Tag Archives: democracy

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

Hong Kong: Radical Means, Limited Goals

I visited Hong Kong in my youth, in 1994. In three years, the British would return this jewel in their bloodstained crown to the People’s Republic of China. My memory of Hong Kong is of draped and drying laundry strung between publicly owned apartments, a channel choked with bobbing junks, the Kowloon street filled with bamboo birdcages. I was struck by the omnipresence of the cell phone, years before this became commonplace in the United States. I learned my first lesson in imperialism – only the British could own corporations; Chinese need not apply. But the people of Hong Kong valued, and continue to value, the civil liberties and limited democracy inherited from the British Empire. Beijing claimed, in an agreement with Britain in 1984, that it would continue to respect the government it left behind. But now the Chinese government is reneging on that agreement, and the people of Hong Kong are not having it. An immense sit-in followed Beijing’s threat to interfere in the elections of Hong Kong’s executive, followed by clashes with the police. Chinese military intervention looms. So far though, the means the protestors use are more radical than their demands.

What are the protests about? Hong Kong is supposed to be its own “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic. Based on an agreement with the British in 1984, this means maintaining its capitalist system, civil liberties, and government for at least 50 years after the transfer in 1997. However, China is easing the people of Hong Kong into full democracy. The elections for the executive and legislative branches become more democratic in stages. The People’s Republic promised universal suffrage in Hong Kong’s elections by 2017. But Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution, has some giant loopholes.

After the transfer, the Chinese stipulated in the Basic Law that:

The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. (No. 26, Chapter IV, Section 1, Article 45, 1990)

The articles for the election of the Legislative Council have similar qualifications (No. 26, Ch. IV, Sec. 3, Art. 68). Beijing decides what is “necessary” for “gradual and orderly progress” to universal suffrage.

The current method of electing the Chief Executive and Legislative Council is complex. An Election Committee elects the Chief Executive, much in the same way our Electoral College is supposed to elect the President. Hong Kong’s Election Committee actually does elect their Executive though. The Election Committee is composed of 1200 representatives from four sectors of society. These sectors include commercial, social, and professional sectors. For example, accountants have 30 representatives on the Committee. Catering has 17 representatives. It’s about time somebody reversed the oppression of catering businesses! The National People’s Congress in China has 36 representatives. The Legislative Council, almost as an afterthought, has 60 representatives. Likewise, the Legislative Council is only partially elected from geographic constituencies, as in the United States. More popularly elected legislators are added every year, but the representatives of the other sectors increase as well.

The democratic legitimacy of Hong Kong’s government is already suspect, at least by traditional Western standards of electoral representation. Now China has announced its intention to nominate candidates for future elections. Thus, student demonstrators occupied the space around government buildings to force Beijing and its current quisling Chief Executive in Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, to fulfill its promises.

Occupy Central with Peace and Love is an exceptional protest for its size, diversity, organization, and perseverance in the face of massive police repression. Americans, for whom persistent political organization seems difficult, could learn a lot from the willingness of the Hong Kong protestors to commit to a broad-based popular organization and employ radical tactics. Much like their American cousins on Wall Street, the protestors have occupied a public place as a show of popular power. However, they also have specific goals and a willingness to disrupt the functioning of the dominant institutions. Occupy Central has not only occupied and sat-in, but organized boycotts and are preparing for a citywide general strike. The difference with Occupy Wall Street is that Occupy Central has the social connections to mobilize across Hong Kong society.

Yet, Occupy Central is able to have such specific goals, including a concrete proposal for change, because its goals are so limited. Occupy Central has a narrow focus on achieving traditional political democracy through electoral reform. Occupy Wall Street had wide-ranging, nebulous concerns with no clear purpose, but those concerns challenged our dominant institutions to their core. I cannot suggest that Occupy Central is wrong for the pursuit of its limited goals. The people of Hong Kong know their situation better than I do. What I can say is that the world needs to combine the radical, institution-disrupting means of Occupy Central with the radical, institution-challenging goals of Occupy Wall Street.


The Basic Law of Hong Kong

The Alliance for True Democracy

Pondering the Fundamental Problem



The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

– Rousseau, The Social Contract

Rousseau identified the fundamental problem of political philosophy as finding the organization of the state in which all of its citizens are free.  Rousseau was an eighteenth century social contract theorist.  This means that he imagined how people might have lived in the “state of nature”, without any sort of society.  By using such a thought-experiment, social contract theorists pictured what sort of justification such people would have for forming a state, the general organization of society for using violence to change behavior.  Human beings find the state of nature lacking for some reason or another, and thus sign away some of their natural freedom in a social contract that creates a state for advancing the common good.

