Challenges for Youth Part 3: Democracy in Peril

By Dr. Ed McKenna

Part 1: On Climate Change and Part 2: Inequality, were featured in Issues 49 and 51 of Gurukula Network.

Throughout the world, democratic states are on the defensive. In the East China, India, and the Philippines are led by authoritarian rulers. In the West we governments in Poland, Hungary, Brazil, and the United States have all moved in the direction of authoritarian rule. The United States is a particularly interesting example in that the defeat of Donald Trump by Joseph Biden has nevertheless been followed by increasing efforts of many state governments to implement procedures that would suppress the vote, particularly the vote of people of color, hence revealing the deeply ingrained nature of the authoritarian impulse.

Two questions immediately arise with respect to these threats to democracy: 1) Why should we care if democracy is replaced by authoritarian regimes? 2) Why are these threats to democracy arising at this time?

While the idea of democracy can be traced back to the ancient Greek city states, the modern idea of democracy arose as one of the important byproducts of the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the general belief held that what was important was the overall, collective nature of society. Each individual was meant to fulfill a particular role in the collective process, and it was the collective outcome of this process that mattered. The individual self was accorded far less significance. The Enlightenment reorganized the relationship between the individual and society, focusing attention on the importance of the individual, as opposed to collective society. But why focus attention on the individual? Primarily it was because the collective institutions of society became so rigid that they no longer permitted diversified, creative activity on the part of individuals. One’s position in society was largely determined by the family into which one was born, and escape from this predetermined position was virtually impossible. The resulting stagnation in society came to be viewed by philosophers as the natural result of the suppression of individual thought and creativity, leading to the view that individual freedom, especially with respect to freedom of thought, is indispensable for the flourishing of society. In effect the roles of the individual and society were reversed, and society could flourish only if individuals were permitted to freely follow their own path.

Adoption of the view that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests naturally leads to the idea of democracy. People can explore and develop their own talents only if this exploration takes place within institutions that have been freely created and chosen by these same people, and this includes the institutions that will govern society. Moreover, if all individuals are free to participate in creating and running their own governing institutions, then these institutions will flourish because they will be founded upon the widest base of wisdom possible, the wisdom that can only arise as a result of the participation of a diversity of people, each bringing the insight of the particular path they are traversing.

These two tenets, that individuals must be free to pursue their own paths in institutions they have freely chosen, i.e. democracy, and that society will flourish on the basis of the collective wisdom expressed through democracy, provide the main argument for democracy. To undermine democracy, then, means placing limitations on the ability of people to pursue their own vision and to provide the wisdom they have gained as a result of following their own path. This is why we should care about the loss of democracy.

It is because of these two tenets that, at least until recently, most progressive groups have sought to enlarge the role that democracy plays in the lives of people. So, for example, much thought and effort has gone into seeking ways to create economic democracy by transforming businesses into worker- owned cooperatives. Those who seek to establish economic democracy often argue that such a system is superior to present-day forms of capitalism because it will be more efficient, since workers will have an incentive to be more productive when they can directly benefit through ownership of the firm, and because the inclusion of worker perspectives in the decision-making process of the firm will result in businesses having wider social objectives than the simple maximization of profit.

As important as these arguments are, they nevertheless leave out a fundamental reason as to why establishing social democracy through the establishment of worker cooperatives is so important. People spend a significant fraction of their lives at work. In a normal capitalist firm, the typical worker simply takes directives from those formulating policy. In other words, the governing structure of firms is just another type of authoritarianism. Workers are told what to do and they have no alternative but to follow these orders. Of course some will claim that the worker is always free to quit and find work with another firm, but in actual society few workers really have such choices. So work within a typical capitalist firm is a form of servitude in which some people control the action of others. It is not surprising then that so few people find meaning in their work, but rather labor only because of economic necessity. Economic democracy is meant to free people from this form of servitude.

