Saturday, October 6, 2012

A letter on Democracy and Freedom

This little piece is in answer to a question posed by 'Neil', one of the readers who commented publicly on an essay in Open Democracy by Oliver Huitson about the BBC and the NHS  .

In his brilliant and entertaining book Life’s Grandeur, the late Stephen J. Gould  included an essay on the spread of variation in a system. Gould used the terms right and left “walls” to represent limits of possibility in opposite directions. For example, the right wall of performance for an Olympic gymnast is to receive top marks from all the judges; while the left wall would be zero marks.   The most decrepit among us may achieve a rating no higher than, let’s say, one,  with  excellence streaming towards the right. Let’s assume that the largest number of people (or “mode”) scores three marks and from then on, as the marks increase, the number  individuals who achieve them declines. This is the kind of curve we might expect:

Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I wondered ‘aloud’ whether wall theory might be adaptable to human socio-political organization whereby at the left wall are infinite possibilities or variations,  and at the right wall only one. In this case, the shape of the curve would differ to reflect the unidirectional decline in possibilities of human organization as history proceeds:
Note that we begin with an infinite choice of systems. This is an imaginary state of chaos, an  infant world where virtually any organizational paradigm is possible. Increased sophistication over time comes with the disadvantage of a steady reduction in choice.  To approach the right wall here might be seen as a blessed end to upheavals, or a cursed end to all chance of happiness and fulfillment. Those who believe a final solution is on the way  to the problem of how the world should be run - even if that solution is, at best, no more than a compromise between conflicting aspirations - will be happy to have the right wall in their sights, provided that they feel comfortable with their lot. On the other hand, whoever remains dissatisfied with the system in which they live or towards which they are heading, perhaps because it appears to condemn them - or others - to poverty or inequality of opportunity or some other disagreeable fate, may feel disenfranchised and discouraged. They may even see such a right wall as a form of imprisonment, the end of political idealism, and individual freedom. Imprisonment without a release date, of course; for at the face of the right wall no further alternatives exist.
Let us suppose that the agreed end (the right wall) posits neo-liberal, free-market capitalism as the best of all possible socio-economic and therefore political systems.  Neither of the two major US political parties nor any of the three UK equivalents would seriously dispute this proposition, even if they might employ different lexicons to express their allegiance. What Ed Balls and George Osborne are currently disputing, for example, are not alternative visions of what might constitute a happy, progressive nation - but marginal shifts of emphasis in economic policy (cutting a little faster or a little slower, etc.). Similarly, Democrat President Obama has been as committed as his Republican predecessor to military "surges" as a way of imposing freedom on obdurate populations. Whether by design or because they haven’t seriously considered the philosophical and political implications, both sets of politicians have defined these issues as essentially administrative or technical and therefore capable, at least in theory, of being resolved by specialists (wielding if necessary a little advanced hardware). For both, the ends are agreed; and the arguments, such as they are, concern the means. We are no longer in the realm of political philosophy - no longer confronted by alternative socio-political or economic paradigms because no other valid ones are seen to exist.
    This ‘ideal’ state of affairs is what Marx and Engels (following Comte and Saint-Simon) meant when they wrote about replacing the government of persons by the administration of things. They were not talking about “control by a technocratic elite” but about the fact that the achievement of their version of utopia would signify the end of politics. Francis Fukuyama in his famous End of History and the Last Man made precisely this claim, namely that the argument was over and that the Western capitalist “democracies” in the blue corner had won by a technical knock-out. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature could be read as a psychologist’s acclamation of Fukuyama’s thesis (though Pinker’s suburban, middle-class Weltanschauung seems to me as delusional as the benign fantasy world of Dr Pangloss). More lugubriously, Stalin had much the same concept in mind when he spoke of leading the people to the promised land under the tutelage of his “engineers of human souls.” In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the "right wall" (capitalist version) has simply emerged in superficially more respectable colours as free-market fundamentalism, a  doctrinaire orthodoxy arguably more powerful and deadly than its medieval counterpart - the Spanish Inquisition. This is the sense in which I describe our democracy as undermined,  or if this is too strong, then let's say "under sustained bombardment". Are we not in danger of ignoring this assault, whose consequences are familiar to everyone with an awareness of recent  history and which Isaiah Berlin memorably contextualized when he wrote that:
...the whole history (of philosophy) a warning against the assumption that there are permanent questions and final solutions? 
    Those who achieve power, no matter how honorable their original intentions, seldom enjoy the democratic ride. We fondly imagine that democracy is self-righting, invulnerable to shipwreck, that once launched it will never founder. Political leaders tend to see matters differently. They no longer trust us (if, indeed, they ever did). They may want our vote from time to time, but not our opinions. To stifle debate and forestall opprobrium, they form alliances with the opposition and claim, like Margaret Thatcher, that “ there is no alternative”.  Frontal assaults may not work in modern times, but rust and worm can silently consign the stoutest vessel to the deep. The rust and worm of democracy is that we assign politicians to its defence; people whose main ambition is to bend us to their will.
    To define the essence of democracy as “self-empowerment” is, I think a mistake. It is a version of what Berlin called “positive freedom”: the wish on the part of the individual to be his/her own master. This definition of liberty bears us almost inevitably in one of two directions. In the first - as I think you are suggesting - it comes to embrace something wider than the individual:  a tribe, a community, a race, a church, a society however defined. With luck it may result in mutual cooperation, but it can equally lead to coercion or "correction" of recalcitrant members, policies which it is easy to argue are in their interests even if they have not yet understood as much.
Alternatively, we may, as Epictetus recommends, seek to desire only what will happen anyway so as to liberate ourselves from coveting the unattainable or the improbable. This is the traditional self-empowerment of ascetics, stoics, Buddhist sages - those who eschew public opinion and reject the material values of society. St Ambrose  summarized this neatly when he wrote: A wise man, though he be a slave, is at liberty, and thus it follows that though a fool may rule, he lives in slavery.
Both of these forms of “self-empowerment” are entirely compatible with authoritarian and even repressive regimes. In other words, when you leap from “self-empowerment” to “mutual cooperation” you carry a baggage of assumptions both about freedom and human behaviour.
    Democracies are supposed to foster a high level of  individual freedom by mediating between competing claims for unrestrained action. Nonetheless, all democracies end up restricting liberties for the sake of other objectives such as justice, or peace or security. And if they do not, if they allow elites free reign to exercise the powers of privilege and wealth, democracy itself withers and the liberties of other sections of society erode. “Absolute Freedom,” said Bolívar, “inevitably degenerates into Absolutism”.
    Freedom in its many guises seems to me to present a permanent challenge to democracy in both negative and positive senses. The subject is  complex and deserving of much more insight, knowledge and acumen than I am capable.