Reflections on democracy

There is a global war on democracy underway, and if it is not addressed, our future will be bleak. But let us start with the ground work of democracy, and follow from there.

Simple majority rule is accurately described as the tyranny of the majority; hence the need for constitutional democracy, where the rights and freedoms of the individuals are enshrined in constitutional law, and hopefully also, in custom and in practice.

And it is constitutional democracy that the vast majority of people mean when they talk about democracy. The term democracy, therefore, can be used as a short-hand for constitutional democracy, since that is what most people mean by the term, and what most people want; so long as we remember that democracy requires constitutionally-enshrined human rights and civil liberties for it to be a desirable system for human society. If we look at other, immediately possible forms of human society, I would say, constitutional democracy is far and away the best that is available, and we should defend it, and protect it, as we protect and defend our own lives. The alternative, at present, is one or another form of tyranny.

To elaborate further, unity and diversity; freedom and collective, cooperative action, are often taken to be mutual exclusive, but they are not. We can have a deeply valued sense of freedom and diversity, and at the same time, a sense of the value and underlying reality of unity within diversity; and an awareness that we, as human beings, have always been stronger, more creative and more adaptable when we work together and pool our resources and talents.

For this reason, a radically democratic, grass-roots, populist and participatory constitutional democracy which might be called libertarian socialism, to put a label on it, is the most intelligent form of human society of which I am aware, with the exception of libertarian communalism, which is probably too far of a stretch for human beings at this time, given the level of fear and mistrust that exists, and the illusions which rule our world. Again, liberty and collective action are not necessarily at odds, as simple reason would clearly indicate; nor are diversity and unity. Whether we realize these facts or not, will shape our future; and at this time of great crisis for human kind, it may be definitive, and decisive.

But again, to speak of the immediate task at hand, we must re-invigorate, and indeed, recapture and reclaim democracy, simply – constitutional democracy, of course, with human rights and freedom for all – or we will almost certainly have tyranny, and we will regret our passivity and complacency in the face of great danger, in the deepest of ways.

And what does this mean, in practice, at this particular time in history? It means, now as always, that we defend constitutional democracy and freedom from any threat, foreign or domestic, which seeks to usurp the power of the democratic process, and to gather unto itself unwarranted and tyrannical powers.

And what powers now threaten freedom and democracy, world-wide? It is no longer the church, the aristocracy or the monarchy. The threat now is from the merchant class, from the now globally hegemonic and overwhelmingly dominant business or corporate elite, who have effectively taken over the global economy, the governments, the electoral system, the political process and the media world-wide.

To defend freedom and democracy now, therefore, means to question, to challenge, to resist and to rebel against, and to overthrow, the corporate elite who have now become the ruling powers in the world. That is the task at hand, and nothing less will do.

*

As to the term socialism, there is much fear in many quarters relating to it, and it has become a dirty word, and a terrifying word for many, particularly in the United States, where the levels of political literacy are among the lowest in the world. But socialism need not be feared. Socialism has become synonymous in the United States with Karl Marx, and even with Stalin. But this is sheer idiocy, and the link is made out of ignorance. There is a profound lack of understanding there of the history of the left, and the various threads of it. The left was certainly not homogeneous then, two hundred years ago; nor has it been since; and nor is it now. Nevertheless, it is widely unknown that there was a major divide within the left, from the beginning, which was the Enlightenment thinking of the 18th century.

From the beginning, there was a spilt in the left between Marx and his acolytes, who sought to gain control of the powers of society, and in particular, the powers of the state, in order to carry out a revolution which would, supposedly, free all humanity; and those who questioned the idea of a few self-proclaimed intellectual elites taking over all power; as Bakunin in particular challenged, and rightly questioned.

The short history is that the wing led by Marx temporarily triumphed among the left, and the libertarian socialists were marginalized – and so much so, that socialism became synonymous in many people’s minds with absolute power held in the hands of the few, a la Stalin.

To be wary of, and even hostile to Stalinism, or any form of tyranny by a self-professed vanguard, is simply sane, and intelligent; but to dismiss socialism, or to equate it with these pathologies of social theory and political action, is a grand act of blindness and ignorance, if not self-delusion, or sheer deceit.

Socialism, at its root, values human solidarity, human equality, and the well-being of all; and we would be unwise at the least, if not foolish or radically confused, to dismiss or reject it. Socialism, at its heart, has nothing to do with tyranny or the rule of the few over the many; and when it has devolved into this, it no longer deserves the name socialism.

Do we remember the motto of the French Revolution – which, by the way, was far more revolutionary than the American Revolution, which sought, to be honest and frank, to replace the tyranny of British elite rule, with a merely American elite rule? It was liberty, fraternity and solidarity, along with constitutional democracy. In short, the French revolution, in contrast to the much glorified, but highly faulted American revolution, sought freedom, equality, solidarity and constitutional democracy.

And if we strike out or eliminate equality and solidarity from the mix, then we are not only infinitely poorer, and also weaker for it, but we will find ourselves living, sooner or later, once more in a tyrannical state, for you cannot have freedom without equality; and you cannot have the safeguarding of any of these values – of freedom, of democracy, or of equality – without solidarity.

In short, socialism, when it is practiced intelligently and honestly, keeps us rooted in the real world, and keeps us held fast to the values of equality and solidarity which are the very underpinnings of both freedom and democracy. To disavow them is a form of slow and protracted suicide. To embrace them is the road to freedom – but again, only if these values are linked deeply and in practice to the values of freedom, and to the refusal of any form of elite rule.

*

As to the libertarian elements of this conversation, meditation or dialogue, it should be noted that libertarianism originally had a very different meaning than it has come to mean today, at least within the United States and North America. Originally, libertarianism came out of the Enlightenment thinking of the 18th C, and from the left side of that thinking. It was an extension, from reason and experience, of the democratic and freedom-loving thrust of the enlightenment, which sought to limit any undue powers in society which might be or become oppressive or tyrannical.

Libertarianism originally meant an opposition to any form of oppressive powers over humankind, or any excessive concentration of powers in human society which could easily become oppressive. That included the aristocracy, the monarchy, the church, the military, or any other power which could come to dominate the society as a whole, including the rising powers of the business class.

Now, two hundred and some years later, the monarchy is not the dominant power in most nations, nor is the aristocracy or the church. It is the business elite who now rule over all, and left libertarianism, or libertarianism in its original sense, addressed and also rejected that form of tyranny, along with all other forms and guises.

In the US recently, libertarianism has, by contrast, devolved into a mistrust of government, with a blind eye turned towards the powers of business and corporations. It has devolved into a political philosophy of limited government, combined with a naive and uncritical laissez faire capitalism. Fortunately, that is changing, and the libertarian right, as it should be called, has begun to recognize that corporate and other business powers can be as tyrannical as any government powers ever can be.

*

For us to live in the real world, in short, we must address any form of tyranny, as Jefferson, limited in awareness as he was, so passionately urged. It would mean that we would challenge any excessive powers of government or the state; and also, any excessive powers of the business or corporate elite – as Jefferson himself urged, fully two hundred years ago, and which warning we ignored, at our great peril.

That is what we need now. We need a fierce and undeterred defence of constitutional democracy and freedom, against any attacks or any threats, foreign or domestic. And to say it again, at this time, that means deposing the corporate elite who have taken over, and who have usurped far too great of powers. If we refuse this task, then both democracy and also freedom will be no more, and we will be no more than serfs and slaves.

Stand now.

J. Todd Ring,
February 25, 2013

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