Archives for category: democracy

And why are we still trying to solve this riddle?

‘Cause this is indeed a riddle…

Remember those metaphorical stories whose heroes end up having to find the answer to one in order to save themselves/the day?
Like Sophocles’ “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”

A riddle, of course, being a question which cannot be answered until the individuals attempting to solve it stick their heads out of the box into which the riddle had been framed.

So. Individualism? Collectivism?

Having grown up under communist rule – supposedly the most collectivist social arrangement to date, I can testify that there is no such thing as collectivism without individualism nor individualism without collectivism.

Libertarians’ mantra is that socialism/communism – and even liberalism, as Americans understand it, is a form of collectivism. And, of course, that collectivism is bad for you.
Socialists, on the other hand, maintain that the current situation – which is seen as being bad, is the consequence of the growingly extreme individualism which plagues modern societies.

Interestingly enough, both sides are simultaneously right.
Communism is indeed bad for you and the bad aspects of today’s society are a consequence of callous selfishness.

On the other hand, all communist societies are composed of a huge mass of obedient subjects AND a small number of individual, and very individualistic, leaders.
Similarly, all developed capitalist societies – including those sporting huge discrepancies between the shrinking number of haves and the growing number of utterly destitutes, have reached the current level of sophistication because most of their members continue to share the belief that ‘all men have been created equal and that all of them have certain, nonnegotiable, rights: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’.

“Share the belief…”
But wasn’t this the very definition of collectivism?
A social arrangement where the most important possession belongs to THE public?
Was there anything more consequential for what is currently known as the ‘Euro-Atlantic’ civilization than this shared belief? Other peoples have been in possession of way more abundant natural resources. Had reached ‘astronomical’ levels of civilization way before we were even able to wipe our noses… And yet…

Haven’t we, individual thinkers, figured out yet that unless we agree on ‘the basics’, we’ll be easy prey for the callous ‘snake oil merchantmen’ who have no qualms to use collectivist slogans to pitch some of us against the others?

Haven’t we figured out, yet, that there is no ‘political collectivism’ without fear? All collectivist social arrangements, both socialist and fascist/nazist, have been built using fear/contempt (of the other) to cement ‘the people’ into believing the lies proffered by false prophets. Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao… Lies proffered by callously individualistic political agents… bent on satisfying their own domineering instincts and making ‘good use’ of pre-existing conditions.

Haven’t we figured out yet that individualism, the tame version developed along with the good aspects of the Western Civilization, is, by nature, the very beneficial consequence of the mutual respect which (still) exists among the members of our societies?

So, to answer the riddle, we need to understand that there is no real conflict between bona fide individualism and bona fide collectivism.
Just as there is no conflict between two perpendicular lines.

Since, by trade, I’m a mechanical engineer, I’ll use a very practical metaphor to illustrate this idea.
Consider a pressurized Oxygen tank. The more pressure inside, the more Oxygen you can store in it. The more useful the tank. Only if you ramp up the pressure too much, you end up with an explosion.
In this situation, you might consider ‘pressure’ to be in conflict with the ‘walls of the tank’, right?
Wrong. The conflict is only in your mind. Pressure is simply perpendicular to those walls. The more pressure those walls can withstand, the more useful that tank is for you.

But it’s your responsibility to determine the thickness and resilience of those walls. It’s your responsibility to choose how much to ramp up the pressure.
For the very simple reason that that tank is yours.
It is you who will suffer the consequences.


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There is a technical reason. And some subjective ones. Acting in a synergic manner.

Trump had bean the darling of the high ratings/low expectations media for most of his adult life. During this period he had learned how to use it towards his own goal – an ever increasing notoriety, and those involved in the media had learned to love him back for the amount of publicity they had been able to sell on his back.