Most social contract theorists suppose that people in the state of nature have rights and duties that precede any organized society. Locke and Hobbes both argued that people have ‘natural rights and duties’ that condition the resulting social contract and the state that comes out of it.  Rousseau is unique in believing that while people have rights in the state of nature, they sign them all away in forming the civil state.  In return, they receive equal civil rights and duties, including those involving direct and universal participation in the state.  The state is governed by the general will (public-spiritedness, for the sake of this post) of its citizens, and so all remain as free as they would in the state of nature.

For now, I don’t want to worry about the general will.  It’s enough to say that citizens are free because they are the direct and collective authors of their own laws.  However, this is where the fundamental problem reduces to a difficult dilemma.  If each citizen is to be free in the civil state, then each must be the equal author of each law.  If that’s the case, then no law receiving less than unanimity would be legitimate, or at least most laws would have a lesser degree of legitimacy.  Unanimity is not practical, and Rousseau recognizes this.  The general will is supposed to solve this, but that concept remains philosophically contentious and mysterious.  I’m developing my interpretation of the general will, but I’ll save that treasure for another time.

Instead I will leave it at this: the fundamental problem of political philosophy reduces to this dilemma.  Either we have majority rule or consensus.  If we have majority rule, then the minority obeys the will of the majority.  If we have consensus, then a minority has the power to block the majority, and the majority does not rule itself.  Thus, either the minority does not always rule itself, or the majority does not always rule itself.

If the fundamental problem does reduce to this dilemma, then the problem becomes easier.  Clearly we would rather have the majority rule themselves rather than the minority prevent the civil state from functioning under unanimous rule.

News from the Agora

My birth state of Maryland abolished the death penalty today (May 2).  That marks the 18th state to abolish a barbaric practice of giving the state the power to end the life of its citizens.  Supposedly, the state can’t run a post office, but it is capable of determining who will live and who will die.  Let’s keep the post office and ditch the license to kill.

The Democratic Transformation of the State

Democracy is typically understood as meaning that the people as a whole have power or ownership over the state apparatus, the means of coercion.  In the short term, this is surely true; power must be wrested from the ruling class and remain in the hands of the whole people.  However, the transformation of the state cannot end there.  Democracy is not merely a form of government, but the form of our everyday experience.  We motivate each other to act by giving reasons to one another.  This is the purpose of all democratic assemblies.  Our lives are governed by discussion.  Rewards and punishments lurk in the background to make up for the failure of public reasoning.  Now they do not – reward and punishment are ever present in an out-of-control state and overwhelming corporate organizations.  The democratic transformation of state and society entails pushing back coercion and incentive and establishing, so far as is possible, a society governed by discussion, public reason, and moral suasion.

A Real Democracy Initiative

Various major organizations recently assembled to focus on political reforms.  The 35 organizations include the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the Communications Workers of America, and the AFL-CIO.  According to Andy Kroll at Mother Jones, their main points of reform are “getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster to block legislation”.  They are calling these changes, “The Democracy Initiative”.  This is great that all of these organizations have resolved to make these changes.  I have my own comments about this, but Portland union steward Mark Vorpahl beat me to it, so let’s see what he has to say.

Mark Vorpahl argued in an article in Counterpunch that the success of the Democracy Initiative depends on those organizations being able to mobilize their bases.  However, according to Vorpahl, the Democracy Initiative is more focused on electoral politics that cannot motivate the social base.  Rather, the focus of democratic change is “in the streets, schools, and workplaces”.  People want to fight for “improved social services, fully funded public education and retirement programs, as well as jobs for all to improve our communities’ health.”

There’s a lot of truth in Vorpahl’s claims – Americans do need to reconstruct its failing public goods and services.  However, the reason that the streets, and not elections, are the “primary arenas” for change is that our current state structures are almost completely insulated from the popular will.  People aren’t going to get those improved public goods without having the power to claim them.  Americans need to break the oligarchy, and democratizing the state is breaking the oligarchy.

The problem is not that there is a Democracy Initiative; the problem is that it’s entirely inadequate.

A persistent problem of the American liberal is the belief that one can identify the points of reasonable consensus and then achieve bipartisan agreement in the spirit of deliberation.  In a democracy, this might be the case.  But the United States is no democracy.  The sooner we realize this, the sooner democratic forces can triumph.

