• Reawakening the Enlightenment

    by  • February 2, 2011 • The Big Deal • 16 Comments

    (see The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal for more of this series of essays)

    Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun

    Chairman Mao

    In a networked environment the person who knows what to do next is in charge

    I am a worst-case-scenario survival-of-the-species kinda guy. I’m fascinated with large scale, total mortality problems. I work right on the edge of the envelope, on the stuff which is going to hurt and kill a lot of us. Sometimes the work is more direct, and sometimes the work is more indirect, but the core is very simple: I want us to stay alive, and I want us to have a long future.

    I am worried about the internet and its revolutions, let me tell you why…

    • People have forgotten that most revolutions make things worse
    • Civil right and democracy have become confused with each other
    • The backbone of the internet is commercial, not civil
    • All of this together risks an enormous step backwards in political morality

    Democracy is two wolves and a sheep debating what’s for dinner

    trad. misattributed to Ben Franklin

    Our democracies are failing and spreading democracy is not going to fix the world because the fundamental freedoms which democracy was designed to protect are being attacked most effectively by the most powerful democracies in the world. If you are fighting for democracy, you are fighting for the wrong thing.

    America and Britain have held the mantle as the world’s premier democracies for hundreds of years. India has joined as the world’s largest democracy, and yet all three have appalling human rights records. America and Britain mounted terrible, destructive wars and shipped unconvicted terror suspects to countries like Egypt to be tortured. India, at a billion people, with profound political chaos on all sides, is filled with bizarre political pits into which entire demographics slip.

    The idea of welcoming more people to this mess is not appealing. We are not solving the problem by spreading this way of choosing our leaders. If we do continue to confuse democracy with human rights, we are going to accelerate our own destruction, for reasons I’m about to elucidate.

    Consider, if you will, the American Bill of Rights:

    1. free speech, religion, right to protest
    2. right to own guns, explicitly for political purposes
    3. no troops on your property
    4. no snooping and government theft of property
    5. due process
    6. courts that work
    7. civil jury trial
    8. bail, and no cruel and unusual punishments
    9. your rights are your rights and extend beyond this list
    10. powers not explicitly given to the government are retained by the people

    Now, in the US, this list of rights is in tatters. It’s been completely shredded. Protest happens in cages far from the event, guns are unavailable to citizens in cities, unconstitutional government snooping online is completely ubiquitous, seizure in drug cases is automatic and nigh-impossible to reverse, Guantanamo Bay contains untried American citizens, jury trial (and particularly jury nullification) is under pressure for drug cases, solitary confinement to the point of broken minds is being used in non-espionage cases, and nobody’s successfully claimed defense of their rights under the IX and X amendments in living memory.

    The US is, without a shadow of a doubt, a democracy. Anybody can run for election, and the massive machineries of the political parties do nothing to suppress the formation of new, third parties that the people themselves do not do by simply ignoring Ralph Nader. Britain and India have their own equivalent problems. Do not look to the UN either – torture states sit on the human rights panels, and Muslim countries are pushing through anti-blasphemy rulings, and the UN is fundamentally anti-gun-rights at every level.

    I am scared that the current generation of political activists, by seizing on democracy as the cause are completely missing the point. Democracy is a means to an end: good, just government. Right now we have democracy, but without good, just government, and this is the crisis of our times. We have fallen from grace, while retaining our vote.

    We are all liable, and yet the greater struggle remains before us.

    So let me lay out the big threats. There are but two, plus a minor third.

    1. global environmental catastrophe caused by bulk factors like CO2 and deforestation
    2. self-replicating disasters like plagues, bioweapons, genetic engineering and nanotech
    3. nuclear war

    The countries causing most of these risks are democracies, my friends. We have the vote, but we have not reined in our own cultures to bring us back from the various cliffs which we speed towards, one ton of coal and one biolab grant at a time.

    Democracy is not the answer. A democracy in Egypt still has to deal with the political mess of Israel and Gaza. They still have to deal with fundamentalist Islam and “one person, one vote, once” thinking. Piling more people into the democratic boat is not going to fix the problems of good, just government in Egypt because a good, just government cannot effectively deal with the generations of Devil’s Bargains struck around Israel, or fundamentalists who are willing to kill for a return to a theocratic past. We are back in the domain of rough men who stand ready to do violence on our behalf.

    Unwinding the mess by putting people chosen at the bottom at the top does not work as we are seeing in the US and Britain. Democracies have screwed up the future so badly it may take generations to see it righted.

    In all probability, the world is still run by the elite secret branches of governments that control the nuclear weapons and any orbital weapons platforms that may exist. But before you rush to conspiracy theory, I very much doubt that the government machineries that operate the nuclear show have any opinions about drugs, guns, abortion or social policy. Relics of the cold war, whether they sleep in the sea, in silos or in orbit, exist along a different political axis to today’s struggles.