Now for the subjective ones.
First of all, he is a very ‘penetrant’ person. Like him or not, but you can’t ignore him.
Secondly, he happens to be the most powerful individual on Earth. Simply because he had been elected the President of the United States of America. Which is not only the most potent/civilized/democratic/you name it country, but also the leader of the free world. Meaning that the rest of the planet, democratic or not, sets it’s time after America’s clock. Willingly or unwillingly.
So the rest of world is watching anxiously everything that is going on in Washington. Wondering whether ‘Trump-ism’ will spread around. Or will remain yet another measure of American exceptionalism.

Thirdly, but maybe the most important reason, Trump can be analyzed as a symptom rather than as a cause.
In fact, there are a lot of Trumps scattered around the world.
Basically, there is very little difference between Trump and Putin. Trump and Erdogan. Trump and Bolsonaro. Trump and Dragnea – the most powerful politician in today’s Romania, my country. Even between Trump and Modi. Only none of these countries is similar to the US of A. None of them has such a distinguished democratic tradition.
And this is why so many people try to understand what’s going on.
Is Trump nothing more than an unhappy accident? Or the visible symptom of democracy becoming decrepit?

PS.
Even Abe is showing signs of contagion.
Post WWII Japan had survived by feeding whales to its people.
Now it is going to resume commercial whaling. In spite of all other previously whaling nations asking him to reconsider.
Really Abe? You need whale meat to survive?

Democracy works. Authoritarianism works too.

Athens, the Ancient version, had become the dominant power of the Ancient Greece as a democracy. Only the Parthenon was build under Pericle’s rule. And Pericle was, for all intents and purposes, a dictator.
Rome, the Ancient version, had build a huge empire. As a democracy. Then enlarged it some more. As a growingly authoritarian and eventually discretionary regime.

England had started as the most democratic kingdom in Europe. Building upon the democratic traditions developed by the Vikings, the barons had forced King John to sign Magna Charta Libertatum. Way back in 1215.
Meanwhile, France – England’s neighbor and long time competitor, had become the dominant power in Medieval Europe. As an increasingly absolutist monarchy.

At some point, the people living in the future United States of America had decided that they had enough. That they wanted to enjoy the same privilege as their British counterparts. “No taxation without representation”.  George III would have no such a thing so the US had been established as the first democratic modern state. And the most successful to date. By almost every measure.
Following on America’s foot steps, the French had their Revolution. After a very short – and very tumultuous, democratic stint, they had reverted to authoritarianism. And conquered almost all Europe, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte the First. Only to be eventually defeated by a coalition led by the more democratic British empire.

On the other side of Eur-Asia, things had been more linear.

The Russian Empire was developed in fits and starts. When the dictating ruler knew what he was doing – Peter the Great, for instance, things went forward. When not…
India had been, for all but the last 70 years or so, a melting pot of feuding dictatorships. Yet had developed a fascinating culture and much of what we currently call science and technology. The numbers our computers crunch had been invented there. And the steel we use to build our cars
The Chinese Middle Kingdom had once been the most civilized country on Earth. Then had crumbled under the assault of the marauding already democratic Europeans… only to revive, like the famous Phoenix… and all these while remaining submissive to a succession of authoritarian regimes.
Japan is a story by herself. Never fully authoritarian and yet still ‘imperative’ in many ways even today, she had somehow managed to put up a relatively good show. But for the period when she had succumbed to the ‘charms’ of hard core dictatorship, of course.

Coming back to Europe, I have to note that in the last century the inevitable tension between democracy and authoritarianism has produced immense tragedy.
WWI was the consequence of the inflexibility inherent to the authoritarian regimes. The leaders of the Keiserlich und Koniglich Habsburgic Empire, the Deutches Reich and the Russian Empire were not able to solve their disputes otherwise than dragging the whole continent into a huge mess.
Which, unsolved, had given birth to a second, and more horrible, one.
To complicate things even more, the battle was not fraught between the democratic regimes and the authoritarians.

An old Romanian saying posits that when God wants to punish someone, He starts by dulling their wits.

