“The only thing that is constant is change.”— Heraklitus
Democracy is no longer what it was. The once-shining light of the West, the Unites States, has turned populistic and their president is actively attacking the foundations of democracy. Britain is turning its back upon the rest of Europe. And free journalism is under attack in Australia.
– Can it survive?
The Grapes of Wrath
We live in a world of scarcity, of needs and wants and unfulfilled dreams. And we, ourselves, are the ones who made it that way. Not because it seemed good or wise to do so, but simply through ignorance – and a lack of caring.
We are the stewards of the world. And it has not prospered whilst in our care.
Nor, in fact, have we done all that well by ourselves. The gap between rich and poor is now at a level where Europe, at the time of the French revolution, looks positively socialistic by comparison: the three wealthiest people in the world today now own more than the poorest 48 nations combined! The top 1% owns more than half the total wealth of Earth.
Insanity by any other name…
(though of course, if you should happen to be among the lucky top 1%, I am sure you would just consider it the natural ordering of the world and a justly deserved reward for… um… let me think a moment…)
Let us rewind the tape of history a couple of centuries. It’s late summer, 1789, and the Queen of France has heard rumours of unrest in Paris:
Envy is just such a despicable trait in people, isn’t it? I mean, it ain’t as if they are starving or anything, right?
Oh, they are?
How ghastly. But, darling, if they’re out of bread, surely they can just eat cake.
Today these words sound surreal. But the high aristocracy of the time – not only in France but throughout all of Europe – lived in a different world. A world of leisure, games, and effortless luxury, entirely estranged from the harsh reality of their countrymen.
And then, in the late summer months of 1789, Europe changed. Driven by hunger and fear and despair – and a deep sense of injustice – the citizens of Paris rose in bloody revolt against the outrage and overthrew their masters. A seminal incident in human history. For out of all that carnage and violence and destruction was born a new Europe. A Europe, baptised in blood, whose first, quivering breath was drawn to give voice to the cry of “liberty, equality, fraternity!” A Europe with a bright new promise to its miserable masses: democracy.
The idea of democracy was quite old; the ancient Greeks practised it – in a limited form – for a while, and it had been in the cultural ballast of Europe ever since. But it took the shock of extreme violence – and the beheadings of several thousand French aristocrats – for the ruling classes of Europe to come to grudgingly regard it as a valid and even useful form of political governance.
Oh yes. With its implicit promise that the ordinary citizenry can move to elect a different government, whenever they feel dissatisfied, democracy would prove instrumental in keeping the populace quiet and tractable. Bread and circuses – as the Romans prescribed it – to keep the mob at bay. And an election now and then to let them vent their frustrations.
Safer, easier, and definitely better for both health and economy, to let the mob elect a new government now and then than to provoke another revolution like the French.
But if we allow this, how do we prevent the government from preying upon our wealth? How do we ensure that our interests are well served, that our privileges are preserved and honoured?
One can well imagine those thoughts, and others like them, passing through the collective mind of the ruling class at the time.
Do you know how they were answered?
Let’s fast-forward to the world anno 21st century…
We are still democratic.
Well, if we are … how come most of us are getting poorer by the year, while the 1% gets richer and richer and richer?
Did we really vote for that?
Born in Blood
Society today rests on a fundament of principles. World views. Things which we believe to be absolutely true and eternally valid. One of those – in some ways by far the most important of them – is the idea of democracy.
Democracy (literally: rule by the people) is the glue which links all of the various elements of our society together. It is made possible by the essential idea that all people are born equal and that the opinion – the vote – of any one of us is worth the same as that of any other. From this springs the concept of free speech – and indeed the belief that all people should be free and that slavery, in any form, is an abomination against nature. And this again gives nourishment and power to a rich diversity of thoughts, including the emancipation of women, social welfare, and even the Internet.
But democracy isn’t by any means the “natural state of things” for a human society. It is, in fact, an extremely rare occurrence, which has only ever existed in its present shape for a mere one hundred years or so. Let that thought rest for a moment: a single century of universal democracy out of more than five thousand years of recorded history…
To say that democracy is rare is an understatement. It is not rare. It is unique.
