Democracy and the future of the Quest for Freedom, Installment 3

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom

Third Installment

If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end. –  Bayard Rustin

This week we continue our examination of the roots of democracy and the potential it has created for an equitable human existence. We begin to see the strain of the contradiction between limited political democracy and its near absence in the economic realm.

One of the characterizations or definitions of democracy is that “of Tocqueville’s conception of democracy as the equality of conditions,” [1] which omits the political and makes it into a socio-economic category of access to opportunity and, in America, to seemingly unlimited land. The impact of this on the ‘uniqueness’ of American democracy is important and seldom addressed. As the geographer David Harvey points out,

The conquest and control of space, for example, first requires that it be conceived of as something usable, malleable, and therefore capable of domination through human action. . . It took something more to consolidate the actual practical use of space as universal, homogeneous, objective, and abstract in social practice . . . the ‘something more’ that came to dominate was private property in land, and the buying and selling of space as a commodity.[2]

While this was happening throughout societies that were becoming dominated by capitalist social relations, it was especially important as a component of the expansion westward by the Jeffersonian explorations of Lewis and Clark, which came on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Perhaps the clearest example of this politics in action is the design of the homesteading system and the spatial grid for land in the United States . . . The pulverization and fragmentation of the space of the United States along such rationalistic lines was thought to (and in some respects indeed did) imply maximum individual liberty to move and settle in a reasonably egalitarian way in the spirit of a property-owning and agrarian society. . . The reorganization of space to democratic ends challenged dynastic power embedded in place.

Thus, the whole history of capitalist expansion has a multi-fold character in relation to place, space, individuals, the state, and democracy. The ‘pulverization’ of space and place into private holdings created an ideological belief in equality that had been denied in the European homeland for immigrants to North America. The state reinforced this belief in the creation of institutions which upheld democratic involvement in the political sphere portrayed as control of the state through individual and community involvement in democratic participation in decisions which would control the activities of the state.

Representative governmental processes and institutions thus supplanted direct democracy and began the sublimation of democracy into an objective reality whereby the populace who were eligible for involvement in these processes (white, property-holding males) transferred their power to an elite. This elite, even more circumscribed by laws concerning owner-ship in property and religious belief in order to hold office, moved to create a “symbiosis between the elite, elected representatives of the people, and the elites educated in our schools about the mechanisms by which societies function.”[4] In later times the merger between these elites in politics, education, mass media, and business would come to completely remove any function of electoral democracy as nothing more than the ratification of representatives selected by other means as mere figureheads of democracy, while being beholden to the specific special interests that allow their participation as one of the slate who can be selected by what is essentially a drawing by ‘lot.’ Let us explain.

Plato had recognized this fact even as far back as his writings in the Republic and Laws. Currently the democratic selection of representatives, at the end of the day, is not much more sophisticated than the system which was used in Athens in Plato’s time. In Athens, according to Plato, seven levels of leaders were in place, and democracy per se was not looked upon as the highest form of government. “Democracy, Plato tells us in Chapter VIII of the Republic, is a political regime that is not one . . . (because) it is properly the regime that overturns all the relations that structure human society.”[5] To understand this statement, we must look at these seven levels of leadership. The first four are based on birth: that is, “parents over their children, the old over the young, masters over their slaves, and highborn people over men of no account.”[6] The next two basis of leadership are those that “express nature if not birth. First, we have the law of nature . . . the power of the strongest over the weakest . . . (and) the authority of those who know over those who are ignorant.”[7] These six are deemed truthful as they represent the fulfilling of “two prerequisites. First, each defines a hierarchy of positions. Secondly, each defines this hierarchy in continuity with nature.”[8] These conform to the general ethos and mores of Greek city-states at the time, but recognizing that “is effectively when politics commences: when the principle of government is separated from the law of kinship, all the while claiming to be representative of nature.”

However, the final seventh level of governance creates the real basis of the split between the public and the private. This is the practice or principle of choosing leadership by ‘lots’ or by democracy (people-power),

a seventh title to occupy the superior and inferior positions, a title that is not a title, and that, the Athenian tells us, is nevertheless considered to be the most just: the title of that authority that has the ‘favour of heaven and fortune’: the choice of the god of chance, the drawing of lots, that is,, the democratic procedure by which a people of equals decides the distribution of places.[10]

As Ranciere points out, this is where the beginnings of paradoxes and contradictions start in the establishment of government by the people. Anyone who belongs to one of the other six spheres of power is now to subject to something that is against nature, that is, the mere whim of chance in the drawing of lots to create the actuality and title to govern. “It is the scandal of superiority based on no other title than the very absence of superiority.”[11]

In modern times, the core aspect of democracy as the ‘drawing of lots’ has become hidden behind the edifice of electoral laws, regulations, standards, primaries, and political parties, but it is nonetheless the underlying reality. Even with the labyrinth imposed by modern ‘electoral processes’ the modern version is still the “title that calls forward those who merit occupying power is the fact of desiring to exercise it.”[12] Plato’s view was that the best government was government ruled by those who did not desire to govern. Today we have bad government, under the guise of democracy, precisely because the system has within in it the contradiction of

government with the exercise of a power both desired and conquered. Such is the paradoxical principle involved . . . whenever there is politics.”[13]

The fact is wealth, social status, high birth, educational advantage, and age continue to play a role in an ideological distortion of who is eligible for governing.

The continuance of the tension in the contradictions between the essential core of democracy and this ideological distortion plays out in the actual inability of government to effectively govern. The interests of the people are not carried on into the actuality of ruling or governing precisely because the institutions are no longer beholden to the people as the foundation of the power of those who rule, but rather that of the interests of the special entities and groups are served.

