Fifth Meditation on Democracy [written Monday, November 5, 2007] REPUBLISHED

https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elic­it inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have anoth­er round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-post­ing them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Most­ly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.


It’s my con­tention that both hier­ar­chi­cal and egal­i­tar­i­an behav­iour are equal­ly “nat­ur­al” to human beings. These two meth­ods of inter­act­ing with oth­ers in a group have co-exist­ed in all human soci­eties, from the ear­li­est stages of our evo­lu­tion as a species. It is also my con­tention that, while there is a lim­it­ed place for hier­ar­chi­cal think­ing and behav­iour in a good soci­ety, it is egal­i­tar­i­an think­ing that has cre­at­ed civ­i­liza­tion and moral­i­ty. Any soci­ety that is dom­i­nat­ed by hier­ar­chy is essen­tial­ly back­ward, self-destruc­tive, and immoral.

There are no nec­es­sary stages in his­to­ry, and no pre­des­tined sequence of polit­i­cal struc­tures, though a par­tic­u­lar poli­ty may evolve, in the sense that it may become more just or bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing and pro­tect­ing the rights of its peo­ple. It may just as eas­i­ly devolve and become less just and more sav­age. It is the con­tin­u­ing con­cen­tra­tion of effort towards jus­tice by a peo­ple that makes jus­tice hap­pen, not some neb­u­lous, abstract eco­nom­ic or his­tor­i­cal process. Moral­ly cor­rect deci­sions have to be made, and real action must be tak­en, by real indi­vid­ual human beings. Just laws have to be made, agreed upon, and obeyed. An advanced ― that is to say a just and moral ― polit­i­cal struc­ture can be cre­at­ed by any group of human beings, at any time, in any place, at any lev­el of tech­nol­o­gy or degree of pros­per­i­ty. The tech­nol­o­gy of jus­tice is intel­lec­tu­al, not phys­i­cal. It has to be dis­cov­ered, invoked, and imple­ment­ed, but it is not depen­dent on any par­tic­u­lar kind of phys­i­cal environment.

This last state­ment needs some exem­plary illus­tra­tion. The world’s his­to­ry has seen a great vari­ety of poli­ties, that is to say, groups of human beings orga­nized into polit­i­cal units. Some have been rel­a­tive­ly advanced, mea­sured by the stan­dard of respect for human rights and dig­ni­ty, oth­ers have been back­ward and bar­bar­ic. But his­tor­i­cal peri­ods, wealth, and tech­no­log­i­cal gad­getry do not deter­mine which is advanced and which is back­ward. Ancient Yaud­hiya and Athens were more polit­i­cal­ly advanced than the large Mau­ryan and Alexan­dri­an empires that suc­ceed­ed them. Ger­many in 1940 was equipped with some of the world’s most advanced tech­nol­o­gy, and had inher­it­ed a trea­sure of art, sci­ence, lit­er­a­ture and accu­mu­lat­ed knowl­edge ― yet, polit­i­cal­ly and moral­ly, it ranked below the most prim­i­tive soci­eties of head­hunt­ing bar­bar­ians. The same is true of all Com­mu­nist states, which exist on a lev­el of polit­i­cal sav­agery, despite what­ev­er atom­ic weapons, sky­scrap­ers, or space craft they pro­duce. The small­est, hum­blest democ­ra­cy is immense­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed than any state ruled by a dic­ta­tor. Lit­tle, demo­c­ra­t­ic Ice­land is more advanced in civ­i­liza­tion than the Roman Empire ever was, or the France of Napoleon, or of Louis XIV, or any of the empires of the world, no mat­ter how many pyra­mids and vic­to­ry arch­es they erect­ed. The mere fact that an empire is an empire, or a king­dom is a king­dom, makes it infe­ri­or. A sin­gle vil­lage in Ver­mont in 1850, with its demo­c­ra­t­ic town meet­ings, was a thou­sand times more polit­i­cal­ly advanced than the present gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton, ruled by a self-declared “Decider”, and man­aged by a crew of bar­bar­ian hench­men, and attend­ed by a cas­trat­ed leg­is­la­ture of uncon­test­ed incum­bents who can be bought, like low grade ground beef, by the pound. Those who want Amer­i­ca to be an Empire are not seek­ing to empow­er it, they are seek­ing to degrade it and destroy it. Those in Cana­da who want us to act as ser­vants and cheer­lead­ers for such an empire like­wise seek to degrade and destroy Cana­da. That is why I oppose them.