Why is that?
It is unique because the circumstances where it can be established are very specific and uncommon. And, once it has been created, it is fragile and needs constant care and attention – lest it dies.
The problem lies in the radical nature of democracy. It is government by the people, not by the elite. So why should the current elite allow that to happen at all? Under what circumstances would the ruling class of any country voluntarily step down and let itself be reft of power, pushed aside and replaced?
It can only be as a last resort. To be considered only in the direst and most threatening of circumstances. Something like, say, when the common people of a neighbouring country imprisons their entire aristocracy – men, women, and children – and begins feeding them to the guillotine…
Yes, that would probably do it…
It was neither by chance nor coincidence that the idea of democracy spread rapidly throughout virtually all of Europe in the years following the French Revolution. It was, rather literally, an idea born in blood. The sudden gush of warm blood from the severed heads of 40.000 French aristocrats.
The news of that calamity, brutally unexpected and totally without precedence, could neither be repressed nor ignored. It forced the ruling classes of Europe to consider extreme measures to safeguard their own safety. For France was not, by any means, the only place where revolutionary ideas were finding fertile soil.
They tried to quench the revolution in its own blood. And failed, miserably. That left just one option.
If you can’t beat them, join them…
The centuries to follow were rife with war and tension, blood ran in long rivers, and the smoke from gunpowder and cannon clouded the hills and forests of Europe.
But the French Revolution did not repeat.
Democracy, tightly controlled and screened though it was, began to bloom.
The Numbers Game
Democracy is a numbers game. The rules are as simple as they get: one person, one vote. It’s as basic as that. So it naturally follows that whichever faction has the most people, is the faction with the greatest power, yes?
That was the conundrum which faced the major European powers in the years following the French Revolution.
To ensure the stability of their lands – not to mention the safety of their own persons – they felt compelled to placate the unruly masses and allow some measure of democracy. But how then to game a system as deceptively simple as democracy? How to ensure that the unwashed masses did not abscond with the hard-won wealth and privileges of their masters?
Well, to start with… One person, one vote. But which person?
“Maybe we could allow the more reasonable elements to vote, yes? Those with a certain level of respect and wealth. We can probably deal with that; persuade them that it is in their own best interest to keep things pretty much as they are now.”
It was a beginning, of course. And it worked, for a while. Generally, the upper classes were successful in keeping control of government – or at least those people who were elected somehow found it in their own best interest to continue to work with the establishment rather than attempt to dismantle it.
And gradually, as it was seen that democracy could actually be brought to work without inflicting noticeable hardships on the upper strata of society, suffrage – the right to vote – was granted to broader swaths of the populace.
There were, of course, notable exceptions. The Russian Empire, for one. Any attempt at democracy had been vehemently opposed by the Tsars and as late as 1905 Tsar Nikolai II still retained full and absolute control of the vast empire. The weak and inefficient reforms, after the revolution in 1905, made little impression on the populace and in 1917 the bill came due. The Russian Revolution led to the complete dismantling of the bourgeois and the execution of the royal family.
As more and more people were allowed to vote, the pressure for reforms mounted. Governments with socialistic or social-democratic leanings began to appear. The enormous destruction of property and capital, caused by the two world wars, merely accelerated this process. After World War II, forged and tempered in the pyre of the world wars, the societies of the Western Hemisphere were egalitarian and democratic to a degree never before seen in human history.
But – egalitarian and democratic is not, the same as equal-opportunity and equal-income. Not at all,
With all of this – the egalitarian outlook, our democratic institutions, the social upheavals and the massive destruction of “old capital” during the wars… All of that – and yet we have ended up with a world with greater income inequality than ever before in human history! How is that even possible?
It is possible because the basic premise of democracy – one person, one vote – is false.
It is never the person who votes; it is the mind. And minds can be manipulated.
Simple. You take control of their world.
