Monday, 7 July 2008

Democracy or Not? (Part One)

If you had everything you need and were happy would you care whether you lived under a democratic system or not? Obviously the question already implies that a non-democratic system can provide for your needs and well-being, let’s go with that for a moment. Is it the case that all totalitarian societies now and in the past only provided for a privileged few? What if you were one of the privileged few, would you care about the starving masses, if there were any? What I am proposing is that as long as certain things are in place it doesn’t matter if the form of government is democratic or not.

Does a certain standard of living negate ‘ideology’ and/or lesson a certain ‘psychology’? That is, the psychology to believe in a better way or maybe this psychological urge is diminished by an all-rounded satiation? It was clear that in the former Soviet Union this all-rounded satiation did not exist, but what if it had? One thing I notice is that a consumer society is prerequisite for that same society to ossify, bloat and for complacency to set in. This is the ‘bread and circuses’ that keep the populace from rioting. Yet this certain standard of living that consumer societies get also breeds an acceptance of fascism, whether acceptance through ignorance or because people really are fascists once they ‘own’ a few things like children and property, I don’t know, they are both involved, probably.

Why am I asking these questions? Well it may not surprise some of you that I am not convinced by our modern-day democracy, indeed I’m not convinced that we have ‘democracy’ at all even though we are allowed to vote. Obviously I’m happier to sit here in Britain typing this out for my blog and not be somewhere like the former Soviet Union scrabbling for my daily bread, but I’m not sure that this relative consumer comfort I/we have is a result of ‘democracy’, after all Saudi Arabia has shopping malls and it is far from a democratic state (and for those who live in Saudi Arabia who can take advantage of the shopping malls, does it matter if others can’t?). No, it is my belief that there is something rotten in our democratic system today. Most Western states are governed by Representative democracy, that means we delegate the running of the state to professional politicians, voting for them every few years or so. Today in Britain rarely does a local or general election garner more than 50% turn out, why is this? Personally my vote is wasted because of the constituency I live in: the only choice is for one of the three main political parties of which only the same one will win every time. None of these parties represent even a little of what I believe in, I am effectively disenfranchised. I’m sure this is the case for many people, but another reason given for such low turn outs is that people are happy with the way things are. For some this is true, but this proposition highlights a far more interesting phenomenon: the soporific nature of our consumer culture. Why bother to vote when you can shop. Like Pak-man munching pills we are addicted to our way of life, we can’t participate in democratic life other than by voting every now and then because we are too busy working in order to participate in the consumer merry-go-round (not the building of societies), and the cycle starts again like Sisyphus rolling his rock, on and on. The professional politicians are rubbing their hands with glee at this status-quo, giving themselves pay rises and riding the gravy train to the promise land (wherever the next G8 summit is to be held!).

The main stream media, in Anglo-Saxon states at least, is shockingly appalling. To say that, rather than being an essential organ that uncovers the truth about our governing system, the media are complicit enablers in the status-quo, colluding to disfigure events and, ultimately, the truth, is not over the top in any way. Over time the media has become a font of public relations for those in power, and since we delegate the responsibility of running the state to professional politicians we need the media to report truthfully and with no hidden agendas more than ever, but rarely are there questions about Iraq or the erosion of civil liberties that is now taking place in Britain (for example), instead we get ‘statements’ from the principal agents involved with the running of things: we are told alright! Of course there are exceptions in the media, sometimes you come across articles by journalists that do ask uncomfortable questions. A recent article by Phil Hall in the Guardian (scary name for a paper that, what are they guarding, for who and from whom?) titled ‘Is Britain on the slippery slope to dictatorship? The democracy-loving British public would never put up with dictatorship - or would they?’ asked whether Britain is slipping into a form of dictatorship (elective dictatorship: the root of all fascism?) and presented a list of warning signs that are recognised in other dictatorships. I reprint these warning signs here for your delectation:

  • Inconvenient elections are avoided in the name of getting on with the job.
  • Leaders of the opposition are character-assassinated by the state media.
  • Institutions like the legislature begin to lose their independence and traditional role.
  • Citizens are increasingly afraid to speak openly on certain issues.
  • Citizens are observed and monitored on cameras and the government can tap into their conversations at will.
  • Governments can snatch anyone from their homes or off the street and detain them without trial on charges of treason or terrorism.
  • Ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted and are made into scapegoats.
  • The state increasingly intervenes in family and community life in an attempt to control citizens' behaviour.
  • The focus of discussion moves away from the issues and into a narrative of political rivalries and gossip spreads.
  • Governments use bread and circuses to shut people up and distract attention away from their increasing political impotence.
  • Public spaces for demonstrations are closed down and restricted.
  • Large and ridiculous monuments are built to impress the citizens.
  • Individuals have to carry ID with them at all times and the government holds large amounts of information on every citizen.

Do any of you believe that these events are happening now? Do you care even if they are? Do you wish them realised if they are not happening now? Are you who Pastor Martin Niemöller was writing about? (There is more than a kernel of truth in his poem, there's a whole Big Bang in it.) It seems to me that democracy has no problems with the above warning signs, if the people want them, then that’s democratic, right?

To wrap up these thoughts I would like to discuss Nietzsche’s Reality principal. In Twilight of the Idols there is a section called ‘How the ‘real world’ at last Became a Myth’. The long and the short of it is that power determines and defines what is real, this is ‘reality’. Before looking at this section it would be instructive to read a few words from the Nietzsche scholar Pierre Klossowsky. In Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle he explains Nietzsche’s Reality principal and the two sides of its determination:

“Either Nietzsche was delirious from the outset in even wanting to attack these authorities; or else he was clear-sighted in attacking the very notion of lucidity [or the notion of the noumenon itself, my note] directly. This is why, at every step, Nietzsche’s thought found itself circumscribed: on the inside: by the principal of identity on which language (the code of everyday signs) [or semiotics] depends, in accordance with the reality principal; on the outside: by competent institutional authorities (the historians of philosophy), but also and above all by the psychiatrists, the surveyors of the unconscious who, for this very reason, control the more or less variable range of the reality principal, to which the person who thinks or acts would bear witness; on both sides, by science and its experimentations, which sometimes separates and sometimes brings the two together, thus displacing the boundaries and ‘adjusting’ the demarcations between the inside and the outside.” (Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, Pierre Klossowsky, Athlone, 1997. P. xvii-xviii.)

It is the outside bit that I find relevant to this discussion: for ‘psychiatrists, the surveyors of the unconscious’ read modern day politicians and the media-military-industrial complex who, because they have the power, can dictate not only what is ‘real’ but also the attainment of ‘the real’: thus we vote when the system tells us to. So in Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche writes: The real world, unattainable for the moment, but promised to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man……… [I interpret this as being the unquestioning democratic citizen] and later: The real world – unattainable? Unattained, at any rate. And if unattained also unknown. Consequently also no consolation, no redemption, no duty: how could we have a duty towards something unknown?

Indeed, only power can define what this ‘duty’ is, only power determines the various ‘duties’ we are allowed to vote for every few years. We may believe that democracy gives its supporters freedom but it doesn’t, it only allows us certain actions and even these are circumscribed: not everyone can shop in shopping malls or fly in planes or acquire the latest gadget developed from science and technology. Surely a democracy needs to be populated by individuals who are all fully informed and politically involved, not populated by spoilt kids at the candy store?