New idea of democracy
In Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen advises Alice: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." In the distant past it was not uncommon for the meaning of words to change, but it happened slowly, over centuries, based on common usage. With the advent of mass societies informed by mass media’s in the 20th Century, it became possible for those chosen to speak in the media to change meanings of words relatively quickly to promote ruler goals. Since each person develops his own understanding of words from his learning, which often differs considerably from others, communication, the essential ingredient of community, becomes impossible, leaving us like those who lived in the Tower of Babel.
The core of the neoliberal idea of democracy is a parliament or legislature with multiple electoral parties based on a "free market" economy, with limits on governmental action as it relates to the individual. Government is thought of primarily as the power of coercion, to be restrained. Since there will always be master and servant, ruler and ruled, the struggle for domination and liberation continues. Liberal democracy is the synthesis, where the ruling master and ruled servant live in peace together.
Supposedly individuals are protected from unjust coercion by the bill of rights and everyone has the "freedom" to pursue his own interests as he sees fit. An increasing majority of nations are said to be conforming to this model, and since there is no longer any viable opposing theory, political thinking has reached its zenith with nowhere else to go – that is, its history has ended.
A major problem with this concept of democracy is what happens when one person’s free pursuit of self interest encroaches on another’s. Where one is of the master class and the other not, which will receive the benefit of governmental coercion? Does the neo-liberal idea of democracy promote the freedom of the big fish to eat the little fish?
Traditional idea of democracy
The word democracy derives from the Greek word "demos" meaning "the people." To intelligently connect to the past its definition must involve people participating somehow in the important societal decisions which affect their lives, such as "government by the people," an idea that people can collectively manage their societies. In mass society each individual cannot personally participate in decisions of the whole. Traditional democracy therefore has come to mean decision-making by "representatives," often career politicians who are said to decide and act on behalf of their constituents.
US political philosopher Cliff DuRand asserts that the core of the historical idea of democracy is "the possibility of collective decision-making about collective action for a common good." He says this is the opposite of the concept found in US popular consciousness today, which defines democracy as the freedom of individuals to decide on their own on actions to pursue their own purposes. (1)
As for personal freedom, in society it’s inextricably and dialectically linked to personal responsibility — two perspectives or ways of looking at the same coin. The existence of either is conditional on the existence of the other. Humanity’s age old thirst for democracy derives from the truth that to the extent individuals participate individually or through real representation in the important decisions which affect their lives, society’s need for coercion diminishes. Such participation renders the decisions truly collective because the people accept and implement them as their own, which produces both freedom and responsibility. Government is seen not as the enemy to be feared but as the place where peoples’ problems are solved.
The traditional idea democracy is that the collective decisions are made at the level of the "common good" of the community involved. The family decides family matters; similarly do neighborhood, town, county, state, nation, and world communities. For nations and the world, the idea of democracy is a vision, something to be hoped for in the future. It sometimes exists around the world at the local level, where people know their representatives — at least by reputation — and communicate with them.
At this stage of human development, mass democracy is impossible because the limited types of contact the constituents can have with their so-called representatives (receiving information through the media) are not sufficient to make the decisions "belong to" the constituents. Real communication is a two way street. It involves not only the ability to hear, see or read the other’s statement, but also the ability to respond, question and test it by one’s reason and logic. Responsible social freedom occurs when people see themselves in a world of their own making, with power to fashion their own lives, which occurs through real communication with representatives about their collective decision making for the common good.
In general the larger, more powerful, more "developed" the nation, the less democratic it is. In the so-called liberal democracies the national governments are essentially oligarchic and authoritarian rather than democratic. The authoritarian character of these governments results from economic centralization at the nation-state level and the size and complexity of the resulting mass societies being created, together with the increasing ability to keep track of and manipulate what the citizens are thinking and doing. Technological innovation has been transforming these economies and populations have been increasing exponentially. Small, undeveloped countries lack the technique and resources to tap their citizens’ telephones, read their emails, infiltrate their groups, or manipulate their thinking through the media.
Liberal political systems and corporatism
Political systems develop differently in different nations, depending on factors such as growth, technology, history, size, population, culture, geography, natural resources, wealth, class, power, foreign domination, liberation and popular choice. Western laws centuries ago denoted the preferred business enterprise form as the profit "corporation," which is a legal device to allow individuals and groups to accumulate capital without personal responsibility. Initially it was conceived of as a public institution, but it became privatized.
