By the people, for the people
I watched Trump’s inauguration from an office in a tall New York building, two blocks from another tall building bearing the now-President’s name. It was cold and someone passed around drinks as we huddled in front of a computer monitor, watching the President speak before what was still a crowd, even if it wasn’t as large as he would have wished. I was glad I hadn’t taken the day off work to drive up to Washington and stand in the rain watching in person. At our small gathering, someone proposed a toast to the death of democracy, which I thought was strange, or maybe strange was the norm. After all, the man had been elected. It was due to the particularities of the US electoral system (and its electoral college) that Trump had triumphed without an actual majority of the vote. But democracy – American democracy, to be sure, though perhaps not entirely as the drafters of the Constitution intended it – had its 45th president.
Four years ago feels like some time now, indeed, and is a world away from our current situation. Trump has come to wreak havoc with the powers of the presidency, threatening war, instituting scarring sanctions, cutting or threatening to cut funding to the UN, UNICEF, NATO and now – disastrously – the WHO. At the beginning of what might be his year for re-election, he launched an illegal strike against Iran on shallow, if not essentially non-existent, evidence, threatening to embroil the Middle East in an über-war which the Iranians have been sensible enough to resist (for now). American tensions with North Korea are higher than in decades, as with China, against whom Trump is deeply engaged in an overt political-economic war – an engagement that has recently taken on a ranting, conspiracy-infused health madness. The man hates experts, dissent, minorities, women, the media, random celebrities, refugees, Jeff Bezos, immigrants, his former (and some current) staff, Coronavirus testing, and on, and on, unending: torrential vitriol both targeted and indiscriminately widespread.
It has been the anti-presidency presidency, in which political costumes have been discarded to show the foul, disfigured body underneath (metaphorically, at least, after the Russian Kompromat was proven too good to be true). Standard operating procedure is gone; chaotic aggression is in. The unspoken constraints of regular decency are no more and we are all the laboratory for what is democratically possible.
Trump has been busy in 2020 killing Americans as the country suffers the world’s worst outbreak of the Coronavirus. The President is against closures that disrupt the regular tick-tock of the economy, and has rallied against shutdowns and lockdowns imposed by some states and threatened to invoke vague Constitutional rights to override and supersede these regulations, against the view of most experts. (Who knows, maybe the anti-malaria medication he has been taking for no clear medical reason is having some effect on his brain after all.) This isn’t the first time Trump has stated his view that the office of the Presidency is above the law or that his actions are as valid as any actual law in and of themselves just because they’re his: it has become something of a signature thought, part campaign slogan, part threat. This will continue throughout whatever becomes the extent of his presidency. Four more years or not, it’s been four years enough already, though sometimes it is with a sense of trepidation that one gazes into the crystal ball knowing that it may detail a future even less appealing than the present.
Civil society is an ongoing exploration of the extent to which democracy and freedom are things that a society has or something it does. The Trump Presidency takes this living study further to its limits, and forces a clear focus on what restrictions citizens will permit on democracy, as well as what confines or constraints they expect it to force on their elected representatives. It’s not just Trump nation, either. Brexit, the (re-)emergence of fascism in Europe, a continued push towards greater Hindu nationalism in India, China’s incursion into Hong Kong under the cover of pandemic – any of these would make a ready example in addition to the degradation of the office of the President of the United States. Each is an exposé on our contemporary attitudes towards democracy and freedom, and proves more than ever that democratic principles are imbued in many of our most important conversations. Neither is it just the actions of strong men (and it is almost always men) that threaten democracy. Economic inequality divides more than ever, recalling a Roaring 20s of another era. Mistrust and misinformation are similarly rife, and knowing who and what to trust seems more imperiled than ever in the countries we look to as models of democracy.