The Price of Democracy
Democracy was invented by the Greeks. But their philosophers had very grave doubts about it and generally did not believe that it could be brought to work. Socrates explained it like this:
Imagine an election between two candidates: a doctor and a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival:
“Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.”
And then, the doctor – how can he respond? Would you really, honestly, vote for someone who could only reply:
“I cause you trouble, and go against your desires, in order to help you.”
Some 2.500 years ago, a Greek philosopher – using only his mind and skill at deduction – foresaw the exact dilemma which is destroying our democracies today.
There are many, many “sweet shop owners” in the world today. Politics is rife with them; demagogues with outrageous promises, easy lies, and emotional appeals. People like Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” while he himself has proven to be by far the worst such creature America has experienced for more than a century. Or Boris Johnson, who twisted statistics to claim that Britain was sending £350 million a week to the EU and who may be handed the honourable position of Prime Minister of Britain as a result.
Why is it that we ignore the honourable politicians and are so attracted to the lying ones? Are we really unable to perceive what is best for us?
Yes, we are – because the fourth leg of democracy has failed us.
It is commonly said that democracy is a building resting upon three pillars, all of them equally important: the government, the parliament, and the courts. Unfortunately, that is not true – it omits a crucial fourth leg without which no modern democracy can ever function: the media.
Democracy can only work if voters are informed about what is going on in society. It is an absolute requirement. Without information, we cannot know what is actually happening and who or what to vote for. The instant that free and objective information is missing, slanted, or manipulated, democracy starts to sicken and die.
Once media are no longer free, independent, and able to report without bias, what goes on in society, democracy cannot function.
We see an extreme form of this today in the US, where Fox News – by far the largest TV news channel in the States – was the main source of news for 40% of the people who ended up voting for Trump in the 2016 campaign.
Fox News may give the appearance of being free. But in reality, it is hobbled and chained, bound to the will of its owner: the Murdoch family. It is, in fact, a propaganda tool for the ultra-rich. And yes, Rupert Murdoch is easily in that elite – currently worth more than $21 billion and the 52nd richest person in the world today.
Do you really think Fox News would show something which did not align with his interests? Or that it is a coincidence that the Trump tax break overwhelmingly went to the ultra-rich, while Fox News is one of Trump’s staunchest supporters?
In my previous post, I argued that the upper class of society would take control of democracy and twist it to its purposes. Today – well, look around you, and you see the result.
The crucial fourth pillar of democracy – the media – is up for sale. And the ultra-rich are buying it, pure and simple – share by share, company by company.
Capital has entered government – through the back door.
We can no longer trust the news.
The problem with captive media is that when a news channel like, for instance, Fox News is owned lock, stock, and barrel by a major corporation, it will find it immensely difficult to be neutral and objective in its reporting. There will be a strong pressure – directly or indirectly – to report in a way which is aligned with the fundamental interests of their corporate owners.
There is, indeed, little difference in this between a news media owned by a corporation and one owned by a nation-state: both are “captive” and subject to the will and whims of their masters. But if anything, state-owned news media may actually be freer and more independent, because they are often protected by laws which prevent the government from taking direct control of them. News media owned by corporations, on the other hand, are fundamentally defenceless against pressure from management.
But why, you may well ask, would management want to interfere with them at all? Aren’t they just interested in making money and wouldn’t that make them neutral and objective all by itself?
No, it doesn’t work like that. Yes, they want to make money. But that is only half the truth. Because the basic purpose of any capitalistic company is not really to make money – but to serve the best interest of their owners. Usually, that will be served by making as much money as possible. But sometimes it is more than that.
Let’s say, for instance, that you happen to be the owner of one of the major news networks in the States. You have the option of using that company to make money through advertising sales. Well and good. But… you also have the opportunity – at the same time – of using your news network to support politicians who favour big corporations. Corporations, like the one you own. Would you use your news network to support such politicians by showing their actions and policies in a favourable light while casting aspersions and disdain on their opponents?
Well, why shouldn’t you? After all, if one of “your” politicians should happen to be elected president of the US later on in his career, maybe there will be a nice tax break coming your way then. As a “thank you” gift, so to say.
