Consuming Democracy

For most of a year now, my posts here on The Archdruid Report have focused on the nature, rise, and impending fall of America’s global empire.  It’s been a long road and, as usual, it strayed in directions I wasn’t expecting to explore when this sequence of posts began last winter. Still, as I see it, we’ve covered all the core issues except one, and that’s the question of what can and should be done as the American empire totters to its end.

Regular readers will know already that this question isn’t going to be answered with some grandiose scheme for salvaging, replacing, transforming, or dismantling America’s empire, of the sort popular with activists on both sides of an increasingly irrelevant political spectrum—the sort of project that merely requires all those who hold political and economic power to hand it over meekly to some cabal of unelected ideologues, so that the latter can once again learn the hard way that people won’t behave like angels no matter what set of theories is applied to them. At the same time, there are choices still open to Americans and others in an era of imperial decline; we’re not limited, unless we choose to be, to huddling in our basements until the rubble stops bouncing.

Mind you, there are at least two things welded firmly enough in place in our near future that no action of yours, mine, or anyone’s will change them.  The first is that America’s global empire will fall; the second is that those who rule it will not let it fall without a struggle.  The US government and the loose and fractious alliance of power centers that dominate it are clearly unwilling to take Britain’s path, and accept the end of empire in exchange for a relatively untraumatic imperial unraveling.  To judge by all the evidence that’s currently available, they’ll cling to the shreds of imperial power, and the wealth and privilege that goes with it, until the last of those shreds are pulled from their cold stiff hands.  That’s a common boast, but it bears remembering that the moment always comes when those shreds get pried loose from those pale and rigid fingers.

These two hard facts, the imminence of imperial downfall and the unwillingess of the existing order to accept that imminence, impose certain consequences on the decades ahead of us.  Some of the most obvious of those consequences are economic.  The American standard of living, as I’ve pointed out more than once, has been buoyed to its current frankly absurd level by a tribute economy that funnels much of the wealth of the world to the the United States.  We’ve all heard the self-congratulatory nonsense that insists that this nation’s prosperity is a product of American ingenuity or what have you, but let us please be real; nothing Americans do—nothing, that is, other than maintaining garrisons in more than 140 countries and bombing the bejesus out of nations that get too far out of line—justifies the fact that the five per cent of humanity that can apply for a US passport get to use a quarter of the planet’s energy and a third of its natural resources and industrial product.

As our empire ends, that vast imbalance will go away forever.  It really is as simple as that. In the future now breathing down our necks, Americans will have to get used to living, as our not so distant ancestors did, on a much more modest fraction of the world’s wealth—and they’ll have to do it, please remember, at a time when the ongoing depletion of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources, and the ongoing disruption of the environment, are making ever sharper inroads on the total amount of wealth that’s there to distribute in the first place.  That means that everything that counts as an ordinary American lifestyle today is going to go away in the decades ahead of us. It also means that my American readers, not to mention everyone else in this country, are going to be very much poorer in the wake of empire than they are today.

That’s a sufficiently important issue that I’ve discussed it here a number of times already, and it bears repeating. All too many of the plans currently in circulation in the green end of US alternative culture covertly assume that we’ll still be able to dispose of wealth on the same scale as we do today.  The lifeboat ecovillages beloved by the prepper end of that subculture, just as much as the solar satellites and county-sized algal biodiesel farms that feature in the daydreams of their green cornucopian counterparts, presuppose that such projects can be supplied with the startup capital, the resources, the labor, and all the other requirements they need. 

The end of American empire means that these things aren’t going to happen.  To judge by previous examples, it will take whatever global empire replaces ours some decades to really get the wealth pump running at full speed and flood its own economy with a torrent of unearned wealth.  By the time that happens, the decline in global wealth driven by resource depletion and environmental disruption will make the sort of grand projects Americans envisioned in our empire’s glory days a fading memory all over the world.  Thus we will not get the solar satellites or the algal biodiesel, and if the lifeboat ecovillages appear, they’ll resemble St. Benedict’s original hovel at Monte Cassino much more than the greenwashed Levittowns so often proposed these days.  Instead, as the natural systems that undergird industrial civilization crumble away, industrial societies will lose the capacity to accomplish anything at all beyond bare survival—and eventually that, too, will turn out to be more than they can do.

That’s the shape of our economic future.  My more attentive readers will have noticed, though, that it says little about the shape of our political future, and that latter deserves discussion. One of the lessons of history is that peoples with nearly identical economic arrangements can have radically different political institutions, affording them equally varied access to civil liberties and influence on the decisions that shape their lives.  Thus it’s reasonable and, I think, necessary to talk about the factors that will help define the political dimension of America’s post-imperial future—and in particular, the prospects for democracy in the wake of imperial collapse.

There are at least two barriers to that important conversation.  The first is the weird but widespread notion that the word “democracy”—or, if you will, “real democracy”—stands for a political system in which people somehow don’t do the things they do in every other political system, such as using unfair advantages of various kinds to influence the political process.  Let’s start with the obvious example.  How often, dear reader, have you heard a pundit or protester contrasting vote fraud, say, or bribery of public officials with “real democracy”?