Let’s take a look at the inadequacy of the three reforms.  “Getting big money out of politics” is ambiguous, but we can infer that the author doesn’t mean public campaign financing, or he would have just said that.  Rather, the idea is probably to limit private corporate spending, which is far more problematic.  Only a form of public campaign financing can remove the power of corporate campaign spending.  “Fighting voter ID laws”, while admirable, is not exactly taking the offensive.  If we want to win the fight against voter ID laws, let’s make them impossible.  This would mean demanding a universal right to vote, felon re-enfranchisement, mandatory registration of voters by state government, and nonpartisan commissions for electoral redistricting.  Then the anti-democratic forces are fighting our reforms, rather than passing their own nonsense.

Finally, there’s the Senate filibuster.  The filibuster is a device (absent from the Constitution, but a tradition of the Senate) that allows any one Senator to hold up the Senate.  In the past, Senators would actually have to hold the floor by talking non-stop, in the style of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  But the venal representatives of today are all about their own convenience, so now we have the “silent” or “virtual” filibuster.  A Senator can just announce a filibuster and that’s that, the rest of the Senate needs 60 of its members to force a “cloture”.  I notice that the Kroll article does not say “abolish the filibuster”, just “curbing” it.  This is very sad; let’s aim a little higher.

The Democracy Initiative has started with the most reasonable, smallest steps and has nowhere to negotiate from there.  A Real Democracy Initiative would insist that the United States come to resemble a modern democratic republic, and then brings society to a halt until it wins as much of its program as it can.  This is how the anti-democratic forces have done so well.  However, while they use piles of cash, democratic forces use people in Vorpahl’s “primary arenas” of “the streets, schools, and workplaces”.  And, when the Democracy Initiative is democratic enough, people will mobilize and fight for it.

Here are the three points that a Real Democracy Initiative would include:

  • A priority should be given to altering the constitutional amendment process.  It is prohibitively difficult to amend the Constitution through the existing method of getting two-thirds of each house of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures (that’s 38 states, 75 legislatures).  The first step in any Democracy Initiative should be amending the constitution to permit future amendments by a national referendum, with the least possible qualifications or impediments.
  • Establish the democratic instruments found in most industrial nations in the last century: a universal right to vote, public campaign financing, ballot access liberalization, proportional representation, and a national referendum and initiative.
  • Finally, let’s cut away the undemocratic fat: abolish the Electoral College, the Senate, the executive veto, and life-terms for federal judges and Supreme Court Justices.
  • While we’re at it, let’s throw in prosecution of state criminals and abolition of the National Security State.  That’ll get their attention.

Now that’s what I call a Democracy Initiative!  Even if we were to only get the first point, through years of mass struggle and organization, that would open a huge opportunity for further radical change.

“Shall Rome Stand Under One Man’s Awe?” (Part II)

Cantonal Assembly in Switzerland

Last week, we discussed how “presidential systems”, such as the one we have in the United States, suffers from defects that promote political irrationality and ultimately a cult of personality (like these people pledging allegiance to Obama).  To be clear, people are thoroughly able to develop rational and consistent political views.  However, the absence of a deliberative context results in a lack of good, relevant, and organized information and the inability of the public to hold presidents accountable.  This in turn results in presidents who cannot be punished for their misdeeds, because we don’t know when they need to be punished, and because there are a horde of partisans to protect him.  Thus, presidential systems may have a tendency towards the accumulation of executive power beyond the rule of law.

Whether that’s true or not, all but the party faithful can agree that we’re sick of the almost naked farce of democracy that US presidential elections represent.

In any case, we’re all about solutions at Democracy in Principle!  Democratic solutions!  Let’s take a look, keeping in mind what the current system is missing: deliberation, information, and feedback. read more »

What is Democracy in the Twenty-first Century?

It's empty at the moment...

The first article on Philosophyhelmet was “What is Democracy?” but I’ll admit that I talked more about what democracy was not.  I had written that the very idea of democracy had been transformed since its conceptual origins in ancient Greece to the liberal commonwealths of modern Great Britain and the United States, and all their subsequent imitators.  The modern concept of democracy only demands that people vote in minimally competitive elections.  In fact, many modern political theorists will claim that the non-participation of the people in general improves the efficiency of government.  All the people need to do is to select a competent manager.  The liberty of the people is satisfied in their ability to get what they want in the marketplace and other private spheres.  This modern concept of sham-democracy I termed “liberal oligarchy”.  This is not an oligarchy of liberals, but rather an institutional order that combines the classical liberal theory of freedom with rule by an elected elite.