Those who control these devices (officers, directors, managers) compete with real people seeking to influence political decisions. They also compete with people based special interest and status groups. But they have an overwhelming political power advantage over people and their groups because they are in the business of making money and the amount of capital they can raise and spend exponentially exceeds what people and their groups can raise from dues or donations. In neoliberal politics, money is power.
The purpose of a political system is to permit an appropriate degree of social change within an appropriate degree of societal stability. One outcome of choosing special interest over value based politics is that progressive change in and within the system becomes impossible. People’s needs and values are ignored while their special interest or status becomes the focal point. Another significant outcome is the disconnection (absence of accountability) between constituents and their so-called representatives. In this situation participation in elections becomes of questionable value. Structural political development slows and eventually halts while economic development becomes more rapid, benefiting the few at the expense of the many.
A functioning political system is one which seeks to move toward collective decision making and the primary needs served are peoples’ rather than those of capital, property or status. Corporatism is what results from serving corporate capital power over people power. Its ultimate form is fascism. The individual "freedom" in such societies is the freedom of the wealthy/strong to exploit the poor/weak.
Those who lack property or wealth or the means to obtain such are not free because they have to spend their time serving masters to find subsistence and they lack the economic power to refuse menial, low paying work or escape their life condition. Societal freedom is real freedom for everyone rather than for the few over the many or one class over another. It’s achieved collectively (democratically), not individually or by and for a special class.
The neoliberal political system is sought to be justified by calling it "pluralist." Supposedly everyone can promote his desired project. In this type of system, where advertising and other use of the mass media is crucial, capital accumulation produces political power and political power produces capital formation, benefiting those who control economic production and their institutions. The people’s role diminishes and eventually disappears. Interest groups and status communities compete against each other for limited public funds and beneficial governmental treatment such as tax breaks or affirmative action or other "equal rights." The outcome depends on who funds the political campaigns and the media.
Although capitalism has historically related to the common good in both progressive and regressive ways, its essential dynamic has now become that those who have much get more and become fewer, whereas those who have little get less and become more numerous. It’s normally through politics and political systems that people protect themselves from capital’s regressive, ravaging aspects — by limitation and regulation.
In the past, people were able to come together through common values and act collectively to form alternative power bases such as social movements, interest groups, unions, and nations to protect themselves to a certain extent. This does not happen in systems where power derives from capital rather than people. In recent years in First World national political systems we see the increasing dominance of capital power and the disintegration of people power. In the Third World, it prevents even the formation of viable nations. The small propertied classes which run things there are so closely entwined with foreign capital that they aren’t seen as embodying the national interest.
Parliaments as trading markets
Like military battalions, corporations are run hierarchically for the sake of efficiency. The only legal responsibility of those who run them is to increase shareholder value, which they do by investing in property, equipment, materials, labor, advertising and other businesses which increase profit. Although not yet incorporated, the neo-liberal politicians themselves become commercial businesses. Large transnational companies cannot successfully compete without investing heavily in state and national politicians. The profit from their political investing comes in the form of favorable legislation decreasing corporate tax and other "burdens" and preventing people from protecting themselves by education, infrastructure, safety, health, age and environmental regulation. Most importantly, big business profits by preserving the status quo in the political institutions, which it dominates.
Voting records show that most neoliberal politicians see themselves as responsible primarily for the needs of their sponsors or the class to which their sponsors belong. The "common good" is seldom mentioned. When it is, it’s claimed that corporate profits "trickle down" to the public. Some do, but not enough.
The neoliberal parliaments have become major trading exchanges for national and world commerce, like the NYSE, DAX and Nikkei. Rather than stocks it’s taxes, budgets, programs, institutions and politicians which come to these markets to be valued, bought and sold, and it’s those with wealth/property power and the ability to invest it wisely who are the ones that profit.
The politicians have become experts in retaining their seats by avoiding discussion of fundamental issues and votes on the few controversial issues which lobbyists and interest groups present. As a result the former never enter the public realms, which are informed by the mass media’s, and the latter never get finally decided. What and when issues are brought up for decision and how these are framed and debated are matters determined by a few powerful members called party leaders. The same issues are often reargued year after year on the margin with no final decision.
Occasionally the leaders allow members to vote their consciences, but only where the party doesn’t need the vote. Most of what becomes law is "pork" which benefits the few over the many, whether special interest, community, business or group of businesses. Most votes on bills are not based on principled consideration of their merits, rather they are trade offs for funding or votes on unrelated bills. Many laws are now being passed for show only. They may not become effective for years, or they may be contingent on events unlikely to occur. Their main purpose is to secure the politician’s seat and funding.