Authoritarianism then, whether it be within the firm or within the governing structure of society, strips from a person his/her ability to lead a creative life governed by their own vision of what is important. By stripping a person of this ability, society as a whole is damaged because it cannot draw upon the collective wisdom of all individuals. Democracy is important because it seeks to overcome the pitfalls associated with authoritarianism.

If democracy has this aim, why is it now under attack? The answer to this question is complex, and it would be far too simplistic to assume that that the reasons are the same in all the countries within which democracy is currently threatened. A complete analysis is beyond what I can put forth in this forum. Instead, I will focus on one reason, a reason that nevertheless lies at the foundation of the attacks on democracy in many of the countries of the world. I will explore this reason as it plays out in the country I know best, the United States, though again similar explanations can be given for many other countries.

The reason I will discuss concerns the impact of the rise in economic inequality in the political sphere. As I have previously discussed, the widespread adoption of the neoliberal agenda, which views the role of government as being limited to the establishment of the necessary conditions for markets to function as pervasively as possible throughout society, inevitably leads to economic inequality. But this economic inequality then creates political inequality, which in turn creates fertile ground for attacks on democracy.

The depth of inequality in the United States is today so great that it has led to the creation of what can only be called a plutocracy, that is, a society in which a small group of very wealthy individuals controls government. The work of political scientists Bartels, Gilens, and Hacker has demonstrated the remarkable fact that when legislation pitting the interests of the wealthy versus the rest of society comes before Congress, it is always the interests of the wealthy that prevails. The wealthy are able to control the legislative process for at least 3 reasons: 1) Their abundant economic wealth enables them to have an inordinate amount of power in determining who will be able to run for elected office, 2) They are able to supply the candidates they back they back with enormous sums of money, 3) They are able to lobby individual members of Congress to a far greater extent than those possessing less resources and who, in addition, are usually far less organized.

What results is a political process in which the wealthy shape legislation in such a way that it guarantees the maintenance of their economic power. We thus see that an unregulated capitalist economy naturally creates inequality, that this inequality then generates political inequality that enables the wealthy to shape legislation in a manner that guarantees that the economy will continue to generate economic inequality that is in the interests of the wealthy. What follows is a growing gap between those at the very top of the income and wealth pyramid and the rest of society, a gap that increasingly means that even middle-class families find it nearly impossible to provide adequate education for their children, or to obtain basic necessities of life such as good housing. And what the middle class observes is that this continuing cycle of economic and political inequality only accelerates the degree to which their social status is declining. Because the term democracy is applied to this cycle, people naturally come to believe that democracy can only worsen their situation, opening the door to the acceptance of authoritarianism. But of course the cycle that we actually observe is not democratic at all. Rather, economic inequality subverts the very idea of political equality which is the necessary basis of democracy. It is simply not the case that anything close to political equality prevails in the United States, and the absence of political equality makes democracy impossible. We thus arrive at a fundamental conclusion: an unregulated capitalist economy will inevitably undermine the conditions necessary for democracy to function. And when democracy fails to function, people will turn to alternatives, such as authoritarianism, to maintain their status in life.

There is one final reason for why the door to authoritarianism is opened when economic and political equality are severely undermined. As the Middle Class sees their status eroding, there inevitably comes a point at which they come to fear that their way of life and the values they hold dear are existentially threatened by the unfolding inequality. Psychological studies have repeatedly demonstrated that when people are controlled by fear, they will be instinctively attracted to those individuals who claim that if they are only given the power to do so, that they will be able to restore those who are now in decline to their former status. The appeal to a glorious past, i.e. ‘Make America Great Again’, is the perennial cry of the authoritarian. And in conditions of great inequality, the mass of people are only too ready to provide their power to such people power. And so democracy is lost.

What is to be done? At the very least, capitalism must be regulated to maintain inequality within reasonable bounds. But how is this to be accomplished when plutocracy prevails? There is really only one answer to this question. The only power that the mass of people possesses is in their numbers. Without organization, this power goes unfulfilled. So those who seek to lead the world to a better place must organize around the theme that the only truly human society is one in which all people can flourish. And this is the challenge that today’s youth must meet.