Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy

February 22, 2017

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What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

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The people’s victory over the TPP

November 18, 2016

The defeat of the odious Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement shows that the people can win against entrenched corporate and political power.  The way the TPP was defeated shows how the people can win against entrenched power.

A couple of years ago, the passage of the odious Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement seemed inevitable.

163050_600Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Republican leaders in Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and most big newspapers and broadcasters were in favor of it.  The public knew little about it because it was literally classified as secret.   Congress passed fast-track authority, so that it could be pushed through without time for discussion.

Today it is a dead letter.  President Obama has given up his plan to join with Republicans and push it through a lame-duck session of Congress.   Leaders of both parties say there is no chance of getting it through the new Congress.

If you don’t know what the TPP is or why a lot of people think it is odious, don’t feel bad.  If you depend for your information on the largest-circulation daily newspapers or the largest broadcasting networks, you have no way of knowing.

It is in theory a free-trade agreement among the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan and seven other countries.   It is actually a corporate wish list in the form of international law, giving corporations new privileges in the form of patent and copyright protection and new powers to challenge environmental, health and labor laws and regulations.

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Questions to be answered

March 16, 2016

I think that the United States and other Western countries are in a political and economic crisis.

I think that political leaders in the Western world must answer these questions.

authoritarianism9fd18cDoes the economic and political crisis mean that the system has failed?

If the system has failed, is this a failure of capitalism, a failure of democracy or both?

If the failure is a failure of capitalism, can the capitalistic system be fixed, or must it be replaced?

If the failure is a failure of democracy, can the democratic system be fixed, or is it doomed?

I don’t expect these questions to be addressed this year or the next, but I don’t think they can be evaded indefinitely.  I think there will be some sort of resolution, for good or for ill, within the next 10 years.

The return of right-wing populism

February 10, 2016

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people in Europe and North America turned to populist radical and left-wing parties, while many others turned to populist nationalist and racist parties.

The first group blamed their troubles on the wealthy elite and a failed capitalist system.  The second group blamed their troubles on foreigners, minorities and a failed democratic system.

There were exceptions and overlaps, but I think these broad distinctions apply.  Nationalism and racism are a way of diverting public discontent away from bankers and landlords.

We have the same two kinds of populism today.  In Europe, we see Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, and, on the other hand, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary.

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Kevin Drum on the purpose of democracy

July 3, 2015

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When people tell me “this is a Republic, not a democracy,” my first question is who they think is entitled to rule over them.

I like the following observation by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:

It’s true that humans are hairless primates who naturally gravitate to a hierarchical society, but there’s little evidence that “most humans” prefer non-democratic societies.  There’s loads of evidence that powerful elites prefer elite-driven societies, and have gone to great lengths throughout history to maintain them against the masses. Whether the masses themselves ever thought this was a good arrangement is pretty much impossible to say.

Of course, once the technologies of communication, transportation, and weaponry became cheaper and more democratized, it turned out the masses were surprisingly hostile to elite rule and weren’t afraid to show it.  So perhaps it’s not so impossible to say after all.

In fact, most humans throughout history probably haven’t favored “meritocratic” rule, but mostly had no practical way to show it except in small, usually failed rebellions.  The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and suddenly the toiling masses had the technology to make a decent showing against their overlords.  Given a real option, it turned out they nearly all preferred some form of democracy after all.

Which brings us to the real purpose of democracy: to rein in the rich and powerful.  Without democracy, societies very quickly turn into the Stanford Prison Experiment.  With it, that mostly doesn’t happen. 

That’s a huge benefit, even without counting free speech, fair trials, and all the other gewgaws of democracy. It is, so far, the only known social construct that reliably keeps powerful elites from becoming complete jackasses.  That’s pretty handy.

via Mother Jones.

Amartya Sen on democracy and famine

June 2, 2015

I was taught as a boy that famines in countries such as India and China were caused by overpopulation.  But there are more than twice as many people in both countries now than there were then, and yet they are better fed—perhaps I should say less malnourished.

I learned from Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics, that the true cause of famine in modern times is poverty and autocracy.

No rich person in India or China ever starved to death, nor did any governmental official.  People went hungry because they lacked the means to buy food, and they lacked a political voice to make government respond to their distress.

Here’s how Amartya Sen put it in a 2011 interview.

… Famines have actually not occurred in functioning democracies and … … there was a good reason for it. My first book on the subject, Poverty and Famines, came out in 1981, and by then I understood something about how famines operate and how easy it is to prevent them. You can’’t prevent undernourishment so easily, but famines you can stop with half an effort.  Then the question was why don’t the governments stop them?