The bargaining that goes on is rarely made public. The so-called representatives are insulated from their constituents. When their seats and funding become secure, they become completely unaccountable to them, responsible only to their sponsors. It’s often impossible to determine where they really stand on specific issues. Like the huckster who sells snake oil at county fairs, neoliberal politicians are expected to lie about or at least exaggerate everything they say. All personal or issue campaigns are marketing projects which use the media and advertising techniques to sell their wares. The public warning is "buyer beware."
The neo-liberal parliament is a war parliament. In international matters, most of the so-called representatives appeal to people’s baser instincts, such as fear, hatred and an irrational "us vs. them" attitude. With public funds they build enormous military-industrial-intelligence-weaponry-war-coercion systems, which are used to help corporations make profits around the world even where it involves exploiting people and their resources, empowering oppressors, changing regimes, conducting long, brutal occupations, bombing, killing, injuring, imprisoning, torturing innocent civilians, and destroying international efforts at peacekeeping and development.
Their narrow "our nation only" perspective benefits their sponsors and ignores the obvious facts that it’s not in their constituents’ interest to have family members stationed, injured and killed in faraway places, or to be attacked by suicidal terrorists at home, or to give up privacy and liberties for security, and that all people have a common interest as members of the world community which they are destroying.
Many large companies and their officers and employees (the "military-industrial complex") depend on war to keep existing. They justify their enormous public cost by fear and national security propaganda. When one enemy disappears, they have to find another to stay in business. When their "Cold War" ended, the anticipated "peace dividend" never materialized. Instead they declared a new, perpetual war against "terrorism" and increased all their operations.
Commodity society and depoliticization
The neoliberal political economy envisions and produces an increasingly "privatized" society. Humans originally chose to live together in societies because much of what they do can be done better collectively than individually. Government used to be the place where collective decisioning and action promoted the common good. In those days, when the purpose was to protect and benefit people, institutions were created and developed to do this. Today we see the elimination of people oriented programs, replaced by institutions which benefit corporations and permit them to exploit people.
Societal functions which before were done collectively have now moved into private commerce, where they are valued, bought and sold. Such as provision of air, water, sanitation, electricity, infrastructure, transportation, communication, education, prisons, hospitals, parks, forests, even ideas. Just about everything has been privatized except those coercive functions which business needs but wants to have done publicly. Such as law enforcement, military, intelligence, security, and whatever keeps people powerless, controllable and exploitable.
Heretofore, periods of regress of civilization have been marked by the diminution of the public sphere. For instance with the fall of Roman civilization in the 5th century, political systems in Europe virtually disappeared and western man entered a dark age for several centuries. Personal power replaced the rule of law, people protection disappeared, most people became exploited serfs and civilization lost ground.
In the US the move toward democracy foundered in the middle of the 19th century, when the republic morphed into empire. As collective functions started privatizing themselves, much of the ideology became antiauthoritarian, libertarian, anarchist, decentralist. This was understandable and appropriate for autonomous people living in remote parts of a huge empire centered in New York City and Washington DC. The villain, however, was not government itself but centralization of political power and the failure of democracy.
The commodity society, production is for exchange rather than use. Often through advertising, it creates new and more consumer needs, and it ever needs and creates more consumers. In a society where people are oriented toward accumulating and consuming, they must continually make more money to acquire more things. Commercial values replace human values. What was formerly considered inalienable is now marketable. Such things as knowledge, virtue, conscience, love. Even personal identity becomes a commodity and personal integrity loses its value because it doesn’t pay. What pays is immorality, dishonesty, corruption.
In commodity society, the individual sees he is dependent on society rather than autonomous, but he experiences his dependence not as an opportunity for collective economic security but as a threat to his individual economic security. The ideology which encourages him to pursue his self interest weakens his social drive. Politics in the sense of progressively changing values and creating and changing institutions gradually disappears. People see their life chances as unchangeable, and no benefit appears from participating in the system, which is obviously being run for the rulers.
The neoliberal political system, which poses as democracy but in fact is the system of corporate oligarchy and empire, is now referred to as the "end of history" for political thinking. Clearly this characterization is accurate. Political thinking on the neoliberal path has reached a dead end. Commodity society, where structural political progress has become impossible, has no future but war and disintegration. The culture of individualism has separated us from each other, binding us together not by our values but by enmeshing us in a net of commercial relations. Our mass consumer society has become an overpowering depoliticizing force.
Tom Crumpacker is a retired lawyer.
(1) Cliff DuRand, "Socialism and Democracy," Havana, 1997.
(2) E.g., Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History," National Interest, 1989.