Friday, 21 October 2016
Is Democracy Obsolete?
"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." - Winston Churchill
Is democracy obsolete? The short answer is Yes, because the wicked problems humanity is facing today are global, not national, and all democracies are national. There is no global democracy through which the peoples of the world could pool their wisdom, vote on the solutions to the wicked problems we so desperately need, and put them into action for the benefit of all.
What wicked problems? Global warming, air pollution, worldwide degradation of oceans, waterways, and land environments, predatory multinational banks and other corporations 'too big to fail or jail,' declining biodiversity, worldwide habitat destruction, food and water insecurity, human trafficking, massive refugee crises, ethnic and religious conflicts, endless warfare, international terrorism, etc. (1)
While these problems are often the subject of public opinion surveys, media conversation, and internet petitions, there is no political mechanism for a global democratic approach to their solution. The UN was supposed to be that instrument, but it was never intended to be a true democracy, and it has failed even to deliver on its main mission of ending warfare among nations and maintaining peace. Global problems cannot be solved locally, and all democracies today are local. As instruments for solving wicked global problems, democracy is obsolete.
obsolete: something no longer in use or no longer useful
Am I suggesting a global democracy is needed? Yes, but before outlining what that might look like, let's take a closer look at how democracy fails even at the national level to deliver on its promises.
Everyone who follows the news senses that something is wrong with their own democracy. and perhaps with democracy in general as we know it. The political wisdom of the crowd was on display recently at the October White Rock Philosophers meeting. After deciding on a working definition of democracy, the members came up with a lengthy list of ills that today's democracies suffer from.
One person thinks that a true democracy has never existed. Others acknowledge democracy's existence but claim that it is in serious disrepair. Complaints included the following and probably others which I have forgotten:
· democracy is a fiction; it has never existed.
· domination of elections by big money
· powerful lobbies have undue influence
· apathy, ignorance, and irrationality among voters
· ill-informed elected representatives
· corruption of various kinds
· party and districting systems exclude some voters from meaningful participation.
· lack of sense of responsibility among citizens, voter apathy
· corporate control of media
To this depressing list we can add massive lying, exaggerations, and fear-mongering by politicians, xenophobia against immigrants, racist policing, corporate crimes, predatory banks and other corporations, lack of accountability for people at the top, domination of elections by big money, enormous and increasing inequality, illegal surveillance of citizens, persecution of whistleblowers and protesters, government secrecy, revolving door between government and corporations. Are citizens ever allowed to vote on these issues?
Theoretically, all those problems can be fixed, we might think. However, the fundamental problem may be even worse. Writer George Monbiot takes seriously the claim of some philosophers that democracy cannot work as it is meant to; human nature does not allow it. He asks:
"What if democracy doesn’t work? What if it never has and never will? What if government of the people, by the people, for the people is a fairytale? What if it functions as a justifying myth for liars and charlatans?" (2)
How is democracy supposed to work? The word 'democracy' means 'rule by the people.' Literally, the people, the whole people, are the sovereign, the supreme power. This astonishing concept, first invented and practiced by ancient Greek city-states, has today become the aspiration of virtually all the world's peoples. The ideal was immortally expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
These three components can be fulfilled in direct democracy, a government in which all decisions are made by the entire body of eligible citizens, outcomes to be determined by a majority of votes. No nations today are governed by direct democracy, because populations are too large. Instead, we have indirect democracy: citizens vote for representatives to a national assembly of some kind where laws are passed and handed on to an elected executive. An independent judiciary is charged with ensuring the laws are fairly administered.
So what we have is not 'government of the people': the governing bodies are made up of elected officials, not the whole people. Many other officials are appointed, not elected. We do not have 'government by the people' because only the elected representatives are allowed to vote on legislation. We do not have 'government for the people' except insofar as laws benefiting the people also work to keep the representatives and their parties in power. Self-interest is almost always the first motivation of politicians, not public service.
Thus, representative government, as we know it today, falls far short in most cases of fulfilling the ideal of democratic rule. As soon as an election is finished, the people's ability to control the functions of government is ended. Representatives are supposed to carry out the will of the people, but very often they do not for reasons mentioned earlier. Yes, a robust system of binding referenda, as in Switzerland, can help to maximize citizen power, but even the Swiss can't control everything their politicians do, e.g. prevent their giant banks from carrying on criminal activities without fear of legal interference. Moreover, as I have pointed out, even the best democracies are helpless to solve global problems.