Yet real democracy, meaning the sort of democracy that is capable of existing in the real world, is always plagued with corruption. If you give people the right to dispose of their vote however they wish, after all, a fair number of them will wish to sell that vote to the highest bidder in as direct a fashion as the local laws allow.  If you give public officials the responsibility to make decisions, a fair number of them will make those decisions for their own private benefit.  If you give voters the right to choose public officials, in turn, and give candidates for public office the chance to convince the public to choose them, you’ve guaranteed that a good many plausible rascals will be elected to office, because that’s who the people will choose.  That can’t be avoided without abandoning democracy altogether.

Now of course there’s a significant minority of people who react to the inherent problems of democracy by insisting that it should be abandoned altogether, and replaced with some other system portrayed in suitably rose-colored terms—usually, though not always, something along the lines referred to earlier, in which an unelected cabal of ideologues gets to tell everyone else what to do. The claim that some such project will provide better government than democracies do, though, has been put to the test more times than I care to count, and it consistently fails. Winston Churchill was thus quite correct when he said that democracy is the worst possible system of government, except for all the others; what makes democracy valuable is not that it’s so wonderful, but that every other option has proven itself, in practice, to be so much worse.

Just now, furthermore, democracy has another significant advantage: it doesn’t require the complicated infrastructure of industrial society.  The current United States constitution was adopted at a time when the most technologically sophisticated factories in the country were powered by wooden water wheels, and presidents used to be inaugurated on March 4th to give them enough time to get to Washington on horseback over muddy winter roads. (The date wasn’t moved to January 20 until 1933.)  America was still anything but industrialized in the 1820s, the decade that kickstarted the boisterous transformations that sent an aristocratic republic where only the rich could vote careering toward ever more inclusive visions of citizenship.  In the deindustrial future, when the prevailing economic forms and standards of living may resemble those of the 1790s or 1820s much more closely than they do those of today, that same constitution will be right at home, and will arguably work better than it has since the imperial tribute economy began flooding the country with unearned wealth.

There’s just one problem with this otherwise appealing prospect, which is that American democracy at the moment is very nearly on its last legs.  A great many people are aware of this fact, but most of them blame it on the machinations of some evil elite or other.  Popular though this notion is, I’d like to suggest that it’s mistaken.  Of course there are plenty of greedy and power-hungry people in positions of wealth and influence, and there always are.  By and large, people don’t get wealth and influence unless they have a desire for wealth and influence, and “having a desire for wealth and influence” is simply another way of saying “greedy and power-hungry.” Every political and economic system, especially those that claim to be motivated solely by the highest of ideals, attracts people who are greedy and power-hungry. Political systems that work, by definition, are able to cope with the perennial habit that human beings have of trying to get wealth and power they haven’t earned.  The question that needs to be asked is why ours is failing to cope with that today. 

The answer is going to require us to duck around some of the most deeply ingrained habits of popular thought, so we’ll take it a step at a time. 

We can define democracy, for the sake of the current discussion, as a form of government in which ordinary citizens have significant influence over the people and policies that affect their lives. That influence—the effective ability of citizens to make their voices heard in the corridors of power—is a fluid and complex thing.  In most contemporary democracies, it’s exercised primarily through elections in which officials can be thrown out of office and replaced by somebody else.  When a democracy’s more or less healthy, that’s an effective check; there are always other people angling for any office, whether it’s president or town dogcatcher, and an official who wants to hold onto her office needs to glance back constantly over her shoulder to make sure that her constituents aren’t irritated enough at her to throw their support to one of her rivals.

The entire strategy of political protest depends on the threat of the next election.  Why would it matter to anybody anywhere if a bunch of activists grab signs and go marching down Main Street, or for that matter down the Mall in Washington DC?  Waving signs and chanting slogans may be good aerobic exercise, but that’s all it is; it has no effect on the political process unless it delivers a meaningful message to the politicians or the people.  When protest matters, the message to the politicians is blunt:  “This matters enough to us that we’re willing to show up and march down the street, and it should matter to you, too, if you want our votes next November.”  The message to the people is less direct but equally forceful:  “All these people are concerned about this issue; if you’re already concerned about it, you’re not alone; if you aren’t, you should learn more about it”—and the result, again, is meant to show up in the polls at the next election.

You’ll notice that the strategy of protest thus only means anything if the protesters have the means, the motive, and the opportunity to follow through on these two messages.  The politicians need to be given good reason to think that ignoring the protesters might indeed get them thrown out of office; the people need to be given good reason to think that the protesters speak for a significant fraction of the citizenry, and that their concerns are worth hearing.  If these are lacking, again, it’s just aerobic exercise.

That, in turn, is why protest in America has become as toothless as it is today.  Perhaps, dear reader, you went to Washington DC sometime in the last decade to join a protest march to try to pressure the US government into doing something about global warming.  If the president just then was a Democrat, he didn’t have to pay the least attention to the march, no matter how big and loud it was; he knew perfectly well that he could ignore all the issues that matter to you, break his campaign promises right and left, and plagiarize all the most hated policies of the previous occupant of the White House, without the least political risk to himself.  All he had to do come election time is wave the scary Republicans at you, and you’d vote for him anyway.  If he was a Republican, in turn, he knew with perfect certainty that you weren’t going to vote for him no matter what he did, and so he could ignore you with equal impunity.

