I live in an Asia’s oldest democracy and right now we have a completely unelected President and a despised Parliament, and this is apparently democracy. Democracy™, a marketing exercise atop rank oligarchic evisceration. In our country, the ruling oligarchs are crushing the poor and selling off the country to foreign bondholders. It’s a farce and Sri Lanka isn’t unique in our system failure.
Pakistan is suffering under a coup government, as is Peru, as was Ukraine, no one even knows which way is up anymore. Elections are heads they win, tails they lose, and if the coin lands on its side, they just flip the whole table. The UK — the birthplace of Parliamentary democracy — is on its third unelected Prime Minister and in the US, well that’s the biggest shitshow in town. This was posited as the way we were supposed to develop to get rich and happy, but these people are all increasingly impoverished and miserable.
I use the term Democracy™ to cover all these disasters even though democracy is a philosophically much wider term. If talk to Aristotle (via his book On Politics) democracy would include more popular systems like China’s or Singapore’s, as he said, “some persons think that there is only one species both of democracy and oligarchy; but this is not true.” Under Democracy™ the variety of forms (and the absence of judgement) of Aris’s day is gone. Now it’s all one “universal homogenous state” as Francis Fukuyama puts it, comprising “liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.” This is the ‘end of history’ and we’re all supposed to ‘develop’ into it. It is, of course, in practice, closer to the end of the world.
Democracy™ is largely limited to voting every few years. This is viewed as ‘taking’ power, but in reality it’s giving it away. Elections are an exercise in very public bribery (white word: ‘donations’) followed by years of private corruption (white word: ‘lobbying’) once they’re ‘in’ power. In truth the corporations (artificial beings) doing the corrupting are never out of power and elections are about as effective as jamming on a slot machine. The house always wins.
Old Aris said representative democracy (which was just one form, remember) trended towards oligarchy, which it does. In today’s honestly more superstitious time, however, Democracy™ has become a religious belief — something which must be defended at home even though it sucks and which should be loaded into bombs even though it doesn’t work for you. Democracy™ has come to mean a very narrow form of representative democracy, which is, philosophically speaking, just putting a lick of paint on oligarchy. Aris said, “oligarchy is said to be a government of men of family, fortune, and education; so, on the contrary, a democracy is a government in the hands of men of no birth, indigent circumstances, and mechanical employments.” Just look around your vaunted Democracy™ (if you’re cursed to be in one) and tell me what state you’re in.
The crucial philosophical lobotomy has been the separation of the governance and the economy into two different domains, one with meagre democratic controls and another with free reign [sic] for the rich. This is of course oligarchy with better marketing, but fuck it, because we get to choose colors every few years. When I was recently in America I saw both ‘Black Lives Matters’ flags and football team flags on the houses, and the denizens have equal influence on either outcome. Democracy™ is just a spectator sport given to the common people while the rich do not play around with their money.
The tragedy is that the main issue people vote on is the economy, and it’s the one thing that’s almost completely out of democratic control. All those votes are in vain. And a lot of it comes down to words. ‘State-owned’ companies are demonized, but if you call them ‘democratically controlled’ it suddenly sounds much better. Because the word ‘state’ is scary, we side with the oligarchs eviscerating the place. People say state institutions are inefficient and corrupt but profit is inherently wasteful because it’s going to some rich fuckers for doing nothing. Individual firms can also be wildly wasteful and many of them fail, they’re only theoretically efficient in the aggregate, and when they get to monopoly size they’re ‘too big to fail’ and become even worse than any state bureaucracy. The people get saddled with bail-outs and have absolutely no buy-in.
These obviousnesses are obscured with words, repeated over and over, through mass media which purports to be some sort of ‘objective’ priesthood but which is really just another business. Thus we really think that the ‘private sector’ (another word for the rich and corporate beings) is more efficient even as they lay waste to healthcare, education, housing, and every core economic function they get their invisible hands on. We’ve been philosophically lobotomized into siding with our oppressors against each other in so many ways. The only warfare worth fighting is class warfare, but they got us all deeply distracted with culture wars, as Caitlin Johnstone points out in detail.
Democracy™ has simply become a circus — debating what man or woman is, or where genitals should go, what color of person is better, and what words to say about the whole thing. All of the substantive issues are off limits, that’s the economy, don’t worry, professionals are in charge of that, nevermind that human beings can’t afford to reproduce, the sky is on fire, and the whole ‘economy’ that these professionals are running keeps crashing. Who are these professionals? The rich and the children of the rich, with their reputations laundered through universities that make everyone else debt slaves for life. But under liberal democracy, these unelected economists and advisers are in charge of everything, whatever the government. In this circus, the politicians are just the ringleaders, getting you riled about about immigrants or trans people or Muslims or Ukrainians or whoever else they drag into the Cable TV Colosseum for public debate and/or execution. They got us fighting about any number of things, as long as they don’t mess with the rich people’s money. As the Caitlin Johnstone says:
One of the great challenges faced by westerners who oppose the political status quo today is the way the narrative managers of both mainstream factions continuously divert all political energy away from issues which threaten the interests of the powerful like economic injustice, war, militarism, authoritarianism, corruption, capitalism and ecocide and toward issues which don’t threaten the powerful at all like abortion, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.