State government is only legitimate insofar as it is political. It is political only insofar as it reposes merely on an absence of foundation. This is what democracy means when accurately understood as a ‘law of chance’. The customary complaints about democracy’s ungovernability in the last instance comes down to this: democracy is neither a society to be governed, nor a government of society, it is specifically this ungovernable on which every government must ultimately find out it is based. . .. ‘Democratic society’ is never anything but an imaginary portrayal designed to support this or that principle of good government. Societies, today as yesterday, are organized by the play of oligarchies.[14

This is further exposed in the lack of democracy created in republics whereby representative governments have been established, precisely because they appeared to be democracies but in fact allowed for special interests to truly be in control.

Originally representation was the exact contrary of democracy. None ignored this at the time of the French and American revolutions. The Founding Fathers and a number of their French emulators saw in it precisely the means for an elite to exercise power de facto, and to do so in the name of the people. . . ‘Representative democracy’ might appear today as a pleonasm (a redundancy). But it was initially an oxymoron.[15]

Domination of the political sphere by the economic takes place also as the ideology which merges a unity of capitalism with that of democracy. The modern historical rise of the one with the other gives rise to the illusion that each is the product of the other and that democracy cannot exist under any other mode of production. This is reinforced when mass consumerism redefines access to commodities as the essence of freedom. At the same time, private property rights evolve to trump all other rights.

Capitalism’s whole basis of its version of democracy is that people have been freed from the binds of previous economic formations, feudalism, slavery, and so on, in order to freely sell their labor in the market place. However, there is no obligation of anyone to buy, and no basis in rights theory to demand that someone buy. Why? Because the fundamental tenet is that, at the end of the day, private property has the ultimate right which overwhelms all others. Private property, not to be confused with personal property, has a very specific definition in political economy. It is the ownership of land and the means of production, but also may include other property needed for the functioning of the economy, for instance, means of distribution, ownership of required services, and so on. The owner of property is called a proprietor, and this comes with the right to dispense with or avail the use of the property as this person or entity sees fit. This may include transferring the use of the property to another person or entity by some form of contract, that is, leasing or renting the property to another, giving over management of the property to a manager or management staff, and so on. Without getting into all the ways in which limitations are placed on the use of property, for instance by zoning regulations, use permits, public interest issues, etc. the basic principle is that owning a piece of property comes with what is termed a bundle of rights.

What is interesting is that the rights, objectively, are not those of the owner, but really are recognized as belonging to the property. What the owner has gained by owning the property is the use of these rights, for instance, the right to the use of water or minerals that come with the land. If I sell the land, I no longer have those rights, as they really belong to the property, in this case land. The same holds for factories, refining plants, steel mills, and other major industrial complex enterprises. As long as I own it, I can use it and exploit it to my own ends, but once I transfer control of some or all the rights of use to another party, they are gone. This is true even if these properties are essential for the well-being of the community in which they are located. There is no right of the community to retain these properties, their uses or existence, even if removing them causes the community great harm up to and including the complete extinction of the community. Hence, we have the rust belt cities and communities of the American Midwest – Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Toledo, and all the other towns, large and small, who are struggling in the face of free-trade agreements and the shipping of their jobs overseas. Rights do not hold on the side of the non-owner of the social means of production.

And with the collapse of these local economies is likewise the collapse of the political power of these communities and the rights of their citizens to impact the future of these communities through governmental action or any other means. If this causes hardship to some members of society, if it causes the concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller percentage of the population that is too bad. That is just the way it is. It is a given of social reality when capitalism is the dominating economic system.

Originally the rights of property seemed to us to be grounded in a man’s own labour. Some such assumption was at least necessary, since only commodity-owners with equal rights confronted each other, and the sole means of appropriating the commodities of others was the alienation of a man’s own commodities, commodities which, however, could only be produced by labour. Now, however, property turns out to be the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labour of other or its product, and the impossibility, on the part of the worker, of appropriating his own product. The separation of property from labour thus becomes the necessary consequence of a law that apparently originated in their identity.[16]

The rights of property prevail. The rights of the ‘people’ are limited to what can be negotiated essentially by contract. This is further reinforced in neoliberalism’s contention that all the freedom anyone needs is the freedom of the market! This is the devastating legacy of NAFTA, and all other neoliberal “free trade” agreements, whether instituted by Republican or Democratic administrations.

Next week we continue our discussion of the nature of democracy by exploring the concepts of sovereignty and begin an examination of some of the real instances of how democracy is working in the United States today. Please “chime in” with your views and opinions. Remember, even if you disagree, it is important to remain civil and professionally polite. We are all in this together, searching for an exit from the mess we are in.

[1] Ranciere, J. (2014). Hatred of democracy. London, UK. Verso. p. 20

[2] Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity: An inquiry into the origin of cultural change. Cambridge, MA. Blackwell. p. 254

[3] Harvey, p255-257.

[4] Ranciere, 2014, p.42

[5] Ranciere, 2014, p. 36

[6] Ranciere, 2014, p. 39

[7] Ranciere, 2014, p. 39-40

[8] Ranciere, 2014, p. 40

[9] Ranciere, 2014, p. 40

[10] Ranciere, 2014, p. 40

[11] Ranciere, 2014, p. 41

[12] Ranciere, 2014, p. 42

[13] Ranciere, 2014, p. 43

[14] Ranciere, 2014, p. 49-52

[15] Ranciere, 2014, p. 26

[16] Marx, K. (1990). Capital: A critique of political economy, Vol. I, trans. Fowkes, B. London, UK. Penguin Classics. P. 730


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