What if ‘fake news’ are a symptom of (some of the) journalists having earned the wrath of God?
Or is it the whole countries whom God wants to teach a lesson? Or two?


https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putin-says-he-has-never-made-a-mistake-because-god-wanted-him-to-be-perfect-10309628.html

And no, this is no joke! Alas…

Populism is scientific because its ‘adepts’ have a very rational behavior and use scientific tools to increase the appeal of their public messages.
And, on the other hand, populism is scientific because its advent is perfectly explainable given what we currently know. About our society, about our brains, about our psychology….

Let me start from the beginning.
In Thomas Kuhn’s terms, the last 60 or so years have witnessed a tremendous paradigm shift.
Science has replaced religion as the main paradigm and ‘religion’ has been demoted to  ‘religions’.

Science becoming the main paradigm means that we have grown confident about our knowledge. We might be aware that we don’t know everything yet but we continue to believe that we’re able to learn everything. That if we are diligent enough we’ll sometimes be able to look under every rock that is.
This attitude has led us to search for ‘perfection’. ‘Efficiency’ has displaced ‘redemption’. We have ceased our quest for salvation and are now obsessed with ‘buy low, sell high’. In other words, ‘make the most of it but strain yourself as little as possible’.

Which makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

A lot of sense… mainly when you no longer perceive the guy next to you as being a full-fledged member of your community. Your religious community, that is. Of your church.

You see, ever since Emil Durkheim, the sociologists have been aware that religion was not so much a story about the making of the world as a ‘common ground’. The ‘common core’ shared by the members of a given community. Which ‘common core’ makes it possible for those who share it to have respect. For themselves and for the other faithful members of the community. By sharing that common core, the individuals find their bearings in the ‘wide, wide world’ and, thus, know how to behave relative to their ‘neighbors’. With enough mutual respect among the individual members that the community is able to function. To survive, that is.

We no longer have that kind of community.
Our primary allegiance is no longer towards ‘church’. Most of us consider themselves primarily as members of a nation – something governed more by formal laws than by public sentiment, and only secondarily – if at all, as members of a ‘religious’ community.

Now, putting two and two together, it’s very simple to understand that in the given circumstances ‘populism’ was inevitable, right?

Too many of the would be leaders have no qualms about how they get what they want.
Power.
‘Buy low, sell high’ is the current mantra, remember? Accepted by all of us. Buyers, sellers, by-standards…
Too many members of the general public are willing to accept promises which are in line with their own expectations, even if those promises being put in practice means a lot of misery for OTHERS. Who cares about those others, anyway? They are not members of OUR ‘church’!

I’ll let you decide how sustainable is such a situation. I was going to use ‘community’ instead of ‘situation’ but it would have been horribly wrong. We no longer live in communities. We only happen to live in the same place.

For how long?

The relatively flat layout of most parliamentary chambers has induced in us the idea that society is linear. From left to right and backwards.
Also, the current almost ubiquitous existence of parliaments drove us to forget that until recently – historically speaking, of course, most societies have been punctiform. The sovereign king was the only one able/entitled to make any significant decision…

Meanwhile we are told by the political scientists that long term political stability can be achieved only through ‘checks and balances’. Meaning that the state has to be organized in such a way that nobody can get amass too much power.
Actually most modern states have an executive, a legislative body and a judiciary. Each of them performing their specific tasks while keeping a jealous eye on the other two.

The problem with long term political stability being that it is a very abstract goal while most people just want to be happy. And are willing to go at considerable lengths in order to achieve their goals….

And it’s exactly here where ideologues start to argue among themselves

Some say that the individual is sacrosanct. That individual freedom is the most important value that is and the most fundamental ‘human right’.
Others say that society is more important than any individual. That all individuals should put themselves at the service of the society and that individual liberty pales when confronted with social necessity.
And a third category consider that democracy is a waste of time and of opportunity. That the best for any society is that a capable person/group of persons to be given absolute power over it. The rationale being that ‘the capable’ will take good care of their ‘property’. A far better kind of care than any group of bickering politicians would ever be able to offer….