A.C. Grayling’s new book, The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy (Oneworld) is welcome (and an excerpt was published in this Journal recently). A previous work by Grayling, 2017’s Democracy and its Crisis, was a championing of representative democracy as the superior form of civic organisation. The Good State is a kind of sequel, describing how it is to be maintained against both external forces and internal inadequacies. That distinction between the external and internal poised against democracy can be fine, if not without a difference. In our present context, they at least support and improve each other: twin threats both on and from inside traditional institutions, from political office to media and information consumption.
Such dualities pervade the book. This is clear early on when Grayling twists a familiar phrase thus: “democratic government is government for the people on terms set, and authority given, by the people”. Government for the people, by the people, yes – but which people? As we move rapidly towards a polar society of have-too-littles and have-far-too-muches, how can there be a politic in which the two opposites exist harmoniously? This threshold question of who politics is even for, especially in circumstances where the wealthy few have an outsized voice in the debate, disrupts a good deal of discussion before it can even take place.
The answer for Grayling is somewhere in the middle. There is a discussion of John Rawls and the idea of a ‘maximin’ strategy, a game theory concept interested in maximising minimum gains, or gains that can be had by the most number of people. This is one way of rendering a broad idea of social justice, which for Grayling is the circular raison d'être for democracy: facilitating social justice creates a better democracy, which in turn leads to more social justice, which creates a better democracy and so on. It is worth quoting at length:
[Social justice as the main ambition of democracy] is a simple corollary of the fact that democracy entails fair participation and fair opportunity. It does not entail equality, but it entails respect for considerations of social justice. It is certainly inconsistent with a system that creates poverty on purpose to generate wealth for one group; but it also raises questions about any system of distribution of opportunity, participation, and wealth itself, that even by neutral operation of its mechanisms results in disproportions so great that in the same society there can be people living in conspicuous luxury while others sleep on the street. Whereas there is no justification for placing a cap on what anyone might earn or accumulate by their endeavours or talents, providing they are legally exercised, there can equally be no justification for not ensuring that certain minimum standards are observed in providing a safety net for people unable to provide for themselves. A society which allows no one to be without accommodation, sustenance, and opportunities to escape dependency where possible, will of course have to pay the cost of free riders; but to determine policy on the basis of avoiding the latter guarantees that the minimum standards just described will not be met.
We might argue about whether it is the case that placing a cap on what someone might earn is unjustified or undemocratic, but we can accept the more general point. Grayling cites Rawls again for a related thought experiment: that, should we be able to strip everyone of their financial, social and political standing and ask them to create a society in which they would not know their position and status until the rules had been devised, undoubtedly most would agree on a society that was maximally fair to the most number of people, or as close to fair as reasonably possible. All of which is a discussion under controlled laboratory settings, far and remote from the zoo of reality. And the animals are running the joint.
The American territory of Puerto Rico has, for the past several years, had its financial operation overseen by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. McKinsey is an advisor to La Junta – the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico – but exercises de facto control over the Island’s economy. Except that control comes loaded with a raft of conflicts. There are the millions in fees that the firm is being paid, around $50 million in the first two years, and still ticking away at around $2 million per month. Then there’s the hundreds of millions of dollars that McKinsey holds either directly or indirectly in Puerto Rican bonds. Predictably, the repayment of those bonds has been mandated as a priority – contrary to the views of experts, who have recommended writing off a significant amount of the debt rather than inflicting further pain on the Island. Ah, but then big-money would lose out. The economic future of Puerto Rico be damned, private profiteering must be preserved first and foremost. The way the management of the Island has played out since the appointment (by officials, and not by the electorate) of McKinsey has been unsurprising.
Add to Puerto Rico, perhaps, the whole of the United States. BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager with control over arguably the most powerful accumulation of capital in all of history, has been brought in by the Reserve Bank to help manage the stimulus package put in place by the US in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Bloomberg (certainly an ally to private enterprise) has even gone so far as to refer to BlackRock as the ‘Fourth Branch of Government’. The company has a mandate to purchase debt from the US government (giving it funds to pump into the economy), which may total $750 billion. Trump has been a willing cooperative of the financial class (who did their best to see his ascend to office) for some time, and there are no signs that this is going to let up.
