Saturday, March 17, 2012

Guillotining the Bankers: Beyond Democracy?

A subject that's I've been ruminating on a little in recent times has been the inadequacy of this trite quote from Winston Churchill that "democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others that have been tried." Another quote attributed to him was that the best argument against democracy was a five minute conversation with the average voter. Go back another twenty years and Woodrow Wilson lamented his country's descent to become "[n]o longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by
the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men." Such deep cynicism in such vaunted leaders needs to be heeded. The problem, of course, is in Churchill's first quote in particular - what's the alternative?

Inequality was in many respects at the heart of the French Revolution. But the disproportionate wealth of the ruling nobility and higher clergy only resulted in civil disorder when the wealth of the bourgeoise in particular, and the masses in general, became an existential issue in absolute terms. People were starving, and could not afford bread. That was not a jealousy, or even a relative issue. It was straightforward - the people needed to overthrow the régime in order to survive, and survival is an extraordinary motivator.

There was however another critical factor that contributed to the revolution in France - the existence of a reasonably well thought through alternative. Rousseau and the Philosophes, with their publication of the Encyclopédie in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the other enlightenment philosophers Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and the rest of them all contributed to a new thinking about individual rights, equality, and society. A model was being articulated beyond religion, and beyond nobility. Reason was gnawing at the populace for years now, nudging them along - kings are just men; priests are just men; both just like us.

Today, we can see the inequality in the democratic structure and it is plain for all to see. Militants argue for civil disobedience, such as non payment of austerity taxes, but few coherent voices can be heard with credible alternatives to the appalling vista of businessmen guilty of despoliating the nation's wealth and creditworthiness playing golf on the Algarve while decent honest men see their family homes reposessed by the Banks their taxes bailed out. What is the alternative system? What is the alrernative to liberal democracy? Just "not paying" the debts incurred by the state - for whatever reason - misses the point. The system wouldn't be changed by such actions, it would merely play out the inevitable, for good or ill, within the structures already in place. Ireland may or may not be better off for it, who's to know. But on the other side of it, in a generation or so, when these difficult days are being forgotten by people who weren't even born at the time of the Celtic Tiger, the same system will breed the same inequality, and the same unfairness.

Perhaps - more disturbingly - it could even get worse. In the absence of a credible alternative, the liberal democratic system itself could be radicalized, pushing right wing extremism to the fore in a restatement of mid twentieth century facism. Inequality could be exacerbated, and the powerful and wealthy could become even more detached from the people. Plus ca change, then!

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