Date: Fri, 2 Jan 1998 11:48:09 -0500 (EST)
Message-Id: <>
From: (David Blackwell)
Subject: Where are we going?

Was Democracy Just a Moment?

By David Blackwell, 2 January 1998

In case of interest to anyone, I share here notes on highlights of an article, Was Democracy Just a Moment? by Robert D. Kaplan, a contributing editor of the magazine and author of a number of books, which appeared in the December issue of Atlantic Monthly. The article has drawn widespread attention and, I have been told, was the subject of an editorial in the Globe and Mail. I can't help but wonder if the bread and circus world of the masses (we are already witnessing) would not also include as an important ingredient fundamentalist-evangelical religion (we are also already witnessing). Anyway, here are highlights of the article.

The representative or parliamentary democracy now apparently taking over the world, as when Christianity took over the west, does not portend a more peaceful or moral, but a more complex, world. And perhaps subtler tyrannies await us.

Three theses are offered (traceable at root to the shortcomings of human nature): 1) The democracy the west is encouraging in many poor parts of the world is integral to the transformation to new forms of authoritarianism in the countries targetted; 2) democracy in the U.S. is at greater risk than it has been before; and 3) future regimes, especially in the U.S., could resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta more than they will the current government in Washington.

It is to be recalled that Hitler and Mussolini came to power in circumstances of attempted democratic governance. There are many examples from the underdeveloped world where implementing elections to choose governments has led to chaos and tyranny—Sudan, Algeria, Kurdistan, Afganistan, Bosnia, Sierra-Leone, Congo-Brazzaville, Columbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Haiti, Rwanda, etc.. Others, like Venezuala, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, are tottering. If China were to institute elections now, the country would likely disintegrate. Even India, the great exception, contains large poverty-stricken areas of near anarchy (and is less prepared for the economic rigours of the post-industrial age than China is). An established middle class and strong civil institutions are two key requirements for a society to function successfully as a democracy.

Democracy in the west (as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out) came about as an organic outgrowth of development. Society had reached a level of complexity and sophistication that became unmanageable for the aristocracy and necessiated transferring a measure of equality and responsibility to other citizens, as well as structuring society into peacefully competing interest groups, to avert tyranny and anarchy. Authoritarian systems, not democracies, create middle classes, which, when they have gained a certain size and self-confidence, in turn demand democratic reform.

Of course, the post-Cold War moralistic mission of the west, especially the United States, to impose western parliamentary-type democracy on developing countries is rife with hypocrisy and reflects a realism born of self-interest. In Egypt and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, for example, America's worst nightmare would be free and fair elections.

The current ideological battle between liberals and neo-conservatives, on the one hand, concerned with human rights and tragic realists, on the other hand, concerned with security, balance-of-power politics and economic analysis, mirror the classic dispute between the recently-deceased Isaiah Berlin and the seventeenth-century monarchist Thomas Hobbes. For Hobbes, reason is largely a mask for and slave to our passions and the masses require protection for themselves in the form of enlightened despotism.

What is needed in the developing world for a successful transition to democracy to happen is a cross between Berlin's idealism and Hobbes' realism, i.e. something between the democratic and the authoritarian (as in Uganda, Turkey, Ghana?). Further, if a shortage of global financial liquidity occurs by 2000, as a number of experts predict, increasing competition among developing countries for investment capital will increase the neeed for neo-authoritarian regimes.

A world government is in the process of emerging. Not the UN (which is on its way to becoming a supranational relief agency), but rather the increasingly dense ganglia of international corporations that are becoming the unseen arbiters of power. Of the world's hundred largest economies, fifty-one are corporations. The 100 largest corporations, although employing well under one per cent of the world's work force, account for 28 per cent of world economic activity. The 500 largst corporations account for 70 per cent of world trade. Corporations are the vanguard of a new Darwinian organization of politics. Corporations [operating globally] will be free for a few decades to leave behind the social and environmental wreckage they create. As the world's middle classes gain greater solidity, corporations may evolve towards less amoral political and cultural forms. However, the democracy being advocated abroad is now slipping away at home.

To accurately gauge a political system, one must identify the significant elements of power within it. Much of the influence corporations wield over governments is both vast and obvious, but there are also more covert forms of emerging corporate power: a dramatic increase in residential communities with defended borders built by corporations (from 1,000 in the early 1960's to 80,000 by the mid- 1980's, and with even greater speed in the 1990's); the growth of malls with their own rules and security forces; private health clubs at the expense of public playgrounds; incorporated suburbs with strict zoming—all representing a movement away from the public sphere for the sake of protected settings. Life within some form of corporation is what the future will increasingly be about.

Universities are also being redefined by corporations (Universities will have to become entrepreneurs, working with corporations on curriculum and other matters, or they will die—Del Weber).

A central dynamic of these corporate-driven developments is the fact that society has reached a level of social and technological complexity that make smaller businesses uncompetitive in terms of producing goods and services at certain price levels and standards. Lack of democracy is apparent in decisions being handed down from above by corporate experts. The more appliances middle class existence requires, the more producers influence lives. Democracy loses meaning if both rulers and ruled cease to be part of a community tied to a specific territory and civil society will be harder to maintain. The conservative flaw is to be vigilant against concentration of power in government but not in the private sector where power can be wielded more secretly and sometimes more dangerously.

Aiding the rise of corporate power is the indifference of the masses and the waning accountability of the elite. Material possessions focus people away from public towards private ends and, due to the compromises needed to protect possessions and economic security, encourage servility, turning people into industriouis sheep (Tocqueville). We have become voyeurs and escapists. Profesional sports—the more violent, bloodier and sexually suggestive the better—provide an artificial excitement that mass existence against instinct (Bertrand Russell) requires. Today man believes that there is *nothing* in him, so he accepts *anything,* even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, in order not to be alone (Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz). People fill their void with celebrities (e.g. the attention to Diana Spencer's death). The willingness to give up self and responsibility is the sine qua non for tyranny.

And what about the future of democracy (rule by the people) under these rapidly emerging conditions? Power relationships will be an even more important determinant of how we live than elections than has been the case to date. Is it not conceivable that corporations will, like the rulers of both Sparta and Athens, project power to the advantage of the well-off while satisfying the twenty-first century servile poplace with the equivalent of bread and circuses? Precisely because the technological future of North America will provide so much market and individual freedom, authority will have to be exercised at the expense of liberties and living under a hybrid regime (analagous to Singapore today?) may, like the future of the Third (or developing) World, be our common fate.


David Blackwell