Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What Kings and Presidents Have in Common

Jay sends in this 1994 essay from Chomsky, Democracy and Education. This paragraph really popped out at me:

Independently of Jefferson and Bakunin, others were coming to the same understanding in the nineteenth century. One of the leading American intellectuals was Charles Francis Adams, who in 1880 described the rise of what is now called the "post-industrial society" by Daniel Bell and Robert Reich and John Kenneth Galbraith and others. This is 1880, remember. A society in which, Adams says, "the future is in the hands of our universities, our schools, our specialists, our scientific men and our writers and those who do the actual work of management in the ideological and economic institutions." Nowadays they're called the "technocratic elite" and the "action intellectuals" or the new class or some other similar term. Adams, back in 1880, concluded that "the first object of thinking citizens, therefore, should be not to keep one or another political party in power, but to insist on order and submission to law." Meaning that the elites should be permitted to function in what's called "technocratic isolation," by the World Bank -- I'm being a little anachronistic here, that's modern lingo -- or, as the London Economist puts the idea today, "policy should be insulated from politics." That's the case in free Poland, they assure their readers, so they don't have to be concerned about the fact that people are calling for something quite different in free elections. They can do what they like in the elections, but since policy is insulated from politics and technocratic insulation proceeds, it really doesn't matter. That's democracy.

I have to admit, that's pretty much what I see as the main social utility of modern democracies. As a rule, elections are all about blowing off steam, great spectacles in which power is symbolically shifted from one group of people to another, often fought bitterly over points of trivial importance. Bleak, yes, but it is better than living under one strongman after another. Sure, you get longer periods of stable government, but at the expense of civil wars every thirty years or so. Hereditary monarchs are superior to warlords for the same reason; the primary aim of any political system is the maintenance of civil order over as long a period of time as possible, regardless of how ridiculous the system used to maintain that stability may appear.

Roman emperors achieved stability for a few decades by means of buying the loyalty of the largest fraction of the Roman army; the problem with that was, armies can be defeated in battle, or their loyalty bought by someone with a heavier treasure-chest (at which point order breaks down and you get a civil war). Monarchs kept stability it for lifetimes by giving ultimate power to hereditary lines; of course, you can't always be sure the king will have boys, or even children (at which point order breaks down, and you get a civil war). Democratic States place ultimate power in the hands of a leader whose chosen by the people; instead of trying to keep the same guy in place for life, he's rotated regularly, but in an orderly fashion, with no blood being spilled. The only problem is ...... (
at which point order breaks down, and you get a civil war?).

Seriously, I'm not sure about what's necessary to bring out actual civil war conditions in a democracy. The failure states of warlord autocracies or monarchies are fairly obvious, and while democracy is obviously much more stable on the long term than either previous form of government, it too is imperfect, and bound to have a failure state.

I'm thinking an obvious candidate would be something like an election so closely contested that there was no clear winner. The sheer venom of the Bush years certainly points in favor of this. Still, no actual civil war broke out, and there are plenty of cases of close elections in which violence failed to materialize. Perhaps if too-close-to-call elections became a common occurrence, though - especially in a context of technocratic isolation, as Chomsky puts it - elections would cease to let off pressure, and social tensions might, after stewing for a decade or two, blow up into a civil war of dire proportions.

Then there's historical Civil War, which I'm not a historian of, and thus can't really say what touched it off. Anyone?

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