The first answer is that the government servants and the leaders are upper class.  They never starve.  They never suffer from famine, and therefore they don’’t have a personal incentive to stop it. 

Second, if the government is vulnerable to public opinion, then famines are a dreadfully bad thing to have.  You can’’t win many elections after a famine, and you don’t like being criticized by newspapers, opposition parties in parliament, and so on.  Democracy gives the government an immediate political incentive to act.

Famines occur under a colonial administration, like the British Raj in India or for that matter in Ireland, or under military dictators in one country after another, like Somalia and Ethiopia, or in one-party states like the Soviet Union and China.

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Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian utopia

March 30, 2015
Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

Lee Kuan Yew, who died last Monday, was one of the world’s most successful rulers.  I am uneasy about his success because it was based on rejection of  American-type ideas of democracy and individual freedom.

Under Lee’s 50 years of formal and informal rule, Singapore went from being a Third World backwater with no natural resources to a gleaming technopolis and the world’s third major financial hub after London and New York. GDP per capita increased by several orders of magnitude.

It refuted the modern idea, or rather dogma, that democracy and individual liberties are indispensable components of economic modernization.

A clever foreign policy enabled great relations with both the US and China. Visible corruption is all but non-existent; the story might be apocryphal, but apparently Lee once even went as far as allowing the execution of a friend for stealing from the state.

via The Unz Review.

Lee was a proponent of so-called “Asian values” of hierarchy, obedience and discipline, which I don’t think of as being uniquely Asian.  They could just as easily be called Prussian values.

When I was younger, I thought American ideals were validated by the fact that, in the USA, the common people had a better life than they did almost anywhere else, and that things worked better than they did almost anywhere else.  Now, as I look at the dysfunctional American government and predatory American corporations, I have to wonder.

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Radical democracy in besieged Kurdish enclaves

January 17, 2015

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The Kurdish Freedom Movement, based on three towns in northern Syria fighting for survival against the totalitarian ISIS, has created a radically democratic society based on feminism, environmentalism and community democracy.

Malcolm Harris, writing for Talking Points Memo, described what seems like an anarchist utopia which is, at the same time, an effective self-defense force.

Neighborhoods have peace committees to resolve disputes without the threat of jail.  Women’s councils enforce ostracism for spousal abuse.  A children’s council designed a playground in one community.

These three communities, which comprise 4 million people, half of them refugees from the Syrian civil war or the ISIS occupation, follow the philosophy of  “non-state political administration” or “democracy without a state” promulgated by Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader now serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison.

The KFM rejects capitalism, top-down government and male supremacy.  Decision-making is pushed down to existing community organizations.  Reportedly this is highly efficient, because it does away with the need for bureaucracy.

The Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan are admirable in that they are democratic and they give refuge to people of different religions and ethnicities fleeing ISIS perscution.  The KFM in Syria goes further, in rejecting ethnic nationalism altogether and demanding only self-government.

I have long disagreed with friends who say that there is something about the Muslim religion or Middle Eastern culture that is inherently incompatible with freedom and democracy.

Abdullah Ocalan is a leader and thinker who not only believes in freedom and democracy, but could give us Americans lessons in how to practice it.

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The Small Miracle You Haven’t Heard About Amid the Carnage in Syria by Malcolm Harris for Talking Points Memo.

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There are worse things than an evil tyrant’s rule

October 13, 2014

Although I had misgivings that the U.S. rationale for invading Iraq in 2003 was based on lies, I thought the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, not a bad thing.

Saddam HusseinHe had massacred his own people, the Kurdish people in the north and the Marsh Arabs in the south.  I felt ashamed that the U.S. government in 1991 called upon these people to rise up against Saddam and then left them to their fate.  I thought the invasion could be a way of making things right.

One thing that stuck in my mind is that Saddam issued an edict that those who insulted him or his sons would have their tongues cut out.  Amnesty International tracked down someone who suffered that fate.  Surely, I thought, nothing could be worse than such a tyrant’s rule.

But I was wrong.  The people of Iraq are worse off now than they were under Saddam.  At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the fighting in Iraq, and some claim as much as a million.  Nobody knows.  There are a million Iraqi refugees.  The age-old Christian community in Iraq is threatened with extinction.

