Lapham: Democracy at Bay in America

How did America get into this mess? The usual explanation in the mainstream media is that bad guys did it, just like in the movies. The designated evil doers vary, oddly enough, with the political affiliation of the writer.

  • Bad guys from the Left, usually associated with the Democratic Party.
  • Bad guys from the Right, usually associated with the Republican Party.

Like most movie plots these days, this script is written for children — our ruling elites (whether in Washington of Hollywood) accurately assessing their audience.  But there are alternative ways to see the situation.

Today’s reading is an excerpt from Democracy at Bay, chapter one in The Wish for Kings, Lewis Lapham (1993).  Links at the end of the post provide additional information about this theme.

The victories of the Second World War promoted the belief among the American ruling classes that they had been armed with the mandate of heaven. Twice during the first half of the 20th century, the European powers had all but annihilated themselves, and in 1945 what was left of Western civilization seemed to have passed into the American account. Japan was in ruins, and so was Germany; China was in the midst of civil war; France had disintegrated, both as a nation and as the embodiment of an idea; and the British were so exhausted with the effort of imperial ambition that they voted Churchill out of office within 2 months of the German surrender.

If in 1941 the American presence outside the Western hemisphere considted only of a few islands in the Pacific, by 1945 the US bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, presiding over an arc of territories and client states that extended from the Bismark Archipelago to the North Sea. Largely by invitation and default, the Americans had acquired the semblance of empire, and the new proconsuls, most of whom had expected to become Wall Street lawyers or bonds salesmen, found it easy enough to imagine that they were heirs not only of the Greed and Christian past but also of the earth and all its creation.

Within a decade the presumptions of entitlement had become as commonplace among the sons of immigrant peddlers as among the daughters of the haute bourgeoisie, among the intellectuals as among the merchant classes. The feeling of amplitude was sustained by the miracle of the reawakened consumer markets, and the habits of extravagance, once plausible only in the children of the rich, were embraced by people eager to believe that the nation’s military prowess was a proof of its virtue and grace.

In the name of making the world safe for democracy, the US revised its own democratic traditions and constitutional principles. By presidential fiat and Defense Department decree, the newly appointed guarantors fo the world’s peace suppressed the turbulent and newly un-American habits of free speech. The evil presence of the Soviet menace justified the proliferation of an always larger ruling class and the demand for always larger sums of money, and for 40 years the patriotic hymn in Washington was scored for trumpets and muffled drums — more weapons, more power, more secrecy, more marble, more wiretaps, more grandeur.

As the American government increasingly became a secret government, conducted behind closed doors in the presence of court favorites, a succession of American presidents took it into their heads to play at the great game of the cold war as if they were the progeny of Bismark or the Duke of Wellington. The loud and raucous task of democratic government gave way to the more decorous notion of attending stately summit conference, ordering covert operations, and moving flags on maps.

Troubled officials sometimes referred to what they called “the paradox” implicit in the waging of secret war under the covenants of a free, open, and democratic society. Their embarrassment didn’t prevent the gradual substitution of palace intrigue for candid debate and the preference, at least in official circles, for the virtue of loyalty as opposed to the spirit of liberty. The government learned to define freedom as freedom for the state, not for the citizen. The national interest became the parochial interest of the ruling class, not the multifarious interests of the individuals subsumed under the rubric of “the American people.”

The question was one of how a government by the judicious few could best control and improve the instincts of the foolish many.

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Other posts with excerpts from Lewis Lapham:

  1. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  2. Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
  3. Observations about America by Lewis Lapham, 8 March 2009
  4. A note on the green religion, one of the growth industries in America, 17 March 2009
  5. Are Americans still willing to bear the burden of self-government?, 27 March 2009
  6. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009

Posts on the FM site about American politics:

33 thoughts on “Lapham: Democracy at Bay in America

  1. A more careful analysis of cold war foreign policy will find that the US was neither consistent in its principles and assumptions in foreign policy nor in the application of such policies. Lewis would have us believe that the policies of Eisenhower, Nixon, & Carter were all of such a similar nature that our incursion into Vietnam on behalf of the French had the same goals as reconciling our differences with Chairman Mao. Lewis, as well as many other generalists out there, should not try to weave a narrative around faulty assumptions but instead concentrate on the issue directly, the lack of transparency, or at least illusion of transparency, in the operation of the executive branch.

  2. “The question was one of how a government by the judicious few could best control and improve the instincts of the foolish many.”

    A very important comment, highlighting the top-down, fundamentally anti-democratic character of our society. It’s well to keep this in mind when wondering whether this or that government pronouncement — on “national interest”, the budget, foreign interventions, the economy” –bodes well or ill for us. It’s not “us” that they have in mind in the first place.