However, this does not satisfy the requirements of any substantive concept of liberty.  A people that does not govern itself completely is not a free people.  Being relegated to a private sphere does not give any person free reign to pursue their idea of the good life.  The ancient Athenians realized this, as Aristotle reports in his political works.  Even putting aside the assembly of the whole citizenry in the Acropolis, which as many will point out is possible only in a small state, the ancient democracies (mainly classical Athens) had greater expectations for the participation of the citizens in all of its branches of government.  Participation in the state was the mark of a free person, because a citizen was not ruled by others.

But that was democracy then, what about now? read more »

Welcome to Democracy in Principle!

Philosophyhelmet is now Democracy in Principle!  Change your bookmarks!

The original title of the wesbite, Philosophyhelmet, was intended to reflect the goal of discussing philosophy for a general audience.  By now I think it clear that this site is really about the philosophical theory behind the idea of a free and democratic society, and its practical application to the social problems of today.  Hence, my website from now on will be Democracy in Principle, which suits the theme of my discussions on the philosophical foundations of democracy, and what that means for our collective future.

Delacroix's 'Liberty Leading the People'

The Thesis of Democracy in Principle

For new readers, the general thesis of Democracy in Principle is as follows:

First, most social problems are failures of our social institutions (the ways of organizing our interactions).  However, most of our social institutions exist because of our choice to reproduce them by undertaking the practices that they are made of, and so we can remake these institutions if we choose to do so.

Second, the fundamental principle of social organization in general is justice, which delivers to all members of society primary goods in equal degree.  The primary good of any society is the freedom to pursue one’s values to the extent that all other members can also pursue their own values.

Third, people pursue values not only individually but also collectively, and for free individuals to do so collectively, they must be organized democratically.  Of course, this applies most importantly to the state itself.

Fourth, for democracy to be effectively achieved in any society, the basis of all social organization must be the directly organized community that manages its affairs by the direct assembly of its members.  The state must be derived from the participation of such organized communities.

Finally, American society is not a democratic society.  The Constitution of the United States was not intended to establish a democracy, and for however much it has evolved since then, the American state fails to be effectively democratic.  That’s okay, though, because we aren’t bound by the documents of the distant past.  Americans can and must forge a new constitution to repair its failing body politic.  If it makes you feel any better, the Founding Fathers would have mocked us for being so attached to such ancient parchment.

Highlights from the Past

Among the posts from Philosophyhelmet, a good introduction to the theses of Democracy in Principle would be You Tell Me It’s the Institution…, which defines my working definition of social institutions.  I talk about the problems of a specific social institution in Freeing People, not Markets, where I talk about the often incompatible relationship between markets and the actual freedom of the individual.

In Why Occupy?, I hammer out the means and aims of the great international movement of last year and hopefully into the future, Occupy Wall Street.  What do they want?  It’s not that hard to decipher.  Finally, in my most recent article-length post, Participatory Representation, I attempt to sketch out a method of electing officials, primarily representatives, in which the deliberative participation of the people replaces the corrupt political machinery of political parties and special-interest lobbying.

In the Reading Room, you can find my English translation of ‘the Girondin Constitution,’ the first republican constitution of Revolutionary France.  The authors of the Girondin Constitution, which include such historical luminaries as Tom Paine and the great French mathematician Condorcet, had an exceptional vision of what a democratic-republic should be.

Also in the Reading Room is my Model Declaration of Rights.  The purpose is to outline the sort of rights, and a couple of duties, that are required for an advanced industrial democratic society.  The Model Declaration is also intended to start the very necessary conversation about writing a new constitution for the United States, the old constitution being both dead and incomplete.

Democracy in Principle is intended to both revive an ancient conception of liberty, equality, and democracy, as well as make clear why such a conception is necessary for the future of humanity, free or otherwise.

Common Sense for the 21st Century

Author Dan Hind has recently released his e-book, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, and it’s fantastic.  The fifty-five page e-pamphlet encapsulates the deep-rooted rot of our societies, and the “common sense” – the accumulated assumptions that shape our understanding of the world – that make the rot invisible to those living within it.  The core of our contemporary common sense is comprised of the cult-like mantras of “the market” and “the expert.” read more »

People Aren’t Too Stupid for Democracy

Yahoo News brings us a rather confused story of recent research melding psychology and sociology that suggests that people are “too stupid for democracy.”  Obviously, we here at Philosophyhelmet take issue with anti-democratic elitism of all kinds, especially when it contains obvious philosophical flaws. read more »