Sunday, September 14, 2008

Karlberg II

Democracy's Invisible Twin

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

As promised, let us take a closer look at Michael Karlberg's discussion of liberal democracy in the Baha'i World. This subject is on everybody's tongues in North America this year, since both Canada and the U.S. are both having national election campaigns this fall. Therefore it would be wise for Baha'is to go over this article in detail, as I will try to do today on the Badi' Blog. Before, we briefly outlined Karberg's thesis that struggle is both root and branch of the current order of things,

"Western liberal democracy, at its core, is based on the premise that democratic governance requires individuals and groups to compete for political power. The most recognizable form that this takes is the party system. Political competition also occurs without formal political parties in many local elections, and when independent candidates run in provincial (or state) and national elections. In all of these cases, however, the underlying competitive structure is the same, and it is this underlying structure that has become anachronistic, unjust, and unsustainable." (Liberal Democracy, p. 134)

In politics there is a clash between two great worldviews, not unlike that in cosmology between Copernicus's sun-centered concept of the motions of the spheres and the older earth centered one. In this case the dominating theory is that nature determines who we are, while the Baha'i challenge takes God to be at the center. In the West the Master did not specifically criticize Western Liberal Democracy, but instead habitually offered an alternative model for emulation, that is, a God who is all loving and who encourages us to imitate His loving ways. If we do not imitate God, the only alternative is to imitate is what surrounds us, that is, nature. There is no way around it, the human soul is a mirror. It has no choice but to reflect and emulate conditions around it. Whatever we see is soon “natural” to us.

The only question is, what nature do we imitate?

Yes, there is a great deal of co-operation and co-evolution going on in nature; but this is a man's world and men are deeply fascinated by fighting, the sort of struggle and competition that goes on constantly in nature. As a result we imitate not just any part of nature but its "male" rather than "female" side. In a male dominated society, it seems only natural to see this way. We associate with the wrong crowd, we avoid the cute and cuddly, the co-operative, sharing aspects of nature and instead take to heart the Hobbesian side, the Mad Max gone wild, nature "red in tooth and claw." Thomas Hobbes in the 13th chapter of his Leviathan famously called this the "condition of war." In nature we must fight to survive. The weakest can kill the strongest. In this war, life ends up "nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes points out that,

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

As Hobbes says, natural conditions of war are inimical to everything that human civilization stands for. As the Master put it succinctly, war is death and peace is life. Ours is a war paradigm. We are essentially warlike, built for competition. This permeates our thinking and determines what our democracy is. Democratic institutions, then, become a new sort of Leviathan who is not an individual (God) but a collectivity. He does not mandate peace but continually breeds war, like a referee dressed in a striped shirt, pitting groups of solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short fellows against each other in eternal conflict. Strife conditions our attitudes and the tone of political discourse. Karlberg writes,

"Statements such as these raise legitimate concerns about the state of partisan discourse, but they obscure the underlying problem of political competition. According to these views, political competition and political parties are the natural, normal, and inevitable way to organize democratic governance; the problem arises only when partisan rhetoric becomes too adversarial or mean-spirited. As the socio-linguist Deborah Tannen states, `A kind of agonistic inflation has set in whereby opposition has become more extreme, and the adversarial nature of the system is routinely being abused.'" (Liberal Democracy, 135)

What a lovely term, "agonistic inflation"! Struggle for mere existence gone wild, acting like monetary inflation in the economy to devalue all getting and spending. Karlberg cites what Baha'u'llah said in the Proclamation to the Kings, "No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united," saying that this lack of inner and outer unity gives birth to what one female political scientist, using another gorgeous turn of phrase, calls "adversary democracy." Adversary democracy, subject to agonistic inflation, is the fruit of bad DNA; our profoundest conceptions of human nature assume that we are in essence selfish and competitive. We also presume that "different groups of people will naturally develop different interests, needs, values, and desires, and these interests will invariably conflict." Furthermore, "given a selfish human nature and the problem of conflicting interests, the fairest and most efficient way to govern a society is to harness these dynamics through an open process of interest-group competition." (136) As a result, elections are nothing better than cockfights; extremely boring cockfights but cockfights nonetheless. No matter what the issue, it is squeezed into and subordinated to the logic of competitive contests. The "goal of winning trumps all other values" and, as one authority cited by Karlberg points out,

"Parties may aim to realize a programme of `ideal' political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections." (137)

Reading about this competitive model conjured up the image of a very large man squeezing into a tiny box. He starts out with a head, two arms and legs, his natural form. However after the election he ends up in a small cube form and cannot move a muscle. That is why political institutions are immobile in the face of increased threats like nuclear war and worsening climate change. We lose an entire dimension of humanity because our worldview will not let us budge.

From a technical point of view, I admire how Karlberg introduces at just the right moment the alternative, the purely co-operative democracy in the Cause of God. That is how the Master taught and it cannot be improved upon. I also admire how he squeezes the entire paper essentially between these two famous statements of Baha'u'llah:

"No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united..."

And at the end of the paper,

"The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective. (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, Maqsud, p. 171)

The paper shows how our lack of inner and outer unity gives birth to our referee Leviathan, and how he eventually causes despair – how close His analogy of “winds of despair” is to the climate change that threatens to be our undoing.

Before closing, let us consider another consequence of competition, lack of gun control and the consequent proliferation of weapons both with and between national borders. A headline in the New York Times says, “U.S. Arms Sales Climbing Rapidly; Sales of weapons to foreign governments have risen to more than $32 billion, up from $12 billion in 2005.” Instead of building friendships among nations and strengthening international ties, “The Bush administration is pushing through a broad array of foreign weapons deals as it seeks to rearm Iraq and Afghanistan, contain North Korea and Iran, and solidify ties with onetime Russian allies.” One of the military salesmen for the Americans explains, "This is not about being gunrunners. This is about building a more secure world." This, then, is about the same logic that says you are safer if you pack a gun and store guns in your house than if there were fewer guns overall, and most were in the hands of the police. Recall what Baha'u'llah said about being unified even in ourselves – then consider the statistics which show that with a gun around your chances of shooting yourself are between four and seven times greater. The same has to be true on the international level with weapons of mass destruction.

“The United States has long been the top arms supplier to the world. In the past several years, however, the list of nations that rely on the United States as a primary source of major weapons systems has greatly expanded. Among the recent additions are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Georgia, India, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan... In many cases, these sales represent a cultural shift, as nations like Romania, Poland and Morocco, which have long relied on Russian-made MIG-17 fighter jets, are now buying new F-16s, built by Lockheed Martin. In the Persian Gulf region, much of the rearmament is driven by fears of Iran.”

Thomas Hobbes, who was born prematurely due to his mother's shock at the coming of the Spanish Armada, said of himself that his “twin brother was fear.” The same thing could be said of the 21st Century. Its twin brother is fear. The greater the fear, the better the sales of arms. The argument that Americans in Afghanistan had to fight insurgents using older US arms does not hold water, since fear forces the weapons makers to make newer and more fearsome arms. And the great thing about fear is that, like an invisible twin brother, it pushes competition to ever higher levels. The Pentagon's weapons seller points out the logic perfectly. With so many nations now willing to sell advanced weapons systems, the United States could not afford to be too restrictive in its own sales.

"Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?" he said. "Because they will."

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