    Along the same line, I recommend a comment on American Leftist today (The Sub-Proletarianization of America), of which this is a highlight: “The imposition of austerity upon American workers is now express policy within the worlds of government and finance. Policymakers have already considered Krugman’s Keynesianism and rejected it.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The Am Leftist article seems a bit exaggerated. But there is an element of truth to this, as described in a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman (whose brief blognotes and columns have been gems of insight describing this downturn): “Falling Wage Syndrome“, 3 May 2008. He also mentions this NYT Editorial about Obama’s failure to strongly support mortgage modification in bankruptcy — a cave-in to the still politically omnipotent banks.

  3. How can you possibly say that, Senecal? Everything is going swimmingly on Airstrip One. They’ve even raised our chocolate ration.

  4. FM: Your basic perspective outlined here over the past two years (or more) is not that different from Richard Estes’ at American Leftist. This financial collapse is not one that can be reversed by any kind of Keynesian intervention, but involves a radical re-construction of our way of life (and the rest of the globe’s.)

    Estes simply adds that the financial sector recognizes this, knows that the era of easy profits from privatization, job exporting, foreign markets and bubble economies is over, and future profits, of a much reduced scale, will have to come the old-fashioned way, by squeezing labor.
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    Fabius Maximus: I think a “radical re-construction of our way of life” is a bit more than I’d agree to. The global political/finance regime will change, I suspect. But life of the average American might be largely affected by such large-scale changes. These things affect trends more than daily life, except for those very very rare periods of radical change (like 1914-1945; I doubt this is on the same scale).

    I am certain the “financial sector” (or more accurately, the people in it) recognize no such thing as described in your 2nd paragraph. They are notable for their short-term thinking, and this crisis has shortened their time horizon even more. Many are just dazed, reacting to current events.

  5. “Real power begins where secrecy begins.”
    — Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism

    Review of Wall of Silence, The Untold Story of the Medical Mistakes that Are Killing Millions of Americans by Rosemary Gibson and Janardan P. Singh.

    I was looking for that quote on Google for this thread, and this obscure page came up, but it is germane to the issue: how associated peers (such as elites/politicos/legals etc. as well as the medicals in this piece) develop shared paradigms/views in defense of which various forms of denial arise, a sincere myopia, or cognitive filter, that functions effectively as what is scornfully referred to nowadays as ‘belief’.

    As mentioned elsewhere in recent posts by FM and others in various ways, this mechanism or cognitive/psychological process is knit together by the same cognitive faculty that weaves and interprets ‘narrative’. Put another way: it is the narrative behind science that provides the foundation of belief in certain (materialist) norms that justifies/empowers the undertaking even though many of those a priori assumptions either remain unproven or have been substantively challenged, which challenges are simply filed away into the subconscious white noise, or ‘silent’ departments, or, if acknowledged at all, referenced in scorn as mere ‘anomalies’, ‘aberrations’, ‘irrelevancies’, ‘fringe theories’ etc.

    Of course this sort of denial/blindness is as true in the medical context provided by the article as the political, military, scientific, religious and many other contexts.

    What is most interesting in the piece is how it links such collective distortion with the loyalty, secrecy and blacklisting (censorship) dynamics, highly relevant to this thread, much in the blog, and much of what currently ails mature industrially developed democracies (oligarchies). She (?) doesn’t say this, but the inference there is that the more things go against such a paradigm/belief, the more tenaciously it will be adhered to. There’s the rub in terms of national polity BS that perpetuates generation after generation.

  6. Erasmus: I’m skipping your comment for the moment until I have time to read it.

    Does anyone else here find FM’s comment on # 4 (that a “radical re-construction of our way of life” is not what he’s been talking about for three years in phrases like “the end of the post WW II global financial system”, or “black swan event”, and other such signs of unkowable transformations?

    Is he saying that the new system will arrive without major felt consequences for the average American — like a kick in the pants?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There a strong tendency to grossly overestimate short-term effects of changes in political and financial regimes on people’s daily lives. Events like the French Revolution are extra-ordinary. The UK’s evolution from global hegemon to just another euro-nation took several generations (1914-1980). There was no single “bright line” event at which everyone said “wow!, it is a new world.” Change filters slowly down to the level at which individuals live their lives.

  7. Great post FM. Lampham has consistently shown a unique insight into the workings of American society. Cognitive dissonance about American democracy and global position is deep and pervasive, to the point where it’s difficult to engage in real discussion of what America is today without running into reactionary worldview biases. The MSM echo chamber doesn’t help much. How much of our national dialogue seeks to impose a fictive past on a rapidly evolving present?

    The question is (touching on Erasmus’ final point) how to move beyond the flawed good-evil paradigms? Unfortunately, it seems the more the real-world contradicts the narratives, the more entrenched those who have committed themselves to those narratives become. Examples abound over all sectors and classes of American society- fundamental disconnects between empirical trends/events and the ability of individuals to process this information outside their established frameworks. Ideology is pervasive and dynamic thought is rare.

