Continued from last post . . . It can sound a little crazy to hear it. I know this because even as I type the argument out – writing the post you’re reading right now – it feels crazy to say it. The promise of the entire modern conception and institution of democracy just doesn’t measure up.
The reason why is rooted in its vehicle. The state is the institution that a community uses to achieve democracy. The state is the realization and guardian of freedom. We can’t achieve democracy without a state to operate democratic governance. We also need the security and military forces of the state to protect our democratic freedoms from foreign and domestic threats.
Do we? Do we really? I’m pretty sure several major social movements of the century so far have put these into doubt. Black Lives Matter has documented countless police killings of innocent civilians, casting shade on the state’s fidelity to protect us. The Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq showed definitively that a democratic state could be as myopically aggressive as the most blinkered dictatorship.
And the whole reactionary political movement we're experiencing right now is a sign that democratic institutions can’t even necessarily guard democracy from breakdown.
But all these are contingent problems. Institutionalized police violence is the latest version of the cultural legacy of a country built on slavery.* The Bush Administration was driven by the anomalous, downright weird triumphalist ideology of the Project for a New American Century – turning the alleged Cold War’s ‘victory’ into a mandate to conquer and control the world.
* And in the Canadian case, a country built on the cultural genocide of its indigenous peoples.
Trumpism, Brexit, and European nationalism are schisms whose engines are racial resentment overflowing with society-wide rage at unjust, oligarchical globalization.
Yet the contingent problems, when you look for patterns and recurrences, seem more like singular expressions of the same fundamental problem. Institutionalizing democracy in a state results in a troubling paradox. I’m not sure if that paradox is fully vicious, or if there’s some constructive result somewhere to be found.
The promise of democracy is universal. Everyone can live under a democratic system of governance, and the freedom democracy offers is the best for humanity. Great, awesome. I love it so far.
But we achieve democratic government by building democratic states. The state is defined by territorial borders, which create a sacrosanct sovereign zone. Say Freedonia is a functioning democracy with a full set of economic safety nets and civil rights, and Sylvania is the military dictatorship next door.
State sovereignty protects Freedonia from Sylvanian subversion and invasion, but also keeps Sylvanian citizens desperate for freedom locked behind the border. Supposedly universal democracy becomes a matter of arbitrary privilege.
You were born in Freedonia? Great for you! You get to experience universal freedom. Except it isn’t so universal, because the only way to achieve freedom is through your state, and Sylvania isn’t being very cooperative about that.
Now visit Turmeszistan, which has democratic institutions, but a class of people who can’t make use of them. They carry Turmeszi passports, birth certificates, driver’s licences, and other government IDs, but they aren’t allowed to use the same public facilities as mainstream Turmeszis.
Maybe the distinction is religious, or caste-based, or depends on some legally-defined ethnic heritage. But the distinction is enforced by state law and popular morality. Either way, Turmeszistan has created races – groups of people defined by their differing access to privileges and freedoms.
Some people are excluded from the freedoms that are supposedly universal, according to democratic values. That’s obvious in the Jim Crow society I described in the United States – I mean Turmeszistan.
But it’s the same process as happens in South and North Korea – I mean Freedonia and Sylvania. The arbitrary laws and moralities about the sanctity of borders and where they happen to lie excludes Sylvanians from the supposedly universal democratic aspirations of Freedonia.
The democratic theory of Europe’s Enlightenment period developed a conception of political freedom where it could only work through the administration of a state. The state would unify a people, but it also excludes people – the enfranchised citizens are an in-group, and their border is a line that keeps people out.
Those excluded people can achieve their universal right to democratic freedom, but only by having a state of their own. Yet that state would suffer the same problems – it would exclude non-citizens, and possibly create underclasses of citizens without full rights.
Democracy administered by a state is universal, but only for a majority. Minorities and the foreign are shut out of the deal. Where things get horrifying is when public morality develops a shape designed to keep them out . . . To Be Continued