There is something worse than the rule of an evil tyrant, and that is the collapse of governmental authority and, in extreme cases, the whole structure of society.   When people are faced with chaos and unpredictable, uncontrollable killing, robbery and rape, they will turn to anybody that offers protection and order—even the Taliban in Afghanistan, even (perhaps) ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Democracy and Churchill

June 22, 2014

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow for a link to the following:

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

==Winston Churchill, in a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947

Churchill1The timing of this famous remark is significant.  Churchill won the war, but in the election of July 1945, he was defeated.  At the time I thought the public showed gross ingratitude, but I am willing to accept the interpretation that Churchill was not the man to organize the peace.

When the news came out, Churchill was taking a bath.  Was there ever a statesman who spent more time in the bath?   He remarked “They have a perfect right to kick me out.  That is democracy”.  When he was offered the Order of the Garter, he asked “Why should I accept the Order of the Garter, when the British people have just given me the Order of the Boot?”.

He returned to power in 1951.  The remark about democracy was made when he had lost power and had every reason to be bitter.  Fortunately he kept his sense of humor even in the most trying circumstances.

Ronald Hilton – 09.05.03

via Stanford WAIS Forum on Democracy.

The trouble with internationalism

May 29, 2014

I would like to see a world at peace, and I would like to see international institutions capable of settling disputes and addressing global problems such as climate change and nuclear arms.   Unfortunately these are not the kinds of international institutions that we the people are being asked to support.

Foreign Currency ExchangeThe most powerful global organizations, with the possible exception of the Roman Catholic church, are international banks and corporations.  International institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank enforce rules that serve the interests of banks and corporations.

The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and similar proposals would give the world’s corporate and financial elite new tools for enforcing their agendas.  While there is urgent need for international agreement and institutions to deal with climate change, TPP-type agreements actually would give corporations the right to appeal national laws and local rules aimed at limiting greenhouse gasses.

What makes the banks and corporations powerful is that money can go anywhere while most people are stuck where they are. Migrant money is treated with deference.  Migrant Mexicans in the United States, migrant Uzbeks and Kazakhs in Russia, and migrant Filipinos in the Persian are treated like dirt.

The European Union’s current austerity program is an example.  The well-being of Europe’s people is being sacrificed to ensure that Europe’s banks never suffer losses.   I’d guess this is the main reason for the success of Europe’s nationalist right-wing parties in the recent elections to the European Parliament.

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“This is a republic, not a democracy”

April 14, 2014

If you don’t believe the United States is, or should be, a democracy, just who is it that you want to rule over you?

‘What would you have done?’

December 10, 2013

Nelson Mandela, who died last week, was mourned by many Americans as a hero.  But there was a time when the American government regarded him as a terrorist.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

I agree with Newt Gingrich’s judgment.

Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future.  This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.

What would you have done faced with that crushing government?

What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.

After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.

As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny.  We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.

Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?

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Now the USA is the dysfunctional democracy

October 18, 2013

When I studied political science in college nearly 60 years ago, we were taught to contrast the sensible, pragmatic American and British political cultures with the ideological, gridlocked French and Italians.

How a Bill Becomes Law - UpdatedIn France and Italy in the 1950s, governments fell and new governmental coalitions had to be formed every few months, or so it seemed, and the diverse political parties could never agree on policies to address their nations problems.

But I never heard of any French or Italian political party that tried to stop their governments from carrying out their lawful functions or paying their lawful bills, as happened during the past couple of weeks here in the United States.  Today it is we Americans who set an example of ideological, gridlocked government.

Our Constitution sets up a legislative process that says enactment of a law requires agreement among a President elected by the nation, a House of Representatives elected by districts on a population basis and a Senate elected by states on a state sovereignty basis.  That is a more complicated and difficult process than in most democratic governments.  But now agreement among these three bodies is required merely to allow the government to carry out responsibilities mandated by law.

The passing scene: Links & comments 10/11/13

October 11, 2013

The Golden Dawn Murder Case, Larry Summers and the New Fascism by Greg Palast for TruthOut.

The Greek government has banned the xenophobic racist Golden Dawn party and arrested six members of Parliament who belong to that party.  Greg Palast wrote that the real reason for the Golden Dawn’s ban is that it is the only Greek political party who opposes the austerity measure imposed by the European central bank.  If you define fascism as the union of corporation and government, Palast said, then the Golden Dawn party is Greece’s only anti-fascist party.  He predicted that Greek leftists will come to bitterly resent the precedent that has been set, because they will be next.