  8. Lapham: “The question was one of how a government by the judicious few could best control and improve the instincts of the foolish many.”

    Lapham perhaps makes this sound more recent than it is; see, for example, the Creel Committee, formed one week after the Congress declared war on Germany in April of 1917:

    The purpose of the CPI was to influence American public opinion toward supporting U.S. intervention in World War I via a prolonged propaganda campaign. Among those who participated in it were Wilson advisers Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, the latter of whom had remarked that “the essence of democratic society” was the “engineering of consent”, by which propaganda was the necessary method for democracies to promote and garner support for policy.

    Of course, the underlying idea is as old as democracy itself: that democracy is self-evidently foolish, because obviously some people are much more suited to make decisions than most. I notice that the philosophers think it’s the philosophers who are most suited… the clergy think it’s the men of God… the warriors think it’s the generals… the rich think it’s the bankers…

    I suppose the modern realization (unknown, I think, in Plato’s day) is that shallow democracy — the pomp and circumstance, with popular influence kept as showy but irrelevant as possible – is great for the purpose of legitimizing government in the minds of Western-world citizens; and a government which is generally accepted as legitimate has a far easier task than one that is not.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a powerful point. Many of the Founders’ thinking can be interpreted as “how a government by the judicious few could best control and improve the instincts of the foolish many”.

  9. I remember as a teenager stumbling across some of Joseph Campbell’s books and reading them with fascination mainly because they opened a window into worlds in antiquity, many cycles of social evolution ago. One of the most striking sections was about various kingdoms – I think somewhere around ancient India – had a tradition wherein each monarch would rule for only four years at the end of which they would, in a public ceremony, cut themselves to death, slicing off the easy parts first like nose, ears, some fingers and toes etc. and then finally at some point dying.

    Of course the gory imagery this evoked were intriguing for a young lad in the era of B&W Television – which he rarely watched – and newsprint etc., but also I found it amazing that someone who had such power was also beholden to a tradition which decreed he would most certainly die 48 months after getting it. It seemed not only bizarre but nonsensical and I never thought about it in any serious fashion, i.e. WHY would any society set up such a system.

    Now I see how democracies have been evolving, I’m beginning to understand that perhaps those chaps were onto something!

  10. Coises: thanks. I think that’s a very important point. We live in a time that has been wiping the past off the blackboard in a rather reckless, and accelerating, fashion. Most people believe that we fundamentally different from people who lived only a hundred years ago. Grainy photographs of stern-looking types (they had to hold the pose for 30 seconds for the exposures to take!) seem almost as remote to us as Martians. We have evolved so far, ‘progressed’ so much, that clearly most of what they went through was comparatively primitive making us essentially superior, with superior forms of governance, ‘liberal’ ‘humanitarian’ morality and so forth.

    It’s just a modern superstition backed by a whole lot of real material change in the form of mechanical hardware. The sun hasn’t changed. The stars have barely twinkled since then. (There are probably fishes around somewhere who were alive and spawning joyfully during the time of the American Revolution!) Human nature certainly hasn’t changed much, nor have our collective behaviors. Probably every time thinks it is hugely different from ones now passed, but I think only degenerating cultures take pride in separating themselves from their ancestral roots the way we are doing.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying: the crap under our collective boot today, squishes and stinks pretty much exactly the same as the crap that got us into WW I in your example above. Which means that the millions of deaths (something like 250 million) caused by wars in the twentieth century, including a huge number of them perpetrated by wicked elites on those below, should NOT be regarded as something in the distant past that we have evolved beyond. The people to whom this happened only a couple of generations ago did not imagine such things as possible yet they happened. They could happen in America too.

  11. FM Note: I recommend reading this comment, and clicking thru to Hedge’s article

    Coincidentally enough, yesterday I read the Wikipedia article about Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion, and downloaded a copy from a link there (Wikipedia, full text). It was Chris Hedges’ piece Buying Brand Obama that had pointed to the Wikipedia article.

    Excerpt from “Buying Brand Obama“, Chris Hedges, TruthDig, 3 May 2009:

    Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.

  12. Coises: glad you mentioned Plato. I’ve always glibly compared modern man sitting in front of his tv to Plato’s citizens chained to their seats staring at figures on the wall (I once taught this text in college.) I think Chomsky is correct on this — keeping citizens in a democracy chained to their seats is a lot harder task, though the shadow figures in Plato’s cave are essentially the same as what Debord calls “spectacle” — the endless flow of advertising, “news”, entertainment, education and opinion that surrounds us like a fog 24/7. What’s different about modern spectacle is that the whole productive level of society (not just the politicians) participates in it, not by written agreement but by tacit acceptance of the common goals of power and privilege.

    Even here, on this blog, we are doing it, by engaging in intelligent discourse about important issues, while watching the coming calamity from a distance, hoping it won’t hit us.

