Monday, September 15, 2008

Competitive Democracy

Karlberg III

By John Taylor; 2008 Sep 15, 08 Izzat, 165 BE

Let us continue our review of Michael Karlberg's article on Western liberal democracy.

Michael Karlberg, "Western Liberal Democracy as New World Order?" in The Baha'i World 2005-2006 (Haifa, World Centre Publications, 2007), 133-156. (

Under the heading, "The Corrupting Influence of Money," Karberg states,

"In theory, when there are excesses and deficiencies in the operation of the market economy, a democratic government should be able to regulate and remedy them. The practice of political competition, however, makes this virtually impossible. The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. Political competition is an expensive activity -- and growing more expensive with every generation. Successful campaigns are waged by those who have the financial support, both direct and indirect, of the most affluent market actors (i.e. those who have profited the most from market excesses and deficiencies). (Karlberg, Western Liberal Democracy, 138)

As was previously shown on this blog several times in great detail, Aristotle held that just as living organisms die and rot in recognizable ways, the same holds for the death and corruption of the diverse forms of human governance, including democracy. Aristotle, observing the history of the many city states within his purview, noticed that that democracies inevitably sicken, die and are reborn as plutocracies, the rule of the wealthy. It has happened many times, though on a smaller scale than today. In a pure democracy citizens vote with their ballots. However, in practice their economic role, what we call "voting with our dollars," starts to count for more. Market forces (which are free only for the strong) steer the state away from equality, the principle of "one person, one vote," towards something entirely non-egalitarian. As in ponds and lakes, big fish start feeding cannibalistically on little fish until there remain only two kinds, lunkers and feeders. This we call plutocracy. In a plutocracy the big bucks dictate the agenda and the Golden Rule means only that those with the gold write the rules.

Now as far as I recall, Aristotle did not offer any theories as to why democracies degrade in this peculiar manner, he only noticed that they always seem to do so. Karlberg believes that the main explanation is human competitiveness, pure and simple.

"Yet the root of the problem is political competition itself. From the moment we structure elections as contests, which inevitably require money to win, we invert the proper relationship between government and the market. Rather than our market existing within the envelope of responsible government regulation, our government is held captive within the envelope of market regulation." (139)

Karlberg's expression "held captive" implies that government is unwillingly involved, but now the highest levels of government, in North America at least, are staffed by corporate executives holding strictly to a market fundamentalist ideology. This means that for the past several years at least Western liberal democracies are democratic in name only; by every objective criterion they are plutocracies. Nominal democracy is just another tool in the plutocrat's toolbox for manufacturing consent. If there remain any doubt, ask yourself: If the lion's share of the wealth is in the hands of a tiny minority, why is the question of sharing the wealth not first on the agenda of every political party? In anything resembling democracy, the mere suggestion would guarantee easy electoral success.

So very briefly, Karlberg's thesis is that it is not market forces alone but competitiveness itself that corrupts democracy and puts the wealthy at an advantage. As long as elections are contests, and candidates fight for their jobs -- and dread losing them in future elections -- the common interest will be held up for ransom by special interests.

"As long as governance is organized in a competitive manner, this relationship cannot be fully corrected. Any scheme to tweak the rules here and there will merely cause money to flow through new paths. This is what occurs, for instance, with attempts to reform campaign financing. New forms of contribution merely eclipse the old. Even if societies could eliminate campaign financing entirely, money would simply flow through other points of political influence such as the constantly evolving species of political action groups that exert strategic influences over media coverage of issues, public opinion formation, electoral outcomes, and many other political processes." (139)

No amount of fiddling with the rules will get around the fact that as long as competition is our model the entire electoral system will favor big fish and their divide and rule tactics. Little fish may try to hang together in a large school hoping for safety in numbers but their predators will break it up and feed on stragglers one by one. Karlberg compares this inevitability to the downward tendency of flowing liquid.

"In a competitive political system, where candidates are vying for favorable coverage, public opinion and votes, money will always flow to the most effective points of political influence just as water always flows to the point of lowest elevation. We can alter the path of that flow, but we cannot stop it." (139)

As long as we hold to competition, money will decide influence, and those who control the most money will see to it that even more money flows their way.

