Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office. Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained. We should expect all those things of democracy and indeed democracy can, for the most part, deliver them.I was just chillin tryin to synthesize this dialectic, yo, when I recalled Ghandi's best joke. Asked by a reporter what he thought of Western Civilization, he said, "I think it would be a good idea!"
-Tyler Cowen on the "virtues and limits of democracy"
The President of the United States has openly, proudly admitted that he approved the use of interrogation methods that are by every measure -- including the measure of United States law -- criminal acts of torture. It is one of the most brazen and scandalous confessions of wrongdoing ever uttered by an American leader -- and it has had no impact whatsoever. No scandal, no outcry, no protest, no prosecution.
-Chris Floyd on our "deep, virtually catatonic civic paralysis"
But maybe the better punchline, or at least the more germane, was Chou En-Lai's assessment of the historical import of the Revolution of 1789: "Too early to say."
To Cowen's contention that Democracy is pretty good at "pushing scoundrels out of office," the natural reply is that it's also pretty goddamn good at putting them in office in the first place. To Floyd's belief that our civic institutions have failed to prevent determined rulers from committing acts of aggression and atrocity, the proper reply is that democracy (in any incarnation) just isn't so exceptional as its proponents, and there are still plenty of 'em, would have us believe.
So although Cowen is cautiously positive about the benefits of democratic representationalism and Floyd increasingly bitter about its evident decline, they share a flawed premise: that democratic governance is fundamentally different than every other arrangement of rulers over ruled, states over citizens, in the short and bloody history of the human species. And I put it to you: any such premise is fundamentally untrue.
Whether examined on the basis of internal politics or relations with foreign nations, democracies in their various incarnations have historically behaved exactly as have all other nations: sometimes despotically, sometimes benevolently; sometimes liberated, sometimes tyrannical; sometimes peacefully, sometimes aggressively; sometimes inward-looking, sometimes expansionistic. The "freedoms" our self-satisfied civic culture associates almost exclusively with democratic governance are neither as unique to democracy as our mythology would have it nor as absolute in their application--presently nor historically--as our Founder-worshippers would ask us to believe. I have yet to encounter a "natural right" as broadly inviolable as gravity or the conservation of energy, and so I question the "natural." Rights are social constructs, and while I have an affection for most of those enumerated in our social documents, I don't kid myself in thinking that they derive from the natural order of the universe, nor do I flatter my chauvinism by believing that such rights and privileges are either uniquely granted or uniquely withheld in my own society.
This is not an argument I advance in the service of mere complaceny, although my innate tendency toward defeatism tells me that the benefits of "stealing company time"--sitting down on the job, such as it were--usually outweight the benefits of a riot, let alone an election. The fact that "this has all happened before, and it will happen again," as every internerd's favorite television show so lovingly engages the idea of eternal return, is no reason to accept without sorrow and outrage the manifold violations perpetrated on individual lives in this sorry world. The fact that the United States is not behaving uniquely among historical world powers, but rather as world powers have always behaved, neither excuses America's conduct nor the conduct of any other conquerers.
Nevertheless, it is not an American failure that drives us to war with Iran, that has driven us to war with Iraq and Afghanistan, and to countless horrors before them and more to follow them. It is instead a human failure, and to couch our criticisms of torture and aggression in strictly nationalistic terms--appeals to social tradition or legal history as bulwarks against atrocity--is to engage in a kind of conceptual failure. It presumes, I believe, that the solution to our current woes, and to the woe we bring upon others with such relentlessness and ferocity, is to return to our roots, to eschew the mechanisms of the empire and return to the republic that spawned it . . . as if the empire were not the foregone conclusion of the repblic, the inevitable outcome.
To harp again on my own coinage: the solution is dissolution. The question before us is not how to properly constitute polities, but how to deconstruct them; not how to restrain the war machine, but how to first dismantle it, and then dismantle its constituent parts.
Cowen via Henley