Signs of the decline

Is democracy a credible political force?

Making the above statement will get you curious looks. Then they explain, slowly as if to a child, swelling with pride at what they know: no, it’s the best system.

Yet their confidence is slipping.

In 1789, with the French Revolution, it was decided that we could have a leaderless society. In place of kings, we had administrators elected by the people, every vote the same. In place of caste, we had had financial competition. Instead of a nation, we could use political dogma to make a nation-state.

The first bullet in democracy’s heart was thus: the next two centuries were unmitigated warfare, political intrigue, murder and corruption.

Only now are we seeing the second bullet: it has become apparent that democracy isn’t a system of governing; it’s a system of pretending to govern, while allowing vicious moneyed interests to manipulate votes.

Can democracy govern itself enough to avoid insane problems?

Is America in denial about the extent of its financial problems, and therefore incapable of dealing with the gravest crisis the country has ever faced?

The debt and the delusion are both all-American: $14 trillion (£8.75tn) of debt has been amassed and there is no cogent plan to reduce it.

{…}

The current $14tn debt is bad enough, she argues, but the future commitments to the baby boomers, commitments for health care and for pensions, suggest that the debt burden is part of the fabric of society:

“You have promises implicit in the structure of welfare states and aging populations that mean there is an unacknowledged debt that will have to be paid for by future taxpayers, and that could double the published figures.” – BBC

When the fox guards the hen house, you’re in trouble.

With democracy, the hen house is full of foxes, and they vote to borrow hens from the future.

If you stand up in front of them and say, “Hey, I need to cut your benefits,” you get riots like in Greece.

But the benefits are the only non-essential things on the budget. Well, that and good-intentioned nanny state programs like equality education, and a massive federal bureaucracy that exists mostly to serve those and entitlement programs.

The foxes in the hen house will not vote for fewer free things. They’ll vote for more.

Someone else will figure out how to fix it.

The state of the oceans can best be likened to a case of multiple organ failure in urgent need of intervention, suggests the most comprehensive analysis yet of the world’s marine ecosystems.

Global warming, overfishing and plastic pollution are wreaking havoc at an unprecedented rate on marine life, reported scientists at a recent meeting of the International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).

The impacts of climate change — acidifying oceans, coral bleaching and habitat loss — are the biggest cause of decline in ocean health, and the hardest to solve, some researchers told SolveClimate News in interviews.

Global warming will “swamp everything,” said Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries from the University of British Columbia who attended the meeting. “The effects are all around … If we don’t do something quickly, the oceans in 50 years won’t look like they do today.” – Reuters

But it gets even worse. Democracy means freedom.

Freedom means the ability to make moral choices. But who pays when you get it wrong?

The rest of society does.

Some litter, they can clean up; but after years of no accountability, people are throwing just about everything overboard, or into forests, or by the roads.

No one wants to be the person to sacrifice their own pleasure and power for the group, because they don’t trust the group to protect them.

They don’t trust it because the group is fundamentally united on selfishness, not shared values. In a democracy, the only shared value is that we all want no shared values except the value of no values.

Results of public goods contribution games in the laboratory seem robust (start at 50%, decline to 0% over time). I run this test every semester in my classrooms to explain the conflict between self-interest and the social good. Looking at the problem from a distance, students have a hard time understanding why people fail to contribute. But once they are in the shoes of the decision-maker, they under provide the public good themselves.

How we play this game is as follows: Let say there are 20 students in the classroom. I give each student 4 cards, 2 black and 2 red. The black cards are worthless. What counts will be the number of red cards.

{…}

Remember, though, that there is no exclusion from the consumption of the good. So an individual will be able to consume it even when she hasn’t contributed to it. Unfortunately this leads to the free-riding phenomenon: individuals want others to contribute, and they want to keep the red cards to themselves.

From an individual’s point of view, the other 19 people giving both red cards up will be worth 190 points. With 2 red cards at hand, the individual collects 210 points. But people catch up on free riding, and everyone starts keeping the red cards in their hands instead of contributing, and everyone ends up with 20 points. – Psychology Today

It may be that, instead of being an alternative to totalitarianism, democracy is a better form of totalitarianism.

By convincing everyone to be selfish, except to vote on the ideas presented to them by the state and controlled by the vast majority who vote according to what they see on television, democracy ensures a compliant population.

By allowing absolute “freedom,” it encourages its citizens to inundate themselves in irrelevant information as everyone exercises this right at once, conveniently hiding any unpopular ideas behind a wall of chaos.

Its emphasis on individual rights guarantees social chaos, including littering, which requires a strong government to enforce rules limiting these problems.

