John Rapley – Democracy Was Never All It Was Cut Out to Be Anyhow

Has democracy simply become a ploy to protect the haves  from the increasingly have-nots. If so, its best sell by date seems to be approaching.

John Rapley is a political economist and author of ‘Twilight of the Money Gods’, which was reviewed in BRAVE NEW EUROPE

Cross-posted from Brixton Subversitvity


Steven Pinker seems to have made it his mission to defend the values of the Enlightenment against what he sees as a resurgence of ignorance and superstition. His new book, Enlightenment Now, takes direct aim at the current populist wave and its call to make things great again. For Pinker, things are better than ever, and will get better yet, thanks to the triumph of science and reason over religion and belief.

It’s called the Whig interpretation of history, and it assumes that the Enlightenment put humanity on a march of progress towards higher states of being: constitutional democracy, capitalism, individual liberty. Pinker opens his book with an inventory of the Enlightenment’s gifts to us before warning ominously that ‘more than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense.’

I understand his anxiety. Recent studies have revealed that in Western societies, many young people are turning against democracy. Some, including the ‘fine people’ Donald Trump says turn up at torch-lit marches, look to strong leaders like him. However, I rather doubt that the solution is another book and lecture-tour by Professor Pinker, or any of today’s Cassandras, many of whom say we need to educate young people about the horrors of the communist and fascist regimes they never experienced the way we older, wiser people did, lest they succumb to the siren-songs of authoritarian populists.

Because let’s face it, not many of us really believe in democracy. We stick with it because it delivers the goods – at least, it has up to now. Yascha Mounk acknowledges this in his new book, but Walter Lippmann said it best a century ago in his classic Public Opinion. ‘Men do not long desire self-government for its own sake’ he then wrote. ‘They desire it for the sake of results.’

The recent shenanigans at #Facebook and #CambridgeAnalytica loom as threats to democracy, but this sort of micro-targeting has been going on for a long time. Voting is a transaction: we expect to get something for our vote just as we demand something for the money we spend. Data-scientists are just finding better ways to better identify our preferences and micro-target their products, using the long-established techniques of advertising to stir our desires towards their wares. You really want to hack the triangulators? Next election, vote for the candidate who addresses the community’s well-being, not your own, and see how that scrambles the data-miners algorithms.

But really, how many of us will do that? One of the things Professor Pinker’s Whiggly narrative manages to avoid is that the spread and consolidation of democracy in the nineteenth-century probably owed less to a thirst for liberty than to a hunger for the booty of empire. The Industrial Revolution, itself intimately linked with empire , unleashed a massive wave of migration from countryside to city, as peasants became workers. In their crowded slums, they were easily organised by the rising radicals who rejected capitalism. Giving them the vote, improving their working conditions, raising their wages, recognising their unions – by such measures did Europe’s ruling classes buy off their restive workers.

However, such gifts weren’t paid for with new taxes on the rich. They were paid for with the flow of wealth coming from the colonies. They were paid by out-sourcing the exploitation of one working class to another in the peripheral zones – where democracy, and even liberty (given the persistence of slavery) were scarcely permitted. And so it continued through the twentieth century. We in the West never had much objection when our governments deprived other nations of liberty or material well-being, provided we were kept in the standard to which we’d grown accustomed.

Which brings us to the problem with our young ‘uns. Since the turn of this millennium, for the first time in two centuries, the net flow of global wealth has begun moving away from the rich countries and towards what we once called the Third World. With the developing economies growing faster than those of the West, our share of global output is falling rapidly. In short, the subsidy of empire has been lost. This has forced governments to look inwards to find the resources to keep their constituents in the pink. Rather than adjust everyone’s expectations downwards, politicians have continued reaching out to their own supporters. With capital-owners, baby-boomers and the elderly being the groups that have put politicians in office, this has meant preserving asset-values and pensions, and shifting the cuts onto those with less power – immigrants, the working class, young people. And we want them to suck it all up in the name of democracy?

If we truly love liberal democracy for its own sake, maybe we do need to restore civics education. But I don’t think young people need be the primary  target. Let’s start with the rest of us, who’ve bent the system to serve our wants. If democracy delivers for all, it will deliver itself all the believers it needs to thrive. If it doesn’t, then we can’t complain when the torch-bearers show up in our neighbourhoods.

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