On the practical side, those preoccupied with ‘freedom’ consider that the main duty of the state is to preserve/protect individual liberty. That people, once free, will know how to achieve their personal happiness.
The socially minded consider that individual happiness cannot exist before/outside the well being of the entire society. Hence the ‘rational citizen’ has to postpone (read forget) any personal goals and sublimate their own persona into the society.
‘The more capable than the rest’ consider that the ‘incapable’ cannot be trusted with defining their own goals and have to be told what to do. For their own good!

It is very easy to observe that none of the three ‘ideal types’ described above doesn’t work on its own. That each have been experimented and found to be ‘unpractical’, to say the least.

Individual absolute freedom exists. The Saan living in the Kalahari desert and the  Baka in the Cameroon don’t have any formal rules, no social hierarchy and are absolutely free to do as they please. Both have been easily overcome, their habitat is being encroached/destroyed by their ‘neighbors’ and have been able to survive only by going further and further away from anything.
Socially minded people have, time and time again, congregated. Only to witness their communities dissolve or develop malignantly. From the early christian settlements to the XiX-th century phalansters.
The ‘know better’ is, apparently at least, the most successful arrangement. All kingdoms and empires have been organized according to this principle.
And all of them eventually failed. Even Plato’s idea of ‘king priests’ has led to Alexander the Great’s ultimately disastrous campaign into the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that the erstwhile mighty Athens had fallen into anonymity just after starting to be governed by specially trained rulers.

Since the pure ideal types didn’t work, let’s see what we get if we combine them.

Since I’ve been experimenting it for the first 30 years of my life, I’ll start with the result of crossing ‘social minded’ with ‘know better’. Does ‘communism’ ring any bells with you?
Let’s cross ‘liberty’ with ‘know better’. Actually this has already been done. It was about liberty for those who knew better… Nazism, and its newer variants, are the first examples which come to mind.
And the most interesting result comes from crossing freedom with social minded. This has also been experimented. In the democratic Ancient Athens and in during the truly Republican phase of the Roman Empire. The same combination was used by the vikings and somehow perpetuated to this day. Its offshoots being the western style democracy.

Which democracy – just like the Roman Empire, will survive for only as long as it will conserve both individual freedom and social mindedness while allowing, but only when needed, the ‘know better’ to take over for the short periods of time when their presence at the helm is absolutely necessary.

I keep hearing that “America is not a Democracy, it is a Republic if you can keep it“.

Well, if nothing else, this is yet another example of how dangerous it is to give up studying ‘humanities’. As in classical languages, history…

‘Republic’ comes from Latin. Res Publica. Meaning a sociopolitical arrangement, a.k.a. country, ‘where “things” – “res”, in Latin, are decided upon by the “public” or the representatives that they elect.

Democracy comes from Greek. Demos Kratos. Meaning a sociopolitical arrangement where ‘power’ – ‘kratos’, belongs to ‘the people’ – demos.

Starting from here, it becomes a lot easier to understand that it doesn’t really matter whether the guy sitting at the formal top of a country calls himself king or president.
It’s who calls the definitive shot which determines whether a country is run as a democracy or is being ruled as an authoritarian regime.

“Government is suppose to be a negative force that leaves people alone.”

I’m afraid this would make any of the Founding Fathers weep.
It’s the ministers – secretaries of state, as the Americans call them, who need to be kept in check, not ‘Government’.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people” means that the people governs itself. The people determines its own future. All the people …. not just ‘the government’. Extracting, at the conceptual level, ‘the government’ from ‘the people’ means freeing those who happen to be ‘the government’, at any given moment, from their responsibilities. Telling ‘the people’ that ‘the government’ should leave them alone actually means that the people should also leave the members of the government to do as they please.
Really? Would any of you be comfortable with such an arrangement?