The result is a system with only one rule — don’t go against the system — that successfully assimilates, co-opts and neutralizes all opposition.

Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Khan only dreamed of such a powerful system!

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) says that deforestation during the month of May amounted to 268 square miles, a rise of 144 percent over May 2010. 35 percent of the clearing occurred in Mato Grosso, the state where agricultural expansion is fast-occurring.

INPE’s announcement comes two weeks after Imazon, an NGO, said deforestation in May 2011 was 72 percent higher over May 2010. The discrepancy in the estimates result of different methodologies in analyzing satellite data. Both INPE and Imazon have near real-time deforestation monitoring capabilities.

Month-to-month deforestation estimates using this systems tends to be highly variable, but the trend over recent months seems to indicate a substantial increase in deforestation over last year, which was the lowest since annual record-keeping began in 1988. – ENN

The worst enemy of humanity is the individual without rules.

They do what is in their own interests and as the population grows in size, they exceed the amount of resources available.

Even more, by doing what is in their own interests, they remove the need for restrictions and challenges that keep the best rising. Everyone is equal; soon that means that no one is challenged.

The result is a society of starving, angry, destructive people who are bitter because they didn’t do anything “wrong” — all they did was what seemed to be right at the time, for their own interests:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. – Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”

It is not popular to take this view.

We like to think that democracy sets us free, and that consumerism is just a weird by-product of democracy tolerating capitalism, when really they are one and the same.

They are the impulse of the Crowd that is composed of individuals, each who wants only one rule: no one can tell me what I cannot do.

When there is not a higher ideal present, humanity reverts to the Crowd. It happens in every part of the world, and it happens in every civilization that is dying out.

The recent attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul has obscured a less spectacular, but equally important, news item: the imminent demise of any pretense of democracy in troubled, volatile Afghanistan.

{…}

Presidential Spokesman Siamak Herawi dismisses such concerns, saying that the Loya Jirga is an inherently democratic structure.

“People can talk freely and declare their views about the government,” he said. “This shows that the Afghan government is committed to the principles of democracy and freedom of expression. A Traditional Loya Jirga is meant to find out the people’s will, and this is a democratic action.”

But so far Karzai has eviscerated anyone who might stand against him. The Parliament has been rendered toothless by the Special Court, whose power it has been unsuccessful in opposing. – Global Post

We like to “make believe” that the problem is Afghanistan, not democracy.

But in our own countries, our leaders have passed on massive problems like deforestation, pollution, corruption, a debt we cannot repay, and a society slowly descending into Idiocracy.

If democracy is the common ingredient in both cases, it is the one we should blame.

32 Comments

  1. Ouroborus says:

    We are too far gone, I fear…yet I still see much beauty left in the world.

    http://donotseekthelight.org/DNSTL_zine_winter08.pdf

    1. We are too far gone, I fear…yet I still see much beauty left in the world.

      You are letting your conscious mind talk you out of what you instinctually know, which is that this is a good universe and it will pull through.

  2. sanrabb says:

    I’ve come to believe that all efforts like this are pissing into the hurricane.

    1. I’ve come to believe that all efforts like this are pissing into the hurricane.

      We forget at our peril that human societies have changed in the past at the instigation of small, committed groups who at the right point in history hit on workable solutions in a form they could communicate to others.

      We don’t have to convince every human being — just the influential, capable, active and localized ones (probably 5% or less of the population).

      Almost 80% of these people are politically inert anyway, unless it’s an easy issue like “war saddam”,”free medical” or “moar jobs.”

  3. User Loser says:

    Its not just financial it’s that we’re on the wrong track and there are headlights coming. The United States is failing because we’ve let the evil ones take over. Mean spirited and greedy. They destroy because no one stops them just because. We’ve built a society built to fail. Paved paradise literally.

    1. The United States is failing because we’ve let the evil ones take over. Mean spirited and greedy. They destroy because no one stops them just because.

      If everyone is equal, evil people have rights too.

      What the rest of us don’t have is the right to a stable country, because rights are only on the level of individuals.

      It’s socialization trumping design sense.

  4. Question says:

    Why you always mention the French revolution as kickstarting modern egalitarian societies and you never mention the American revolution? It was has important if not more to this rising (or descending) to modern democracy. It was the first stone so to speak.
    Or do you view American revolution as a heroic, romantic struggle for independence?

    1. Why you always mention the French revolution as kickstarting modern egalitarian societies and you never mention the American revolution?

      Although they’re both Revolutions, the French revolution was anti-aristocratic, while the American revolution was simply a desire for independence from England. Its anti-aristocratic elements came after that, building on the work done with the Magna Carta.