He quoted Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank, as saying that when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank impose austerity measures on Third World governments, they always insist that money be set aside for riot control.  He said they even have an expression, the “IMF riot.”

Fear and Loathing in the House of Saud by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.

Peace between Iran and the United States would be good for almost everybody except the Saudi Arabian royal family and maybe the government of Israel.  Pepe Escobar explained why the Sandi Arabian government is threatened by a U.S.-Iran agreement and how it will use its leverage to prevent it.

Murder in the Age of Distraction by Jonathan Coppage for the American Conservative.

A man on a San Francisco commuter train pulled out a .45 pistol and aimed it at fellow passengers.  Nobody noticed until he actually shot someone because they were all focused on their hand-held phones and computers.

New law threatens vote-counting reliability by Thomas D. Elias of the San Bernadino County Sun.  Hat tip to the Brad Blog.

Touch screen voting machines can vulnerable to tampering by hackers.  But California has enacted a new law that allows counties to use touch screen machines that have not been certified as reliable.  This is a bad law and a bad precedent for other states.  Why take a chance on tampering with voting results?

Pharmaceutical firms paid to attend meetings of panel that advised FDA by Peter Whorisky of the Washington Post.

Two college professors who organized an FDA advisory panel on painkilling drugs charged big pharmaceutical companies $25,000 each to have their experts attend meetings.  The money went to fund their research projects.

There’s nothing wrong with a government agency getting outside advice, including advice from drug companies, but it is wrong to charge for the right to give advice and with giving special privileges to big companies who can pay a fee.

Quebec Fracking Ban Lawsuit Shows Perils of Free Trade Deals by Julian Beltrane on the Huffington Post.

A Canadian company registered in Delaware has appealed to a NAFTA tribunal to overturn Quebec’s mortatorium on hydraulic fracturing because it takes away expected profit.  The moratorium is intended to give the Quebec government time to study the impact of fracking.

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement also would give international companies the right to appeal and possibly overturn national laws if it deprived them of privileges granted under the treaty.

Hillary Clinton: It’s Not Her Turn by Richard Kim for The Nation.

It would be nice to show that a woman can be elected President, just as it was nice to show that an African-American can be elected President.  But Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama and like her husband Bill Clinton, represents the corporate and Wall Street establishment, not working people and young people.

The maturing of democracy: Picking up the tab in the Economist.  Hat tip to Craig Hanyan.

A democratic system requires wisdom and maturity in the electorate and in elected and appointed government officials.  The Economist reviewer considers two books that examine the past and future of democratic governance.

Elections do not a democracy make

July 17, 2013

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Another thing we Americans should take into account when criticizing the Egyptian political culture is that our government for decades has propped up an Egyptian dictatorship which has crushed a free press, independent civic organizations and the other institutions that make democracy possible.

Few despots are powerful enough to stamp out organized religion, so, when no other means are available, opposition to the dictator often takes a religious form.  This was true of Iran under the Shah, it was true of Poland under the Communists.

I don’t say that Egypt would be a well-functioning democracy if only the U.S. hadn’t interfered.  I don’t know enough to make a statement one way or the other.  I do say the Egyptians and the other peoples of  the Middle East would be better off if the U.S. government ceased interfering with their government and politics.

Anyhow, we Americans have a highly dysfunctional democracy ourselves, and no foreign power to blame it on..

The cartoon is by Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader.  Hat tip to jobsanger.

For your weekend browsing

May 10, 2013

Here are links to articles that I thought were interesting and that I hope you might find interesting as well.

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Why Anti-Authoritarians Are Diagnosed As Mentally Ill

Bruce Levine, a psychologist, wrote that many people are diagnosed as mentally ill simply because they question and rebel against authority.   He thought one reason Americans are politically passive is that we are medicated out of our rebellious impulses.

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Deborah and Rolf

How to get along for nine months alone together

Explorer Deborah Shapiro wrote about how she and her husband Rolf Bjelke got along for 15 months at an Antarctic research station, nine of them alone together, without driving each other crazy.  She said they learned to be sensitive to each others’ moods and needs and to give each other elbow room, but also to show affection and empathy frequently.

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Why China prefers its own political model

Zhang Weiwei, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote that China is a successful meritocracy with little to learn from the U.S. model.  Almost all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body, have proved themselves as governors of Chinese provinces, many of which are larger than European nations.  Nobody as incompetent as George W. Bush or Japan’s Yoshihoko Noda could rise to the top in China, he wrote.

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Is democracy dead?

