that government is not the only place where we engage in Public affairs.
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