      1. M says:

        Thomas Jefferson talked about there being a ‘natural aristocracy’ among men; the American Revolution was not against the institution of aristocracy per se, just against the rule of King George.

        1. Thomas Jefferson talked about there being a ‘natural aristocracy’ among men; the American Revolution was not against the institution of aristocracy per se, just against the rule of King George.

          Exactly. The Americans viewed themselves in a different context than Europe: they were a colony, and therefore, a different type of government was needed. It was only in 1789 with the Constitutional Congress that they shifted from the colony-view to the idea of nation-state-building.

          1. Q says:

            Yes, but instituted a bill of rights stating that all men are born equal. Plus it had a great masonic component to it and masonic ideology are clearly in the root of the liberal wave that swept through western civilization, not to mention the BIG humanistic component.
            It was also a republican movement hat inspired European republicans that this form of state rule was viable, even if the American founding fathers were not conscious of this. The French revolution was not just a popular revolution. -it was instigated by well educated upper class bourgeois people, against secular aristocracy and clergy rule.
            American revolution also brought the concept of religious freedom to the fold.

            1. Yes, but instituted a bill of rights stating that all men are born equal.

              That was after the French revolution.

              You are correct in that there was a liberal impetus to America; however, it was within a highly conservative ideology that today we would consider racist, classist, misogynistic and elitist.

              It may have been homophobic as well, but it seems that the idea of open homosexuality in public, like the idea of an ethnically-mixed nation, did not fit.

          2. Q says:

            “…it was within a highly conservative ideology that today we would consider racist, classist, misogynistic and elitist.”

            It is true that by today standards the society was quite different. But still it was a important “step” towards todays contemporary reality. Though I don’t believe French revolutionaries were less racist or less homophobes. Society back then was quite racist in all classes, and in America there was African Americans involved in the battles, something it did not happened in France for sure.
            Plus, it was a blow in European colonial power, marking the beginning of the end on that particular department too.
            The American Declaration of Independence also inspired the “French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”.

            “That was after the French revolution.”

            Still it was the output of the revolutionary process. Wich in the end is what matters. More than what the initial intention of the revolutionaries was.
            While definitely more conservative and even aristocratic than the French revolution, the American revolution as to be considered a sort of “build-up” to the transformations that would later occur in the western world.

  5. JHB says:

    One irony of the contemporary age happens to be that China, because of the Communist Party’s stranglehold on power, can pursue well-functioning markets without crowds being demagogued into unsustainable entitlements. But they get a lot of things wrong too. A lot of greenies have a fetish with rail, a 19th century technology. China has thrown away 300 billion dollars into high-speed rail with not much to show for it, just to keep up with the Joneses/impress the Europeans. D’oh!

    As Aristotle once observed, while authoritarian government is the best when it gets things right, it is the worst when it gets things wrong. In contrast, rule by the many, while the least excellent of the possibilities of government, is also the least worst when it becomes corrupt. (Incidentally, Constitutional Government is the virtuous mode of government by the many in Aristotle’s thought, while Democracy is the corrupt mode of government by the many.)

    1. AnHero says:

      “As Aristotle once observed, while authoritarian government is the best when it gets things right, it is the worst when it gets things wrong…”

      …so if we one a truly great society to emerge, we should have more ruled by authoritarian governments?

      What you said sounds to me like an argument for mediocrity. Let the great be great and let the failures fail and be washed away. We don’t do this because the idea of letting entire peoples be washed away is just too terrifying.

      1. JHB says:

        We don’t do this because the idea of letting entire peoples be washed away is just too terrifying.

        True. A body-count in the millions *is* a terrifying thing.

        Consider China’s Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961. They basically created a public option for food, a Universal Comprehensive Foodicare plan if you will. What’s more basic and fundamental in human life than food, right? Chinese authorities didn’t want to leave such important decisions in the hands of the vulgar many.

        Estimates of the death toll range of the event range from 16,500,000 – 46,000,000 people.

        Oops?

        1. JHB says:

          edit fail, d’oh

        2. They basically created a public option for food, a Universal Comprehensive Foodicare plan if you will. What’s more basic and fundamental in human life than food, right? Chinese authorities didn’t want to leave such important decisions in the hands of the vulgar many.

          Leveling (socialism) reduces the ability of the competent few to correctly manage the many.

          The result is that all things happen on the level of that vulgar many — e.g. neo-incompetent.

          This is why all socialist societies have failed, and methods of socialism like unions tend to destroy what they claim to protect.

  6. Zimriel says:

    The first bullet in democracy’s heart was thus: the next two centuries were unmitigated warfare, political intrigue, murder and corruption.