"This problem is a primary cause of the growing disparities of wealth and poverty that are now witnessed throughout the world, including within the Western world. The expanding income gap is not simply a result of the market economy itself. It is a result of the competitive political economy that is coupled with it. Through this political economy, the wealthiest market actors define the market framework within which they accumulate wealth. This framework comprises systems of property law, contract law, labor law, tax law, and all other forms of legislation, public infrastructure, and public subsidies that shape market outcomes. In competitive democracies, this framework is defined, over time, by the wealthiest market actors, owing to the influence of money on political competition. The result is a political-economy feedback loop that serves the swelling interests of the wealthiest segments of society." (139-140)

The result of the competitive model for democracy is not "mere" injustice but a dangerous narrowing of the diversity of opinion that is validated, recognized or even gains a hearing in public discourse. This Karlberg calls "perspective exclusion and issue reduction." Issue reduction is not just a narrowing down of the number of issues, but full fledged reductionism. A tiny, selfish minority cannot possibly represent the entire spectrum of human opinion, and when their voices only are heard, we all put on blinders. Whether we wish it or not, a shrill philosophy, what has been called the "curse of oversimplification," is systematically pounded into our heads.

"In addition to the problem of money, political competition does not provide an effective way to understand and solve complex problems because it reduces the diversity of perspectives and voices in decision-making processes. There are a number of reasons for this. First, political competition yields an adversarial model of debate which generally defaults to the premise that if one perspective is right then another perspective must be wrong. In theory, the most enlightened or informed perspective prevails. This assumes that complex issues can be adequately understood from a single perspective. However, an adequate grasp of most complex issues requires consideration of multiple, often complementary, perspectives. Complex issues tend to be multifaceted-like many-sided objects that must be viewed from different angles in order to be fully seen and understood. Different perspectives therefore reveal different facets of complex issues. Maximum understanding emerges through the careful consideration of as many facets as possible." (141)

Diverse views must oppose, push one another aside, rather than complement one another. It is a zero sum game where one binary opposition wins at the expense of the other. The commercialized media are heavily invested in this Procrustian way of dealing with varied perspectives. They must do whatever is necessary to attract mass audiences in order to sell to advertisers.

"The cheapest, and therefore most profitable, way to manufacture a mass audience is through the construction of spectacle -- including partisan political spectacle. Political coverage is thus reduced to a formula of sound-bite politics in which emotionally charged sloganeering becomes the ticket into the public sphere. As a result, simplistic political mantras echo throughout the public sphere, distorting the complex nature of the issues at hand, constraining public perceptions, and aggravating partisan divisions. In such a climate, it is virtually impossible to solve complex, multidimensional social and environmental problems." (141)

The result? The old Roman technique of pacifying the mob, oppress all you want but give the ignorant masses their bread and circuses. Make food cheap, in other words, and offer exciting spectacle, and the masses will quiet down and accept the status quo. Politics is just another circus to distract us. Unfortunately, as Karlberg points out, we need problem solving on a wide level, not reductionism or pacification. The problems confronting the world are complex and pressing and old tactics of divide and conquer, bread and circuses, are just not enough anymore.

Underlying it all is Jesus critique of Roman hegemony, the question, "What profiteth it a man to gain the world and lose his soul?" The solution that Karlberg, following the House of Justice, offers is more sophisticated than this aphorism but essentially the same in spirit. If we are at all aware of our spiritual nature and destiny we will never be satisfied with "bread alone," meaning the "isms," distortions and reductionist pap that dominates a godless, secular political agenda.

"Other challenges associated with competitive politics are less tangible, but no less important. These are the spiritual costs of partisanship and political competition. Again, these problems stem directly from the assumptions that underlie the model: that human nature is essentially selfish and competitive; that different people tend to develop conflicting interests; and that the best way to organize democratic governance is therefore through a process of interest-group competition. By organizing human affairs according to these assumptions, we are institutionally cultivating our basest instincts. In the process, we become what we expect of ourselves. The Universal House of Justice has observed that `it is in the glorification of material pursuits, at once the progenitor and common feature of all such ideologies, that we find the roots which nourish the falsehood that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive. It is here that the ground must be cleared for the building of a new world fit for our descendants.'
"These culturally formed expectations, however, have no solid basis in the social and behavioral sciences. In these fields, the emerging new consensus is that human beings have the developmental potential for both egoism and altruism, competition and co-operation -- and which of these potentials is more fully realized is a function of our cultural environment. This insight is also familiar to many of the world's philosophical and religious traditions. Metaphors that allude to humanity's "lower" and "higher" nature, or "material" and "spiritual" nature, convey this insight, as does the Eastern concept of "enlightenment." However, contrary to the theory and practice of political competition, the primary impulse behind these philosophical and religious traditions has been to cultivate these more co-operative and altruistic dimensions of human nature. (144-145)

We will continue with more of Karlberg's excellent distillation of the Baha'i understanding of the political state of the world at a future date.

1 comment:

M.Champ said...

Very good. My wife and I were just discussing such ideas. Thanks. II read your blog alot now. Mike