Wealth is not civ­i­liza­tion. Size is not civ­i­liza­tion. Tech­nol­o­gy is not civ­i­liza­tion. Those are not what deter­mines whether a soci­ety is civ­i­lized. How­ev­er, I am not mak­ing a case for any kind of Rousseau-an nos­tal­gia. The tech­niques most use­ful to civ­i­liza­tion have a long his­to­ry, going back to our ear­li­est begin­nings as a species, but they have only spo­rad­i­cal­ly been iden­ti­fied, prac­ticed, and improved. We have much to learn from ancient, trib­al, and pre-indus­tri­al soci­eties that is use­ful and impor­tant. But on the whole, soci­eties in the past have been more vio­lent, less just, and more dan­ger­ous than some of the best poli­ties that emerged in the last two cen­turies. It’s our duty to take advan­tage of the cumu­la­tive expe­ri­ence of the human race, from all times and places, wher­ev­er we have lessons to learn and expe­ri­ences to learn from. Every suc­cess­ful inno­va­tion, no mat­ter who made it, should be incor­po­rat­ed into our com­mon trea­sure of wis­dom, and every mis­take should be acknowl­edged, stud­ied, and remem­bered as a cau­tion. The great­est weak­ness that pre-lit­er­ate soci­eties had was that they had dif­fi­cul­ty remem­ber­ing what they had done well, and con­stant­ly repeat­ed the errors of the past. We don’t have that excuse. If we don’t learn from the hor­rors of the Holo­caust, the Gulag, and the Lao­gai, what excuse could we offer?

For exam­ple, we have the glar­ing exam­ple of Ger­many and Japan. In the late 19th Cen­tu­ry, both those coun­tries expe­ri­enced spec­tac­u­lar eco­nom­ic growth. This mate­r­i­al suc­cess was not accom­pa­nied by any sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment of democ­ra­cy. They remained under the rule of decrepit aris­toc­ra­cies and mil­i­tary men, while their economies expand­ed, and for­eign investors flocked to invest in them. The even­tu­al con­se­quence of this lop­sided devel­op­ment was to plunge the world into two gigan­tic wars, enable the dement­ed slaugh­ter of mil­lions of inno­cents, and encour­age the growth of obscene “philoso­phies”, like Marx­ism and Nazism, ded­i­cat­ed to the enslave­ment of human beings. Today, we can see exact­ly the same pat­tern form­ing in Chi­na. The Chi­nese peo­ple have worked hard, under extreme­ly dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, and have cre­at­ed a mirac­u­lous new pros­per­i­ty. This is the prod­uct of the dynamism, cre­ativ­i­ty, and courage of the peo­ple, not of their rulers. But the rulers are still there, in pow­er, a rot­ting, putres­cent gang of aged mass-mur­der­ers and psy­cho­path­ic crim­i­nals. There has been no progress in devel­op­ing democ­ra­cy, the absolute­ly essen­tial ingre­di­ent of civ­i­lized life. The even­tu­al con­se­quence of this fail­ure will be as hor­ri­ble as that which befell the world the last time this error was made. At this stage, a dra­mat­ic change would be nec­es­sary to avert impend­ing disaster.