It appears, then, that the 'folk theory of democracy' - our belief that a people in the right circumstances can elect representatives who will then carry out their will is a myth.
Here are some additional reasons for this rather discouraging view:
1. Democracy is not majority rule: a party can take power with less than 50% of the vote.
2. Public opinion has almost no influence on major political decisions. (3)
3. Wealth rules: supreme power is held by corporations and other vested interests.
4. Democracy fosters superficial and inadequate focus on the issues.
5. Party systems foster divisiveness; zero-sum-game dynamics.
6. Democracy is not a meritocracy: politicians are often ill-qualified for office.
7. Politicians don't have an independent voice either - their vote is 'whipped.'
8. The system facilitates self-interest and scandal.
"Enough already," you might say. "True, there is no democracy that doesn't have serious flaws. Nothing is perfect in this world. But look at all that democracy has accomplished over the centuries: gradual broadening of voting rights to women and minorities - now everyone has the right to vote. Protected rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have hugely increased the wealth of the masses and brought them all manner of life-enhancing social services like education and medical systems. Freedom of thought has unleashed the creative brilliance of scientists, inventors, and engineers, as well as that of culture critics who work to keep the power of democratic rulers from morphing into tyranny. Don't be such a nabob of negativity; think on the blessings of democracy. Besides, despite its flaws, representative democracy is the best system available; direct democracy is simply not possible."
We can and we should keep the 'blessings' of democracy in mind, even as we take note of its shortcomings. It is also true that the huge size of national populations has forced us to accept representation as the only method of expressing the will of the people - that is, until now. The invention of the internet changes everything.
The internet confronts us with the stark fact that our constitutions, political parties, and election apparatuses are all obsolete. For hundreds of years, voters have been forced to vote only for representatives from their state, province, or territory. (In presidential systems, people are also allowed to vote for the national leader.) They have been required to travel to some polling place where they enter a booth, put an x on a piece of paper, or press a button on an electronic machine. In this age of the internet, is there any good reason why everyone could not vote online from their home? The answer is no, of course, and a few countries are experimenting with just such a system (Estonia, the Netherlands). We can expect more and more countries to adopt online voting systems in the future.
Will online voting solve the crises of democracy? It will help to increase voter participation, but as long as the elective representative system remains in place, the deeper structural problems will continue to undermine the popular will. Why? Because all representative systems separate the people from the levers of power in actual governing.
However, the possibility of elections being conducted entirely online has led to an even more dramatic proposal: online direct democracy - the replacement of congresses and parliaments with legislative power exercised directly by the people themselves via the world wide web.
This radical proposal, currently being investigated only by a relative few social researchers, has already acquired a (rather awkward) name: crowdocracy. (4) Literally, the crowd rules. Whereas traditional political philosophers have always distrusted the people as a whole ("the Beast") in favor of rule by experts, crowdocracy is based on a new but well-supported hypothesis: the crowd is actually smart. The theory is called 'the wisdom of crowds.'
Look for more on crowdocracy and the wisdom of crowds in Part 2 of this series.
1 In a recent survey, millennials voiced their concern about 10 outstanding problems their generation is facing. All are arguably global problems, only partially solvable, if at all, at the national level.
2 George Monbiot's essay can be found here.
3 Research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page is cited in Crowdocracy. For a useful summary and commentary, see this piece in The New Yorker.
4 See Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus, Crowdocracy: the End of Politics, 2016.
Thursday, 6 October 2016
Is it Rational to Fear Death?
"Most of us would admit that, at least in some way, we fear death. But what if we're making a mistake - a reasoning error? What if our fear of death is based on a misconception about death that, if corrected, would eliminate our fear?"
- Mark Berkson, Death, Dying, and the Afterlife
Many people, when asked, say they are not afraid of death - afraid of dying perhaps but not of death itself. I tend to disbelieve them. The religious mythologies and rituals, literature, and philosophies of all cultures from earliest times attest to the universal terror of death among our kind. In our own time, over a hundred years of deep psychology have confirmed that fear of death lies deep within the unconscious mind, hidden from day-to-day consciousness by various strategies of denial. Most of us don't want to talk or think about our own death at all. The deaths of others usually takes place at a remove from us, and we don't have any role in preparing a corpse for its funeral or burial.