“Once Rome left the tenets of their Constitution they adopted Democracy and soon people were left demanding more from the Gov’t. A Gov’t that could not provide.”

In reality, Rome had thrived for only as long as it had managed to preserve the truly democratic features of its government. As long as the citizens went to the Forum – the Roman Agora, and voted their true minds. As long as the Senators did their jobs honestly and decided for the future of the entire city.
Only after the Roman People had given up and stood idle while their democracy was corrupted into ‘mob-rule’ by the bribe-greedy senators, the Roman Empire had started to crumble. The Roman Empire was no longer a true republic nor a functional democracy when it was abolished by Augustus being proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers.
And the final nail was beaten into the Roman coffin when the people itself had started to accept bribes.
When Rome had started to be ruled according to the ‘panem et circenses’ principle. When the people had let himself be bribed by those who wanted to stay in power and when the people had stopped censuring those who determined the fate of the entire social organism.

When ‘the government’ had extracted itself from the people.

And yes, Republic has to be kept. Only not for its own sake. For ours.

It doesn’t matter whether a country calls itself a kingdom or a Republic, it’s how the shots are called which is really important. By the People or by a small number of individuals. While it is true that the Roman Empire had to devolve from a Democratic Republic to a dictatorial kingdom before crumbling, let’s not forget Germany and Russia.
Both had thrown out their rulers – Kaiser and Tzar, only to fall under the spell of dictatorial ideologies which had led both of them to ruin.
To republican ruin.
Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had been ruled as republics by small coteries of callous manipulators.

At any given moment, things are the intersection between ‘what could have been’ and ‘what we wanted out of that situation’.

It’s obvious, for even the most careless observer, that something must be possible before our wishes might start shaping that something.

My point being that we are not necessary for nature to exist but we do bear the responsibility for what has happened since we started to wish.

Let’s consider a hydroelectric dam, for example.
For us to be able to build one, we first need a river. A big enough one, flowing through a certain configuration of terrain… but nevertheless, we need a river. Before everything else.
Yet it’s not the presence of the river which is responsible for the existence of the dam. We, the builders, have built it. We are responsible for it.

And this is valid for other things too, not only for the ‘material’ ones.

Democracy, for example.

War taught us that destruction is not inevitable. Wars have to be started before destruction begins.
After killing each-other for long enough we’ve learned that we’re not so different.
We bleed the same kind of blood and our mothers weep the same tears.
Eventually, we replaced war with sport.

History taught us that democracy works better, in the longer run, than authoritarianism.
That observing the world from multiple perspectives – and pooling the data, leads to way better results than meekly following orders.

Both war and sports are ample demonstrations that winning is temporary and surviving trumps everything else.
And, contrary to our ‘immediate urges’, that fair play goes a lot further towards survival than ‘winning at all costs’.

Similarly, both surviving and decaying/crumbled down democracies are compelling proof that democracy is based on mutual respect between the members of the democratically self governed community.
And that when ever that mutual respect starts to vanish, democracy – the real thing, starts to fade. Usually into ‘mob rule‘. And further, if the process is allowed to continue.

So.
What’s gonna be?
Are we going to allow our craving for ‘success’ to return sport to blood sport? A.k.a war?
And to demote functional democracy, oriented towards the survival of the community as a whole, to mob rule?
Declaratively geared – by the interested party, towards the putative survival of the ‘establishment’? Never, as yet, achieved even on the medium term… let alone the long one

Authoritarianism, of all ‘flavors’, depends on the ‘father figure’ being absolutely convinced that he is well above the rest. And it is this height which enables him to despise the rest, to the tune of not caring, at all, about how they feel about things.

‘I’m calling the shots, because I can, and the rest of you would better suck it up!’