Here in Cana­da, and more dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the Unit­ed States, with whom we Cana­di­ans have an inti­mate cul­tur­al bond, I have seen my soci­ety become pro­gres­sive­ly more con­ser­v­a­tive, more psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly prim­i­tive, more mil­i­taris­tic, more cow­ard­ly, and more ori­ent­ed towards hier­ar­chy and mind­less obe­di­ence. Over my life­time, I’ve seen the fun­da­men­tal ideas of lib­er­ty, of egal­i­tar­i­an ethics, of respect for rights, and of the dig­ni­ty and sanc­ti­ty of the indi­vid­ual human being evap­o­rate like milk splashed on a hot stove, leav­ing only an ugly stain and an ugly smell. I’ve seen inde­pen­dence, cre­ativ­i­ty and spon­tane­ity, once the essence of our social cus­toms, replaced by mind­less con­for­mi­ty, cal­lous bru­tal­i­ty, and the cring­ing cow­ardice that char­ac­ter­ize a back­ward, strat­i­fied soci­ety. I’ve seen the relent­less poi­son of Con­ser­vatism destroy every­thing decent that we had accom­plished, replac­ing sci­ence and rea­son with the mum­bo-jum­bo of witch doc­tors, rolling back sex­u­al atti­tudes from those of free human beings to the moron­ic taboos and ter­rors of prim­i­tive sav­ages, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly wreck­ing our once-cre­ative econ­o­my. I’ve seen the vul­gar, ruth­less, mali­cious, stu­pid and inane sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly tri­umph over those who are hon­ourable and prin­ci­pled in almost every aspect of our lives. In the Unit­ed States, fun­da­men­tal demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions have been under sys­tem­at­ic attack by Con­ser­v­a­tive ide­ol­o­gy, with no effec­tive resis­tance or oppo­si­tion. In Cana­da, demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions are in bet­ter shape than in the Unit­ed States, but more by ran­dom good luck than by any con­scious effort, or coura­geous defense.

The great­est men­ace to our soci­ety is the habit of sub­mis­sion to aris­toc­ra­cy. Aris­toc­ra­cy and civ­i­liza­tion are incom­pat­i­ble. A civ­i­lized peo­ple has no “peck­ing order”. Civ­i­lized peo­ple do not wor­ship celebri­ties, cringe before imag­i­nary “bet­ters”, or sub­mit to “lead­ers” on the basis of alpha dom­i­nance. Civ­i­lized peo­ple do not have lead­ers. They lead them­selves. Civ­i­lized peo­ple make group deci­sions by the rea­soned process­es of law, con­sul­ta­tion, debate, and democ­ra­cy, not by hand­ing over pow­er to some gang of charis­mat­ic apes. Civ­i­lized peo­ple make love, not war. Civ­i­lized peo­ple make and trade things, they don’t steal. Civ­i­lized peo­ple meet each oth­er as equals, and judge each oth­er as indi­vid­u­als, nev­er as mem­bers of races, or eth­nic groups, or castes, or class­es, or any oth­er ter­mite-like col­lec­tiv­i­ties. Civ­i­lized peo­ple respect the rights of oth­ers and demand that oth­ers respect theirs. Civ­i­lized peo­ple nev­er sac­ri­fice lib­er­ty or human rights for mere eco­nom­ic gain, or for the sophistries of realpoli­tik, or in a neu­rot­ic quest for the phan­tom of “secu­ri­ty”. Civ­i­lized peo­ple nev­er bow down before oth­ers, and nev­er allow oth­ers to bow down before them. There is no rank in civ­i­liza­tion. There is no author­i­ty in civ­i­liza­tion, except the author­i­ty of nature and rea­son, the author­i­ty of two-plus-two-equals-four.

Dra­mat­ic changes in atti­tudes will be nec­es­sary for us to turn away from the sui­ci­dal path we have cho­sen. Not many trends indi­cate that we are mak­ing any of those crit­i­cal changes. And yet, I con­tin­ue to hope, con­tin­ue to write, con­tin­ue to explain and implore. There are no “laws of his­to­ry”, there is no cer­tain doom, and there is no pre­des­ti­na­tion. What one gen­er­a­tion destroys, the next can rebuild. We can have civ­i­liza­tion, if we want it. Things can turn around. There are good, decent peo­ple every­where. They only have to find the con­cep­tu­al tools to see through the lies, schemes, and mis­di­rec­tion of the aris­toc­ra­cy, which are noth­ing more than larg­er ver­sions of the swin­dles of pet­ty crim­i­nals. Then, they have only to find each oth­er, and act togeth­er. It is our self-doubt and con­fu­sion that gives the tyrants pow­er, not any strength they possess.

It is not fit, not right, and not tol­er­a­ble, that we the peo­ple should be ruled by apes.

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