Thursday, November 08, 2007
Democracy and climate change: a story of failure by David Shearman
"If governments can recognise a cyclical financial emergency and in an instant move heaven and earth (and billions of dollars, pounds sterling and euros) to contain it, why can they not do the same in response to a global environmental emergency? [The answer comprises] institutional, ideological, and interest-laden factors together with the issue of who controls the public argument. [emphasis added]
It can be argued that all these factors have a common denominator: the fundamental flaws in liberal democracy. The market economy, now the linchpin of western culture, is fused with liberal democracy, such that each is dependent upon the other for survival. Together they have developed a liberty for the individual that has environmentally destructive consequences. The liberty to negate these consequences is constrained.
This article discusses some of the psychological aspects of this situation and introduces the idea of authoritarian action led by experts to address the ecological emergency."
The idea of democracy as the most desirable form of government has been remarkably successful throughout the world (at least until recently, when "democracy" began to be associated by some with what the U.S. did to Iraq). It is a compelling argument indeed that a government's legitimacy derives from the consent and approval it receives from the governed. Of course, every government is legitimate, since "legitimacy" means lawfulness and governments create the law; but the essential idea of democracy is that regardless of any particular government's claim to legitimacy, the only proper, ultimately "legitimate" source of law is the people themselves.
Democracy is rule by the people - the people, meaning by all of the people equally, not by some people disproportionally - and requires that the people create law, or at least that they choose a few people to create law for them. This latter form of democracy, representative democracy, is thought to be untroublesome in that it does not betray the essence of the concept; in fact, democracy is thought to be unwieldy and incapable of implementation without it. The problem with this form of democracy - actually-existing democracy - is that it requires perfect information, meaning that the people know perfectly well what laws their representatives are creating. Furthermore, they must know what their interests are, and have an informed opinion on what means are best to attain the fulfillment of their interests.
Ghandi once said that "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." One could also say that "I like your idea of democracy, but I do not like your democracies. Your democracies are so unlike your idea of democracy." The work that economist Joseph Stiglitz is best known for is his Information Economics, which overturned the traditional neoclassical assumption that free market systems feature perfect information, and demonstrated that due to the highly imperfect access market participants have to information, free markets are actually highly inefficient. This shortcoming of neoclassical economics is shared by democratic theory, and this is why our democracies are so unlike our idea of democracy. The people in a democracy do not have perfect access to information about the people campaigning to represent them or even about the various policy choices theoretically at their disposal. No serious analyst of the U.S. media, for instance, can argue that it actually provides the essential public service of informing the public about politicians, their country, the world around them or the various policies that the people might choose to implement.
"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" is a phrase ascribed to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, abolitionist Wendell Phillips and others. Vigilance is not merely a state of mind; it requires information. Without an informed populace, democracy is an utter sham and liberty is unattainable. There is no liberty and no rule by the people where the people are un- or mis-informed; there is only rule by whichever group of people can best fool the people into voting them into power. This is illustrated in graphic detail in the United States today, where the people are ruled by the people who best use the vast propaganda apparatus of the media. The best campaigners truly serve only those upon whom they depend for their political success - those who pay for their multi-million dollar use of the media. The people do not rule, because they are not well-informed, and consequently cannot be vigilant. They cannot pay the price for liberty, and so do not enjoy it.
Because most Unitedstatesians are perfectly ignorant of socialist thought, they have not the slightest idea why someone like Che Guevara would be against "freedom of speech" or "freedom of the press" - other than that he must have been a despotic, power-hungry madman. (Actually, his experience in Guatemala, where an elected democratic socialist leader was overthrown by the CIA's use of force and propaganda, was formative.) A painting by Cuban avant-garde artist Carlos Enríquez Gómez, entitled "Campesinos Felices" (Happy Peasants) brilliantly explains why. In the foreground one sees a skeletal family, the embodiment of poverty and living death. In the background (along with a skeletal dog you can't see in this tiny pic) one sees a flier on a post holding up the pathetic family's hovel. The flier features a pig in a fancy suit and top hat, with one word below - "Vote".
Only a fool could suggest that Cuban peasants would be better off today if they had endured fifty more years of representative democracy and capitalism, and would not be, economically and socially, on par with their neighbors in Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. This is because economic elites can use their wealth to control the public argument. By putting up insurmountable roadblocks to perfect information, economic elites prevent actually-existing, representative democracies from embodying the essence of democracy: rule by the people.
Hence the reason why our democracies are proving incapable of effectively dealing with climate change - and have proven incapable of addressing poverty - is that the people do not have the information that is a prerequisite to self-rule.