  13. Even among our elites, I suspect the current situation has taken on a dream like quality. Chrysler in bankruptcy. GM going bankrupt. Roubini saying the banks are still 3.6 trillion underwater. Power and control have pretty much been revealed to be an illusion by recent events. It’s like being a fighter pilot trying to get inside the opponent’s OODA loop when his plane suddenly sprouts wings, flapping away as a giant eagle, while we stare agape at the bizarre scene unfolding before us. Anyone else starting to feel this way?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It feels like that to me, but I doubt our ruling elites share that impression. The financial sector elites are gorging themselves on our money, a fine next course to their two-decade long feast — and look forward to many more delicious courses to come.

  14. BC – I’m sometimes in disbelief on how events have been unfolding and the populace’s reaction. For years I have been saying, “Where is the outrage”? It’s seem surreal at times, like my consciousness is trapped in some sort of “bizzaro world” where the laws of physics no longer apply. Plenty of Scifi out there covering this, maybe one of the writers premises is right?

  15. From: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus – Prelude-Nothing To Hide:

    You are a child of the universe.
    No one can make it better than you.
    You are a child of the universe.
    But see what you’ve done to the rain and the sun.
    So many changes have all just begun…to reap,
    And though you’re asleep.
    Wake up.

  16. FM: “Change filters slowly down to the level at which individuals live their lives.”

    Ever the optimist! Changes like loss of job, loss of health insurance, foreclosure and having to move your family into a small apartment will “filter down” rather suddenly and dramatically.

  17. In response to Fabius, Coises, and (perhaps) Lapham, I must shamefacedly confess that I have no objection, in principle, to being ruled by an elite—as long as they are truly elite. After all, those who are best among us are, by definition, best qualified to lead. It goes without saying that such an elite will also be just, because justice is a virtue, the lack of which disqualifies one from being a member of the elite. Thus, a government of the elite will not only be an effective government, but it will also be just.

    Of course, what I have just said has no relation to our reality: today, “elite” just means “the clowns who are currently in charge”. Contrary to some of the thinking I believe is implied on this forum, I would like to point out that democracy is no protection against clowns—in fact, the more democratic we become, the easier is their work. Some seem to think that the problem is that we are not democratic enough; I think we have had altogether too much democracy. The United States have, for some time, been evolving away from a limited democracy circumscribed by checks, balances and constitutional law, into a flat populism. We are nearly at the stage when the tyranny of the majority becomes absolute.

    The irony of this condition is that nothing is easier to control by elitist clowns than a populist state. To make the people do what you want, it is not necessary to convince the majority that a certain policy is the right one—it is merely necessary to convince them that the majority already thinks it right. All too many citizens of our democratic polity will gladly give up their principles (should they be so backward as to have any) if they are told that the majority has decided that it should be so.

    The book to read in this connection is Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred by John Lukacs.

  18. Reynardine,

    If you will indulge me, I would like to present a metaphor for the difference between democracy and populism.

    Five friends have purchased a tract of land upon which to build a house they will share.

    If they are a democracy, they choose a talented architect and an able contractor. They explain their needs to these professionals; they consider what the professionals have to say; they discuss the points where they differ about what they would like and seek solutions that are satisfactory to everyone. Only as a last resort do they fall back upon blatant majority rule: “three of us want it this way, so you two are out of luck!” Since they are friends, they know none of them will really be happy unless they are all happy.

    If they are populist, they seek an architect and a contractor because they need them by law, and someone has to do the dirty work, but they don’t spend much time talking with them: they tell them what (they think) they want and ignore what they don’t want to hear and what doesn’t interest them. As soon as they disagree, they put things to a vote, because they consider that “fair.” In the end they’ve ignored the wisdom of the professionals (while leaving them free reign to pad their own incomes), so they get a poorly-designed home and chronic cost overruns; and none of them are happy, because everyone was in the minority often enough to feel screwed.

  19. After all, those who are best among us are, by definition, best qualified to lead. — Reynardine

    One introduces a logical fallacy by defining something without first demonstrating that a unique, extant thing is defined. I have no confidence that there is any reasonable argument that “the best among us” has a unique, objective reference. You speak of such people as if it were possible to say who they are — I say it is not.

    It goes without saying that such an elite will also be just, because justice is a virtue, the lack of which disqualifies one from being a member of the elite.

    Justice is an equally amorphous concept. It is my contention that justice does not exist (at least in this world), and the false belief in it deeply confuses our legal and penal systems.

    Contrary to some of the thinking I believe is implied on this forum, I would like to point out that democracy is no protection against clowns—in fact, the more democratic we become, the easier is their work.

    Deep democracy is exactly that; but indeed (as I noted), shallow democracy plays into the hands of those who would rule without responsibility beyond their own circle of power. I would not call them clowns, though. There is an old saying that one should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity; but I suggest that when considering people who have risen to power, the opposite maxim applies.