Purely hypothetical example, of course.
Favouring certain politicians is not the only thing you can do with a news network. You can actually change a whole nation, step by step. Nudging it, gradually, to support values and ideals which you prefer. Like, the inherent “goodness” of a purely capitalistic society. The obvious “badness” of public administration and common welfare programs. The ineffable “evil” of foreign powers, who steal your greatness by selling products to you. And the perfect “naturalness” of the president stating that he wouldn’t hesitate to accept help from foreign powers during elections.
Once you control a news network, you control a significant part of the world – as people see, hear, and experience it. We spend hours and hours in front of the television – or with the TV turned on in the background – and if we, over and over and over again, are told that those things are natural, OK, obvious, and completely normal… then, inevitably, we will gradually begin to listen – and to believe.
It is, bluntly, a standard method of indoctrination. It has been used for ages by experts at this in the Soviet Union. And, for the last two decades, by Fox News.
It is the dream of the ultra-rich come true: they are now able to promote a world in which their wealth and privileges are safe and inviolable – because people believe that to be good and fair.
The Sickness Within
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”— Edward Abbey, American author and essayist
There is a sickness within capitalism. It is endemic, part of the system, and thus very difficult to fix. It is also largely ignored these days, except when it manifests in its most blatant and symptomatic form: monopolies.
Monopolies, however, are only a symptom. The underlying disease is quite different and, to the best of my knowledge, does not even have a name. And yet we see it all around us every day. Slow, creeping, inevitable.
The multinationals, the vast, globe-spanning companies, are growing…
Economists generally believe that modern corporations follow a natural life cycle of “inception – growth – stagnation – death” just as if they were alive. And to some extent, they actually do as we saw, for instance, in the sudden decline and near-death experience of Nokia after Apple introduced the iPhone.
But take a closer look, and you will see where that theory falls short. For what happened was not that Nokia died, but that its phone business was taken over by another company, Microsoft, who wanted to enter the market. That particular bid failed, but Microsoft is still going strong and one of the most valuable companies in the world today.
And this is a pattern which plays out again and again. Companies build themselves up, and then – as they are on the verge of achieving success (or, in the case of Nokia, when they are failing) – they are bought up, wholly or partially, by other players who are in the market – or want to enter it.
This is a favourite tactic of multinational corporations today. Eat the small fish before they grow up to be a danger. Innovate by proxy – while killing off the would-be competitors.
It works fabulously.
Where we earlier would have seen small, agile and innovative companies grow up to challenge and – in time – take down the mastodons, now … the mastodons methodically swallow up the minnows, often before they even get to the nuisance stage.
And all the while they grow. And grow. And grow.
Now, you may well wonder – why does that matter? What is it to me?
It matters because wealth is power. It matters because all the riches of the Earth are being sucked up by the 0.001%. It matters because our children and our children’s children will live in a world where the ultra-rich own everything while the rest of us have virtually nothing. It matters because power – economical, political – is running in a steady stream into the hands of the few. The very few. And concentrated power, whatever its form, is poison for a democracy.
It matters because we are watching the birth of a world owned – and controlled – by the all-pervasive interests of megacorporations.
We are not there – yet. Not quite. It is early days still; it is new, this world, barely born. But already the megacorps are spreading their tentacles throughout all of society. We see them all the time – see them, and ignore them. They are part of the scenery, a “natural” part of the world in which we live. Everywhere. And the only time we really notice them is when something untoward happens. Like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, or the Volkswagen “dieselgate” scandal.
The cereal you eat in the morning? Nestlé. The gas you fill in your car? BP. The car itself? VW. The smartphone you check on the road? Apple. The shoes you are wearing? Nike. The clothing you wear? H&M. The music you listen to? Warner. The books you read? Amazon. The search engine I used to verify all of this? Google. And the list goes on and on and on…
Being that large is not only a question of being able to produce a lot of goods. It means control. It means power. The raw stuff. The I-can-damn-well-tell-you-what-to-do kind of stuff.
