Hating Democracy III: The Rabble Babbles, Research Time, 21/10/2016

Continued from last post . . . In case you think this weird democratic hate on for democracy stops with the end of the Bush years, an intellectual very influential on today’s anti-democratic politics said essentially the same thing.

Yesterday, I described this disgust at real democracy as the belief that people’s freedom is living under and loyalty to democratic state institutions. That democracy isn’t actually the government of the people by the people, but institutions like regular elections of officials and leaders, a free press, and nominal transparency in government.

Rancière sums up the hypocritical anti-democracy like so:
“A good democratic government is one capable of controlling the evil quite simply called democratic life.”
In other words, freedom is little more than unchecked personal desire at the expense of the common good or a higher form of social life. Here’s a thought leader in our own time – even our own moment – saying exactly the same thing: Nick Land.

Another aspect of Land's political philosophy is that our transhumanist
impulses will eventually take humanity's elite in a radical divergence
from humanity itself to survive our ecological crisis. As a slightly
serious joke, he describes the monstrosity to some as "face tentacles."
Land’s The Dark Enlightenment is a founding philosophical text of the alt-right movement, and he’s the closest the alt-right has today to a top philosopher. The barrel isn’t exactly very deep, but he’s still a genuinely intelligent man and sharp writer. 

I personally wish he hadn’t given himself over to a movement of resurgent white nationalism and just stuck to horror philosophy and the attempt to think the abyss. But sometimes, I also think that too much abyssal thinking leads to some very terrifying, violent places.

Anyway, Land’s argument against democracy (at least one aspect of it) goes like this. 

People basically act from self-interest – this could be literal individual interest, or in the interests of your family, clan, circle of close friends, or organization. Maximum, no more than a few hundred people, maybe just a little more than the max number a person can genuinely know as people.

Rulers of democracies are no different. But in a democracy, no individual or faction is ever in power much longer than a decade. So a given set of rulers, affiliates, factions, and sponsors develop a tendency to loot the state and profit as much from their control over the common wealth as they can.

People who know they’ll only be in power for a short while will only ever think in the short term, and never lay down long term plans for their society to accomplish important tasks. Like surviving an onrushing planetary ecological crisis. Only a ruler-for-life will do that, because their self-interest will run over the longest possible term. 

Here’s my take on this argument against democracy. After about a decade, when organizational rot has set in at the seat of power, the people have to kick the rulers out to reset the corruption clock. 

It’s essentially very similar to Land’s argument, but I refuse the additional step of believing that being a CEO-for-life (or until you feel like retiring) makes you a virtuous ruler who always thinks and plans for the long-term health and vibrancy of his national culture.

The most recent long-serving Prime Minister of my country Canada
was tossed out of power after nine years, when plenty of corruption
scandals had already taken root in his office. But even if he'd won
the 2015 election, he would have retired voluntarily one or two
years afterward anyway. Because we're a democracy and you don't
stick around in the top office for life.
From one perspective, I’m actually more pessimistic about human nature than Land, whose argument essentially describes a national chief executive as a benevolent despot. 

As far as I’m concerned, any moderate-term wielding of state power corrupts the office-holder. So rulers and their cliques have to be forcibly retired before the taste for filthy lucre sets in. Despotism is inevitably malevolent – kleptocracy at best, and at worst Stalin. 

Democratic institutions are the framework to keep those forced retirements smooth and peaceful. That insurance against state corruption is the central justification for democratic institutions. But real democracy is a lot more than just the institutions.

But let’s get back to Land and anti-democracy for the rest of the post. Land’s argument returns one of the oldest criticisms of democratic governance in the world – it starts in Plato’s Republic, where he calls democracy the babbling of self-important jerks. I’m paraphrasing, of course. But that’s the idea.

Plato’s critique of democracy has been a touchstone in Western political thinking ever since it was published. Yet Rancière makes a very incisive stab at Plato’s doubts about democracy. It’s so obvious when I read it that I smacked my own head – not quite literally, but it was one of those moments. I wondered why no one had thought of it before.

Why are we taking a self-professed opponent of democracy at his word about the character of people who actually embrace democratic culture and governance? Yes, he had seen a democratic assembly condemn Socrates to death for radical sedition. Which is extremely bogus.

But Plato describes democracy at its worst, as if its worst was its essence. That’s not an argument against democracy per se – it’s an argument against letting your most paranoid, socially conservative, closed-minded passions rule your democracy.

Sounds fine. But I’d seem to be in a bit of a pickle. Given what I’ve said today about how inevitable corruption is, how do I expect to stop people’s most paranoid, conservative, closed-minded passions and prejudices from taking over society? . . . To Be Continued

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