I have a relatively simple thought I want to share about democracy. It’s somewhat in the context of my recent thoughts about Thomas Paine’s vision of America, but it’s directly inspired by my having just watched the John Pilger’s documentary ‘The War on Democracy’.
Democracy is a potential that has yet to fully manifest in American politics and in international politics, partly because the US and other global superpowers have often gone out of their way to crush emerging democracies. Watching Pilger’s documentary, I became aware that it’s not an issue of creating the right political system or the right economic system. Merely having elections doesn’t a democracy make. A political system can’t be free. Only people can be free. This is also why a free market makes no sense. Many systems can be claimed as free, but the measure is whether or not the people are free. A system can’t make people free. Only people can demand their own freedom and they must do it collectively (freedom for all or freedom for none). And only free people can make systems that serve freedom.
This is why partisanship and ideological debate is meaningless. It doesn’t matter what inspiring rhetoric is spewed by a politician even if well-meaning. It doesn’t matter what argument can be made for why any particular system should work better. Everyone has there own arguments that they are convinced by… and yet such debate and ideological posturing hasn’t led to real democracy. What is forgotten is that a system isn’t an abstract model to be enforced onto people. A system is created by people. A system merely represents the way people relate to one another.
Democracy is ultimately more about how an entire society (in all aspects, on all levels) functions and not just about politics. If there isn’t grassroots organization in communities and in workplaces, then there can be no democracy. Grassroots organization directly relates to egalitarianism because such foundations of democracy can’t operate in a class-based society. And a class-based society will always exist where there is inequality of wealth and power, an inequality of opportunities and justice, and inequality of freedom and rights.
In our present global society, we have a class-based society that maintains its power and wealth through constant class war (and often actual war as well, along with coups and propaganda). In America which is the wealthiest nation in the world, a quarter of the population lives in poverty while a small percentage controls most of the government, media, and means of production. It’s corporatism because there is no clear division between the public and private sectors. A revolving door exists between big business and big government. That is the tricky part because no single person or single sector or single anything can be blamed. It’s a whole class of people who are in collusion, whether directly or indirectly, by shared interests. Getting rid of one aspect would just shift the problem to another aspect. Limiting the power of corrupt politicians would just increase the power of corrupt capitalists, and vice versa. It’s a social problem, not a political or economic problem.
Arguing about ideology just ends up helping to perpetuate the problem. We have to look at it on the level of real humans. This means we have to begin with empathy and compassion. We can’t just think what will help me and my own. Rather, we have to consider what will help all. It may seem naive, but it’s the vision that Paine wrote about and it’s the vision that inspired the American Revolution. Paine saw this as not just a battle for Americans gaining national self-control. What Paine hoped for was a global revolution that would spread from country to country until all people were free. When the US government (often with the support of Americans) attack other countries claiming to defend their own freedom, they are actually destroying their own freedom. The greatest insight Paine had was that we can only have the rights we are willing to allow others. Research shows that even the rich are better off in societies that have less economic inequality. The wealthy elite have been waging a class war, but they don’t realize they are destroying the society they are a part of. No walled community will keep them safe forever.
It’s not about just blaming the rich. The elite are able to rule because the majority allows them to. People have to demand freedom which is a hard thing to do in a society whose population is kept ignorant and isolated. All people need to wake up, rich and poor alike. Class war can’t be ended by more class war. We must end the ignorance by increasing the sharing of knowledge. We must end isolation by creating a strong sense of community where people understand that there fate is tied with the fate of all. Changing society is probably a lot easier than it seems. Fear and apathy is what holds us back. If people were to wake up for just a moment, to see clearly with their own eyes, to feel fully with their own hearts, society would transform over night. The problems of society are right in front of us every day. We walk by pretending not to notice, pretending to be mature adults with our cynicism and realpolitik.
We, as a species, are at a critical juncture. We either collectively wake up and embrace democratic values (which simply means caring about other people) or we’ll keep going down this path of collective self-destruction. But few people want to face the obvious, to see the writing on the wall. The answer is simple, assuming people actually want an answer. It’s a choice between caring or not caring… between caring about others, all others or not, between caring about society or not, between caring about the environment or not, between caring about the fate of future generations or not. You can always choose selfishness and greed, you can always choose ideological righteousness or ethnocentrism, but your neighbors and your grandchildren will suffer horribly for your sins… and, depending on how long you live, you might get the opportunity to suffer for your own sins as well. If we don’t change our ways, the inevitable results won’t be desirable even for the richest of the rich. I don’t envy future generations.