Who’s In Charge? I: A Tempting Pessimism, Research Time, 14/11/2016

Prepare for the worst, be aware that the worst could happen. Pre-deportation concentration camps whose tenures last for years. A deportation force recruited from the worst of Trump’s racist followers, the boys who gleefully beat Muslim women and screamed “White power!” in the halls of their schools.

Ethnic cleansing in the United States of America. A crackdown on dissent at the most intense level in the Western world. A wave of unplanned and uncontrollable violence against non-whites in everyday life.

It might not come down to that. Trump and his team are ridiculously underprepared for the Presidency, and the leaders of the Republican Party are taking a bigger leadership role than his public image suggested. He’s also walked back some of his crazier rhetoric like “Lock her up!”

So it might not be that bad. Yet there are profound ways that it could get extremely bad. Worse than it’s ever been since the Restoration and the institution of Jim Crow.

An insightful article from the Wall Street Journal shows just how
underprepared Donald Trump appears for the Presidency. That just
shows you how far American politics has fallen. The best case
scenario for the new President is that he's an incompetent, corrupt
fool from a family of kleptocrat's whose image encourages
nationwide hate crimes.
And there are deeper forms of pessimism than this. Pessimism about the unfolding disaster of the Donald Trump Administration is based on historical contingencies. Particular events that have happened to America’s democratic institutions.

You can read Jacques Rancière – as I haven’t been doing – as a profound pessimist about democracy and human freedom. All his analyses of how democratic institutions – transparent elected governments, political parties, bureaucracies, and so on – all point to their constructing an elite class.

It’s a more fluid elite than has typically existed in most human societies. But it still makes democracy amount to an oligarchy with a collective delusion (or really good marketing). There’s the class of people who hold powerful positions in business and government, and there’s the governed.

If the ideal of democracy is, as Rancière says, “the power of anyone and everyone,” then its institutions eat away at it.

So you’d be left with the pessimism that human freedom could ever be achieved. If the very institutions we need to run a decently large society – even if we design them to be free and democratic – turn out to be oligarchies anyway? What’s the point?

But that conclusion would misunderstand the nature of what an ideal really is. It’s the vision of perfection that we strive toward, doing the tough work of making our stubborn material world approach closer and closer to that ideal. So we can design and tweak our institutions so that they approach “the power of anyone and everyone.”

Rancière drops a few ideas as to how. Strict limits on electoral mandates for office-holders can provide a steady churn of the oligarchy’s membership, as well as prevent corruption. And the only people with control over writing and discussing what the laws of the country will be, should be elected office-holders.

There’d be a total ban on government employees or lobbyists crossing the doors of state power to become legislators. Campaigns would be cheap or subsidized to open elected offices to as many independent candidates as possible. And the financially powerful would be barred from interfering in elections.

Now, you’ll notice that this doesn’t describe the government of pretty much any country. My country Canada is, as far as state government goes, a relatively accountable oligarchy of the financially powerful, whose power is limited by popular sovereignty written in the state constitution, as well as conventions of the rule of law.

It's not the best we can do, and definitely not the best we can imagine. The question for political philosophers, activists, or anybody who gives much of a crap about the institutions that shape their society is this – If we can’t do as good as we imagine, why bother? . . . To Be Continued


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  2. A very insightful commentary on current events. The political commentary is as always timely and fresh. I personally enjoy your philosophical touch with Ranciere, it shed some light on your commentary that democracy today is a better marketed illusion.

    1. Having a democratic society in its values and ethics is more important than having democratic state institutions – it's the conditions for building those institutions in the first place. While we'd be best off with democratic culture and institutions, you can only have the institutions once you have the culture, and the worst case scenario for human freedom is to let the culture die because the institutions don't line up with their values.

      That's why a multi-vector global resistance to Trumpism (and nationalism in general) is so important. It keeps the culture alive and screaming.