Monday, November 05, 2007

Phil Paine's Fifth Meditation On Democracy

Most of my ideas of history and politics have evolved in the context of a long-established dialogue with Phil Paine. He is the most original thinker I know and the value of his insights has been proven to me again and again over the past three and a half decades. His recent series of Meditations on Democracy is perhaps his best writing to date, and today's Fifth Meditation the best of the best. It follows in its entirety. If you haven't read the first four, you can also find them at Phil's web site.



Monday, November 5, 2007 - Fifth Meditation On Democracy

It’s my contention that both hierarchical and egalitarian behaviour are equally “natural” to human beings. These two methods of interacting with others in a group have co-existed in all human societies, from the earliest stages of our evolution as a species. It is also my contention that, while there is a limited place for hierarchical thinking and behaviour in a good society, it is egalitarian thinking that has created civilization and morality. Any society that is dominated by hierarchy is essentially backward, self-destructive, and immoral.

There are no necessary “stages” in history, and no predestined sequence of political structures, though a particular polity may “evolve” in the sense that it may become more just or better at recognizing and protecting the rights of its people. It may just as easily “devolve” and become less just and more savage. It is the continuing concentration of effort towards justice by a people that makes justice happen, not some nebulous, abstract economic or historical process. Morally correct decisions have to be made, and real action must be taken, by real individual human beings. Just laws have to be made, agreed upon, and obeyed. An advanced ― that is to say a just and moral ― political structure can be created by any group of human beings, at any time, in any place, at any level of technology or degree of prosperity. The “technology” of justice is intellectual, not physical. It has to be discovered, invoked, and implimented, but it is not dependent on any particular kind of physical environment.

This last statement needs some exemplary illustration. The world’s history has seen a great variety of “polities”, that is to say, groups of human beings organized into political units. Some have been relatively advanced, measured by the standard of respect for human rights and dignity, others have been backward and barbaric. But historical periods, wealth, and technological gadgetry do not determine which is advanced and which is backward. Ancient Yaudhiya and Athens were more politically advanced than the large Mauriyan and Alexandrian empires that succeeded them. Germany in 1940 was equipped with some of the world’s most advanced technology, and had inherited a treasure of art, science, literature and accumulated knowledge ― yet, politically and morally, it ranked below the most primitive societies of headhunting barbarians. The same is true of all Communist states, which exist on a level of political savagery, despite whatever atomic weapons, skyscrapers, or space craft they produce. The smallest, humblest democracy is immensely more sophisticated than any state ruled by a dictator. Little, democratic Iceland is more advanced in civilization than the Roman Empire ever was, or the France of Napoleon, or of Louis XIV, or any of the empires of the world, no matter how many pyramids and victory arches they erected. The mere fact that an empire is an empire, or a kingdom is a kingdom, makes it inferior. A single village in Vermont in 1850, with its democratic town meetings, was a thousand times more politically advanced than the present government in Washington, ruled by a self-declared “Decider”, and managed by a crew of barbarian henchmen, and attended by a castrated legislature of uncontested incumbents who can be bought, like low grade ground beef, by the pound. Those who want America to be an Empire are not seeking to empower it, they are seeking to degrade it and destroy it. Those in Canada who want us to act as servants and cheerleaders for such an empire likewise seek to degrade and destroy Canada. That is why I oppose them.

Wealth is not civilization. Size is not civilization. Technology is not civilization. Those are not what determines whether a society is civilized. However, I am not making a case for any kind of Rousseau-an nostalgia. The techniques most useful to civilization have a long history, going back to our earliest beginnings as a species, but they have only sporadically been identified, practiced, and improved. We have much to learn from ancient, tribal, and pre-industrial societies that is useful and important. But on the whole, societies in the past have been more violent, less just, and more dangerous than some of the best polities that emerged in the last two centuries. It’s our duty to take advantage of the cumulative experience of the human race, from all times and places, wherever we have lessons to learn and experiences to learn from. Every successful innovation, no matter who made it, should be incorporated into our common treasure of wisdom, and every mistake should be acknowledged, studied, and remembered as a caution. The greatest weakness that pre-literate societies had was that they had difficulty remembering what they had done well, and constantly repeated the errors of the past. We don’t have that excuse. If we don’t learn from the horrors of the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Laogai, what excuse could we offer?