He who pays the piper calls the tune. Puerto Rico will never recover while a noose of debt is drawn tighter around its neck. The US – which already has a significant degree of private interference in its political affairs, from political appointees with ties to big business to the fact that typically public institutions such as healthcare and prisons are privately run – is now so inextricably moored to the interests of a staggeringly small number of people that the chance of its implementing the legislative reform necessary to combat growing wealth inequality in the name of social justice is microscopic. It’s not hard to plot out the points between saddling governments with debts owed to the private sector through to those private interests influencing policy and legislative decisions. Ceding the governing of society to the interests of a few is fundamentally and obviously undemocratic, and we are penguin-marching towards such a state of being.
Grayling begins the chapter titled ‘Politics and People’: “The quality of people in a democracy determines the quality of the democracy”. As glib as this is, the author goes on to even more glibly remark about the capacity (and obligation) of activists, politicians and journalists to uphold democracy and right it should it fall on a leeward wander; he even refers to such people, and especially the politicians and their parties themselves, as the “gatekeepers” of democracy, quoting political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. This is to forget the omnipresent overlay of the productivity-seeking demands of capital. The lesson of Puerto Rico (and, in a different way, Flint, Michigan) is that where public institutions are influenced by the interests of only a few, the whole will suffer. But because public institutions are already so connected to private capital, and often entirely replaced by it, it can be hard to see in what way traditional ‘gatekeepers’ of democracy can fulfil their duty. The barbarians are inside.
It’s 139 pages before there is a proper discussion of the economy in The Good State. (In fact, until then, I had been worried that there would be more material on the role of civil servants and the second amendment.) But it arrives, screaming in on a headless horse. It is easily the clearest, most powerful section of the book and gleefully takes a sabre to the economic status quo. Much of the established way unravels once it is accepted that, in modern neoliberal economies, human beings are treated as ‘units of account’ to be productive in a manner approved by the market or left to suffer – but that it doesn’t have to be this way. About this Grayling has to say:
In a democratic political order in which the interests and welfare of all constitute a chief purpose of government formed on the authority of almost all of the ‘all’ – namely, the enfranchised – this [profits over wellbeing] is morally unacceptable; and legislation in most advanced economies on workers’ rights reflects the fact that even when profit – the relentless pursuit of which is a highly distorting factor in markets, to the detriment chiefly of the labour market – remains more important than human beings, the consciences of such polities cannot accept the full implications [of this].
Then, in the book’s best moment:
But profits and GDP are not the only, or perhaps even the right, metrics for measuring the quality of a state and the society forming it. Perhaps high profits and an ever-growing GDP are signs not of health but of exploitation of people, together with increased risks to social stability and increased risks to the environment.
Lose the ‘perhaps’. Combine that with the idea that private capital and the profit-motive are the real gatekeepers of democracy – letting in only as much equality as they wish and dressed in what clothes they desire – and you have a working theory most useful for critically examining much of our modern lives. There can be no democracy without eradicating wealth inequality. But there can be no serious movement towards reducing wealth inequality without having more democracy than we currently have. It’s a vexed position.
The well-informed electorate
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a PR challenge for more than just Facebook and other social media platforms. For privacy, data and democracy advocates, it risked becoming another in what is now a very long succession of revelations of the misuse and commercialisation of personal data. Wikileaks, the Panama Papers, Edward Snowden, and on, and on. At some point of repetition, it all becomes a wash and outrages become the norm.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and many others harvest your data, your preferences, your tastes, your desires, your insecurities, fears, failings, interests, secrets; your family, your search history, your messages; how you spend your money, your time, what shapes your routine; what you watch, listen to, eat and even think about. And they’re always hungry for more; if it can be reduced to a data set, it’s of interest to someone. If, as Annie Dillard said, how you spend your days is how you spend your life, these companies have your life. Nearly the entirety of your existence – and all of it that can be reduced to data – is captured and used to urge you to consume, in turn producing yet more data and ever more consumption.