  20. One can not predict who our next leader will be, or what he/she will do(or try). It is the ‘foolish many’ who will choose. The same holds for other countries as well, so the situation will always be tidal. Because we elect new leaders on a cyclical basis, we will never have control of our principles- they will change too.

  21. “There is an old saying that one should never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity; but I suggest that when considering people who have risen to power, the opposite maxim applies.”

    Exquisitely cynical sentence! That should go into Bartlett’s.

    In some sense the underlying issue here is power, another intangible force (like capital) which can be directed in either helpful or unhelpful ways. Good power, in simple terms, is leadership; bad power exploits the resources of the many for the benefit of the few so it is used to control/channel/gatekeep common infrastructure, which latter term also includes many intangibles such as the decision-making elements within any society.

    Even though it might well be a case of ‘too little too late’, I remain hopeful that a fault line will emerge involving a return to more States-based autonomy/power feeding into local community culture somehow, but suspect this is a nostalgia for a structure that is no longer viable in today’s hugely populated urban culture.

    And although I have no idea how such a thing could viably, let alone helpfully, be undone, am becoming increasingly convinced that separating church and state was/is a primordial no-no since only when they are inseparable are a people bound together in shared values that promote the good, which naturally fosters more of the same and produces uplifted cultural cycles that pop up every once in a while. I guess this is a Confucian viewpoint even though that system is not ‘religious’ according to Western (theistic) notions.

  22. In an interesting article about the history of the Populist movement in America, Jim Hightower says “Populism is not a style, it’s a people’s rebellion against corporate power.” He further asserts,

    Fully embracing the egalitarian ideals and rebellious spirit of the American Revolution, populists have always been out to challenge the orthodoxy of the corporate order and to empower workaday Americans so they can control their own economic and political destinies. This approach distinguishes the movement from classic liberalism, which seeks to live in harmony with concentrated corporate power by trying to regulate its excesses.

    We’re seeing liberalism at work today in Washington’s Wall Street bailout. Both parties tell us that AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, and the rest are “too big to fail,” so taxpayers simply “must” rescue the management, stockholders, and bondholders of the financial giants in order to save the system. Populists, on the other hand, note that it is this very system that has caused the failure-so structural reform is required. Let’s reorganize the clumsy, inept, ungovernable, and corrupt financial system by ousting those who wrecked it, splitting up its component parts (banking, investment, and insurance), and establishing decentralized, manageable-sized financial institutions operating on the locallycontrolled models of credit unions, co-ops, and community banks.

  23. Interesting comments, Coises, thank you. I have some disagreements, of course:

    One introduces a logical fallacy by defining something without first demonstrating that a unique, extant thing is defined. I have no confidence that there is any reasonable argument that “the best among us” has a unique, objective reference.

    A logical fallacy, indeed? So if I say, “a unicorn is a horse-like animal, usually pure white, with a single spiraling horn, which can be approached only by female virgins”, then I commit a logical fallacy? Good heavens, man, where did you learn philosophy? You must have taken the three drachma course at that Sophist school. Surely you’re not saying that we can’t talk about nonexistent things! If that were so, then the sentence “Unicorns don’t exist” would be meaningless. Ergo, it could not be true. As a Platonist (yes, this is Friday, so I’m a Platonist) my sensibilities are deeply offended. Indeed, I am in a state of medium dudgeon.
    Humor aside (I have learned to be explicit about this humor thing in online communications), it may be the case that there is no “true elite” that is qualified to govern us. In that case, we should take the best we can get. Perhaps the best way of doing that is to devise our systems of government in such a way that the best will tend to rise to the top, and the worst can do as little damage as possible. That is, in fact, what the Founding Persons attempted to do. One thing they realized quite clearly was that a “flat” democracy, reactive to the instant will of the people, is a very bad way to achieve this. And consider how much less time is required in our age to set up a “popular feedback loop”, where the people are told what the majority thinks, then reacts as might be expected.

    One of my favorite instances of this noxious democratic leveling is the reform of the primary laws that took place in the wake of 1968 Presidential election. Before, we had candidates chosen in “smoke-filled back rooms”; now they are chosen by primary elections marked by much media pageantry. Which system produced the better candidates?

    Justice is an equally amorphous concept. It is my contention that justice does not exist (at least in this world), and the false belief in it deeply confuses our legal and penal systems.

    This is a much more appalling statement than the previous one. I suppose it is (to you) a logical consequence of thinking that ideal things cannot exist. I can only point out that if you are correct, then all discourse about “justice” is meaningless; but this vitiates your own denial of the existence of justice. We can say that a law, a state, a set of circumstances, or a world is “unjust” only if we share a reasonably common notion of justice. We may have disagreements on what “justice” is, and we may disagree about whether certain things are just or not—but the very fact that we can disagree shows that we have such common ground. In the interests of further discourse, I therefore ask you to re-examine your position.