    In our rampage to put our guys on top, and to give others the freedom to put their guys on top, we have failed to note that

    • “our guys” are completely failing to address the real issues on climate and technological risk
    • “our guys” are systematically stripping away our civil rights

    People, this is not working. And it’s not going to be fixed by dumb politics from the left, or dumb politics from the right, or a series of leaks which kick out the foundations from half a dozen more marginally stable countries.

    It’s going to be fixed by a global, catastrophic wave of disillusionment, of which the leaks process might be a part.

    We’ve gotten so badly lost in our own dreams of riches and entitlements that we continue to burn the planet’s scarce resources to line our pockets while millions die. That’s been true for fifty years, and still taking any real political stance on poverty alienates one from both left and right. To act on what we know about climate and environment, to suggest a one planet lifestyle be made possible and socially acceptable brands one as a political radical of an entirely different stripe from any conventional political group, including the greens.

    But this is what we need: the politics of disillusionment, the bleak, sharp eyes of people who look to the future with dread at what we have wrought, and love for those who die, every day, in the shattered gutters around our gleaming, unsustainable concrete citadels.

    Let me highlight four policy points.

    • No human being should die of hunger or lack of access to basic medical and dental care.
    • No human being should consume or pollute so much of the world’s resources that they damage the future existence of others
    • Everybody should have access to enough land to live
    • Violence should be confined to defense

    Now there is endless haggling in the ideological wreckage left by Communism about any politics which attempts to end poverty as a priority. The structures of totalitarian control required to make people pay for their neighbor’s welfare are protested endlessly, and the counter-examples of Stalin and Mao immediately raised. So let me say, very clearly, that I am not discussing the same terrain as the old, ideological left. I am not suggesting for a minute that centralize-and-redistribute, or a worker’s-dictatorship is the answer to anything.

    Rather, I am suggesting that we need political innovation on the scale of the Scottish Enlightenment and the American Revolution to address this generation’s political curses: the failure of democracies to protect the environment or the future, or to hold the civil rights won by previous generations.

    That’s my challenge to you: break free of -isms and get back down to political basics: what are the rights of every man, woman, and child, and how should we cooperate effectively to live in the full expression of those rights?

    The spread of the broken system we call democracy will not help. We must anticipate a far greater struggle than the struggle to choose those who oppress us.

    We must struggle together for our freedom, and to protect our world.

    (read more of this series in The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal)

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    16 Responses to Reawakening the Enlightenment

    1. Eleanor Saitta
      February 2, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      The degredations that you’re seeing are largely the product of a system of commerce, not a system of governance. This is the rich consolidating their power through means new and old. The basic issue here, across all scales, is resource distribution. If you want to survive, figure out how to get to fair resource distribution and how to stop concentrations of resources from turning into concentrations of power-over-resources. Simple. ;-)

    2. February 3, 2011 at 12:28 am

      I have to agree with Eleanor. Democracy is fundamentally at odds with laissez faire capitalism, and capitalism is winning. Anyone can run, but only those who can get campaign donors can win. No policy which challenges the profit-at-all-cost ideology can win in that system.

      So far, the ongoing depression has reduced carbon emissions far more than any international agreement (Kyoto, etc.). Freedom and the environment may both be dependent on a near complete breakdown of the existing market fundamentalism.

      On the bright side, that seems to be happening. On the dark side, riding down that slope ain’t gonna be a barrel of laughs. Beware of warlords, build community, weatherproof your home, and plant seeds.

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    4. Steve
      February 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm

      Hm. Democracy appeals because the notion of one person, one vote seems neat, just, orderly, symmetrical.

      But this ignores the fact that the democratic sampling rate (e.g. one vote every four years) is entirely arbitrary.

      It seems unlikely that any republican system guaranteeing rights in the face of universally opposed popular sentiment would survive if the opposition was sincerely and consistently held over, say, a hundred-year timespan.

      But a system of rights can smooth out the noise of violent short-term fluctuations in sentiment, such that wiser heads and the counsel of years might prevail – in effect, rights can be seen as the emergent expression of long-term democratic will (once people have had a lifetime, or several lifetimes of making mistakes, they tend to come round to seeing the worth of the system of rights).

      This is, presumably, the logic behind the different incumbency periods of the US Congress and Senate. Evidently, “democracy” does not necessarily mean “giving the people all of what they want, instantly they want it”.

      The sensible (robust? adaptive?) approach is perhaps the distribution of several different democratic sampling rates, allowing those of firmer belief and more consistent thought to create bulwarks of stability through the long-term consistency of their voting patterns.

    5. February 3, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      A politics of disillusionment.

      You are finding clarity with this.

      The comments about economics are correct as far as that goes. We can’t jump out of the current system in which capital owns governance without looking at the fact that democracies are the biggest failures at even maintaining a semblance of rights. The whole thing has to be “on the table.” A profound disillusionment is required to achieve this.

      We should examine why we quail at the sound of that! Removing illusions should be cause for celebration!

      Your Three out of Two major threats are right on the mark! Let’s focus on these and getting these facts through our thick skulls.

