Archive for February, 2013

The naked democracy

Posted in thoughts on February 11, 2013 by isidor

Latouche’s ideas were a nice surprise when I first heard of them; a genuine theory of the décroissance (downscaling or degrowth), set against the background of the economic crisis, could have been water to a house on fire where everybody is desperately seeking a scapegoat. It also seemed to flesh out part of what was spinning in my mind, as well as providing a breath of fresh air when compared to more conventional thinkers.
Upon actually reading one of his books (Pour sortir de la société de consommation), the first thing I came across was, apparently, a somewhat stereotyped democratic formula, with a hint of socialism, based on a long list of abstract ideals. Subcomandante Marcos’ is widely cited in the book, especially his advocacy to a democracy where “he who commands, commands obeying”. I hastily finished the rest of the book, finding it rather lacking, especially when it came to putting theory into practice; a part of the process that doesn’t seem to be seriously contemplated outside the realm of wishful thinking. His “ideal planet” has no geography, no structure, no facets. It is a homogeneous shapeless blob of well intentioned beings, straight out from Rousseau’s state of nature. It is an utopia I admire, but it is also a world more suited to fairy tales rather than to the complexity of a globalised world and the implicit nature of human societies.

1920 The Hat Makes the Man

One could say that such problems are understandable for a theory in its infancy; however, even then, throughout the book I couldn’t help but keep questioning the fundamental assumption the décroissance line of thought is based on.
Let us go back to the Subcomandante for a second. His statement, quoted above, seems to make perfect sense in itself, but it should be the target of further scrutiny: obedience of the political establishment is the key to such a revolution (and many others). Once a new political and social order is set (through revolutionary methods, or however else), a new hierarchy is expected to come into place, according to, more or less, certain schemes established by the revolutionary ideals.
In the mind of the author, previous ideas (and especially previous conditions) can be erased without leaving a trace: everybody can start from a blank slate. Through education and equality of conditions, a new kind of human arises; thus a new, true democracy is forged on the basis that the rising powers shall prove obedient to this renewed moral compass.
Assuming that such a thing might happen, the question I cannot ignore is: obedience to whom?
Etymologically, the answer is simple: democracy is the rule of the people. That could be our answer: the people are to be obeyed. The conundrum, however, goes deeper, as another question arises: who is “the people”?
Technically, “the people” are the inhabitants of one specific country; then again, modern countries have such layered societies and internal discrepancies that “the people” cannot be but an extremely abstract concept.
A generic will of the people, a conceptual entity that channels all tangential lines of democratic thought into a more generic container: supposedly, that is the heart of a democracy; in other words, the minimum common denominator of all private interests, that takes into account basic human rights.
It can therefore be said that the purpose of the state is to satisfy those interests, protecting at the same time minorities and weaker classes in a certain measure, as well as producing and maintaining a Constitution that evolves in time.
The immediate counter-sense of such a system is that the groups within it are encouraged to compete, but at the same time rules are imposed to keep competition on a fair basis. As all groups ultimate desire is to prevail, there is no explicit impediment to the distortion of the rules through the exercise of power (as long as it is done within the margins of the laws), as has been happening in most countries in favour of liberal capitalism ever after WWII.
Thus, an oppressive “democracy” with a political caste that only acts towards its own interest is indeed a democracy; an egoistic behaviour on the ruling classes’ part is only a reflection of the entire societal substrate, entire generations brought up to think that everybody is equal, but that you yourself should try to be (in Orwell’s terms) more “equal” than others.
This mechanism can especially be observed in the way democratic change is introduced; social rights and privileges are only obtained when a large, or powerful enough majority successfully lobbies for its objectives, not because other groups do it in the name of fairness or ideals. Groups occasionally help each other, forming powerful complexes capable of snowballing to country-wide consent, but in the end this is done exclusively because they benefit from each other. In other words, every man is out there to fend for himself.
The weakest spot of the recent protests against Wall street and the financial system was indeed this: that a group of otherwise unrelated people rallied for the sake of justice; their slogans and requests, however, did not advocate a radical change: they simply attacked the infamous 1%. That is to say: we don’t want to change the world, we want the same advantages as the 1% does (and if we cannot have them, neither can they). Which is, in itself, a good resolution, but it does not address the root of the problem: behead one queen and you will soon see a new one emerging.

Consequently the major constant in such a democracy will be unregulated growth, where the largest entities are not in control of themselves, rather they are bound to inter and intra-group interest conflicts. Returning to Latouche, it is evident that no faction proposing an economic downscaling can obtain consensus in a democracy unless a majority does (or is mislead to believe that it can) profit through such actions. Changing the way supply and demand works would be possible only from a strong central power, but that would also be absolutely undemocratic as no such a measure could ever be popular. Even though currently a majority (or a sizable part) of the population in the Western World is pro-environment and favourable to halting climate change, such a position is but a castle of cards: as westerners are not currently significantly impacted, and no energetic crisis can be accurately predicted, approving of the cause appears easy. When personal sacrifices will actually be in order (the 1973 oil crisis being an apt example), the public opinion will be much easier to sway in one direction or another. Almost a century worth of advertisement, psychological engineering and aggressive marketing cannot be undone in the space of one generation: we are born to consume. This is already showing in the form of dietary choices: an immediate example is that, with the impending depletion of maritime resources, consumption of seafood (especially sushi) is on the rise. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and no consumer item appears to be left untainted.

 

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We wish to make it clear that it not our intention to diminish the incredible benefits democracy and consumer society has granted us (“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” as W. Churchill would have it), but rather to delineate the situation where the current establishment (or part of it) is apparently unsuitable to face the challenges of the 21st century. A democracy that is mostly policed by human desires (rather than rational analysis), that in the name of liberal capitalism sacrifices stability in the name of competition, that maximises individual or kinship based gains at the expense of the rest, such a system renders vital decision-making decidedly too slow to prevent what several major contemporary authors (such as E.O. Wilson, J. Diamond and Latouche himself) keep warning us about.

Lastly, as a thought: are the people accountable for their actions? How do you account responsibility in a society where everybody decides? If we are wrong on a collective scale, who is to be blamed? In extreme cases you can dethrone a tyrant, behead kings, establish a scapegoat; but how do you cope with your own mistakes, if we always seek the causes far from our own doorstep? Blowing up one or two Parliaments is a solution I often hear in conversations, but that simply is not going to cut it.

In conclusion, I will not provide my own far-fetched solution, my utopian paradise. What we really need to acknowledge is that human nature has certain features that ultimately trickle down into society, no matter what culture we are born into, and that societies have intricate relationships with the environment. Evolutionary psychology, system sciences and ecology are all new disciplines, but they will be have to be the deeply integrated (rather than the prevalent superficial and short-term thinking) into any political invention if we are to disentangle ourselves from this mess.

(Paintings by M. Ernst)

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5 months later, Montreal

Posted in illustration, log on February 6, 2013 by isidor

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