That chicken you just bought in the supermarket somewhere in the States? It was produced by a chicken farmer in West Virginia. He has two poultry houses. Each house is 624 feet long and holds 45,000 chickens. The companies that dominate poultry farming give their growers eight weeks per flock: six weeks to rear the chicks and make them as fat as possible; two weeks to clean out the houses for the next batch.
The stench is… unbelievable.
Americans, like most people, tend to romanticise rural life. In reality, almost every farming sector is dominated by a few giant corporations. And chicken farmers? The one who reared that chicken you bought? He gets an average rate of 21 cents each. 21 cents. That is the rate this year. And last year. And the year before that… as it was the rate 15 years ago when he first went to the bank for a loan to build that farm. For he does not have the clout to ask for more. Which means he makes, at most, $7.000 a year, after costs. In a good year, that is.
It is the job of politicians to work in the best interest of their voters. We vote them into power so that they can serve us, not the other way round. And indeed, politicians do tend to pay attention to “big business.” So much so, in fact, that it may be difficult at times to differentiate between the attention served and actual servitude.
So here is a thought. The megacorporations of today are big enough that they can get states like New York and countries like Ireland to offer them special tax breaks and competitive advantages. Think about that for a bit – corporations so huge that states and countries with millions of citizens bow and scrape and offer them “special deals” to accommodate them.
And… they are still growing.
What is going to happen tomorrow?
Be Careful What You Wish For
Humans are marvellously adaptable. It is common to hear that it is our brains which have made us what we are today – the dominant species on the planet. But really it is our ability to adapt, to carry on whatever the odds and challenges, which is our main strength. The brain – is merely a tool to that end. It helps us adapt and make do.
But this ability to make the best of everything is also why so many of us simply accept things as they are, rather than try to change them. We live in the “now”, in the moment, and because we have adapted to it, it feels totally natural…
Yes, there are people who are obscenely wealthy – and so what? I have my life to live… Sure, some news channels are more propaganda than news, but how does that affect me?… OK, the president is an inveterate liar but I can live with that… Yeah, too bad about the oceans being swamped with plastic but it’s not my plastic…
But surely some things are fundamental, aren’t they? Surely, there are certain key values upon which we can all agree and which we all want to preserve?
Um… maybe. But if there are, I haven’t met them yet. Democracy? Some 25% of the youths in the States actually think democracy is a really bad way to run a country. Religion – don’t make me laugh. The value of human life? Tell me again about the incarceration of innocent children whose parents happen to try to cross the border into the States – or how immigrants are treated generally throughout the world? Liberty? Yeah, right – we are now in the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
So yes, I guess it’s fair to say: “Tastes differ,” and it seems like some people really do prefer to live in a military dictatorship rather than in a democracy.
Are they wrong to think so?
Well, it depends. A dictatorship – by whichever name – can easily be significantly better to live in than a democracy. Democracies are notoriously short-sighted and quite inefficient: their politicians usually do not care about much else than how to get elected for the next period, and they spend a lot of time wrangling and squabbling instead of making the necessary and proper decisions the country needs. As the climate crisis shows, democracies are chronically unable to make any effective decisions if the consequences fall more than a couple of elections into the future. They simply fail to take it seriously.
A dictatorship does not have that issue. A good dictator could just make a snap decision, pass the required laws and launch a major campaign to re-engineer the economy – or whatever. No need to worry about how to get a majority in the parliament or whether so or so many people will get hurt or be out of a job; just make the decision, and that’s it.
Yes, a good dictatorship will beat a democracy any time.
However… a bad dictatorship will be like living in a horror movie. And not one of those cutesie little things you see in the movie theatres today either, where bad things happen to characters on a screen. No, a bad dictatorship is waking up each morning in a society where you have no rights. The government doesn’t care shit about you. The police beat you up for fun and take your children away to labour camps. And you have absolutely no prospects in life except for grovelling abjectly before your masters and hope they don’t notice your beautiful wife…
And you know what? A bad dictatorship is going to happen – sooner or later. And there is absolutely nothing you will be able to do about it. Because the only people who can do anything are those who are in power – and they are not going to be listening to you. Why should they? You are not living in a democracy any more, so they sure couldn’t care less about what you may think.
