Tuesday, 30 August 2011


A few days ago, Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich emailed me a Chris Hedges essay entitled: “How Democracy Dies: A Lesson from the Master,” which relies on Aristophanes’s works as an example of how society decays from within by corruption, greed, arrogance, distortion of ideals designed to promote the welfare of all people, and of course perpetual militarism that debilitates society and ultimately contributes to its demise. After reading the article, I surfed the Web for stories with the titles “who threatens US democracy” and “threats to US democracy,” and discovered that many essays (more than 20 million hits) include the following ten categories:

1. military establishment, conventional war, and war (PR, covert, etc.) on terror;
2. government bailout of banks and corporations;
3. the Supreme Court that is out of touch with the American people;
4. economic weakness and economic inequality;
5. the World Trade Organization and the UN;
6. Corporate power, corporate media, corporate campaign contributions;
7. Religious extremism of all types, Islamophobia, and Terrorism;
8. political (voter) ignorance, and interest groups;
9. the Internet;
10. narcotics trade and crime.

One very interesting article argues that the most basic threat to democracy is the human brain that “is predisposed to use information to confirm their existing beliefs, which makes democratic governance impossible.” If we accept that human nature as inherently atomistic and irrational without regard to others, assumptions that English philosopher Thomas Hobbes articulated in the Leviathan, then the human brain with its predisposition to the irrational and atomistic is indeed the obstacle to democracy. 
If we also accept the assumption that competition and private accumulation of wealth power, prestige, etc. in the social, economic and political spheres promotes self-interest at the expense of the greater good, then we have another obstacle to democracy functioning harmoniously for the welfare of all its citizens. But all of this is predicated on the definition of “democracy,” a concept that many people equate with free enterprise and individual pursuit of wealth (Adam Smith and his Liberal followers), others with social welfare and the pursuit of the greater good for the greatest number (utilitarian democracy), others with human rights and social welfare (social democracy), others with basic freedoms such as press, assembly, etc.(Libertarian), others equating democracy with voting. 
Of the ten categories listed above as “threats to US democracy,” clearly all of them and many more are real, depending on the individual’s definition of democracy, and on value systems that spell out not only what democracy is but what it is not. On the broader question of endogenous or exogenous factors that cause the demise of a democratic society, here we can look at historical experiences of countries that were “to some degree open societies,” countries that enjoyed aspects of democracy but lapsed toward some model of authoritarianism. In the cases of interwar Italy, Germany, and Japan the causes of abandoning pluralism for an extreme form of militaristic ultra-authoritarianism rooted in ultra right-wing ideology were internal, although external causes served as a pretext to convince the public of the need for a militaristic/authoritarian regime. 
If indeed people care more about safety and security, or at least if the media and their political, business, and social leaders convince them that nothing matters more than safety and security, people will voluntarily surrender any commitment to democracy for the perceived guarantee of safety and security. If the US moves increasingly toward a more authoritarian model under the political shell of “democracy,” as it could if in the future it faces more and deeper economic contractions that result in an increasingly smaller and weaker middle class, the cause will not be the UN, the WTO, Islamic “terrorism,” rogue nations like North Korea, etc. 
The dynamics of human society are similar today as in the 17th century when Hobbes wrote the Leviathan, therefore if a modern American Leviathan emerges it will be an expression of contemporary society confronting a social and economic structure that is unraveling. The segment of society that has the power to mold public opinion and convince them that Leviathan means “salvation” from self-destructive proclivities of an otherwise irrational public, will move society away from the Jeffersonian model that some equate as the ideal toward one that projects an image of narrowly-defined democracy and equates it with “the freedom to shop, to enjoy safety and security, and vote for politicians who represent the same institutions”" a model behind which rests an authoritarian/police/military state.

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