Henry Farrell wrote that Europe’s politics is as dysfunctional as U.S. politics, and for the same reason.   Governments and corporations are so entangled that governments don’t respond to voters and business is not subject to the discipline of the market.  Any hope of change comes from protest movements operating outside what he called the “formal” democratic process.

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If this was a pill, you’d do anything to get it

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post described Health Quality Partners, an experimental program under Medicare for helping elderly people with acute illnesses.  It has reduced hospitalizations by 33 percent and cut Medicare costs by 22 percent, simply by having a nurse go around on a regular basis and check up on how patients are doing and whether they are following doctors’ orders.  But there is a problem:  It reduces the profitability of hospitals.

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FrenchinMali

Are the French in over their heads in Mali?

A writer for Vice magazine found a new example of a familiar pattern as he reported on efforts of French troops and their Nigerian allies to pacify the African nation of Mali.  They can win battles, but they can’t compel the obedience of the population, and so the local version of Al Qaeda grows strong.

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If you find any of these articles of interest, you might want to click on the links in my Interesting reading menu.

My definition of democracy

January 28, 2013

My definition of democracy is the right of the people to suffer from their own mistakes rather than being forced to suffer from the mistakes imposed on them by others.

The trouble with globalization

July 9, 2012

The trouble with globalization is that there aren’t any democratic global institutions.

The only global institutions are multinational corporations, international banks and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization that serve the interests of corporations and banks.

During ancient and medieval times, political philosophers believed that democracy was something that could work only on a local level.  They thought a town or city-state could be democratic, but not a large nation.  And it is true that it is hard to make democracy work when you go above the level of the New England town meeting.  But our existing international institutions and organizations don’t even attempt to be democratic.

Egyptian protester suppports Wisconsin workers

February 20, 2011

Click on Politirature for the web log of the 21-year-old Egyptian engineering student holding up the sign.  People like him make me feel good about being a member of the human race. (more…)

If you don’t mean it, don’t say it

February 2, 2011

President Barack Obama spoke with his usual eloquence in Cairo on June 4, 2009, about the relationship of the United States to the Muslim world.

His statements about democracy in the Middle East began at about the 35th minute.  Here is what I take to be the key passage.

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election.  But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things:  the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.  These are not just American ideas; they are human rights.  And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise.  But this much is clear:  Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.  Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.  America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them.  And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people.

Click on A New Beginning for the complete text.

Government by randomocracy

January 26, 2011

The United States democratic process is dysfunctional.  Big money dominates the electoral and legislative processes.  Gerrymandering protects legislative and congressional incumbents.  A two-party consensus deprives voters of meaningful choice on many issues. Many Americans feel government does not represent them.

A sociologist named Erik Olin Wright has a possible solution.  In his book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), he proposes supplementing democracy with randomocracy – government by people selected at random, like juries.

This would solve a number of problems.  It would solve the problem of control of the electoral process by monied interests.  Philosophers through the ages have said that the person most trustworthy to hold power is the person who doesn’t seek power; random selection would be better than voting for this purpose.  Many groups don’t feel represented in our present process.  Randomocracy would give members of every group equal opportunity to share power.

Raandom selection would not produce leaders of superior wisdom and virtue, but does anybody think our existing system does?  Maybe average wisdom and virtue would be an improvement.

Wright cited a randomly-selected Citizens Assembly created by the provincial government of British Colombia in 2003 to formulate a referendum proposal for a new electoral system for the provincial parliament.  The idea was that members of the existing parliament had too much of a personal stake in the decision to make an impartial decision, or to select decision-makers, and, if you elected a panel, that would recreate the same problem.

The Citizens Assembly consisted of one man and one woman from each of the province’s electoral districts, plus two “First Nations” representatives – 160 in all.  They met in Vancouver every other weekend during the spring of 2004 for lectures, seminars and discussions about alternative systems.  They received $150 for each weekend’s expenses.  Then they participated in a serious of town hall meeting around the province throughout the summer.

In the fall, they met again in Vancouver and formulated a proposal – a complicated system called Single Transferable Voting.  The proposal was submitted on referendum, and was defeated.  It got more than 57 percent of the vote, but 60 percent was necessary to pass.  Nevertheless Wright thinks the British Colombia Citizens Assembly was successful as a process, and could be applied to many different kinds of issues.

Where a state, provincial or national government has two legislative houses, one could be selected by a random process, Wright said.  This would require (1) a process that assured representation by all significant demographic groups, (2) compensation sufficient that most citizens would agree to participate and (3) a strong professional and technical staff to provide enough information for an informed decision.