A bad dictatorship is what happens when your good dictator dies, and his son takes over…
If, that is, you are lucky enough to have a good dictator at all the first time around. And luck is really all you have to pray for; you sure won’t have a vote…
“Democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”— Franklin D. Roosevelt, president & statesman
It is an interesting contradiction in modern times that even as we live in democracies, we spend a huge part of our lives in dictatorships. Almost all of the organisations we are part of – whether in school, at work, or in our spare time – are modelled after autocracies (or oligarchies, at best): there is a single leader, or a small group of leaders, at the top and the rest of the organisation is a strict hierarchy of power and privileges. The only real exception is the large, mostly invisible “organisation” which we live in and which we call a “country”. And even there the democratic part is limited to its political branch only; all the rest of the organisation – the bureaucracy, the institutions, all the rest – are organised the same as the rest of the country: autocratically.
It is as if we have taken a monstrously huge and complex organism, hacked of just the head and replaced it – and only that part – with a democracy. All the rest of the monster persists…
And… we expect that to work out fine?
Autocracies are power-hungry structures. It lies embedded in their very DNA. The way they are organised means that power flows ever upwards through the pyramid to be concentrated at the very top, the pinnacle of the structure. And the people who gain to the top, the kings and the queens (or “executives”, “managers” or whatever the word of the day is), are invariably those who seek that power, who revel in it, who wants it. And power always wants more.
Have you noticed how every company you ever hear of or work in, dreams of growing? How all the plans and strategies you see and hear for the company’s future describe in loving detail how the company can get larger, richer, grow and spread out and dominate the market?
That is the siren call of power made manifest. More, more, more… and never enough.
You will never see a company which says “Enough! We are satisfied with what we have and want no more!” They all want more. All of them.
So this democratic country you live in, it’s whole body is actually riddled through and through with metastases of autocratic growths, all of them trying to get as large and dominant as possible. Feeding off the resources of their host, subsuming larger and larger parts of it (privatisation, anyone?), until scarcely anything is left.
A process which is, in many cases, even actively accelerated by the very politicians we elect!
At what point does democracy die, and what kind of world will be left to grow on its rotting carcass?
We may all live to find out…
Western democracy rest on four pillars: the parliament, the executive (prime minister/president, secretaries & their departments), the courts, and the media. All of them are required. And – rather unfortunately (to put it mildly) – none of them are immune to the subversive influence of the autocracies.
Of the four, the media are probably hit the hardest. In many countries, the News are by now owned almost exclusively by private corporations. The national, state-owned news media – if any are left at all – are being killed off. An early preview of the effect, which this will have on our society, is available for free in Australia, where the Murdoch empire controls almost 60% of the newspapers and most of the TV news.
The courts, on the other hand, would probably be regarded by most as highly resistant to privatisation or influence from private parties. And yet… in 2013 the British government floated plans to privatise them, as part of the “austerity” program. And if you take a broader look, you will find that significant portions of, for instance, the prison service is already privatised in many countries. The effect of which, by the way, has been to reintroduce slavery into modern society.
And then, of course, there is the other front: the political attack upon the courts. In the US, for instance, the Republican party is methodically trying to subsume as much of the judiciary as possible in their quest for ultimate victory over the Democrats.
As for the remaining two pillars – the parliament and the executive. Well, what difference, really, between a privatised politician and one who depends upon corporate money and support to get elected? At what point does that politician stop working for the democracy and start supporting corporate autocracy instead?
The people believed that they had killed off the aristocracy after the French revolution. That the bourgeois was gone and obliterated after the Russian revolution. That the country was forever removed from the grasp of kings and queens after the American revolution.
They were – naïve.
President Roosevelt saw it a century ago and warned us about it. The autocracies survived just fine, and they have been slowly taking over their host ever since…