Social media creates an analogue of the real world, replacing it with sly, tender hands before most people notice. It becomes reality itself for many, and the material it feeds them, created by their own insecurities and beliefs, becomes the truth. Democracies require and are built on “reliable information about the state of affairs prevailing in society and economy, and about candidates’ manifestos and commitments in relation to them”:
Lack of information subverts the point of voters having a choice about how to cast their ballots, and false or misleading information is an indirect form of manipulation and pressure. A necessary condition for democracy to be realized, therefore, is that the act of voting should be free and informed (emphasis in original)
I hope it doesn’t sound hysterical or conspiratorial for me to say, but I just don’t know where most people are supposed to look for reliable information.
[T]he dangers of manipulation and hidden coercion by clever social media campaigns, selectively targeting voters whose psychological triggers have been identified and analysed by ‘big data’ techniques before they arrive at the ballot box, raises big questions. But equally arguably, there is a serious problem about the reliability of the information presented to voters by the Babel of media.
Quite. And it’s not just social media that’s the problem. Advertising is a form of everyday propaganda, in which we are all lied to about our wants and needs and the best ways to satisfy them and live a fulfilling, complete life. Advertising is so pervasive that it is contained in almost every bit of media we consume – so much so that recently, several US news stations ran an ad scripted and produced by Amazon about its employees’ working conditions during the Coronavirus pandemic as if it were a regular piece of reporting. But as well as the obvious examples, self-help, religion and philosophy each in some way rely on misdirection or the remodelling of some of life’s less satisfactory rooms. Some degree of this is natural and a salve to the burns that can be inflicted by daily life, but it is designed to present a certain perspective on what life is, accurate or otherwise. Fail to observe this at your peril.
At the far end of the spectrum, the US idiot-in-chief has set about encouraging the American population to wilful ignorance – and has led by masterful example. Just as the media feeds users a certain view on things, so does the President, and generally one that is completely at odds with reality. I trust I don’t need to list examples of the falsehoods and blatant lies the President has gleefully told. (Some have attempted to create something of a record, but one suspects that the collected works would take several shelves of the library.) It’s been four years of bullshit and propaganda. Add to that inciting racial violence in the aftermath of the murder of a black American that was a modern lynching. At the time of writing, Trump’s chances of reelection are considerable.
The man has unleashed a singular attack on the intelligence of his constituents, himself stupid and ignorant, and this may be his greatest threat to democracy. There is no proper democracy without an informed populace – that much is clear. (It is interesting to see at the moment the battle between Trump and Twitter, especially in the context of each’s efforts to inform the voting public prior to an election, and the outcome may be quite telling. It is too soon to tell.)
Across the Atlantic, too, idiocy is encouraged. Borris Johnson has made his fair share of dangerous public pronouncements concerning the Coronavirus, but the falsehoods that were propagated during the Brexit campaign will be remembered as the magnum opus of British stupidity. As Grayling points out, the falsehoods told during the campaign went so far as to break the law and are legion in number. And it worked – the UK left the EU on fabricated pretenses. This was the Government wilfully deceiving its people, an act entirely opposite to representing their interests, and a truly breathtaking attack on democracy. Grayling:
Despite a chorus of complaints and challenges in court, the government chose to take no action, although it was stated by a judge in the court proceedings that had the referendum not been ‘advisory only’ its outcome would have been voided because of the illegality. One can only wonder agape at the unacceptability of this.
A kingdom for a lie. Democracy dies on the lips of those whose wills are bent to mislead.
