Friday, January 20, 2017

A Historical Blip

We live in the golden era. The history of the world since the end of the second world war has been broadly defined by the interplay of the two major powers and ideals: Liberal Democracy, and the other one.

Wikipedia’s definition is excellent:
Liberal democracy is a liberal political ideology and a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of classical liberalism. It is also called western democracy. It is characterized by fair, free, and competitive elections between multiple distinct political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society, and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all people.

It can be strange, to examine implicit assumptions, but it’s reasonable to assume that just about everyone in western society carries with them some of these ideological underpinnings.

I start with this, to remind you that liberal democracy is a tiny fraction of human history, barely 200 years, and that’s being generous. For much of the world, even today, societal governance looks more like Authoritarianism, Fascism, Feudalism, Theocracies. Just about any divergence from Liberal Democracy looks “bad” and maybe a little antiquated to our modern eyes. Haven’t we moved beyond this? Don’t we all have “certain unalienable rights”? Aren’t these truths self-evident? To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, it’s a lie.

One of the good lies, certainly. The idea that people contain inherent worth and value, the idea that our wants, needs, and desires are innately important — these are all necessary philosophical prerequisites.

But it simply doesn’t square with reality. It’s one of those shared fictions, like paper money, or individual ownership of property, that only works if everyone is invested.

And If we lose that investment, then our Wikipedia definition above, and the whole edifice built on it, comes crumbling down. And unfortunately for us, the world comes down to physics — force. People will do what it is in their power to do. Liberal Democracy has, for years, turned humanity’s natural tendency for greed towards grander pursuits, and has been capable of curbing some of the worst excesses. This good behavior lasts until the very instant that no one is around to enforce it.

The examples (and individual reasons for them) are endless, from Sinclair’s The Jungle, to normal run-of-the-mill human trafficking and slavery, people will do terrible things to each other for the slightest gain, unless someone has the power and the will to make them stop. Maybe not all people, perhaps, but enough that it makes little difference.

I’ve meandered a little bit, laying the groundwork, but that’s because I’m trying to counter the inherent revulsion and denial of what’s coming next: Liberal Democracy is over.

To return to my introduction, and to make a much less supportable point which I will not adequately defend, much of the philosophical impetus and raison d’ĂȘtre of liberal democracy is in what it isn’t. The ability to take the higher road, to put forth humanist principles, and to stand in bold opposition against this enemy. And humans are sufficiently tribal enough that the existence of a strong other helps immeasurably in creating an identity. “Truth, justice, and the American way!”

Without the antagonist power, it’s easy to forget the reasons for the fight. In other words, liberal democracy has forgotten itself. There’s not even any need for direct opposition, as it’s easy for cynical actors (or oppositional agents) to shave away bits and pieces from the definition for their own personal gain, at the expense of the ideal. Compromising with sin, and all that. But there are no guardrails on the universe, and there’s nothing sacrosanct or inevitable about liberal democracy. It’s just a momentary blip.

No comments:

Post a Comment