  24. Reynardine:

    Every American child must have heard that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I sometimes think I am the only living adult who believes it. Instead, it is thought, when the second wrong is done by a representative of a recognized authority, acting within the scope of his designated duties, it is not a wrong at all, but instead it is Justice.

    Abducting a person at gunpoint, forcing him into a car, transporting him against his will and locking him in a cage, is violence and kidnapping. That it is done by persons with badges and warrants does not change that. Depriving a person of life or liberty is cruelty and a violation of human rights and dignity. That it is done under auspices of law does not change that.

    I am not a pacifist. There are problems we do not know how to solve without violence, without cruelty, without abrogation of human rights and dignity. But I believe we should admit what we are doing. We are resolving a practical dilemma in a miserable way, because we cannot find a better way. We are not dispensing Justice; we are doing evil because we don’t know how else to avoid even worse evil.

    Whenever we advocate or enforce a criminal law — which implies state-sponsored violence — we take it upon ourselves to do harm for the sake of impeding what we prohibit. The illusion of Justice is our way of denying that responsibility, and I oppose it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This sounds too idealistic for my taste. Once we die, in Heaven these views will suit much better. Even the utopian Shaw saw this, as in this excerpt from Act III of Man and Superman.

    We may therefore contemplate the tramps of the Sierra without prejudice, admitting cheerfully that our objects — briefly, to be gentlemen of fortune — are much the same as theirs, and the difference in our position and methods merely accidental. One or two of them, perhaps, it would be wiser to kill without malice in a friendly and frank manner; for there are bipeds, just as there are quadrupeds, who are too dangerous to be left unchained and unmuzzled; and these cannot fairly expect to have other men’s lives wasted in the work of watching them. But as society has not the courage to kill them, and, when it catches them, simply wreaks on them some superstitious expiatory rites of torture and degradation, and than lets them loose with heightened qualifications for mischief; it is just as well that they are at large in the Sierra, and in the hands of a chief who looks as if he might possibly, on provocation, order them to be shot.

    “Every American child must have heard that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I sometimes think I am the only living adult who believes it.”

    IMO the reason that nobody else believes it is that the notion is absurd, with due respect to your mother. Much of what we learn in the nursery is childish over-simplification.

  25. I find many of the comments here to be extremely thoughtful and interesting.

    Lapham: “In the name of making the world safe for democracy, the US revised many of its own democratic traditions and constitutional principles.” Also: “Troubled officials sometimes referred to what they called “the paradox” implicit in the waging of secret war under the covenants of a free, open, and democratic society.”

    It seems to me that a similar dynamic occurs in relation to the question of torture. The difference in the tone of the comments on this site in regards to torture and the comments in regards to “Democracy at Bay” are striking to say the least.

    Re: Comments #5, 9 and 10 (Erasmus): It boils down to the overriding theme of Western civilization being its belief in progress, especially technological progress and progress without effort, doesn’t it? Not that progress isn’t a worthy goal, but the idea that it’s always happening – evolving – gets unconditionally accepted. Also, I have a hunch that you might find the essays regarding science on http://www.henryflynt.org/ interesting.

    Re: Comment #7(complexfatwa)and #21(Sera): Excellent comments, IMO.

    Re: Comment #15 (bc): Now that’s a great album!

  26. The problem is the composition and history of ‘Elites’. Humans tend towards hierarchial systems (genetic?) and, whatever the system is called, there is those with far greater decision making opportunities than others (ok, that’s a “duh”).

    But what is the composition of them? Successful ‘greasy pole” sociopaths? Hereditary? Lucky? Competent?

    In one sense the mechanism of how people become part of the elite (and there is always churn) is, arguably, the most important determinant of the quality of decision making. Nothing new here, look at armed forced, e.g the US Army .. how do you get to the top (yes I know a loaded question, but relevent, how can this huge organisation with all the resources available to it consistently promote idiots to the top)?

    If the system is biased towards people who successfully climb the internal/external political greasy pole then inevitably you will get an elite populated by sociopaths (who tend to be the most successful at this sort of thing .. note how many US decison makers jumped on the torture bandwagon .. classic sociopathic behaviour). If it is seniority then they will be unimaginiative time servers (though those look real good these days), hereditary then genetically damaged morons .. and so on.

    The idea of a meritocracy is just that … an idea. In real life, in virtually every society, the concept of someone who is actually competent getting to a position of influence is virtually unimaginable .. look at your currrent boss for an example.

    Only in times of real crisis, when results not acceptability count (note this is not acceptability to the ‘unwashed masses’ it is acceptability to the current elite in power), is there any hope of competence emerging (and there is no guarantee about this). Such as in war or economic/societal crisis/collapse. Anglo-Saxon countries have lived off a generation of (parts of) the ‘elite’ who were reasonably competant because of WW2. Now they are all gone we are back to the ‘usual order’ and, because of the way they got to postions of influence, are actually totally unsuited to making actual effective decisions (the great paradox of democracy,the very skills to become elected are useless at actually doing things).