      When “Pro-democracy” is just another piece of consumerist wannabe or a backlash against it, it does not take us towards any fundamental change, just stirs the pot, and as you’re pointing out that causes nasty-bits to break loose.

      The visceral sense of the danger the three threats pose is just not there. We continue to argue over the guest lists to a party on the Titanic. A Profound Disillusionment is the only way to break through.

      That will be a change. Then things can open-up. We can break through the Spectacle and gain some sense of common purpose.

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    7. February 4, 2011 at 1:04 am

      It’s been a strange day; woke up sick, then watched a bit of egypt, before I fell into a feverish sleep. I awoke with a bit of epiphany, or madness perhaps. Here goes. . .The weakness of democratic systems is in electing legislators. Representative democracy ends up with highly unrepresentative legislatures because only power made people supported by the existing power structure can even make a run at it. So, I have a proposal; lotocracy. Legislature by lottery.

      Somehow I wrote this new lotocracy constitution today. . .nearly 15 pages long. I want your input, Vinay. Is this genius, or is it madness?


    8. February 4, 2011 at 1:06 am

      Er, I am still ill. Power mad people. . .and I read this piece at some point too. *lays down*

    9. February 5, 2011 at 2:25 am

      Hey Aaron, the ancient Greeks beat ya to it. It had its advantages.

      But I am more with Jefferson. Small local wards selecting their own to represent them at the next layer, then the next layer selecting their own to represent them at the next layer. From the bottom up.

      Still though, those in power are well defended against mad ideas such as these.

    10. February 5, 2011 at 8:25 pm

      Eleanor and Dethe make good points. In short so-called political democracy is completely meaningless without economic democracy.

      I just think it is wrong for someone as intelligent as yourself to be propagating the meme that so-called democracies ARE democracies. IMHO its regurgitating bullshit propaganda, no less.

      Anyone who looks can see that the UK and US etc are plutocracies, i.e. rule by the rich.

      You seem to implicitly understand this with your closing comment: “We must anticipate a far greater struggle than the struggle to choose those who oppress us”.

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    12. February 7, 2011 at 10:47 pm

      Yes, I second much of this. Need for mass disillusionment? Absolutely. But what people have to understand first, as suggested above, is that political democracy without economic democracy is meaningless. Without access to land and capital, it matters not one fuck who we vote for.

      If the 2008 crisis showed us anything it was – nakedly and thus usefully – that the function of government is to protect and promote the interests of capital. When states need to act rapidly and in alliance to protect the biosphere or prevent starvation they do fuck all. When they have to bail out the financial system, they find the money and act speedily and radically, in concert.

      States, in order to exist, must protect and promote the interests of capital. They can do other things too, if they don’t interfere with this primary goal. But they can do nothing which contradicts it, or they will be torn apart by the markets.

      Case study: for my first book, years ago, I spent time in South Africa and wrote about how the ANC had sold out the country’s poor after apartheid ended. I interviewed a high-level ANC guy and asked him why all the government’s radical social programmes had been abandoned once in office in favour of an economic programme written by the World Bank. This is what he said:

      “We achieved democracy in 1994, and immediately had to confront the issue of globalisation…We see ourselves as being in government to deliver a national democratic revolution, but no revolutionary movement has ever taken power in such unfavourable global conditions – such an unbridled victory for finance capitalism, such a unipolar world, with the U.S. at its head …

      You can’t just go and redistribute things in this era. You’ve got to play the game. You’ve got to ensure you don’t go on some adventure — you know, you will be defeated. They were defeated in Chile. They were defeated in Nicaragua…. You can’t do it now.”

      There was more – but you get the gist.

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    14. InKyDo
      March 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      Judging from the contortions of the puppets, one can piece together the intentions of the puppet masters. Their machinations reflect intent to control resources in a century when resources decide who lives, who lives well, and who dies. Once the powerful have ascertained that many will die (and they have ascertained this), those many become, for some of them, the surplus population to be managed in a time of unpreventable collapse. If there are fewer resources, they want to manage who has access to these. If there are fewer opportunities, they want to ensure that these go to those they deem deserving – or useful. It matters not so much whether the masses eat food laden with chemicals or find themselves without health care or the right to make meaningful, empowering choices at the ballot box in a pseudo-democracy. The game is already rigged: a significant segment of voters can be herded like unthinking sheep and even pitted against each other; and when the herding doesn’t work, resulting governments are readily bought, as always, or effectively corralled and thoroughly hobbled.

      I cannot say whether this monstrous expression of capitalism transmogrified into plutocracy has a head that strategizes or whether its behavior is merely the sum of its baser appetites, but I do think it’s the beast we are up against and that the values to which we aspire have been thrown upon an altar erected to the hollowest of gods: greed.

      This is finally a battle over the nature of the human spirit.

    15. InKyDo
      March 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      “Self interest” proves a more useful term than “greed.” Substitute above. :-)

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