    To be a little more nuanced about it, if we’re starting from 1789 then it was only the next 25 years which wrought “warfare, murder, and corruption” upon the world. Then in 1815 the Congress of Vienna brought back the old system, with better safeguards. (I left alone “intrigue”; we can’t get rid of that.)

    Robespierre and Napoleon should have been the bullet in democracy’s heart. They did succeed in planting slugs into several other vital organs. Democracy as an ideal recovered slowly – maybe even after 1956, with the discrediting of socialism as just another form of already-discredited fascism. (Except in the Third World of course.)

    1. Democracy as an ideal recovered slowly – maybe even after 1956, with the discrediting of socialism as just another form of already-discredited fascism.

      You may be confused here. The ideal of fascism is unity through commonality; the concept of socialism is individualism.

      Further, socialism doesn’t seem discredited at all; in fact, it’s part of the governmental system of almost all new world and European nations.

      1. Mihai says:

        True. I don’t know about America, but in western Europe, socialism- even in its extreme forms of communism and anarchy- is a very valued doctrine, especially among the youth.

        I find it ironic that many “intellectuals” consider themselves as communist sympathizers, when one of communism’s aims was always a brutal leveling, keen on destroying the intellectual elite.

        But, hey, they live in countries that never had a communist government, so they are just couch potatoes that talk from whatever crap books they read. What I don’t understand is a slow, but visible, re-emergence of socialist sympathies in eastern Europe, who knows quite well the consequences of a leftist tyranny.

        1. What I don’t understand is a slow, but visible, re-emergence of socialist sympathies in eastern Europe, who knows quite well the consequences of a leftist tyranny.

          People tend to pick political ideologies like they do clothing. They want something that makes them look nice. Irony works, as does radical pure idealism (vernacular sense), which makes them seem altruistic and daring to their peers. :)

      2. Kinderling says:

        “The ideal of fascism is unity through commonality; the concept of socialism is individualism.

        “fascism is unity through commonality” – tell that to the assimilated German Jews
        “concept of socialism is individualism” – tell that to the white heterosexual males who are most joyfully positively discriminated against.

        Fascism is unity through the owned physical property of the mother (Judaism, Nazism, Islam); socialism is thru the idealized eyes of the sainted mother (socialism, Hinduism). Mother traumatized populations.

        The boys who submit to either pressure, become gangstas, mommies’ boys or homosexuals yet are nothing to the boy who becomes a Communist.

  7. Slava M. says:

    Mr Sanrab wrote…

    “all efforts like this are pissing in the wind”

    Yes, they are. It is fun to play with pure and friendly ideas, it stimulates my brain; the neurons breathe with the luminous explosions of new connection.

    But we are talking of a reality shift here. That is, literally a shift to a new reality in the mind of Mass Man. And reality shifts are radical by definition, they require uprooting a habitual response to the world.

    No such shift is possible without a cataclysmic event, rendering all pure and intelligent discussion into the realm of the potential and debarred from the immediate. Philosophical play that could one day provide a foundation for a new reality, but ineffectual in bringing about any change in the present.

    1. But we are talking of a reality shift here. That is, literally a shift to a new reality in the mind of Mass Man. And reality shifts are radical by definition, they require uprooting a habitual response to the world.

      In my experience, if you’ve got a room of twenty people, and one of them brings up a dissident point consistently, clearly, accurately and fairly, then others will start to bend their ears to this new idea. Over time, things change.

      1. Slava M. says:

        Is this the result of injecting a dissident view or the consensus reality running its course?

        I am not sure.

        1. Is this the result of injecting a dissident view or the consensus reality running its course?

          Both, in many cases. But “running its course” is a matter of degrees. We’ve been over 50% for the modern liberal democracy for several decades now; it becomes more apparent with each passing year.

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  10. crow says:

    Golly! 30 comments :)
    Sometimes you’re the Louisville Slugger, baby,
    Sometimes you’re the ball…

  11. John Parker says:

    Cogent, well thought out and articulated summation of the problem of democracy.

    So, individualism + minimal/no culture + pursuit of self-interest = The Herd

    If you were king for a day, what form of government or hierarchy would you institute?

    How would you begin to change our current cultural zeitgist? or put another way, if we are dying via Spenglers theory of civilizational decline, how do we arrest this decline and renew ourselves?

  12. Repair_Man_Jack says:

    It gets worse when people attach faith to political tenets the same way they recite catechisms. The “settled science” of AGW and the ridiculous faith economic central planners still have in Keynesianism are two examples. The US government just released the recent report on our Stimulus plan on 1 July (probably right before FedGov got the 59-Minute Rule) in order to obscure the fact that throwing money at a recession does not work.

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/cea_7th_arra_report.pdf

    People just have to learn that you can’t borrow time from God.

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