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Cyberspace’s war of independence

December 12, 2010

In 1996 John Perry Barlow famously issued  A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow was, among other things, a founder of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), one of the first on-line discussion groups, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet civil liberties union.

He believed that the Internet had created a new kind of non-material realm beyond the control of governments, like the Western U.S. frontier of old.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.

via A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

The idea of cyberspace as a parallel non-material reality was in the air – not just among science fiction writers such as Vernor Vinge in True Names (1981) and Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (1992), but business visionaries such as George Gilder in Microcosm (1989) and Telecosm (2000).  Gilder said the electronics revolution created a new economy based on “bits,” or pure information, which was intellectually and morally superior to the old economy based on “atoms,” or mere material objects.  People spoke of how “meat space” had been superseded by “cyberspace.”

More soberly, Barlow’s EFF co-founder John Gilmore (the third was Mitchell Kapor of Lotus) said that information circulated over the Internet could not be suppressed because of the Internet’s distributed nature.  A newspaper has its offices and presses in buildings with known street addresses, but Internet sites – interacting with other sites – can’t be so easily pinned down.  As he put it, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

This idea, too was in the air.  Some people credited the Internet for the fall of Communism.  One writer – I forget his name – ridiculed George Orwell for fearing totalitarianism and wrote an alternate ending to Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the power of Big Brother crumbled because the citizens of Oceania had learned to network their telescreens.

The business and political world embraced the idea of Internet freedom.  Rupert Murdoch said, “Advances in the technology of communications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarianism everywhere.”  And Bill Gates said, “You cannot control the Internet.”

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Bill Gates’ Microsoft Corp., along with Google, Yahoo and other corporations, went along with Internet censorship in China, but supposedly that was all right.  The mere presence of the Internet and networked communication were supposed to be a liberating force in and of themselves.

Ronald Reagan said, “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Bill Clinton said that Internet censorship would be like “nailing Jello to the wall.”

“Imagine if the Internet took hold in China,” George W. Bush said. “Imagine how freedom would spread.” And Barack Obama told the Chinese, “I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet – an unrestricted Internet access – is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.”

Now we have a test case for John Gilmore’s thesis.  The test case is Wikileaks.

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Capitalism, socialism and democracy

December 3, 2010

Karl Marx predicted that under capitalism, wealth would become more and more concentrated, that the concentration of wealth would lead to concentration of political power, and that workers would become more and more powerless.

In my younger days, I thought Marx was outdated, but his predictions seem to be validated by what has been happening in the United States in the past 30 or so year.  Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker and Jacob Hacker’s and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class tell the story very well.

In spite of this, neither Greenhouse, Hacker nor Pierson are socialists.  What they advocate is a return to the rough balance of forces between labor, business and government as existed in the United States from the late 1940s through the early 1970s.  That is pretty much my own position.  I would like to preserve and restore the New Deal social safety nets and economic firewalls and the 1960s civil rights laws, update to meet current conditions, and I would like to see the United States adopt a universal health care system, based on best practices in other countries, but that is as far as I go.

The core value of socialism is egalitarianism.  I am not an egalitarian.  If I have enough for my own needs, I am not bothered by other people having more.  What I am against is exploitation.  By exploitation, I mean profiting at someone else’s expense, other than in a free and fair competition.

I am glad to see people whose achievements are valuable contributions to society be richly rewarded for those achievements.  I don’t mind that J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has a net worth of $1 billion.  I am fine with the fact that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the creators of Google, have a net worth of $14 billion each.

H. Ross Perot began his career as an IBM salesman.  IBM Corp. capped the commissions salesmen could receive because Perot was earning too much relative to the other salesmen. Perot’s response was to earn the maximum annual commission in a few weeks, quit IBM and founded Electronic Data Systems.  My sympathies are with Perot.

I reluctantly accept the necessity for differences in income based on differences in rank.  I have misgivings about economic privilege based on inheritance.  I am morally outraged by executives of organizations leveraging their authority to reward themselves at the expense of people below them in the hierarchy. And I am outraged at financiers who enrich themselves by manipulating prices and selling worthless securities.

The first form of exploitation is found in any society based on hierarchical organizations.  It existed in the old Soviet Union, and it exists in the so-called non-profit sector of the United States today.  The second is a form of exploitation specific to capitalist society.  Capitalism requires honest financial markets to function well, but does not automatically generate them.  When market abuses are unchecked, the result is what you see in the United States today.

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