Selfishness is often thought to be enough to protect against the making of poor financial decisions, and the trick would seem to be therefore to tie everyone’s fortunes together. The economic suicide of Brexit, and the fact that it was supported by many mega wealthy capitalists such as James Dyson, suggests that this may not always be true. Brexit has already been a huge loss of British capital, and its effects will be reckoned with for generations. Sometimes stupidity comes before selfishness.
Trump and the Brexit campaign challenge what we are prepared to accept of actors in the play of democracy. Our response to this challenge is yet to be measured.
Democracy in the time of the Woke
It’s telling that the upholding of democracy has yet to be invited to the front lines of contemporary progressive action, by my judgment, at least. It’s a broad church, but it still has its inner sanctum. Maybe the way democracy has been applied is too establishment, too hetero-orthodox, for too long and too deeply associated with straight, white, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American men. That’s what some will tell you, anyway. Others will reflect on democracy’s emancipatory function, for women, for minorities, for peoples choked under the boot of colonialism. That’s what democracy does, its straightjacket slip of a parlour trick. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t need to be hailed quite as a figure in the Pantheon of the Woke. Democracy is a required element in any effort to free a person from the dominion of another. Forget that at your peril, could be Grayling’s message, no matter the cause in whose favour your sail is set.
Democracy, more accurately expressed as collective self-determination, is the keystone in the archway through which all forms of freedom march, for some degree of it or its principles are necessary equipment in any struggle to increase the amount of freedom going around. That’s the case whether pushing for economic, social, racial or any other form of emancipation.
The Coronavirus pandemic will be the defining moment in a Trump presidency that is replete with hallmark instances. His response has been abysmal, contradictory, harmful, anti-science and anti-due-process. Prior to that, his campaigning, attacks on others and many more things besides were an assault on democracy both external and internal; brought inside by someone fundamentally opposed to democratic restrictions on his powers, but made whole by the wielding of power that arises from the highest democratic position.
But Obama before him, too, posed a threat to democracy. During his tenure, the drone program was greatly expanded in a perverse attempt to extend American democratic influence while curtailing (and murdering) democracy elsewhere. The rights of journalists and whistleblowers were shrunk to a miniature of their full, democratic size; Assange, Snowden and other maligned figures are without redemption. Guantanamo Bay is still open, still holding foreign nationals without oversight from any court – that most democratic of institutions. And speaking of judicial oversight, Obama was the architect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which removed the rights of courts (a civic institution) to oversee many aspects of trade and replaced them with private, inscrutable arbitration (a commercial institution).
Trump refused to ratify the TPP, but did introduce his own Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which echoes much of its forebearer. The international arbitration bodies established under these treaties allow private corporations to pursue sovereign nations for decisions they don’t like. It may well be that certain government actions in response to the outbreak of the Coronavirus will be made the subject of private international arbitration – but this will not likely be made public.
Ignore any temptation to reflect on whether Obama or Trump have done more to undermine democracy. Showing that something rotten could yet have degraded further doesn’t get the foul taste out of your mouth. Even so, how often do you hear people discussing the work Obama did to undermine democracy? Occasionally, but not exactly every time you go down the street. Obama escapes criticism, in large part, because of how well he allied himself to ‘woke’ causes. He comes off as urbane, worldly, open to different peoples; features that seem friendly to democracy. His record is that of a leader who was anything but.
The feud between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, ignited after West called Coates the “neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle” as part of what Vox described as West’s “war on Obama”, should be considered one of the defining intellectual disputes of our time. Coates is very much in the Obama-mold: articulate, socially sensitive, and frustratingly oblique on economic issues. West, on the other hand, is an avowed economic radical, despite himself identifying that both men come from the same black emancipation background. To the latter, the former is in some way more harmful than any Fox-News blaring, chest-thumping right-wing mascot, and purely because they legitimise the fundamentally undemocratic by dressing it up in ball gowns that are superficially progressive and democratic.