No matter what party he belonged to, furthermore, the president also had a very good idea how many of the protesters were going to climb into their otherwise unoccupied SUVs for the drive back home to their carbon-hungry lifestyles; he knew that if he actually wanted to make them change those lifestyles—say, by letting the price of gasoline rise to European levels—most of them would chuck their ideals in an eyeblink and turn on him with screams of indignation; and a phone call to the Secretary of Energy would remind him that any meaningful response to climate change would require such steps as letting the price of gas rise to European levels.  He knew perfectly well, in other words, that most of the protesters didn’t actually want him to do what they claimed they wanted him to do; they wanted to feel good about doing something to save the Earth, but didn’t want to put up with any of the inconveniences that would be involved in any real movement in that direction, and so attending a protest march offered them an easy way to have their planet and eat it too.

It’s only fair to say that the same logic applies with precisely equal force on the other side of the line. If, dear reader, the protest march you attended was in support of some allegedly conservative cause—well, it wasn’t actually conservative, to begin with; the tiny minority of authentic conservatives in this country have been shut out of the political conversation for decades, but that’s an issue for another post—the man in the White House had no more reason to worry about your opinions than he had to fret about the liberal protest the week before.  If he was a Republican, he knew that he could ignore your concerns and his own campaign promises, and you’d vote for him anyway once he waved the scary Democrats at you.  If he was a Democrat, he knew that you’d vote against him no matter what.  Either way, in turn, he had a very good idea how many of the people out there who were denouncing drug abuse and waving pro-life and family-values placards fell all over themselves to find excuses for Rush Limbaugh’s drug bust, and paid for abortions when they knocked up the teenage girlfriends their wives don’t know about.

Does this mean that protest marches are a waste of time?  Not at all.  Nor does it mean that any of the other venerable means of exerting pressure on politicians are useless.  The problem is not in these measures themselves; it’s the absence of something else that makes them toothless.

That something else was discussed in an earlier post in this sequence: grassroots political organization.  That’s where political power comes from in a democratic society, and without it, all the marches and petitions and passionate rhetoric in the world are so much empty noise. Through most of American history, the standard way to put this fact to work was to get involved in an existing political party at the caucus level and start leaning on the levers that, given time and hard work, shift the country’s politics out of one trajectory and into another.  These days, both parties have been so thoroughly corrupted into instruments of top-down manipulation on the part of major power centers and veto groups that trying to return them to useful condition is almost certainly a waste of time.  At the same time, the fact that US politics is not currently dominated by Federalists and Whigs shows that even a resolutely two-party political culture is now and then subject to the replacement of one party by another, if the new party on the block takes the time to learn what works, and then does it.

The point I’m trying to explore here can be made in an even more forceful way.  Protest marches, like letter-writing campaigns and other means of putting pressure on politicians, have no power in and of themselves; their effect depends on the implied promise that the politicians will be held accountable to their choices come election time, and that promise depends, in turn, on the existence of grassroots political organization strong enough to make a difference in the voting booth. It’s the grassroots organization, we might as well say, that produces democracy; marches and other methods of pressuring politicians are simply means of consuming democracy—and when everyone wants to consume a product but nobody takes the time and trouble to produce it, sooner or later you get a shortage.

We have a severe and growing democracy shortage here in America.  In next week’s post, I’ll talk about some of the things that will be necessary to increase the supply.

End of the World of the Week #51

What do you do if you throw an apocalypse and nobody comes?  That was the challenge faced by the Watch Tower Tract Society, an American offshoot of Christianity, when the end of the world failed to show up on schedule in 1914.  That date had played a central role in the Society’s prophecy since 1876, when the movement’s founder Rev. Charles Taze Russell and Nelson Barbour, a former Millerite, wrote a book predicting the Second Coming for that year.  As Russell’s original International Bible Students Movement morphed into the Watch Tower Tract Society, that prophecy became ever more central to the movement’s hopes.

As church bells rang in the year 1915, though, it became evident even to the most devout Watch Tower follower that Christ had pulled another one of his frequent no-shows. Admitting that your prophecy was just plain wrong is rarely a good career move for an apocalyptic prophet, and the Watch Tower organization had made so much of a ballyhoo about the upcoming end that it couldn’t get away with the usual fallback strategy of ignoring the failure and announcing a new date (though this was tried).  It fell to Russell to come up with a third option, one of the most ingenious in the history of apocalypses.

The Second Coming, he announced to his followers, had indeed occurred—in heaven.  Christ was now reigning in glory there, but the effects would take a little while to filter down to earth, so they just had to be patient.  They’re still waiting patiently; in the 1930s, the movement renamed itself the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and its members are still convinced that the Second Coming took place 98 years ago and its prophesied results will be showing up any day now.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not