It's easy to say now, safe in our home and absent any reason to think the end is near, that we are not afraid of death. But consider the following: imagine you are captured by some evil people and imprisoned in a small, sealed cell from which escape is impossible. After a while a note is slipped under the door saying that in one hour the cell will begin to fill with helium, killing you in matter of seconds. Do you seriously believe you would not experience fear during that final hour? Can you imagine that situation vividly enough to experience some fear right now?
Currently a group of White Rock philosophers is studying a video lecture course on death, dying, and the afterlife. The topic of a recent session was "Is it rational to fear death?" In a basic sense, the answer is 'no.' It is not rational to experience fear of death, since fear is an emotion, and no emotions are rational. They are passions - literally, things that happen to us. Emotions just come upon us whether we want them or not. The Greek philosopher Epicurus probes more deeply. Knowing that everyone feels afraid of death now and then, he asks: assuming death is the final and complete end of a person's life, can you give a good reason for fearing death? The question means: after careful philosophical reflection, is it rational to fear death? His argument goes something like this:
Death is nothing to us.
1) Let's assume what seems to be true about death from all that we can observe, viz. that death is the complete end of a person's life - no more sensation or any other experience.
2) Now the only thing that is bad for us is pain or suffering.
3) But when we are dead, there is no pain or suffering.
4) Therefore, death is not bad for us and hence is nothing to be feared.
Epicurus argues that it is not rational to fear death, and it is difficult to refute his reasoning. Accepting the argument, however, doesn't mean that you won't continue to be afraid of death. It is unrealistic to imagine that a single act of reasoning can dispel an instinct as deeply rooted in us as fear of death. Epicurus understood this and so advised his disciple in his famous Letter to Menoeceus to "Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us." We know that Epicurus, like most of the Greek philosophers of his time, regarded philosophy as practical wisdom as well as the pursuit of intellectual understanding. So he probably advised his students to reflect deeply and often on his argument that death is nothing to be feared. A daily practice of repeating and contemplating the Epicurean argument amounts to using philosophy as therapy. In our own time cognitive behavioral therapy takes a similar approach.
Lucretius, a later devotee of Epicureanism, offered a variation on the argument by pointing out that the infinite span of time that passed before our birth instils no regret in us, and therefore, the similarly endless time that will elapse after we die should be of equal unconcern. This is known as the symmetry argument.
Against these thinkers, contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel proposes the deprivation argument: death is bad because we lose (the memory of) every good thing that happened in our lives and all possibility of enjoying similar experiences in the future. He offers several thought experiments to support the argument. He asks us to imagine (1) a husband's betrayal by his wife that he never finds out about, (2) an author that writes a book that, after her death, is destroyed by a fire, and so nobody reads it; (3) an intelligent adult who suffers a brain injury that "reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant." In each case, Nagel insists, the event is bad for the individual, even though he/she never experiences any negative feelings as a result of the event. In each case, a period of time in the person's life must be taken into consideration, not merely a moment of experience, as Epicurus thought.
Against Lucretius, Nagel argues that the pre-birth and post-death periods are not symmetrical, because the first is devoid of all value, whereas a person's life before death includes many good experiences as well as the expectation of additional goods in future years. Both of these are highly valued by everyone, and they are lost when a person dies. Therefore, to fear losing them - to fear death - is rational.
In the 20th century, some existentialist philosophers have sided with Epicurus with a slightly different take on the issue. They argue that when it comes to death, 'fear' is the wrong term. Fear in usual cases is fear of some object or event or situation - something specific like a charging rhinoceros. Remove the object and the fear is gone. Death is not like that. Soren Kierkegaard's word dread or Heidegger's angst is more appropriate, since death has no identifiable, specific features at all. Fear of death is really dread of the unknown, of our non-existence, which we cannot even imagine. There is no way to remove death understood in this way and so no way to free ourselves from dread. These philosophers agree with Epicurus that fear of death is irrational but disagree with his optimistic belief that rational contemplation can relieve us of that fear.
· Can one's belief that they are not afraid of death be trusted?
· Do you think both Epicurus and Nagel could be right or are their views mutually exclusive?
· If the existentialists are right, then isn't the modern trend of death-denial a rational response after all? Why not a comforting delusion rather than a depressing truth?