I’ve had an idea kicking around my head for a needful project: a collection of political theory essays and entries that describes the multitude of ways that elites and oligarchs use power to undermine democracy. The idea is to lay out threats to democracy in clear language to help people be more aware of them, and to suggest solutions to combat them.
The word democracy is an ancient Greek word, of course, and combines two terms:demos meaning “the common people” and -kratos meaning “to rule.” Democracy thus means a government in which regular people wield power and rule over the upper classes, rather than be ruled, and usually tyrannized, by them. A related idea from the later school of political thought known as classical republicanism (as in the Roman or Florentine republic, not the U.S. political party) is that public affairs are to be run for the good of all and not for the benefit of a single corrupt class. This entails that the common people, who make up the most numerous class, must have the ability to protect themselves from the rich and powerful, and indeed should have predominant say in setting the direction of government policy (even if they do not always directly run the day-to-day affairs of the government).*
In the modern world popular control is supposed to be exercised through representation, in which political leaders are held accountable to the common people through free, fair, and competitive elections. Elections are supposed to be a way for citizens to ensure that public institutions are run for the good of all, rather than for a narrow section of elites who already possess power, wealth, and/or privilege.
The dynamics of power are such that the demos always has to work diligently against the corruption and undermining of democratic/republican government by elites. The ability of regular people to hold elites to account, however, has been eroding for some time, in the United States and globally. A reassertion of democratic control will be needed for the world to solve its many problems, and theHandbook For Democracy is meant to assist that.
The idea is drawn from a genre of political theory texts written in antiquity and the Middle Ages called mirrors for princes. Mirrors for princes were handbooks that offered advice to leaders (especially young princes under training at court) about how to rule justly and effectively. From the fall of the Roman republic until the emergence of modern representative democracy, educated and experienced political thinkers were deprived of channels to directly contribute to politics, so they had to exert influence by acting as advisors to emperors and kings, and one way they did so was to pen mirrors for princes. These books were usually intended to improve the moral character of leaders, and often did so by presenting mythological or historical examples of just and good rulers to follow, shining examples held up for the prince to compare himself to, a sort of looking-glass to induce princes to examine and improve their own behavior. These handbooks were written by Cicero, Seneca, John of Salisbury, Christine de Pizan, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, and many others. When it was Machiavelli's turn, however, he introduced a twist: in his book The Prince, rather than advising how a leader should be good, he advised how a leader in an insecure political position could effectively wield power to establish stability. One could argue that another of his political works, The Discourses, was also a mirror, but this time not for princes but for the citizens of a republic, where he describes how they could effectively maintain their liberties and ward off tyranny.
The Handbook For Democracy is intended to be a mirror for the demos, a companion guidebook to help people govern themselves effectively in the face of the constant pressures of power in the modern world that tend to undermine popular government and aggrandize oligarchy, police states, military dictatorship, or totalitarian fascism. Our demos needs to better understand how power is used against them — not just direct political power, but economic power, the power of the media, and the power of cultural control. There are a host of techniques that political and economic elites use to exert social control and to keep the demos in line. The Handbook is intended to schematically describe many of these different ways in which power is used against the demos, and it will also give recommendations for how to defeat, deflect, defuse, or otherwise deal with those techniques.
I’m going to periodically use my blog to write up some of the essays and entries that I’ll eventually compile for the book. Here are some (but hardly all) of the control techniques I hope to deal with, from time-to-time, over the next couple years:
- Armed suppression of dissent, when deemed necessary by the elite
- War in foreign places as a domestic control device
- Divide-and-conquer the working class using racism, sexism, homophobia
- Control of policy-making through the lobbying process
- Privatization of public functions, reducing the range of policy under public control
- Limitation of political participation
- Control over election processes
- Small numbers of “mainstream” political parties to reduce the range of political debate to what is acceptable
- Concentration of wealth
- Inequality is itself a control device
- Controlling nearly all of society’s capital investment allocation
- Ability to hire and fire workers, and to control promotions and demotions, pay and benefit raises and cuts, working conditions, etc.
- Marginalization of worker unions
- Control of the lobbying process through money
- Maintenance of poverty levels as a method of keeping people passive.
- Consumerism combined with mass entertainment as the modern bread-and-circuses
- Predominant control over the mass media
- Increased private funding of education at the primary, secondary, and university levels
- False consciousness: convincing many in the demos to identify with the wealthy
- Mass spectacles, celebrity worship, and other entertainments as distraction from the political
- Stupefaction of media programming to reduce intelligence levels
- Centrism as enabling of elite control
- Radical individualism and social alienation to isolate members of the demos and prevent strong communities and a truly vibrant civil society
One question that has to be asked is, what is the proper role of the political theorist in this? Is this really a book that promotes democracy if it’s written by someone who has a doctorate in political theory? Shouldn’t it be written by the demos?
First, I think the role of the political theorist here is exactly the same as past writers in the “mirrors-for-” genre: an advisor who shares political education and experience with those who are supposed to be political decision-makers. Since most of the members of the demos don’t have high levels of political knowledge, it’s perfectly permissible for those who do to offer advice for their consideration; and since that’s all that it is, advice, there’s nothing objectionable about it. (Advising the demos in order to help them is perfectly fine; if it crossed over into the line of contemptuously judging them to be incapable of understanding would be elitist, and to trying to take direct control would be authoritarian.) Indeed, if a political theorist believes in democracy, it is not only allowable, but, one could argue, morally obligatory for him or her to share it in democracy’s defense. Second, the common people, collectively, have great expertise, but it is divided up between its members. To draw on it the individual members must offer it up for public consideration, and that's that’s being done here. (I am a part of the demos: I am neither wealthy nor in a position of political, military, or bureaucratic power.) That being said, I do think it would ultimately be useful to use the handbook as the core or beginning, of an online democracy wiki in which people can contribute; the problem would be preventing elite colonization of it once it is open to all.
* Many classical republican thinkers, including the American founders, focused not on restraining the tyranny of the elite few but on restraining the tyranny of amajority, to prevent elite classes from being crushed by what they viewed as mob rule. I think that this has, mostly although not entirely, been a way for elites to perpetuate their class privilege, wrapped in the rhetoric of preserving the good of all. This is a complicated topic that I cannot adequately address here. It should suffice to say that, in our time, the major trends are against democracy, so it is the demos and so that is the class that needs to be bolstered.
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