She’s says ‘westerners’, but it’s a global hegemony, so unless you’re actively besieged or bombed by the White Empire right now, the ‘west’ is probably you. For example, Sri Lanka is under colonial IMF administration and countries like Pakistan and Brazil are/were parliamentary/judicially couped. Places like Peru are just completely toppled as is everyone in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa at some point or another. Which is all to say, this shit is everywhere, so whoever you are, it probably affects you too. Democracy™ is really a massive distraction machine getting us thinking about genitals (and what color those genitals are) while dickless/vaginaless corporations loot the whole planet. He/she/they/them whatever, the point is the great malevolent it devouring the world.
The point is not to abandon the victims of racism, sexism, and homophobia, it’s to get them out of the damn Colosseum, where they’re made to suffer in public with no resolution — with no possible resolution — because then the show would end and people might worry about the fact that it’s all circus and no bread. Trans people or immigrants or whatever are not actually helped by endlessly debating their existence, that actually makes them targets. The great propaganda power of western media is ‘selection’, ie what they choose to focus on, and this leads to the complete lobotomy of any class consciousness. People are in a constant rage at how their neighbors and fucking and not at the people in skyscrapers fucking us all. It’s all a show, more specifically, a total shitshow.
The latest show in the Circus Without Bread is ‘democracy vs. authoritarians’ and it’s another trillion dollar production (like the last one, the ‘war on terror’). The sad fact is that even the critics of Empire uncritically buy into the latest bullshit, like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football again and again, and falling on his ass. After the Empire ‘helping’ Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc, the world doesn’t need any more help! Nobody wants western advice on governance! Like the poor gays or trans people or immigrants, entire countries are periodically dragged into the Cable TV Colosseum, divided into good guys and bad guys, and then both sides are bombed and looted into oblivion. It’s the same show every time, and people keep believing it. It’s honestly unbelievable.
This is all we get out of Democracy™. It’s a violent reality TV show while the real business goes on way above our heads. That’s business, which is not governance, remember? They’re two different things, and a bunch of rich economists will tell you why it’s only right to leave rich people in charge of the important stuff. War is also above the common person’s pay grade, don’t worry about that going on forever, and lol if you protest, you’ll just be ignored. The only thing citizens seem to have purview over in Democracy™ is the bedroom or hating your neighbor, which is really the only place you don’t want the government involved. But, increasingly, that’s all we get. Fighting each other about what words to say while the actions we need are impossible. Democracy has become a synonym for distraction, while the oligarchy makes a killing no matter what.
Forgetting all the immiseration of poverty and desperation at home, the abominations done in democracy’s abroad, this warped definition of democracy is causing permanent damage to the whole atmosphere. I don’t just mean the vibe (which is abominable), but the whole ecosystem of the Earth. Representative democracy pointedly does not include children, or animals, or plants, or insects, or all creatures not yet born. And these are algorithmically the ones that get completely fucked. Why would representative democracy — which cares only about ‘citizens’ (a violently exclusionary category) and only on a 4–5 year timescale — care about the rest of the living world and the rest of time? It simply doesn’t. It algorithmically cannot. It’s simply not in its programming. Democracy screws the future not people are bad, because this system algorithmically cannot process anything beyond the incentives built into it. For the problem of human survival on a living planet, democracy just doesn’t work.
In his magisterial physics textbook, Dr. Tom Murphy says “a democratic world may no longer have the flexibility necessary to address our fundamental challenges.” I’ll reproduce part of his argument at length. He’s discussing how the necessary sacrifices to actually avert climate collapse may not be possible within Democracy™ at all.
Imagine now that we find ourselves having reduced access to oil, driving prices up and making peoples’ lives harder. Now the government announces a 16-year plan to divert 25% of energy into making a new infrastructure in an effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. That is a huge additional sacrifice on an already short-supply commodity.
Voters are likely to respond by tossing out the responsible politicians, installing others who promise to kill the program and restore relief on a short timescale. Election cycles are short compared to the amount of time needed to dedicate to this sort of major initiative, making meaningful infrastructure development a difficult prospect in a democracy. And this is before addressing the likely contentious fights about what the new infrastructure should be, out of the table of imperfect options.
Now it is perhaps more apparent why this is called an energy trap: short-term political and economic interests forestall a proactive major investment in new energy, and by the time energy shortages make the crisis apparent, the necessary energy is even harder to attain. Short-term focus is what makes it a trap.
One wonders how democracies will fare in the face of declining resources. The combination of capitalism and democracy has been ideal during the growth phase of our world: efficiently optimizing allocation of resources according to popular demand. But how do either work in a decline scenario, when the future is not “bigger” than today, and may involve sacrifice? We simply do not yet know. This is a giant unauthorized experiment that is not operating from a script.