    Have a re-read of Cecil Parkinson to understand how elite decision making REALLY works.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There are two additional dimensions critical to this discussion. First, there is question of social mobility. The high degree of income inequality in the US is often justified by our high degree of social mobility. Unfortunately while the former is fact, the latter is myth. The US has a low degree of social mobility compared to our peer nations. That pretty much guts the view that we are a meritocratic society in the usual sense of the world. For more on this see A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand.

    So it is vital to remember that while all societies have to some degree a fixed heirarchy (e.g., imperfect social mobility and inequality in the distribution of power and wealth), it need not be as high as in America today. Magnitudes matter, and can be changed.

    Note: Oldskeptic knows this (i.e., low social mobility in the US), since I learned about this from him in comments here and here.

  27. OldSkpetic:

    Your points are well taken. I wish to point out something that I think is missing in your view. Consider the democracy in my analogy of friends building a house.

    Knowing that the architect and contractor are more informed about the details of home building than the friends will ever be, they defer many decisions to the professionals. Suppose the friends think they would like a pool. Their decision will be informed by what the professionals tell them about costs of building a pool, maintenance requirements, liability exposure, effects of local climate on usability… but no professional can tell them how important it is to them to be able to go for a swim in their own back yard. They will ultimately have to make that decision themselves.

    “Elites” (if they are competent) know better than the bewildered herd how to get a given result… but they cannot tell us what we want. The world is far too complex for any one of us (including any one “elite”) to understand more than a small part of it. Nonetheless, no professional can tell us what our values should be. This is one ground upon which it is true that “all men are created equal.”

    There are two critical tasks of a deep democracy. One is to distill the complex and conflicting values of a heterogeneous population into shared goals; the other is to pursue those goals faithfully, rationally and competently. So far, I think no system has been devised that accomplishes either task very well. I am not yet convinced that it is not worth trying to find one.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I think you are living in a dream, as seen by “Elites” (if they are competent)”. That’s a key point, isn’t it? Not something to assume. Nor does the daily news give evidence that your assumption is correct. Nor do I see the slightest evidence that our ruling elites have anything other than money or power, so your analogy comparing them to professionals (i.e., architect) is absurd.

    “I think no system has been devised that accomplishes either task very well. I am not yet convinced that it is not worth trying to find one.”

    Perhaps we should first try to make the existing system work, rather than act as drones — with complaining our chielf political activity.

  28. Fabius Maximus:

    I am not familiar with Shaw, but I think I shall have to read him. His viewpoint in the quote you presented seems quite similar to mine, except that he shows no hope that humanity can grow beyond its need for “superstitious expiatory rites of torture and degradation.” It seems to me that humanity has grown a great deal throughout its several thousand years of civilization, and I see no reason to believe that it cannot advance further, just because its movement is too slow to recognize within a single human lifetime.

    Perhaps my belief is absurd; but I cannot see how it is “idealistic.” As I noted, “I am not a pacifist”; I recognise that we must sometimes do terrible things, to avert even more terrible things. We pursue our laws to make an example of those of whom we disapprove, to remove from society those whose nature we cannot accommodate, and to satisfy the primal drive for revenge. All of these may sometimes be necessary. It seems to me that recasting these ugly, pragmatic necessities as noble Justice is the idealistic stance.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: After a lifetime as a practical utopian (a Fabian Socialist, believing in a evolutionary path to a far better society), his views changed as a result of WWI. From Wikipedia:

    Shaw’s outlook was changed by World War I, which he uncompromisingly opposed despite incurring outrage from the public as well as from many friends. His first full-length piece, presented after the War, written mostly during it, was Heartbreak House (1919). A new Shaw had emerged—the wit remained, but his faith in humanity had dwindled. In the preface to Heartbreak House he said:

    “It is said that every people has the Government it deserves. It is more to the point that every Government has the electorate it deserves; for the orators of the front bench can edify or debauch an ignorant electorate at will. Thus our democracy moves in a vicious circle of reciprocal worthiness and unworthiness.”

    I believe his last and greatest political statement was Back to Methuselah -A Metabiological Pentateuch (1921), where a well-ordered society comes only with the extension of human lifetimes to 300 years. The world is ill-run today because it is, as in Lord of the Flies, run by children.

  29. Re: FM reply to Comment #25,

    It occurs to me that you and I may have different definitions of ”idealism.” As I see it, everyone does what they have to do. The idealists are those who cannot rest until they have an honorable and comforting explanation for why they did it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I prefer not to make up my own definitions. Idealism is…

    (1) the philosophical theory that ideas are the only reality;
    (2) impracticality by virtue of thinking of things in their ideal form rather than as they really are;
    (3) high-mindedness: elevated ideals or conduct; the quality of believing that ideals should be pursued.