Democracy, on the other hand, depends on people relying on each other. Enough of them are convinced that none of them is above error. Regardless of their ideological convictions, people who are convinced that democracy works are willing to accept advice from their peers. Or, at least, they listen carefully to what their peers have to say about issues.

The key word here being ‘peers’.

Nobody pays real attention to ideas coming from below or from above. If from below, that idea has to be almost obvious to pass the filter while everything coming from above is interpreted as an order. And executed if there’s no alternative or stalled/ignored whenever possible.

Both authoritarianism and democracy have proved themselves useful.

No war has ever been won by a democratically led army and no authoritarian regime has ever resisted for long. Meanwhile no democracy has ever crumbled as long as it has retained enough of its democratic spirit.
Yes, there are many examples of democracies becoming corrupted and eventually failing. Only this had happened after the democratic spirit had vanished into the smoke of ‘politics’.

Let me remind you that Alexandre the Great, one of the most admired generals and state-men of the world, was educated by Aristotle. Who was the favorite pupil of Plato. The esteemed philosopher who had invented the concept of ‘priest-kings’ – specially educated individuals who were meant to rule the rest.
Needless to add that Plato had witnessed Pericles simultaneously building the Parthenon and burying the Athenian democracy.
While Aristotle (384-322 BC) had lived long enough to witness his pupil conquering the entire ‘civilized world’ and dying an abject drunkard.
Greece, one of the places which had nurtured an enormously important part of the human culture, never fully recovered from the consequences of Plato’s ideas being put in practice.

Are we going down the same chute?
Is this the proper manner in which to engage those ‘on the other side of the isle’?

giving birth to a democrat

In one of my previous posts, I was arguing about everything belonging to one of these three categories: ‘Aphasic’, Alive and Alert.

The point I’m trying to make now being that each of us ‘rubber-stamps’, according to their individually biased interpretation, each people who crosses their path into one of those three categories.

Some consider that the ‘brain dead’ should be ‘eugenized’ while Plato had talked himself into believing that the ordinary people were too stupid to participate into the collective decision making process and should have been governed by specially trained ‘king-priests’. Thus setting the stage for all subsequent dictatorships, by offering any would-be authoritarian figure a ‘solid’ philosophical backing….

Meanwhile, the ‘alert’ among us are doing their best – or their worst, to accede to the ‘king-priest’ status.

Their favorite method?
You must have already inferred from the title… interpreting the law to fit their goals.
Or even rewriting it to that purpose.

In a yet older post, I mentioned that rules, a.k.a. laws, are made by us.

Intentionally, all of them. Regardless of their nature. Regardless of us only having discovered some of them – like the law of gravity, convened on others – like driving on only one side of the road, or having devised yet others ‘out of the blue’ – the rules for playing bridge, for instance.

Coming back to the judicial system, it’s simple to notice that even here the laws belong to the same three broad categories.

‘Don’t kill/steal’ are ‘natural’. People – well, most of them, have long ago understood/noticed/learned that it’s far more comfortable to live in a society were people don’t kill each-other. Hence they felt the need to set an uniform manner in which to react to ‘trespassers’.

Then, as social life became more complex, people have felt the need to ‘code’ many of the frequently occurring interactions. Matrimony, for instance. Or inheritance. Commercial law. And so on.

Finally, as we’ve become more ‘sophisticated’, some of us have started to ‘jump the gun’. Or to put the wagon in front of the horses…
Believing that laws, if enforced forcefully enough, can change – more or less ‘overnight’, human behavior, they started to impose over the rest of the society various ‘synthetic’ ones.
For instance, the communists have imposed their weltanschauung over the societies which have been weak enough to accept it… Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the only instance in which the more powerful have imposed ‘new’ laws over those who were too weak to protest efficiently. The Spanish have forcefully baptized the Aztec and the Inca, the North American Whites have transformed the more or less nomad ‘Indians’ into ‘reservation’ dwellers while imposing abject servitude upon imported Irish and then African people…

And so on…

 

 

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