For example, we have the glaring example of Germany and Japan. In the late 19th Century, both those countries experienced spectacular economic growth. This material success was not accompanied by any significant development of democracy. They remained under the rule of decrepit aristocracies and military men, while their economies expanded, and foreign investors flocked to invest in them. The eventual consequence of this lopsided development was to plunge the world into two gigantic wars, enable the demented slaughter of millions of innocents, and encourage the growth of obscene “philosophies”, like Marxism and Nazism, dedicated to the enslavement of human beings. Today, we can see exactly the same pattern forming in China. The Chinese people have worked hard, under extremely difficult circumstances, and have created a miraculous new prosperity. This is the product of the dynamism, creativity, and courage of the people, not of their rulers. But the rulers are still there, in power, a rotting, putrescent gang of aged mass-murderers and psychopathic criminals. There has been no progress in developing democracy, the absolutely essential ingredient of civilized life. The eventual consequence of this failure will be as horrible as that which befell the world the last time this error was made. At this stage, a dramatic change would be necessary to avert impending disaster.

Here in Canada, and more dramatically in the United States, with whom we Canadians have an intimate cultural bond, I have seen my society become progressively more conservative, more psychologically primitive, more militaristic, more cowardly, and more oriented towards hierarchy and mindless obedience. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the fundamental ideas of liberty, of egalitarian ethics, of respect for rights, and of the dignity and sanctity of the individual human being evaporate like milk splashed on a hot stove, leaving only an ugly stain and an ugly smell. I’ve seen independence, creativity and spontaneity, once the essence of our social customs, replaced by mindless conformity, callous brutality, and the cringing cowardice that characterize a backward, stratified society. I’ve seen the relentless poison of Conservatism destroy everything decent that we had accomplished, replacing science and reason with the mumbo-jumbo of witch doctors, rolling back sexual attitudes from those of free human beings to the moronic taboos and terrors of primitive savages, and simultaneously wrecking our once-creative economy. I’ve seen the vulgar, ruthless, malicious, stupid and inane systematically triumph over those who are honourable and principled in almost every aspect of our lives. In the United States, fundamental democratic institutions have been under systematic attack by Conservative ideology, with no effective resistance or opposition. In Canada, democratic institutions are in better shape than in the United States, but more by random good luck than by any conscious effort, or courageous defense.

The greatest menace to our society is the habit of submission to aristocracy. Aristocracy and civilization are incompatible. A civilized people has no “pecking order”. Civilized people do not worship celebrities, cringe before imaginary “betters”, or submit to “leaders” on the basis of alpha dominance. Civilized people do not have leaders. They lead themselves. Civilized people make group decisions by the reasoned processes of law, consultation, debate, and democracy, not by handing over power to some gang of charismatic apes. Civilized people make love, not war. Civilized people make and trade things, they don’t steal. Civilized people meet each other as equals, and judge each other as individuals, never as members of races, or ethnic groups, or castes, or classes, or any other termite-like collectivities. Civilized people respect the rights of others and demand that others respect theirs. Civilized people never sacrifice liberty or human rights for mere economic gain, or for the sophistries of realpolitik, or in a neurotic quest for the phantom of “security”. Civilized people never bow down before others, and never allow others to bow down before them. There is no rank in civilization. There is no authority in civilization, except the authority of nature and reason, the authority of two-plus-two-equals-four.

Dramatic changes in attitudes will be necessary for us to turn away from the suicidal path we have chosen. Not many trends indicate that we are making any of those critical changes. And yet, I continue to hope, continue to write, continue to explain and implore. There are no “laws of history”, there is no certain doom, and there is no predestination. What one generation destroys, the next can rebuild. We can have civilization, if we want it. Things can turn around. There are good, decent people everywhere. They only have to find the conceptual tools to see through the lies, schemes, and misdirection of the aristocracy, which are nothing more than larger versions of the swindles of petty criminals. Then, they have only to find each other, and act together. It is our self-doubt and confusion that gives the tyrants power, not any strength they possess.

It is not fit, not right, and not tolerable, that we the people should be ruled by apes.

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