    I used idealism in the sense of definition #2. I have not idea what it means to say “everyone does what they have to do.” Pehaps you see a mechanistic world, where there are no choices — or choices are inevitable or predetermined. You last sentence appears to define idealistic people as having a excessive drive to rationalizing their actions after the fact.

  30. FM: “’Elites’ (if they are competent)”. That’s a key point, isn’t it? Not something to assume. Nor does the daily news give evidence that your assumption is correct. Nor do I see the slightest evidence that our ruling elites have anything other than money or power, so your analogy comparing them to professionals (i.e., architect) is absurd.

    Yes, I do think you have put your finger on it, Fabius…our elites are incompetent. Has this always been the case? Have all human elites been as incompetent as the ones running our lives today? One of the difficulties of answering this question is the fact that the elites tend to influence what is written about them—especially in the histories.

    It seems to me that the qualifications for becoming a member of the elite must be other than those that would make them competent administrators of public affairs. The elites are really good at taking care of their own interests…that’s why they rise to the top.

    I suppose I’m stating the blindingly obvious, and have no notion how to fix the problem. Anarchism does have its appeal, at such moments. As Lord Acton remarked, rising to the top is in itself enough to disqualify a good man from leadership. (Acton’s corollary, “Therefore all great men have been bad men” is cited less often, perhaps because it is too close to the truth.)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I disagree with much of this.

    (1) Elites in most societies to a large degree inherit their position. Either directly — in terms of status, wealth, income — or indirectly. The US combines the two, where wealth and income are concentrated, connections are important, and people are tracked to their status in life to a large extent by which college they attend — to which their family’s income plays a large part.

    (2) Due to #1, their ability to manage either the nation’s affairs or their own long-term interests varies from low to moderate. Counter-examples exist, but are rare. Today’s examples are probably found mostly in Asia. Such as China, and Singapore (under the clan founded by Lee Kuan Yew).

    (3) A democratic republic is one solution. Even functioning minimally they usually produce better results than purely aristocratic or plutocratic run regimes, once they have taken root in a society. They are difficult to graft onto a society, and usually require long periods of development to do so. Functioning well they usually produce superlative results. We knew this, but seem to have forgotten it.

  31. #26 Financial Crisis: thanks for the Flynt link. Will look into.

    “(3) A democratic republic is one solution. Even functioning minimally they usually produce better results than purely aristocratic or plutocratic run regimes, once they have taken root in a society. They are difficult to graft onto a society, and usually require long periods of development to do so. Functioning well they usually produce superlative results. We knew this, but seem to have forgotten it.”

    I would very much appreciate historical examples for the above. I am not all that well educated and can’t think of a single one!
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    Fabius Maximus replies: UK and US.

  32. Re: “Elites in most societies to a large degree inherit their position. Either directly — in terms of status, wealth, income — or indirectly.”

    OldSkeptic related remark further above: “Humans tend towards hierarchial systems (genetic?) and, whatever the system is called, there are those with far greater decision making opportunities than others.”

    It’s before genetic, which is only the materialistic/physical expression of deeper processes involved in the genesis and function of life forms of all sorts. A humorous example but worth considering: a filthy, ragged, wretched looking stray cat in an ally eating left over junk food looks ‘inferior’ not only to a human but also to a fellow cat (and for all I know to passing crows as well!). Hierarchy relates with deep structural natural order in both mundane and nuanced fashion. A large part of what we loosely term ‘social relations’ – or simply ‘relations’ involves hierarchical qualities/quanta.

    That being the case, politically speaking I am a confirmed monarchist/royalist because I believe it is the most open and potentially sophisticated form when it works well, and am not convinced that, even though it is of course highly corruptible, that it is any more so than other systems and that furthermore it is easier to overthrow one clearly identified and narrowly structured elite mechanism than the all-permeating, secretive oozy type we have been spawning of late.

    Lastly, I still think that we all collectively get the elites we deserve and vice versa in that ultimately there is a sort of ‘we are one’ dynamic at work in human affairs. When elites get out of line, populations need to find the backbone and intelligence to junk them. When the population is wicked or stupid, elites have to foster more integrity and backbone. It should and can balance out but all involved have to play their part. And meanwhile in the etheric realm of shared sub-verbal, sub-conceptual awareness, everyone knows all the time what’s going on from one end of the societal spectrum to the other. Conspiracy theorists might be on to something but for one thing: there aren’t really any secrets except in rather limited data-related levels. But in terms of actual atmosphere, or state of mind, that is perceived by everyong all the time whether we choose to acknowledge this (literally) or not.

    In this sense, if there is a ‘conspiracy’, it is a mutual conspiracy. Buddhist philosophers call it ‘samsara’ and have written reams and reams about it for millenia!

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