The point is that in the modern culture wars, democracy is often the forgotten cousin. But it underlies every cause worth fighting for. To return to dualities, freedom is the most democratic of characteristics, but just as you can’t be free without a degree of democracy, there is no democracy without freedom. Distrust should be had of any progressive flagbearer that does not also advance democracy at the same time. Think of energy and resource companies becoming ambassadors for same-sex pride while funding propaganda against climate science, or (to take an extreme example) using the advocacy of certain religious or cultural views to smuggle in facism, whether Islamic, Chinese, Hindu or US-imperialist.
For Grayling, the aspect of representative democracy (one that establishes a parliament made up of members that broadly represent the way the votes fell, rather than the parliament being exclusively those who 50% +1 voted for) that elevates it from other forms is the way in which it combines people. Forcing the co-mingling of ideas and people, Grayling suggests, results in a greater or more concentrated democracy, with a two-party bi-polar system opposed to this in cause and outcome. The toxic two party American system and an increasing tendency towards two-party-ism elsewhere are cited as examples. This ignores that the compromises required under a well-mingled representative system are rarely the best outcomes for anyone or the plurality. The voices that go into producing a compromised solution may be representative of the electorate, but that doesn’t mean the one with the best answer won’t be shouted down or their ideas diluted out of effect.
It’s the economy, stupid
I’ve long been a student of the best ways to cultivate and spread progressive ideas. Good communication is, of course, the way. Clear messaging, well packaged. Both sides of the traditional left/right spectrum seem to enjoy saying that the other has the more effective messaging or in some way is making more headway with the public. All have certainly gotten louder, if nothing else. In this, Grayling has a clear voice, if not on the quiet side. His effect is sometimes lost in a mire of classical references and quotes from enlightenment figures. Maybe I’m a prude, but I don’t know if that’s the turn on audiences may be looking for. As well, and as I and many others are acutely aware, as soon as the economy is mentioned, all argument that follows is shovelled into a pit and the parties assume their positions on either side, neither to give an inch. I wonder sometimes if a way around this is to avoid saying you’re here specifically to talk about economic equality and go on to discuss ideas to get there anyway. These criticisms aside, The Good State is radical for the times, and it may be unfair to push this point on the volume of that radicalism too far.
The Good State is an important comment on where our priorities should currently lie. But, to resort to a Clinton-era phrase: it’s the economy, stupid. Modern politics, and the democracy we try and fill it with, is now bent sharply towards the will of the capitalised economy, and not the other way around. It’s fine to suggest that the forces of democracy should be made resolute and turned upon issues of economic fairness and the rest, but it’s difficult to soar when gravity is pulling you down.
Our entire frame of reference, what is permitted as the discourse of society, what ambitions and abilities our politicians have, are all framed and allowed by the market. It’s a market-focussed democracy, not a democracy-focussed market. Grayling does acknowledge this, even if it’s not his main interest. It is perhaps uncharitable, if not missing the point, to ask that a book about the protection of modern democracy be a book about the modern market. There is more to it than that, and those other parts are important to study. But thus reads my thought bubble.
Both Trump and the media (social or otherwise) pose challenges to the proper functioning of democracy, but where the former is obvious (and definingly so), the extent of the latter remains largely unacknowledged. Sure, we know about it and we’re worried about it, but I would wager that the true extent of it is unknown to most; there are certainly more op-eds screaming about the perils of Trumpism than there are screeds written on the ability of market forces to determine virtually everything you see before your eyes. Maybe that will change.
Wealth inequality allied with unrivalled deception and manipulation by both politicians and private entities are attacks on democracy that are unprecedented in their strength and their convalescence together. There is much to be done to protect democracy, but examining how that is to be achieved is made difficult by the danger of historical analogies. Things simply are not as they were in the past, and looking for previous examples or traditional thinkings to guide what we do in the here and now isn’t always helpful. We are of our own time and place and will need to find a way forward without a map.
The Good State is welcome. Get a copy, breathe it in. You’ll find yourself having taken a step forward towards a more informed society.