I go further than Murphy, who is very precise in his physics but quite vague in his politics. He’s still discussing some non-existent democratic system where “votes send ineffective or crooked politicians packing.” This is observably not how things work at all. The circus of voting seems to attract the most ineffective and crooked people and, once in there, they procreate and we’re on the second and third generation of these shitheads now. My point is that the entire experiment of Democracy™ has failed, not just the latest part. Democracy™ has failed at a philosophical level and ‘voting harder’ or ‘hope and change’ won’t fix what’s a fundamentally bad idea.
The philosophical bad idea is that A) democracy is one thing (voting for representatives) B) this technology meant for running tiny city-states can scale to millions and billions without completely crapping out. Practically this just has not worked out, look the fuck around. Democracy™’s failings have always been present (the American revolution was just rich guys that didn’t want to pay taxes!) and its promise has always been in the future (Obama’s ‘a more perfect union’ 🤮) but now we have simply run out of time. The future is here, it is wildly dystopian, and Democracy™ simply cannot handle the problems it got us into. Faced with its own rank failure, liberal democrats keep staging more and more shows in the Colosseum while the new Roman Empire burns. We are debating what a man or woman during a mass extinction event. As I said, Democracy™ is just distraction, and that’s the only solution it can offer to the general predicament we’re in. More distraction. Action is anathema to it, because that might involve rich people sacrificing something, and they can’t bear even a slight inconvenience.
What solution do I offer to this? If you were to make me dictator (not a bad word, philosophically) I’d say climate communism, eco-socialism, whatever you want to call it. The obvious idea that maybe — in the face of such problems — we need a plan. Given that the economy is at the center of our problems, that means a planned economy (also a bad word, except really not). Planning for any purpose other than profit (another word for waste heat!) is anathema to Democracy™ (that’s the economy! leave it to the rich people!) but they’re the ones who fucked it all up and we really shouldn’t listen to them. In fact, they’ll need to be forcibly put down to get anything done. As your theoretical dictator I don’t see how you can save billions without wildly inconveniencing billionaires and they’ll obviously fight this, so there will be blood. But I’m not dictator, Jesus and/or the Hidden Imam have yet to enter the chat, and the very concept of solution again gets words wrong. What we face is not a problem, which is solvable, but a predicament, which is not.
Our centuries long experiment in one ‘correct’ form of governance for everyone (under a lying hegemon, which keeps military bases everywhere, but isn’t an Empire) has failed and the Tower of Babel didn’t nicely disassemble itself, it fell catastrophically down and scattered disconnected people to the end of the Earth. As fossil fuels run out (they’re non-renewable, by definition) and their fumes choke carbon-based lifeforms out, there simply will be demolition. Our only choice is planned or unplanned, and we’re obviously choosing the latter, because A) don’t want to think about it and B) don’t actually have choice and C) the worst people and completely malevolent corporations are really in charge.
Seeing a situation like this, the ancients would say that obviously you need a strong king to issue a debt jubilee and put things in order for the people (and the gods) against the predatory oligarchs who have gone crazy. The Greeks would say that you need a tyrant or a dictator (not bad words to them!) as even democracies periodically did in wartime or under great stress. Because they understood that democracy was a tool to be used for the people and not a brand to be seared on them. But we’ve lost that practical knowledge of governance and will put up with anything as long as we can get the affordable color TV making us idiots in the first place. And we’ve also lost the ability to act on that knowledge in the first place because everything has gotten way too big to change and if we were going to have a revolution we should have really had it last century.
The fact is that Democracy™ doesn’t work right now (it’s bullshit!) and it cannot face the challenges of the future. The predicament is that no one can tell you one system to replace it because there shouldn’t be one system at all. What the proponents of ‘classic’ democracy miss is that there was no one form, each group of as little as 10,000 people organized themselves in wildly different ways, and at different times, depending on their circumstances. Democracy was an adaptive technology, whereas Democracy™ expects the Earth to adapt to its ends and the Earth is not bending. So Democracy™ breaks. Catastrophically.
The very idea of ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘development’ is that everyone must do the same thing and get to the end of history where everything is chill, but this has just led us to the end of the planet while a few oligarchs build bunkers under the ruins. The very ‘democratic values’ that we defend are, in fact, the problem. Democratic ‘values’ are just advertising slogans and the only actual value in liberal democracy is money. If you follow the money you’ll get to who’s actually ruling, and the ruin of everything living. As they say in tech, if you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product. We don’t pay for Democracy™, so you know what we are, dontcha? The whole thing is bullshit. It’s collapsed in Sri Lanka, it’s probably collapsing in your country, and it’s collapsing the whole climate on everyone’s head. I don’t know what to do with this information, I can’t even help my own people. As the piano prophet Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire, we’re just in it. Like Joan of Arc holding up a cigarette with one hand, all I can say is fight insomuch as the gods compel you, and smoke ’em if you’ve got 'em. Just don’t fucking tell me about defending Democracy™. It’s offensive.